Maintaining Civility in the Post-Roe v. Wade Workplace

Author: Mary Gormandy White, M.A., SHRM-SCP, SPHR

The topic of abortion has long been a polarizing subject. Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, what many believed to be settled federal law is anything but.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of the Dobbs decision, the topic of abortion rights is getting a lot of attention. From sensationalized news coverage to snarky memes and sniping on social media, a spotlight is shining on abortion.

Sign of the Times

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe did not occur in a vacuum. The sociopolitical landscape of 2022 was already very polarized before things changed with regards to federal abortion law. From "us vs. them" politics to different perspectives on COVID-19 and vaccines to coping with record-breaking inflation, emotions were already running high. And now they're even higher.

Dissent and Disagreement

With so much attention focused on Dobbs, it's unrealistic to think that heated disagreements about abortion won't find their way into the workplace. After all, most organizations have some employees who are pro-choice and some who are pro-life.

People with vastly different opinions may find it difficult to remain civil with one another if the subject comes up, especially when some (or all) involved in the discussion seem compelled to try to change the minds of those who don't see things their way.

Workplace Impact

What one person sees as passionate debate may come across as bullying or hate speech to another. Such situations are disruptive at best and toxic at worst. Either way, they diminish productivity and negatively impact the work environment.

The bottom line is that employees have to be able to work together, regardless of their perspectives on polarizing issues. This is possible only if team members treat each other with respect. That's one of the many reasons why workplace civility is so important.

Productivity and Civility: The Business Case

Productivity and civility are both essential in an organization. Productivity relates to accomplishing the work of the organization efficiently and effectively, and civility relates to how people treat each other. Regardless of the issue involved - whether it be abortion, marijuana, politics or anything else, when civility isn't the norm, neither is maximum productivity.

  • Civility is a necessary condition for productivity. When the people who work for an organization do not treat one another with civility, they won't work well together.
  • People who do not treat each other with civility do not function as a team and often spend significant time arguing with or undermining one another instead of actually working.

Don't make the mistake of thinking your organization can leave civility to chance and instead focus solely on productivity. The path to a productive workplace starts with having a work environment where civility is the norm.

Set an Expectation of Workplace Civility

Rather than waiting for verbal disagreements (or worse) about abortion to break out among your employees, now is a good time to remind employees and leaders alike that civility is a nonnegotiable expectation for workplace behavior.

  • Host a town hall-style meeting in which leaders at the highest levels explore the topic of civility and make a commitment to employees to ensure that civility is a core part of the culture.
  • Perform a policy review covering the company's code of conduct and expectations for civility.
  • Provide managers with talking points related to workplace civility to share with employees in team meetings.
  • Incorporate workplace civility into job descriptions and the performance evaluation process.

Consistently Follow Workplace Policies

Chances are that your organization has a number of policies that relate to workplace demeanor, such as an anti-harassment policy, a code of conduct, a social media policy, a dress code, a political activity policy and/or standards of professionalism. While they may not specifically address the topic of abortion, they should be applied consistently as to this issue and any issues implicated by employee conduct.

Think about it like this: It wouldn't be okay for one employee to scream at another about their religious beliefs; that would violate one or more company policies. With that in mind, similar behavior in relation to someone's beliefs about abortion would also be a policy violation.

  • When dealing with discipline associated with workplace civility, apply all relevant policies consistently to employee conduct, regardless of any sociopolitical issues involved.
  • Emphasize the serious consequences of violating any company policies to the employee(s).
  • Follow your company's procedure for writing up policy violations with such infractions.

Make Respect a Workplace Norm

If coworkers don't treat one another with civility, that means the organization's culture is not characterized by respect. The only way to have a civil workplace is for respectful communication to be the norm across the board - not just in relation to abortion.

  • Respect starts at the top of the organization. Do your employees feel respected by their leaders? If not, leadership may need to adapt how they communicate with employees. Scheduling regular 1:1s to ask employees for feedback may be a good start.
  • Conduct an employee survey focused on the workplace climate that asks employees to share the extent to which they feel respected by their leaders. Include an open-ended request for them to share any concerns or suggestions related to their response.
  • If people have been getting away with exhibiting a lack of respect and civility, that has to change. Let employees know that you recognize there has been an issue and clarify how things are going to be moving forward.
  • Empower employees at all levels by providing training focused on making sure they have the skills to communicate effectively and respectfully, as well as what it means to be a good team member.
  • If people behave or communicate in a way that is not respectful or civil, hold them accountable. If they don't change for the better, then they probably shouldn't be there. You can't say that you're going to disallow such behaviors and then allow them to continue.

Cultivating a culture of civility relates very closely to the concept of inclusion. Civility isn't about getting everyone to see things the same way. It's about creating a work environment where employees are valued for who they uniquely are.

  • In an inclusive organization, it is not acceptable to bully, name-call, or try to change the minds of those who have different beliefs, even related to the topic of abortion.
  • Hold employees responsible for respecting their coworkers as unique individuals who are valued remembers of the team.
  • Set an expectation that employees will work together without letting differences in beliefs or opinions get in the way.

Face the Future

The debate and dissent about abortion isn't likely to settle down anytime soon. Abortion is likely to be a major issue in political campaigns into the foreseeable future. Mid-term elections are just around the corner, with the presidential primaries and election close on their heels.

It's reasonable to expect that, in the coming months and years, there will be even more attention and conversation focused on what reproductive rights will be like post-Roe v. Wade. Even if that wasn't the case, workplace civility would still need to be a major area of organizational focus. There will always be polarizing issues about which employees may passionately disagree.

Civility Matters

It's unwise to sit back and wait for things to settle down. When is the last time social and political issues were settled? Do you even remember when that was or what it felt like?

Remember, a positive and productive work environment doesn't happen by accident. Maintaining a culture defined by civility - which is a necessary condition for organizational health - requires ongoing effort. This was true before the Dobbs decision, it's true now, and it will continue to be true long into the future.

Additional Resources

Addressing the Post-Roe Era in the Workplace

Post-Roe Abortion Laws Impacting Employers by State