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How is the rise of polarization impacting brokerages?

4 minute read

How is the rise of polarization impacting brokerages?

By: Sovereign Insurance

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“Don’t talk about religion and politics” has long been an unspoken rule at dinner parties and water coolers. However, as society becomes more divided on sociopolitical lines and previously not-suitable-for-work discussions are becoming more common, the workplace is becoming increasingly polarized. Experts say this growing polarization is leading to more arguments and less diversity of perspectives in the workplace.1

But is this the case in Canadian brokerages? As part of the third annual Canadian Underwriter Brokerage DEI survey, sponsored by Sovereign Insurance, researchers posed a new question to brokers about how the rise of polarization has affected their work life. Before answering, respondents were asked to think about politics and news items, as well as values or beliefs that force people to take sides on issues without the possibility of a middle ground.

The results show a split almost right down the middle. Close to one half (49%) of brokers say polarization impacts their work life in at least one of the ways listed on the survey.

Among those who do feel impacts, 34% indicate they self-censor and avoid talking about controversial topics at work. And 11% say they now interact less frequently with colleagues. Brokers who work at firms they describe as having no diversity in senior leadership are more likely to feel the impacts of polarization, at 59%. Meanwhile, even 26% of brokers at firms described as “leading” in the DEI space feel impacted.

Brokers were also asked if they participate in conversations about polarizing subjects at work. Two-thirds (66%) say they rarely or never hear or participate in discussions about polarizing topics, while 25% say sometimes. Just 2% of respondents say they hear or take part in these discussions “all the time” and 8% say “often.”

When tensions are high

When it comes to non-work-related topics, why should it matter to business leaders if people want to talk about more than just the weather? According to HR consultant Matthew Burr, conversations about controversial or polarizing topics – whether it’s politics, religion, the economy or otherwise – can become emotional disagreements that cause disruption in the workplace.2

Other negative impacts of polarization noted by experts include mistreatment of employees, problematic effects on company culture, reduced performance, lower productivity and work quality, unhealthy conflict among team members, and threats to job retention and job satisfaction.3,4

More troubling for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leaders – especially as diversity is meant to include diverse perspectives and beliefs – is that “increased polarization and partisan conflict can create additional resistance to DEI change and potentially impact successful progress,” according to The Cornell Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (CAHRS). “As some employees are looking to their employer to take a stand on social justice and political issues, this can add to the complexities of fully integrating an organization’s DEI strategy and cultivating inclusion and engagement in the workplace.”5

Keeping the peace

The challenge for HR managers and business leaders is how to enable people to share different views – especially as the political and economic landscape can’t help but bleed into the workplace – and still maintain harmony.

To navigate potentially hot topics, experts advise organizations to put guidelines in place for non-work-related communication, ensure employees are trained on policies and procedures that might apply to polarizing conversations, encourage respectful dialogue, create opportunities to listen to ideas and find commonalities, and address and investigate any workplace complaints brought to managers or HR staff.5,6

And, even as DEI itself is becoming more polarized, organizations can stay the course. Writing in HRD Connect, DEI consultant Jarvis Sam says strong leadership plays a pivotal role in maintaining an organizational commitment to DEI, particularly in the face of political polarization.

“Leaders must not only articulate a clear vision for diversity and inclusion. They must also actively demonstrate their commitment through actions and policies,” he writes, adding that organizations with leaders who champion DEI have higher employee engagement and increased commitment to DEI. “By holding themselves accountable for progress, leaders can inspire employees and cultivate a culture of belonging that transcends political differences.”7


1 Washington Post, “Politics are becoming harder to avoid at work,” survey finds, Oct. 5, 2022

2,5 SHRM, “Polarizing Conversations in the Workplace,” Jan. 20, 2022

3 Ethical Systems, “Workplace Political Polarization

4 LinkedIn, “Polarization at Work?” March 6, 2024

5  Cornell University Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (CAHRS), “Navigating Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in a Polarized World,” Nov. 13, 2023

6 Forbes, “15 Tips For Navigating Potentially Polarizing Discussions At Work,” July 22, 2021

7 HRD Connect, “Empowering organizational commitment to DEI amidst political polarization