President Donald Trump's first weeks in office have spawned anxiety and even arguments at some workplaces, putting owners — especially at smaller companies — in the position of needing to protect peace and productivity.
At software maker BetterWorks, CEO Kris Duggan has noticed a drop in productivity since Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, with staffers distracted and having less energy as some of their focus shifted to politics.
"They're wound up, thinking about what march they're going to," says Duggan. His company, which makes business management programs and has a staff of about 100, is based in Redwood City, California.
Duggan says he's aware that employees aren't getting much rest on weekends — instead of decompressing, they spend time on social media, sharing content that makes them uneasy.
Divided feelings over Trump's policies and personality affected workplaces of all sizes before the election too, but owners say there are more discussions now between co-workers that can turn disruptive. While plenty of workplaces haven't had issues or say their employees feel reassured by the new president, others say staffers have been subdued and distracted.
A survey conducted after the Republican and Democratic national conventions last year found a quarter of the 927 workers questioned said political conversations at work negatively affected them, reducing their productivity and creating stress. The survey, released the American Psychological Association, a professional organization, also found that a fifth of the participants were avoiding some co-workers because of their political views, a sign of increasing hostility in the workplace. There are few signs those emotions have waned.
After Trump issued an executive order restraining immigration from seven Muslim countries, staffers at Lou Hoffman's marketing company started worrying about a co-worker from one of those nations who's in the process of applying for a green card. The employees were concerned that she might be sent back to that country, which he declined to name.
"At times, as you would expect, you can hear the strain in her voice," says Hoffman, owner of The Hoffman Agency, based in San Jose, California. "It's a combination of unsettling and disturbing, and a feeling among the staff of, 'Why does it have to come to this?'"
The staff has kept on working, but their morale has been affected. "I do see more worried faces," Hoffman says.
Human resources consultant David Lewis has been getting calls from small business clients asking how to handle discord among their staffers and ultimately keep employees working constructively.
"People have stopped working with each other in the same way. They've changed their opinions of their co-workers. Clients have seen in some situations open arguments," says Lewis, CEO of Operations Inc., based in Norwalk, Connecticut.
One client had to intervene in a three-way disagreement over Trump's then-proposed immigration order. When two staffers began arguing, the third broke in to say her parents had come to the U.S. to escape what was happening in their home country, and had done nothing wrong to warrant being deported. The client called Operations Inc. for some guidance on how to manage the situation, and prevent others from happening.
After the calls started coming in, Lewis decided to take action with his own business. "I don't view my workplace as different from any other in terms of that potential volatility," he says.
Lewis sent a message to his staff that he suggested clients also give their employees. It notes that Operations Inc. has a positive culture and that employees work together in harmony. But it acknowledges that political passions about issues like immigration, the media and women's rights could hurt that culture, and create an atmosphere that would make people not want to work there. Lewis requested that staff members think about each other's feelings, and the company's well-being, before they launch into a political conversation.
He asked that such conversations "be carefully considered in advance and handled with the utmost level of sensitivity and care."
Owners who see a change in morale or productivity shouldn't try to ban political conversation, says Midge Seltzer, president of EngagePEO, a human resources provider based in Hollywood, Florida. A better approach is to remind everyone why they're there — to conduct company operations. That's something bosses also have to do if staffers get distracted during events like the NCAA basketball tournament.
Some companies see staffers happier. The five employees at Stephen Twomey's website design and marketing company have been upbeat since the inauguration.
"Knowing that we have a president who puts the safety of Americans at the forefront of their policy lets them rest safer," says Twomey, owner of MasterMind, based in Traverse City, Michigan.
Still, the uneasiness at some small companies comes from uncertainty about changes in government policy.
At Clear, a new online bank, staffers are coming to co-owner Tyler McIntyre with questions about how changes in the Dodd-Frank banking law promised by Trump and lawmakers will affect the company. McIntyre is already seeing big banks that partner with his company becoming more cautious about their planned alliances, and his 10 employees are concerned about their jobs.
"When everyone's phone starts vibrating from breaking news alerts, you hear this quiet come over the office," says McIntyre, whose company is based in New York.
Owners will need to stay vigilant to help staffers keep their emotions at bay and their focus on their work, Lewis says. But they shouldn't get involved in political discussions, Seltzer says.
"They should be leading by example. They need to stay neutral," she says.