Leading through a divisive election

In a statement to the company before the November 3rd election, Heather Casey, PartnerHero President and COO, shared a message that calmed the nerves of an anxious workforce.

“I wanted to take a minute to reach out to each and every one of you. No matter who you vote for, I’m sure tomorrow will be a stressful day. We care about each and every one of you and we are in this together. Let’s be really kind to one another for the next few days and support our community no matter what someone believes and what the outcome of tomorrow’s election will be.”

In this interview with her we’ll deep-dive into how she approached leading through this divisive election.

What were some of the issues that came up that made you feel compelled to reach out to the company? What motivated that?

I felt a strong need to put that message out there and I knew people needed it. Amid the stress, I had an overwhelming need to say “we have each other, let’s not forget that.”

The weeks leading up to the election I noticed that politics became a subtle topic of discussion at work. Maybe people wouldn’t outwardly say how they felt politically but they would make comments like “let’s see in November” or “wait until January” that told me this was on their minds. For the first time ever it seemed like business decisions were starting to be made around politics and the election. That’s not to say we shouldn’t use our values to guide business but it started to feel like there were business decisions being made as a proxy for a desire for a certain outcome of the election. We hadn’t decided as a company that that was how we wanted to conduct business.  I did my best over the last few months to make sure decisions were being made with solid reasoning, not based purely on personal values.

We’re a big company now. We don’t all align on the same personal values - we think differently and that’s OK. We are a diverse and accepting company and acceptance means accepting all points of view, not just your point of view.

What impact did the election have on our employees?

In the days leading up to the election, I noticed the absenteeism rate went up. People were late to work and absent more than I had seen in those same groups of associates. People were asking for a few days off after the election to recuperate. As the election got closer I also saw less and less polarized conversations. People were pulling back externally but starting to freak out more internally, which had a bigger impact on their work.

We also have a really international workforce and the anxiety around the US election was not limited to our American colleagues. I saw the same anxiety in our associates around the world, especially our Honduran associates who are highly affected by US policies. Interestingly, our Brazilian associates seemed less anxious. I had some conversations with Brazilian colleagues to understand why and it seems that Brazil as a country has seen so many changes in their leaders and government styles that they don’t take anything for granted. They are familiar with divisive politics.

What advice would you give to new managers about how to deal with political tensions on their teams?

My first piece of advice is that everyone is stressed and everyone needs to be respected, regardless of their opinions. I know I work with people that have very different opinions about politics. I don’t believe that you have to keep politics out of the discussion but if you are going to talk about politics you need to acknowledge that your feelings on the subject are not the only feelings. A lot of people tend to assume everyone feels the same way they do or they assume that they feel so differently that they can’t even broach the subject. It's OK to point out that this is a challenging time and the stakes are high for everyone. That was the message I was trying to convey to the company leading up the election. We’re all scared. It’s OK to say that instead of simply not speaking about it.

I see this a lot in our society: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” A better approach is to point out that you see things differently and that’s OK. By acknowledging the differences the other person can respond and feel heard too. Politics is not a “dirty secret”. The wrong message would be “don’t talk about it.”

At PartnerHero we are a community. That means respecting each other, regardless of our opinions which entails both receiving and giving respect. Giving is the hardest part but it's also the most important part.

I’ve started to talk to people again who have different points of view. In these conversations we don’t always need to go into minute details of why our opinions differ but I realize I can have conversations with people who think differently than I do. It gives me hope that we can get back to the place where we can have different opinions and still be nice to each other and get along. That’s the attitude I’m working to model and reinforce at PartnerHero.

Heather Casey