Editor’s note: Entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RALEIGH – As I am writing this article, polls are still open and election results feel far from certain. I cannot tell you what has happened between the time I am writing it and the time you are reading it, nor can I begin to tell you what will happen next. What I can say is that Wednesday, November 4, 2020 will be an emotional day for many Americans, regardless of the outcome. 

One study after the 2016 election showed that work engagement fell substantially after the election, especially among Clinton voters, resulting in nearly $700 million of lost productivity on the day following the election. In 2020, racial unrest, a global pandemic and pervasive  systemic inequities have depleted our resilience, making us even more inclined to high emotions or disengagement. As leaders, we must be mindful of the effects that this election will have on our team. 

Today offers a unique opportunity to embrace and support diversity of thought and to model inclusive leadership behavior as our employees bring their full, authentic selves to work,  especially if they’re working from home. In fact the Harvard Business Review points out, as Americans grow increasingly insular and isolated, the workplace has become “one of the few remaining spaces where citizens routinely engage with others who come from diverse backgrounds and hold different viewpoints.

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If we want to bolster diversity and inclusion, we must create a workplace culture where all employees feel valued and respected while also keeping our team on track to prioritize business over personal conversations. That’s tricky work. 

Here is my advice for moving forward through this week, so you can minimize disruptions and get back to business faster. 

    • Address the elephant in the room. Do it quickly, acknowledging that there are high emotions around the election, then reinforcing expectations and client or customer commitments.
    • Don’t make assumptions. Research shows, over and over again, that we always think we know more than we do about what other people believe. Remember that your employees are going to make assumptions about you too. As soon as you disclose your own political opinions, you’re at risk of alienating someone on the team. 
    • Gently refocus political conversations. If you notice a conversation that may be problematic, politely redirect the topic. I like to say “All right, let’s move on” or simply point out that it’s ok to disagree but now it’s time that we get back to business. 
  • Model the behavior you expect to see. Remember that in times of stress, employees are carefully watching your words and actions. 
  • Reschedule what you can. Reschedule any non-critical events or meetings for the rest of this week. Give people space to work independently and at an adjusted pace. Modify deadlines and deliverables however you can, and expect an increase in sick and PTO days between now and Friday. 
  • Reiterate your core values. Remind employees about your equal employment, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and the consequences of disrespectful behavior. Although every person is entitled to their opinions, those opinions should generally not be expressed at work, whether virtual or in person. Encourage employees who feel uncomfortable to speak up. Give them all the information they need to pursue appropriate avenues for complaints to ensure that employees feel comfortable reporting any issues. Work with your DEI leaders and resource groups to provide one-on-one support or virtual team support sessions for employees. 

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While you cannot ban political discussion in the workplace, especially when your team is working remotely, it is important to remember that work should come first and that, in all cases, civil conversation is paramount. If you want more tips for managing political discussion, my team has put together a comprehensive guide about this topic. Download Navigating the 2020 Election Outcome with Your Employees by clicking on the link.

When I find myself part of an emotional conversation, it helps me to focus on where those emotions are coming from. The truth is, politics are often emotional because our political views are an outward expression of our most intimate internal beliefs and values. And that’s a good thing! It means that people care about the world and how it is governed. 

Political differences are good for people and good for business too because they show a diversity of thought and experience. Political conversations reflect a spectrum of human perspectives that is much more rich, full, and resonant than the combative and polarizing us-versus-them mentality we so often hear about in the news. The key is to help your team manage their differences in ways that feel inclusive, respectful, and focused on work.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a technology-enabled diversity and inclusion firm focused on business outcomes. 

He is also CEO of Walk West, a digital marketing agency. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. He is a mentor, teacher, public speaker, author, podcaster and angel investor. Reach out to him on LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com.