These days, talking politics in the workplace is about as avoidable as breathing oxygen. It's hard to go about your "normal" work day, because ...it's a new normal.
In fact, according to a survey commissioned by industry news blog BetterWorks in conjunction with Wakefield Research, politics are a very real work distraction:
However, while some employers are attempting to become more progressive in allowing employees to have a political voice, you may place undue risk on your job by engaging in political activism at the office – or even outside of work. (Not to mention raise your blood pressure.)
Our founding fathers created the Bill of Rights to protect citizens from actions taken by the government to impede free speech. But this does not really apply to the private sector, like it or not.
Corporations are free to write their own policies, including those that place limits on political participation. The dominant legal principle is “employment at will,” which means that, unless you’re covered by a union agreement or an employment contract that says otherwise, you can be fired for any reason, or for no reason. Your political opinions outside of work can also get you fired, depending on which state you live in, the nature of your activity and other factors.
Look Before You Leap
The best first step is to understand a prospective employer’s policy before you accept the job. If nothing on their website or corporate literature jumps out at you, then the interview stage is where you should vet the culture.
If you’re passionate about your political beliefs, then ask questions. Check the company handbook, Human Resources, state laws, social media and your own network. Of course it's one thing to be aware of the laws designed to protect you and another to understand the corporate culture.
Say your research pulls up some red flags. Use that information to dig further. If the flags become big and billowy, think twice. For example, if you find from Google searches that your future manager has been very vocal in political campaigns that are diametrically opposed to your own passionate views, why add that level of stress to your job? Or consider whether you can compartmentalize them from work.
Have Your Escape Hatch Segue Ready
If you’re already employed and love your job, but you quickly discover you’ve entered a hornet’s nest, what do you do? Make sure you've read the employee handbook and know the culture. Remember why you’re there, even if those around you seem to have forgotten! Political arguments during work hours aren't just a temporary distraction. They typically linger and can trigger long-term resentment.
Having a civil discussion over lunch (and knowing where to stop before you go to combat with your coworkers) can work. But killing precious, cumulative hours over a week, on top of the virtually irresistible media frenzy – can put your job in jeopardy over time.
Even if you agree with your boss and colleagues on the fundamentals, there’s still a high probability that you’ll end up disagreeing on certain details amidst the political minefield. Add to that all the dramatic geopolitical headlines appearing daily, and you have the perfect storm for getting next to nothing done.
If you find yourself suddenly trapped in a heated political argument in or out of the office, try some sanity-saving neutral phrases like these:
If you have the luxury of escaping a political avalanche, try some work-related segues like these (also helpful reminders to any serial offenders):
If your boss is constantly on the soap-box with contrary opinions, you don't want to confront. Not only are they unlikely to change their mind, but you’ll just add an unnecessary layer of conflict to the relationship. If the same topic drags on for weeks or months, consider mentioning (diplomatically) that political discussions are distracting for you on the job and you want to do your best work. If the bombardment is still relentless, it may be time to visit your favorite job board.
Your best everyday approach is to drive the conversation back to critical projects that mean the most to you and your boss. Ultimately, the performance of your department (and that of your boss) will always take precedence. You'll have to adopt more of a “get down to business mindset” to see real change. Managing up is a helpful practice when you're in this quandary.
There isn't really free speech in a company, because somewhere along the way, you may disagree with someone more senior, which could affect your job. So enter the political fray at your own risk. If you’re considering a new position and you’re politically active, be true to yourself and know your priorities. If you’re already on the job, tread carefully ...before creating your personal Tweet Central.