The Rise of Angry Advocates in the Workplace

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Angry-Advocates-Workplace-HRThere is an angry tone bubbling at the workplace water cooler. Once a time to break away from work tasks and engage in sports talk, office gossip and mindless chatter, water cooler conversation has developed an edge. This is not surprising since we are fast approaching the eve of two contentious political party conventions on the road to electing the next president. Aided by a constant barrage of newsfeeds from the media, political talk is perpetual water cooler conversation for both Trump and Clinton followers.

Enter the Angry Advocates. Who are Angry Advocates? According to Bruce Clarke, J.D., CEO of CAI in a recent article in the News & Observer (“Political Anger a New Challenge for HR Managers,” June 2016), Angry Advocates are folks who have an ax to grind or are passionate about a particular subject and are oblivious to opposing opinions, workplace etiquette or workplace laws. These folks are angry and not afraid to share their anger in common spaces like the water cooler during a break-time gathering.

We have not seen such an aggressive crop of Angry Advocates since the 2012 political race between President Obama and Mitt Romney. In the time leading up to the 2012 election, mudslinging was relentless. In a 2011 poll of 7000 full time workers from offices around the country done by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder (“More Than One-Third of Workers Discuss Politics at Work,” March 2012, careerbuilder.com), twenty-three percent reported that they had heated discussions or fights with their co-workers, managers or higher-ups over political issues talked about during the campaign. One in ten workers admitted that discovering a co-worker’s political affiliation (often through conversation) negatively impacted their opinion of the person. Given the current polarizing political climate and the surge of Angry Advocates, I wonder what would the workplace percentages would be for hostile political conversations if a similar poll were done today?

According to Clarke, the current crop of Angry Advocates can be broken down into three categories: the Imperious Person, the Offensive Person and the Righteous Believer. I see shades of Donald Trump in two of Clarke’s three categories, and he seems to pander to the Righteous Believer whenever he sees a benefit to his campaign.

The Imperious Person can wreak havoc during a break at the water cooler by dominating conversations with righteous indignation. This person knows that their view on a given subject is correct and their perception is that others are idiots if they can’t see that or hold an opposing view. Sharing of their opinion doesn’t always end at the water cooler and can become more personal through texting, emails, or social media.

The Offensive Person displays hostile behavior towards another person or group of people who they perceive as responsible for some injustice. The offensive person often targets people of a different race, gender or religion. The distasteful comments or hostile behavior can feel like harassment to the recipient and infringe on their time in communication with colleagues during breaks.

The Righteous Believer is the most difficult to classify as an Angry Advocate because usually they are faith-based. Lines have gotten blurred on when faith conversations are appropriate. Even though an employee considers faith a part of their whole being, faith is a personal choice. Faith is not a mandate to be consistently forced on others in the workplace.

Clarke warns that Angry Advocates are an impending challenge for Human Resource managers, and I agree. Human Resources is expected to intervene when zealousness and anger cloud the atmosphere and emotions reign in the workplace. Employee productivity is dependent on cohesiveness, collaboration and teamwork. Tolerance for diverse opinions is a cornerstone for innovation. Reviewing HR policies, especially in the areas of harassment and diversity, is prudent.

Hopefully as we get closer to the election, civility will return and the workplace water cooler conversation will move on to more innocuous chatter. Angry Advocates will become advocates for a personal cause that they are enthusiastically willing to share. The rest of us will leave the anger to casual complaining about shrinking paychecks and the lack of desired creature comforts.