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Update: How CEOs can address political tension in the workplace

Gabriel Perna | November 4, 2020

01-13-21 update

Editor’s note: In light of last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building, Health Evolution reached out to UMass Memorial Health CEO Eric Dickson, MD, to share advice about how CEOs can bring together their communities and move past the events. Here’s what he had to say.

Health Evolution: What were your thoughts watching the events of Wednesday January 6th unfold?

Dickson: I have one word to describe last week’s events at the Capitol – tragic. It was tragic to see the violence that ensued, tragic to see the bedrock of our nation’s government under siege, there was a tragic and senseless loss of life, and it is tragic that the event sends a message to people across the globe that the United States is faltering at a critical time when there should be a peaceful and strong transition of power. I thought this was also terrible failure of leadership. Here you had a group that had just heard a series of speeches – from the President of the United States and others and those words may have led to the chaos, mayhem and deaths that resulted a few hours later. This was a monumental failure of leadership.

Health Evolution: You said back in October you were concerned about potential violence stemming from the election results. I’m assuming you’re still concerned about that…perhaps even more so. What actions have you taken to ensure the safety of your employees?

Dickson: We have begun a series of conversations around several tough  issues in an effort to better engage our people. This has included listening sessions and public forums. Also, we leverage our Standards of Respect program

Health Evolution: How can health care leaders bring together their communities and move past the events of last week?  

Dickson: We have an enormous task before us with the pandemic. I think its important for health care leaders to be as transparent as possible in our vaccination efforts so that what the public see is an equitable process based on the greater good of protecting the lives and well-being of the people in the community. I think setting a good example here will reinforce the value of every single American and we can create a national initiative that we can all rally around as a country. 

Dickson also shared with Health Evolution readers the comments he expressed to UMass Memorial staff about the incident: https://everydayinnovators.org/

Below is the original article about addressing political tension in the workplace. 


The 2020 Presidential election has made it clear that Americans remain on fiercely opposing sides of the political spectrum. A survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that in 2019 a majority of Americans say political discussions have become more common in the workplace even though research from the Dialogue Project indicated that 70 percent of Americans said it is hard for them to talk about sensitive topics with people who may hold opposing views. 

“Discourse is getting worse. Polarization is getting worse. People becoming tribal is becoming more pronounced. It’s something very few people are happy about. You can feel it,” says Bob Feldman, vice chair of consulting firm, ICF Next and founder of the Dialogue Project. The Dialogue Project, in fact, was created with corporate and academic partners last year to empower business leaders to improve political discourse in the workplace. 

Eric Dickson, MD, CEO of UMass Memorial Health, says that tension has not only played out in the workforce, but in the emergency room. “As the CEO of a health system, I think right now is the perfect storm for bad things to happen,” he says.  

Dickson is particularly concerned about potential riots and confrontations over the election spilling into the hospital. 

“You can certainly feel that political tensions in general are higher,” says Susan Turney, MD, CEO of Marshfield Clinic. “One byproduct of the pandemic has been that right now we don’t have a lot of time to deal with issues that don’t relate to providing care for our patients.”  

What does that mean for health care CEOs and leaders as they navigate what’s sure to be a deeply divided population both in their communities and within their own organizations? 

Internal policies are critical  

Pandemic or not, health care leaders face the challenge of managing workforces, whether on-site or virtual, with the sharp divide that has split this country into two factions. 

David Shulkin, MD, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Trump administration who also served under President Obama and wrote a book titled It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country, says it’s organizations should enable employees to talk about the issues impacting their communities but not allow outright partisan campaigning.  

Dickson agrees that CEOs should remind employees that work is not the place to have a political discussion. At Marshfield Clinic, Turney says the organization has policies in place against being political while you are working, but says on breaks, employees are allowed to talk about the issues. 

Read more: Q&A: David Shulkin on the VA’s ‘superpower’ 

“Everyone should have policies in place that prohibit campaigning at work or discussing politics while on the clock. But they should also regularly stress the importance of treating everyone with respect regardless of any difference in political or social views,” Turney says. “One thing I want to be careful about is that while politics and campaigning as an organization are inappropriate, we feel strongly that being involved in public policy and having strong relationships with elected officials is important and necessary for those in health care.”  

What role do CEOs play?  
Leaders can’t be silent about the issues facing this country, but they must communicate in a way that respects everyone, advises Shulkin. “When you bring forth a particular partisan perspective, you will be alienating other people. Talking about issues that are consistent with the values of the organization and mission is appropriate, but don’t talk about them in partisan ways,” he says.  

Feldman advises CEOs to communicate to employees as the election results are finalized, even as the situation becomes potentially messy with legal challenges and recounts. Like Shulkin, he says CEOs shouldn’t play pundit and reveal any political biases but believes they must reiterate the organization’s corporate values and allow for respectful conversations.  

Dickson has never been shy about expressing his opinions on the policies and issues that he feels are important to the health of this country. He is one of the few—if not only—CEOs in health care to endorse Medicare for All. However, when it comes to the election and what it means for health policy, he has a more bipartisan outlook.  

Read more: The health system CEO who supports Medicare For All 

“This organization has been through a lot. When I became CEO, the organization was basically defaulting on our debt. We’ve had a lot of challenges. My message to caregivers and employees is no matter what happens, we’ll figure it out. We’ll find a way through,” says Dickson. “We’re too important to this community to close. We always find a way to get it done. No matter what happens in the election, no matter what policies are put into place, we’ll find a way to take care of patients. As long as we focus on that, we’ll be fine.”  

Turney adds that with COVID-19 surging again, CEOs need to balance priorities accordingly because “as a health system there isn’t a lot of time to not focus on the current task at hand.”  

Shulkin emphasizes health care leaders must remain apolitical by using the example of the CDC. The public health agency has been hurt in the last few months by the partisan nature of the pandemic response. He says when he was the head of the VA, he was in charge of 425,000 people who represented 20 million veterans—and knowing that guided his leadership style.  

“I understood that the people in the organization and the people we represented have many political views,” Shulkin said. “As a leader, it’s not my job to determine which one is the right one. I have to run the organization without a political perspective.”  

Read more: CEOs are divided on speaking out in polarizing times 

About the Author

Gabriel Perna, Senior Manager, Digital Content

Gabriel Perna is the Senior Manager of Digital Content at Health Evolution. He brings 10+ years of experience in covering the intersection of health care and business. Previously, he was at Chief Executive, Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email at gabrielp@healthevolution.com or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna