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A New Place to Learn Civics: The Workplace

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A peaceful end to the war in Ukraine. That was the wish behind a post that Simge Krüger made on LinkedIn in March.

In response, people began posting their wishes that her husband, father and brother be killed in combat. Seeing that she lived in Germany, they called her a Nazi.

“I was just talking about peace and I’m suddenly a Nazi,” Ms. Krüger, a Turkish citizen who lives in Hamburg, said in an interview.

Weeks later, sitting in a workshop led by a pro-democracy organization, she came to understand what happened in that dizzying moment. The insults had nothing to do with her ethnic background or political leanings. The people targeting her comment were trying to whip up emotion and further polarize a world torn over issues like Russia’s war in Ukraine, gender identity and climate change.

The best way to resist, she was taught in the class, was not by trying to explain her position or defend herself, but by asking probing questions.

People who believe conspiracy theories usually just have one line of argumentation, but there’s nothing behind it,” she said. “When you start carving into their iceberg, you quickly realize that it has no depth.”

These lessons came from an eight-week program offered by her employer, Hays, a multinational recruitment firm with 3,500 employees in Germany. The company said the project dovetailed its own aim of strengthening democratic values and making their employees more resilient.

Across Germany, several hundred companies have taken part in such workshops, and similar classes are being held in other Western countries, including the United States. Businesses are finding they need to bolster their employees in the face of increasingly vitriolic political debate. Seminars on civics and democratic principles — such as the importance of voting or recognizing the dangers of disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech — have become a way to ensure healthier relationships at the workplace, and in society at large. In addition, reports show that economic growth is higher in stable democracies, and liberal border policies allow companies to attract skilled immigrants.

Since the initial offering that Ms. Krüger took part in, Hays has trained more individual employees and incorporated elements of the workshops into its companywide mandatory training, said Mimoza Murseli, a project coordinator for diversity and inclusion at Hays.

Being schooled in how to recognize and respond to hate speech and misinformation has made employees more self-assured in doing their jobs, Ms. Murseli said.

“We gained confidence in standing our ground.”

Groups like the Business Council for Democracy and Weltoffenes Sachsen in Germany and Civic Alliance or the Leadership Now Project in the United States organize workshops like the one Ms. Krüger took part in, provide research and webinars, and support civic education and get-out-the-vote efforts — all of it nonpartisan. Most are nonprofit organizations, backed by independent foundations or a group of businesses that rely on their political independence as a selling point.

In Germany, the Network for Democracy and Courage has offered various workshops on civics and democracy to schools and young people for over two decades. But five years ago, it was approached by a group of businesses in the eastern state of Saxony, where far-right politicians have been attracting more followers.

A key principle of the workshops was that they be voluntary for employees, said Nina Gbur, the organization’s project manager. They also have to be ideologically neutral, and not target any group or members of a given political party.

“It’s not like companies come to us and say, ‘We have a section where three racists are sitting,’” Ms. Gbur said. “That would be completely unrealistic.”

Germany is far from reaching the levels of political polarization that have wracked the United States. But the arrival of more than 1 million immigrants in 2015 and 2016 has inflamed debate.

Over this time, a far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has disrupted the country’s political landscape with its embrace of nationalist, anti-immigration policies. Known for pushing boundaries and a more confrontational, aggressive style of politics, the AfD is gaining support; a recent poll showed more than one in five Germans supporting the party, up from 10 percent in the 2021 election.

Reflecting this shift, the tone in public discourse has become more raw. Kerstin Schultheiss, a managing director at the Leipziger Gruppe, noticed it in her company, which employs 5,000 people who provide public services in the city of Leipzig.

Several managers told her of increased tensions among employees as well as in their dealings with the public. Common flash points were the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, government mandates to conserve energy or Russia’s war in Ukraine. Employees were subject to harsh comments that went beyond a typical disagreement or a complaint, she said, especially those who deal with the public, like tram drivers.

“There are simply people who think differently and express this difference in a way that is just not acceptable,” Ms. Schultheiss said.

When she heard about the civics training offered by the Business Council for Democracy, she applied to participate.

“We have to create a space where all employees feel comfortable and create a working environment in which they can function and work well, and in which they are not harassed by anyone because of their political views,” Ms. Schultheiss said.

The training offerings vary. In Germany, media literacy has been a critical issue, while programs in the United States are frequently focused on teaching employees about how the government works and voting rights. But their basic premise is to empower employees to understand how their actions, both in and out of the workplace, affect the political climate and, ultimately, their own jobs.

At Nomos Glashütte, a maker of luxury watches based in Saxony, company leaders worry that if the AfD were to come to power, customers and potential employees could be repelled, threatening their business.

“Democracy is the basis of our entrepreneurial activity,” said Judith Borowski, managing director of Nomos, which offers its employees civics workshops. “And if we no longer have democracy, then the basis for our entrepreneurial activities will also be very curtailed.”

The idea behind the Business Council for Democracy workshops is to fill gaps in workers’ knowledge of the basic underpinnings of the democratic system, especially in a digital civic culture. The programs teach how to recognize and question conspiracy theories and disinformation, aiming to reinforce personal responsibility and resilience against polarizing content.

Debate is an essential part of the program and all workshops remain strictly confidential. What is said in the room, stays in the room, to foster a space where people can be open and vulnerable. Some are held in-person but most are online, which is easier for people who work shifts.

Sessions are run once a week for eight weeks, during working hours. A trained mediator brings up a topic to discuss. In the case of recognizing disinformation, the mediator might show examples of comments or images that have circulated on social media.

For example, during the pandemic in 2020, when government lockdowns prevented Germans from socializing and holiday festivities were canceled, a photograph started making the rounds showing several prominent politicians standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling and sharing mugs of hot mulled wine, with commentary expressing the idea that those making the rules were allowed to break them, while others were not.

After discussing the image, participants were shown how to check when it was taken. In the case of the merrymaking politicians, it turned out to be from 2019, the year before the pandemic.

“For the training, we use very concrete examples to make it really clear what is happening, how they are being used,” said Susann Planert, a personnel policy specialist at Leipziger who is trained to lead the workshops.

Another example she likes to use is taking an image of an article from one of the country’s major news outlets and running it through a digital tool that lets a user alter the wording in the headline. A screenshot of the new version with an altered outrageous or inflammatory headline can then quickly be posted on social media.

“Such a technical gimmick can have a huge impact,” she said. “Every time I do this in a training session, it has an ‘ah-ha’ effect because it makes obvious how easy it is to manipulate information.”

The lack of civics understanding among employees has come to the attention of businesses in both Germany and the United States in recent years.

In Germany, the focus is particularly acute in the former East German regions, where democracy has only been around since Germany reunified in 1990. In the United States, surveys point to declining civics understanding among adults.Both situations translate to weaker social discourse and faith in public institutions.

Employers are realizing they are in a unique position to fill information gaps. According to the Pew Research Center, only 17 percent of Americans trust officials in power in Washington to do the right thing. But business is viewed as the one institution that is both ethical and competent, according the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Many younger people now expect their employers to champion civic causes, said Steven Levine, director of the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan coalition in the United States of over 1,300 businesses including Microsoft, McDonald’s, Target and Ecolab.

“Companies have seen themselves in recent years as an important collective stabilizing force in helping ensure that the norms of democracy are upheld,” Mr. Levine said.

Misinformation can rattle markets. In May, an image generated by artificial intelligence showing black smoke billowing near the Pentagon briefly sent stocks tumbling. But a big focus of employers in the United States has been turning out the vote. Mr. Levine cited companies like Patagonia that close stores and offices on Election Day to allow employees to vote and volunteer at polls, and the National Basketball Association’s decision to have all 30 teams play the day before Election Day 2022, using the opportunity to encourage fans to vote, and not scheduling any games on the next day.

As next year’s presidential election approaches, companies are concerned about the potential for instability, said Daniella Ballou-Aares, chief executive of the Leadership Now Project, an organization of U.S. business leaders dedicated to promoting and protecting democracy.

She cited the legal battle between Disney and Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and the blowback Delta Air Lines faced from from customers over its response to legislation restricting voting in Georgia.

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Something similar happened to Nomos, the German watch maker. In 2018, an angry mob led by far-right politicians held a protest in a city not far the company’s headquarters, chanting slogans against immigrants and chasing dark-skinned bystanders. News footage of the disturbance was seen by customers as far away as New York, who called the company to express alarm.

“We had a feeling that politics like this could become a stark location disadvantage,” said Ms. Borowski, the managing director. Fearing corrosive ideas could spread among its employees, the company began offering civics workshops.

As markets and policymakers struggle with wars in Europe and the Middle East, instability in one leading country is bound to reverberate across others, Ms. Ballou-Aares said.

“If you see a disruption in democracy in a major economy,” she said, “it’s going to be a big deal.”

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