Political Fights Are Leaving Workplaces Divided Amid impeachment and the 2020 election, surveys show political fevers running high at work, undercutting trust and productivity. And workers and employers are bracing for those dynamics to get worse.
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I Can't Work With You! How Political Fights Leave Workplaces Divided

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I Can't Work With You! How Political Fights Leave Workplaces Divided

I Can't Work With You! How Political Fights Leave Workplaces Divided

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Surveys show political infighting is leading to workplace tension, and it's likely to increase with an impeachment trial underway and a presidential election looming, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: A few months ago, a skirmish broke out in a factory in Portland, Ore. It's a clothing maker that had received an order to make T-shirts for the Trump campaign. Some refused to work on the project.

DARCEY MCALLISTER: But then those same people were harassing the people who were actually working on the project. And so the manager called me and was like, what do I do?

NOGUCHI: Darcey McAllister was on the other end of that call. She handles human resources for small businesses. She says the protesting workers were put on another project, but they were also told, we have a business to run. Stop heckling your co-workers. In many workplaces, tensions like this persist, she says. People can't focus. The pace of work slows, and trust is broken. Some employees feel unwelcome or even discriminated against. That's especially true if they're in the political minority.

MCALLISTER: The people who are Trump supporters probably keep a low profile for fear that they will get verbally attacked or questioned to the point that it would make them feel uncomfortable. I do absolutely have that sense that that's true in Portland.

NOGUCHI: On factory floors, work sites and in clusters of cubicles, political divisions are playing out as real-life work drama. Such disputes are not only more common. They're also more contentious. Forty-two percent of U.S. workers have had political disagreements at work, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. And the resulting strife feeds an undercurrent of workplace stress. What's more, McAllister expects it to get worse.

MCALLISTER: I know as we get closer to November 2020, it's going to become more and more of a problem.

NOGUCHI: That leaves people like Beth Kloetzer in a bind. Kloetzer supervises a Wilmington, Del., library - typically, a quiet environment to read or research in peace and where the 30-person staff is supposed to offer unbiased help finding information.

BETH KLOETZER: We're like Switzerland, you know? We're neutral.

NOGUCHI: Except that has not been the reality among the staff. Personal politics have redrawn allegiances and roiled tensions. Kloetzer, a Democrat, says, at times, she and her co-workers get sucked in to talking about political events of the day at work and online.

KLOETZER: Actually, I have a colleague that - I just block her on social media because I was like, I can't see this.

NOGUCHI: Such comments reveal her co-workers' political leanings, which range from conservative Trump supporters to non-supporters to liberals and a few in between.

KLOETZER: But then I wonder sometimes, do people feel this strongly? Or is just that they're driven to feel that way because that's the mood?

NOGUCHI: It's toned down a bit recently, she says - maybe because she's urged her staff to read memoirs written by people on opposing sides. Those include "Hillbilly Elegy" by conservative author J.D. Vance and "Born A Crime" by liberal comedian Trevor Noah.

KLOETZER: Reading about people with different views - if you grab hold of the things that you can relate to even - it might not change your opinion overall, but it gives you a greater understanding of why everyone doesn't agree.

NOGUCHI: Some, like Brian Melehan, seek refuge in silence. Politics feels so personal these days, he says, he worries a loose tongue could even lose him business.

BRIAN MELEHAN: I don't want to make anybody mad. It makes me kind of walk on eggshells.

NOGUCHI: Melehan's family runs a residential construction firm in Lisle, Ill. He describes himself as left of his Republican-leaning community. Politics was once fodder for chit-chat. Now he avoids the subject altogether, especially with clients, which never used to be the case.

MELEHAN: I never, ever felt like I was in fear that my political viewpoint would somehow prevent people from wanting to hire me because they don't like what I think.

NOGUCHI: Melehan says he thinks healthy debate is necessary for democracy and hopes tensions will eventually ease.

MELEHAN: Division sells, you know? It is something that people can get behind for a brief period of time. But eventually, we all have to work with each other.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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