Politics and Workplace culture

Politics and workplace culture – Help I have a “Colin”

I was chatting to a long-standing client on Friday and she touched on the sensitivities of politics and workplace culture. As HR Director of an international and multi-cultural B2B organisation, they are trying to address issues impacting diversity, inclusion and gender balance. She is finding the polarisation of political views which are problematic in our wider cultures, is surfacing in her organisation “It’s not serious yet” she said “but it could well be. I think I might have a “Colin.”

For the uninitiated, “Colin” is a reference to a Twitter account that went viral last week. A gentleman called Colin Browning an avid Brexiteer, expressed his disapproval of queues at passport control in Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. His tweet made international mainstream media, was translated into other languages and became the subject of blogs and posts across the globe.

Now this could be a parody account, but in this case it doesn’t matter. The delays also were actually not due to changes in the UK’s status as a third country. What the tweet symbolises is the reach and impact of this kind of content. The HR Director went onto say “One of my senior sales people who deals with exports is making his views on Brexit clear on social media. There are fears in the leadership team that our European customers and colleagues will react negatively, if he carries on “observing” in the way that he is.”

There was some hand wringing and gnashing of teeth. Yes, some of those customers may indeed have a problem. But how does an organisation handle a diversity and inclusion policy which could impact the company brand and even business results?


Research from Deloitte suggests that employees who cannot bring their authentic selves to the workplace and have to “cover” or hide part of their identities, impacts team and therefore organisational effectiveness. Teams are less productive, creative and less in tune with their markets. Absenteeism is higher and retention rates are lower, all of which impacts the bottom line. So to be truly diverse and inclusive we should welcome all political persuasions. We have to look at whether it’s the political views that damage business or interpersonal relationships, or perhaps more the way they are shared and expressed.

Today, it might be necessary for organisations to consider taking formal steps to protect their workplace cultures so that they stay effective, inclusive and productive, with a purpose aligned to the mission of the business.

Create a framework for discussion

This HR Director wishes she could outlaw any discussions on politics from the workplace altogether, but knows that is unrealistic. In the current highly sensitive environment in different geographies, even topics which would have been considered straight business issues or discussion points in the past, have become touch points for conflict and a politicised debate.

I have heard clients complaining about vocal resistance on their teams around mundane items such as employee benefits, candidate sourcing or sustainable resource procurement. Even annual promotions can be contentious, as these issues now hit the political agenda. Politics and workplace culture it seems are merging into one hotbed of seemingly irreconcilable differences.

It’s important to be realistic and accept that these differences of opinion, especially on matters that can impact the business, will filter into water cooler discussions and pre-meeting chat. There is also always an opposing view to every issue. The next step is to start the process for agreeing a framework for discussion. In this way key topics can be covered in a civil and respectful way.

Benchmark values that bind your organisation

Organisations can begin by identifying and recognising the shared values that unite their teams and make them effective. They then have to have everyone’s buy in so that they become the benchmark against which all behaviour is measured.

In any organisation you will see divergence on core values and beliefs. That has always been the case.  Conflicting values systems have always existed. What needs to happen is identifying critical “must have core values” that all agree on, from the shop floor to the Boardroom. These will be around respect, tolerance, trust, fairness, honesty, collaboration, compassion, corporate  diversity and inclusion. In some ways employees may even look for a neutral safe place where they can leave the hot topics of daily life at the door.

Any agreed framework now needs to be linked to the wider corporate mission. This is how organisations work and objectives are met. It means that leaders have to role model these values and their performance should be assessed on their success in this area. Senior leaders need to walk the organisational talk and be held accountable. This will positively impact the way the way the business is run.

“The Culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.” Gruenert and Whittaker 

Create a clear social media policy

Many organisation still don’t have a clear-cut social media policy, especially around managing risk. A report, “A Comprehensive Approach to Managing Social Media Risk and Compliance” from Accenture on this topic suggests “social media risks are difficult to quantify… comprehensive cost/benefit analyses are still in their early stages— meaning that many risks still go uncontrolled.”

What we saw  with “Colin’s” Twitter activity is that one contentious or topical tweet can circle the globe in hours. If that activity undermines his credibility in his job and your corporate goals (which will impact your brand and  business) then companies will have to take steps.

Most employment contracts have clauses related to activities that will bring the organisation into disrepute. Extreme social media activity which undermines confidence in a company could well fall into that category. It may mean that “Colin” will have workplace issues to face, even if his bosses agrees with his position. There may be backlash from colleagues who support him if action is taken.

Inclusion and Risk Management

Ideally, a leadership team needs to look at the data and assess any impact on the business results. Very often this will take months to harvest and analyse. In the meantime more damage could have taken place. The immediate way is to try to get verbal feedback on the individual’s performance if that’s possible. But very often a business response to a changing relationship is not immediate either.

The workplace is one of compromise and it means finding ways to accept the opinions and beliefs of others. Those limits will be tested if business results are, or could be, impacted. If the “Colins” of the world can’t rein themselves in, they may find themselves on the job market. And even then that individual has left a lengthy digital trail (anyone can research) which could affect future opportunities.

Navigating the nuances where inclusion, brand management and even business strategy collide or are simply not aligned can be challenging.

For all your executive search needs – get in touch now.


One thought on “Politics and workplace culture – Help I have a “Colin”

  1. Olivia Verhulst

    Thanks Dorothy for these insights.

    Social media activity of staff is definitely a risk to consider, assess properly and manage to keep
    –  the reputation of the company, as well as 
    – the workplace one of compromise, diversity and inclusion 😊

    … and it should be part of any Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) 😊



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