With all the political events leading up to the 2020 presidential election, it is difficult to avoid politically charged conversations everywhere we go. Politics are even becoming a regular conversation topic in the workplace despite the traditional practice of never discussing topics like it. While some workplaces may choose to discourage all political conversations, others may feel that doing so would be too restrictive. Below is a collection of practical advice for engaging, avoiding, and discouraging political discussions without causing tension.
First, it is important to realize that discussing politics in the workplace is risky. “How to Handle Political Discussions in the Office,” by Kerry Wekelo Elam, found on corporatewellnessmagazine.com, points out that these conversations can distract from the task at hand, divide coworkers, cause unnecessary tension, and even lead to legal problems. Wekelo Elam writes, politically oriented “discussions related to topics of the minimum wage, equal pay or paid leave could infringe upon Federal Labor Laws. Harassment or Discrimination suits could arise from careless comments regarding race, gender, or religion.” The charged emotions from a heated political argument can lead to people making offensive or poorly worded comments. The bottom line is that you never know who is listening and heated arguments about such sensitive topics should never take place on the job.
Despite an understanding of the inherent risks of discussing politics in the workplace, many people choose to engage in them. With constant news feeds popping up on our phones and web browsers, it isn’t surprising that these discussions are almost inevitable. If political discussions occur, how do you safely navigate them while maintaining safe and positive work relationships?
“Should You Talk Politics at Work?” by Rebecca Knight of Harvard Business Review, discusses the importance of knowing your audience before making political comments or jumping into a conversation. Use what you know about an individual’s personality, social life, and expressed beliefs as clues. After working with the same people for a while, you will probably have a general idea of where they lie on the political spectrum. If you must discuss the latest political news, choose someone who seems to share your views and who has a general openness and respect for the views of others. Don’t go running to your coworker with an unyielding opposing view the moment a politician of his/her party is under scrutiny. Having an “I told you so!” mentality when discussing politics never works, especially at work.
Even if it is not your style to start political discussions, it is likely that you will be drawn into one during breaks. Whether these occur one on one or with the entire department, it is important that you do your part to keep the discussion civil. Remember, these are people you have to work with every day. You must eventually leave your differences in the break room and continue collaborating. Don’t escalate a conversation to the point where doing so is no longer possible. “Should You Talk Politics at Work?” recommends treating political discussions as an opportunity to gain perspective. Even if you fully disagree with a coworker’s philosophy, discover what causes him/her to hold a belief. In the same way, present your views in a respectful manner that lets your coworkers understand where you are coming from. Work is not the place to force your opinions on others, however, genuine and respectful conversations about real world issues are possible.
Wekelo Elam provides many strategies for disengaging or deescalating political debates. If you are uncomfortable with discussing politics, she suggests making a personal commitment to not talk politics in the workplace. If a coworker tries to start a conversation, respectfully tell him/her your commitment and steer the conversation to a different topic. Similarly, you can respectfully listen to a coworker’s comments without providing your input. Just because you disagree with a comment doesn’t mean you have to take on a debate. Simply listen, affirm the individual’s right to an opinion, and disengage. There is no reason to fuel an unwanted fire. The same is true when managing a group debate. Wekelo Elam recommends excusing yourself to return to work or use the restroom if you feel irritated or stressed by the direction of a conversation. If you notice the whole group getting upset, don’t be afraid to intervene. Suggest that the conversation be dropped for the sake of maintaining civility and productivity. Additionally, “Should You Talk Politics at Work?” recommends finding common ground before returning to work. This can be as simple as recognizing that everyone is frustrated with the current situation and that, at the end of the day, we all want what is best for our family, community, and country.
In addition to making wise personal decisions, employers should create and enforce practical policies for the discussion of politics and other sensitive issues at work. “Discussing Politics in the Workplace: What to Do When It Gets Out of Hand,” published by Comply Right, provides a practical guide for policymakers. First, the article points out that “the Constitutional right to free speech does not apply in most workplaces,” and that “As a private employer, you are free to set rules around political talk and politically motivated activities.” Policymakers must consider what specific consequences of discussing politics in the workplace they wish to prevent. For example, harassment and decreased productivity are two common concerns. The article recommends that even if a flat ban on all political conversations is unwanted, there should be a ban on conversations that carry over into worktime or contain hateful and discriminatory speech, the latter of which can lead to serious legal trouble. Finally, the article emphasizes the importance of creating and enforcing politically neutral policies. Never allow policies to be broken because you agree with an expressed political sentiment. This is unethical and sets a dangerous precedent.
Although political tension continues to run high, you have the power to limit its effect in the workplace. For some, compartmentalizing work matters and outside matters is the best strategy for minimizing political tension in the workplace. On the other hand, many employees do not find a ridged ban on all political discussions to be realistic or even favorable during a time when political news is constantly unfolding. Regardless, everyone can relate to the goal of maintaining positive and respectful workplace relationships. Considering the emotionally charged and divisive nature of politics, it is certainly something to discuss with caution.