Startup Analysis

In a world more polarised than ever, was Google right to ban politics chat in the office?

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Employment Hero chief people officer Alex Hattingh.

In a world more polarised and more politicised than ever before, Google is causing controversy again, this time by taking control of what its employees can and can’t talk about in the workplace. Specifically, it’s updated its global community guidelines to ban politics talk in the office.

Along with the standard instruction to please not bully your colleagues, and a reminder that you will indeed be held accountable for your own words, the new guidelines also make an explicit reference to the most maligned of dinner party topics.

The tech giant pretty much orders employees not to engage in political debate, and to get on with their work instead.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not.

“Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics,” the guidelines read.

“Avoid conversations that are disruptive to the workplace or otherwise violate Google’s workplace policies. Managers are expected to address discussions that violate those rules.”

This goes beyond a social media policy, beyond NSFW, and beyond adherence to company culture. This is effectively telling employees to stifle their opinions. To get a bit less woke and a bit more worky.

A spokesperson from Google told StartupSmart these are global guidelines, and therefore, also apply to the Aussie offices.

“Community guidelines exist to support the healthy and open discussion that has always been a part of our culture,” the spokesperson said.

They are official guidelines applying to employees communicating within the office, they explained.

“They help create an environment where we can come together as a community in pursuit of our shared mission and serve our users.”

Being a Google employee is a “tremendous responsibility”, the spokesperson added.

“It’s critical that we honour that trust and uphold the integrity of our products and services.”

Embracing debate

Speaking to StartupSmart, Lauren Capelin, head of community at Reinventure, notes diversity, when it comes to political viewpoints, is just as important as any other kind of diversity of thought you would hope to see in a startup.

Within the Reinventure team there are varying political viewpoints, she says. But they embrace that about each other, rather than making it a point of debate.

In a polarised political climate, the nuance here is in talking about policies, rather than ideologies, Capelin notes.

Depending on the industry your startup is in, there is often good reason to understand certain policies, which party stands for what, and who is informing the policies that affect you.

“When you take it out of the context of the policies themselves and having a robust debate about those kind of issues, and get to the party-politics level of one ideology over another, that’s when things become unstuck,” Capelin says.

In fact, for Capelin, startup culture is a place where healthy debate should exist and thrive. In Australia, at least, startups are often at the forefront of political issues, be it aged care, renewable energy or data protection.

And it’s an industry full of passionate people.

“Definitely the startup culture is autonomous to the extent that people bring their whole selves, much more so than we might find in corporations,” Capelin says.

“Startups are attracting people around value sets and objectives … and their reason for being will attract different types of people.”

So, perhaps, the people who end up working together in a startup in Australia may largely see things the same way anyway.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean they will be voting the same way on election day, but on a macro level, there will be more alignment around the things that matter,” Capelin adds.

“We’re all dealing with very progressive issues a lot of the time. This is where the edges of progress are being pushed.”

Culture over curtailment

Alex Hattingh, chief people officer at Employment Hero, tells StartupSmart while it’s important to have boundaries in the workplace, Google’s restrictions go a tad too far.

“You don’t ever want to stifle freedom of speech,” she says.

“You want to have a really inclusive workplace where people do feel comfortable, however, you do need to have something in place where people aren’t going to cross lines.”

She recommends a behaviour policy that makes it clear that the workplace is one of freedom of speech and opinion, while also directing employees to be mindful as to whether their views could offend others.

“And, keep those to social conversations, not to forums where you might be doing stand-up updates, all-hands meetings, or those types of things.”

Certain things such as the same-sex marriage vote in Australia in 2017, or the current unrest in Hong Kong, can be very personal and very polarising.

In fact, having worked at Google in the past, Hattingh theories this particular change to the global guidelines has stemmed from the unrest between Hong Kong and China.

Google is likely “trying to stop any unrest happening with their employees who are located in those regions of the world”, she suggests.

However, when something has the potential to affect employees lives so closely, it’s unreasonable to ask them not to talk about it.

“You can’t have an inclusive and belonging work environment if you do not support freedom of speech.”

For Hattingh, the trick here is to create a safe environment in which employees feel safe in expressing their viewpoints and opinions, but where there is also an avenue others can go down if they feel something has gone too far.

That could even be an employee assistance program external to the company. Equally, an induction and training program for new staff members can help give them the skills to remove themselves from a particular conversation if they’re feeling uncomfortable.

It’s about “giving people the empowerment to pivot that conversation,” Hattingh explains.

For both Hattingh and Capelin, it’s about values and culture driving respectful conversation, rather than hard and fast rules to avoid confrontation.

Capelin calls for healthy, robust debate, with an overarching expectation that those conversations are constructive, respectful, and not at the expense of harming the workplace environment.

“We all know that startups value their culture more than anything else,” she says.

“They would want to put parameters around the culture that meant everyone felt safe in that context.”

A startup’s company values should ensure that everyone within the organisation feels safe and protected, even when expressing an alternative opinion. Those rules are hard and fast, Capelin says.

“If those rules are breached then there is a course for action.

“But as far as the specific content and nature of those conversations, I don’t think we should be trying to influence that.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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