With the election just weeks away, it's likely that the buzz seeps into your office and break room regularly now, breaking your concentration along with it. It's also understandable that sometimes you may feel like crawling under your credenza just to avoid getting into the Obama/Romney frenetic frenzy. Do you speak out, feign agreement, mince your words or nod like a crash dummy? Thankfully, you do have other choices.
The closer we get to the election, the more the political divide can even trump garden variety office politics. Otherwise mild mannered co-workers can quickly morph into what I call "Terrible Office Tyrants" or TOTs" - throwing a tantrum because you don't agree with what they believe is "obvious." It's as if the world will implode if their candidate isn’t elected.
Although some in the office like to make it clear whether they're a Democrat or a Republican, it’s best to not flaunt your political beliefs. Chances are someone along the way will feel some form of alienation. If it adds nothing to productivity, then drop it - and that's a good litmus test for anything you're unsure about in the workplace.
And the issue can be more serious for your career. Employees have even been fired for causing conflict in the office; inflammatory topics such as abortion can ultimately lead to claims of sexual harassment; and one industry study shows that 25% of employers have policies that address restrictions on political discussions in the workplace.
But what If your firm, like most, has no policy in place? How do you navigate the tricky waters of the Romney v. Obama debate at work, especially if your boss wears his party's pin on his lapel - or a presumptuous co-worker sends you an endless feed of political Internet jokes?
When You're on the Spot
While there may be times when you feel safe discussing national politics with your boss or co-workers, other times, you may feel awkward or caught off guard. In the latter case, here are some suggestions:
• Remain Neutral and if put in a corner, consider comments such as, "That's interesting," "I see what you are saying," "That certainly happens," or other non-committal phrases. Try to move the conversation to a general topic or to work projects: "Actually xyz project has been such a major focus for me that I haven't had the time to devote to the political scene as much as I'd like to. Which reminds me..."
• Listen More Than Talk. When people are looking for a venue to speak out, it's often counterproductive if not risky to engage in a war of words with colleagues (and clients) for that matter. And even if you agree, you're still losing valuable work time - unless you do it off hours and feel you're building upon a close bond with the person.
• Match Your Response to the Instigator. If the situation has gone over the top, your response can be more assertive, and you can even use diplomatic humor in the process. Example: “You know what they say about discussing politics among friends. I prefer to keep my friends!”
• Avoid Taking Sides in any Political Debate. Pass up being the ball in a game of political ping-pong by inserting some unexpected humor, e.g., “How ‘bout those [insert your local sports team]? Or, “Did you see those pictures of aliens giving high fives from the Mars rover?” These statements will either get them off politics (or encourage them to suddenly leave the room!)
• Shut Down Campaign Headquarters. No matter how strong your views, don't use your office as a campaigning ground. I've seen people lean bumper stickers against windowsills or on credenzas. Why alienate your co-workers when tensions can run high on so many other fronts? And again, do research whether your company has any policies on political chit chat.
When the Boss is on a Roll, Take Control
It becomes trickier when the boss is in a tizzy over the political debate. If you agree with your boss, then it’s easier. But, during work hours you don’t want to provide a forum for your supervisor to get on a political soapbox - contentious or not. If he gets out of control, then you're taking away precious time from your projects. If you disagree, you may develop bottled up feelings of conflict and fear of reprisal.
Oftentimes a needy boss may want face time with anyone who will listen. But the onus will be on you to diplomatically steer the conversation to your mutual projects. You'll likely have questions that will interest him or her, which will redirect the conversation away from politics - and save you from working endless hours to catch up.
Generally, their greater interest is in getting their projects accomplished, and you play an important role in that. Ask them about their work or trigger small talk subjects that you know they're interested in. For example, if your boss is a sports or fashion enthusiast, you can guide the conversation there.
During the countdown to November, the latest political polls; fallout from public gaffes; and other current buzz make for plenty of fodder at the water cooler. They're the perfect storm for exacerbating day-to-day office politics - and creating a lose-lose, tornado-sized debate. You'll be at your best game if your vote is to stay out of the fray.