Talking Politics at Work
If you must debate sure-to-stress issues in the office, follow these rules.
Posted Jun 06, 2018
My plan is to go through the following discussion of how to talk about politics in your workplace without having to mention internationally-recognized figures whose last names begin with T or C. We can mostly all agree that regardless of your political leanings: hard left, hard right, moderately down the middle, libertarian, or the Don’t Care Party (as long as my paycheck clears every other week), talking politics face-to-face with not-like-minded friends, family, or co-workers almost always starts with calm tones and rises from there to roof-rattling decibels. Even online exchanges can turn from reasonable to ALL CAPS shouts within a few Press Enter exchanges.
And the list of taboo topics, beyond just your love/like or hate/tolerance for the usual band of media-saturated national or local candidates, includes well-known fight starters like: gun control; the Second Amendment; abortion rights or restrictions; immigration controls versus refugee rights; the death penalty; voting rights and ID cards; prison reform; marijuana legality; (Insert Name of Race/Gender/Cause) Matters; the environment; and even down to the types of magazines, newspapers, social media platforms, or web sites you prefer.
Each of these subjects alone (or in gasoline-fire combinations) can really push people’s buttons. And the consequences for engaging in heavy-duty, emotionally-charged talk in the office is not like arguing with a relative you only see every fifth Thanksgiving; you have to work with these people, often for a long time. Bad feelings about politics can lead to classic snubs like the silent treatment; ignoring you completely at meetings or in the hallways; passive-aggressive behaviors (I’ll be late with my stuff, so you can’t finish yours); favoritism by bosses or co-workers; a boss piling on too much work; bosses not giving you overtime when others get it; bosses giving bad performance evaluations; overt or covert hostility; low morale; or even all this leading to people quitting. Some of these range from annoying to career-threatening, to actually against HR policy or even illegal.
Some employees who disagree with you politically may become outspoken “champions” of their side and actually go after you — by making regular complaints about your words or conduct, no matter how harmless or well-meaning you thought you were — to HR. In the worst cases, physical sabotage to your workspace or vandalism to your car in the company parking lot are not unheard of.
Since Birds of a Political Feather Flock Together, we frequently see office harmony when people agree and view the ocean through the same little drinking straw. It’s when strong feelings leak out that we hear harsh words and see icy glares shot across the room at people who may have once been friends.
Since right before and right after the 2016 Presidential election, where hot and heavy political debate went from our households and began to permeate our workspaces, some companies have tried to regulate politically-oriented conversations as a workplace issue. While I’m not a lawyer, this attempt to control what is free speech is your classic legal slippery slope. “Last I checked,” say some employees, “it’s still a free country and I can say whatever I want - as long as it doesn’t directly lead to someone being harmed.”
True, but if I was advising HR managers and business people on this issue (and I have), I suggest they focus on creating an at-work conversation policy that says, “We allow free speech and you have the right to your opinion about political, social, national, or international events. The only exception is hateful language in the workplace that a reasonable person – not an attorney or an HR specialist – would find racist, sexist, humiliating, belittling, gossiping, threatening, violent, or bullying.”
It’s reasonable for a company to say, “We will only intervene in conversations that distract employees from doing their jobs, waste company time, or impact our operations in a negative way. We will ask our managers and supervisors to monitor employee conversations – but not micro-manage their people – to make sure our business interests, compensated time, and human and professional assets are being used appropriately.”
For employees who want to say, “What I do on my breaks and lunch time is my own business, and not subject to review or interference by my boss,” I would draw this parallel: Can you watch porn on your personal cell phone, while on your lunch break, in the office? No? Why not? Because it impacts the business in a negative way; it hurts the positive culture we’re trying to create here, where people don’t want or don’t have to be exposed to that kind of stuff as they’re trying to do their jobs.
When it comes to protecting your job, career, and reputation at work, by engaging in any political debate with someone who disagrees with you, consider these guidelines:
When in doubt, don’t.
It’s hard to see the value of arguing with a co-worker about politics. Are you really going to change his or her mind, especially if this person has what my dad, Dr. Karl Albrecht, calls “hardening of the categories”? Why win the argument and lose your job, or at a minimum, create hard feelings that can last a few decades or more?
Keep it short.
When the discussion starts to take a turn toward the ugly – away from polite differences and into the storm of complete disagreement – agree to disagree, wrap it up, and say something like, “I value our working relationship, so I’m going to end this here. I care more about you as a person than who is right or wrong on these tough issues.”
Continue co-existing with the person even if you disagree politically.
No written policy in your workplace will ever say you have to love or even like everyone you work with. But many policies say – in so many words – that you are expected to co-exist and get along, despite differences, for the good of the organization, the employees, and customers you are supposed to serve (who don’t care if you all get along or not; they just want your goods or services).
Know which pedal is which.
There are two pedals that operate your life at work: the gas and the brake. One propels you forward – at potentially high-speeds - and the other may save your career by slowing you down or stopping you when you need it most. When it comes to talking politics at work, keep your foot hovering over the brake pedal at all times.
If you’re a manager or a supervisor (or you want to be one, one day), pay attention to the communications culture in your department.
No need to spy on people or micromanage them, but keep your ear to the wind and listen for what sounds like brewing arguments. Use individual coaching meetings to express your concerns.