This article is a part of the Workplace Anthropology Series.
During the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a viral photo captured an elderly couple on an uptown New York City 1 train listening to the testimony intently on a cell phone. The photo was held as an example of the experience of the moment: from all corners came reports of finding people gripped by the news cycle. People tuned in from airplanes, bars and restaurants, the NYSE, and in a variety of community spaces. They called in their own stories of abuse during news breaks in the coverage. There were some media rumblings about productivity during this event, which raised the question of how much the hearing may have cost employers—but a more pertinent question in today's media-gripped society, is whether employers can afford not to acknowledge nationally transformative events, and what are the long term effects if they do?
In my own office, a few of us streamed the coverage publicly, but we mostly went through the process alone in that we didn't discuss the testimony or connect with each other. There was a passing acknowledgement among the more senior staff that the testimony happening, but overall people kept their opinions to themselves. Those streaming or otherwise publicly following along appeared to be in the minority: while it's possible that others in our office were following along more discreetly on social media, the majority of the office proceeded as though it was business as usual.
The Atlantic rightly points out that measuring media consumption is difficult but from the data we do have, it would appear that a large number of people were and are following the developments of Kavanaugh's nomination and confirmation. Nielsen reported 20.4 million tuned into traditional television media channels—such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. This number didn't include PBS, C-SPAN and the Fox Business Network. It probably didn't include streaming services. And it certainly doesn't account for the tweets or posts people shared and re-shared on social media services. To put this in perspective, the 20.4 million by itself is an audience similar to a play-off football game or the Academy Awards. Betterworks, an HR company, reports that since the 2016 election, more people are paying attention to politics, and that includes when they are at work:
87% of employees "read political social media posts at work"
80% percent said they have discussed politics with professional contacts or colleagues
nearly 50% said they had seen a political conversation turn into an argument at work
The attention to politics has been magnified by the content and tone of the confirmation hearings—the allegations levied by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford of sexual assault—which has resonated with the many victims of sexual assault and harassment. On the day of the testimonies, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reported an 147% increase in call volume than on a normal weekday. Overall there has been a 46% increase in calls in comparison to this time last year. Taken together, the data supports the idea that many people have been impacted by this confirmation.
What does this mean for the workplace? Politics has long been regarded as a taboo topic on the job, right up there with badmouthing your boss, touting your religion, the amount of your paycheck, family concerns, and health issues. These items have been relegated squarely to the realm of personal; except as work encroaches on personal time, it is harder to keep some of these items out of the workplace, particularly when there may be a direct impact on employees' mental health. For survivors of sexual assault, these proceedings are hard to ignore. There is also a greater emphasis on company culture, and creating an environment where people feel they belong. This creates a greater desire to work in places with like-minded people, which means that people are more interested in their colleagues. While experiences of sexual assault may not be primary conversation for the lunchroom, people are adept at seeking cues about their colleagues to learn about them. It has become the norm to share. This means it is harder to ignore political leanings, despite the negative impacts this may have on teams.
Researchers at Challenger, Grey & Christmas calculated that the nomination testimony cost U.S. employers $1.76 billion in lost productivity. They assumed the average hourly wage of an employee is $25.39 and of the 90 million employees who use the Internet as a part of their daily job, 74 million were at work during the testimony. They estimated that 69 million (94%) of those employees were paying attention to the proceedings. If each of them spent an hour at a minimum reading, watching, discussing, or agonizing over the testimony instead of completing the tasks they were assigned, the value of lost time calculates to about $1.76 billion in lost productivity.
It's a scary number for employer, but if it's true and it speaks to the reach of the nomination proceedings, it may be worth acknowledging the experiences that are driving this degree of engagement particularly as it can contribute to the overall company culture that employers are trying to achieve. A roundtable or a town hall may be too open a forum for employers to wade into but there are small and simple actions that they can take:
Remind employees of benefits that may assist them if they are experiencing stress or depression as a result of the current political climate: many employees overlook the availability and use of an Employee Assistance Program because they're concerned about confidentiality.
Offer trainings for managers to recognize the symptoms of depression and suicide so that they can potentially intervene if they spot at-risk behaviors.
Take steps to bolster a team environment with group activities that foster safe and collegial interactions. This doesn't necessarily mean drinks after work; a team lunch or team offsite field trip are inclusive alternatives to consider.
This latter point is particularly relevant as the public discourse around politics can leave some groups feeling alienated or targeted. For companies genuinely interested in the culture of the office, this is an opportunity to reinforce a sense of community, support, and belonging and go a long way toward mitigating the long-term impact of the always-on news cycle.
So much of the existing literature on politics at work emphasizes diminishing the conversation and reminding employees that this is not an appropriate topic for the workplace, but this advice serves a work experience that may be outdated in some industries. If the lines between work and life continue to blur, as they likely will, it's unrealistic to expect that people will not react, respond, or track these conversations. They do, after all, have real implications for live of many of these people.
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