TECH TALK: Bill Magee says employers may not approve of staff talking politics online
Water cooler conversations are traditionally all about passing the time of day, at times letting off steam about a work issue that’s bugging you. But the digital version has got rising numbers of employers hot under the virtual collar. Staff are being ordered to keep such online chatter out of the workplace.
Politics and business matters are the dual flashpoint on work intranets, an internal communications tool that’s become increasingly popular in recent years. Depending on C-Suite executive diktat, such sites can be accessed by all or selected members of staff. The idea is to foster greater engagement between work colleagues and team leaders in a secure and confidential manner. But rules apply.
Ideally, an intranet should also be all about making everyone feel more connected with the exercise leading to greater business resilience and improved productivity levels all round. However, things seem to have got out of hand, especially when it comes to business and politics.
The two are inextricably linked. If you’re in any doubt about this, just catch reaction to the parliamentary election results concerning thorny issues like business rates and the state of the economy. When such discussions extend onto the internet, it apparently becomes a problem area and the tech industry is extra-sensitive about it. This is something of an irony, given it’s the very sector viewed as responsible for a worsening situation. Just think of Facebook’s stalling over Trump showings before he finally fell by the wayside.
Basecamp, a software company, chose a blog post, naturally, to describe such political discourse as a “major distraction” and “not healthy” and it would not host such conversations any longer. Coinbase and Facebook are two big tech organisations which have already restricted internal political discussions, the latter after some workers protested about the social media platform’s content moderation policies.
Employees are overall okay with talking politics at work. A survey by Reed recruitment reveals 6-out-of-10 in the UK think it’s fine. Another recruitment outfit, AgencyCentral, adopts a more tongue-in-cheek approach, stating: “How to discuss politics without starting a riot.” Its employer guide advises organisations not to treat its staff like robots.
Although we’re less likely to start an argument in an office than the pub, talking politics remains a dodgy area.
We spend all day cooped up with the people at work that we know most of them well. In an open-plan setting one becomes more aware, for example, if a colleague is pro or anti independence.
Political discussion often involves emotive topics but if it leans towards harassment this is against the law yet bullying per se isn’t. A fine line. There’s also free speech and hate speech and censorship. Overall, a complex issue best discussed at another time.
Some pundits claim it remains problematic for a boss to start telling employees what they can and cannot discuss. If it’s the employer who’s discussing politics, it can be problematic to put that Zoom call on mute without it being noticed. No matter how tempting.
Harvard Business Review maintains social media and the political soapbox represent a hot potato, claiming Facebook has provided “dangerous targeting tools to political operatives..sowing division and distrust.” I would argue, at times, unwittingly, but given the open season nature of social media to date, understandable for matters to get out of control.
HBR says it is time to define social media responsibility and hold tech leviathans like Mark Zuckerberg to account. Also, time to listen to those who’ve shouted from the rooftops about such issues as opposed to allowing Silicon Valley leaders to self-regulate and dictate terms when it comes to who can say what on social media.
It’s one thing silencing the likes of Trump when he gets too hot to handle. It’s another failing to address how millions of social media subscribers get drawn into endless conspiracy theories.
When it comes to business and politics and tinkering around the margins of content policies and moderation, separating one from the other remains an impossibility. Don’t take my word for this. Just monitor the internet from Thursday, both in the wider society and at work when the online water cooler “airwaves” flare up once again.