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No Money, Sex, Religion…but what about Politics?

How much election coverage should your co-workers really be covering?

It’s safe to say that the hype of the upcoming U.S. presidential election isn’t going to die down anytime soon. The dust barely had time to settle from Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention before the drama surrounding Sarah Palin, John McCain’s newly announced vice presidential candidate, caught on media fire.

Update: Sarah Palin to give what some are dubbing the “speech of her life” tonight at 10:30 EDT

As I’ve been watching both DNC and RNC speeches, I’ve begun thinking more about the effect of the upcoming election on our workplace conversations. What makes for stimulating conversation by the water cooler – and what makes co-workers want to throw said water cooler at you?

Where do you draw the line during such a provocative time in our world, when people are eager to share ideas and opinions about what’s going on outside of the office? After all, what happens in November’s presidential election will affect us personally as well as professionally. Should workplaces look the other way and pretend that an exciting and historic election is not taking place in two months, or should they accept that their employees are going to talk about more than the weather from now until November – and respond accordingly?

With our lives so interconnected in today’s world via the Internet, social media, email, texting, and a myriad of other technology, we’re also exposing ourselves (most of us figuratively, not literally) more than ever before. And to a large extent, we’re voluntarily doing so. Many of my co-workers are on Facebook, for example, and have chosen to freely reveal their political views to their 36 or 360 “friends.” What kind of impact does this have on workplace relationships? What kind of biases are our co-workers forming based on these political opinions, unbeknownst to us?

I wonder if we’re revealing too much personal information to co-workers, or if the workplace has actually shifted to accommodate more personal relationships and formerly taboo topics such as politics.  With work/life balance now of great importance to many workers, maybe we’ve simply become more comfortable with revealing aspects of our personal lives to those we work with. Work, after all, is the place we spend 40+ hours at every week, and now with many employees working through the weekend, the line between work and home life has become blurred.

But as Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D. (also known as “The Ethics Guy”), stresses in a BusinessWeek article, that there are certain things that just aren’t appropriate to spew about while gulfing down your ham sandwich in the lunchroom. As Weinstein contends, talking politics often leads to talking about deeper political (and hot-button) issues that are extremely divisive and can affect co-workers’ relationships and ability to work well together. And for the most part, he says, where you stand on most particular political issues has no bearing on the job you are doing – or your ability to do it.   What starts off as friendly in-office political banter is likely to raise tensions sooner or later, and may cause people to become negatively biased against those who happen to hold a political view that doesn’t sit well with them.

So what’s off limits and what’s fair game? Should you decorate your cubicle or office with Obama/Biden paraphernalia? Can you forward that pro-McCain email to a group of oh, 20 or so unsuspecting co-workers? Do you really want to get into a heated conversation about the presidential contenders’ health care policies while taking a smoke break outside with Greg from accounting?

Or should we trade our Obama-McCain-energy-abortion-oil-education-health care-Iraq-tax opinions only while at dinner with friends, on the living room couch with family, on the treadmill with the stationary cycler next to us at the gym (I suggest this only for the truly skilled), or even with strangers on the bus – and save our Stop the Drama, Vote for Obama and McCain Bringing the Pain t-shirts for a special night out?

Amy K. McDonnell

About Amy K. McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the editorial manager on the content services team and has been with both CareerBuilder and the city of Chicago for nearly a decade. She writes on a range of recruitment topics on The Hiring Site, striving to bring a dose of clarity and humor to sometimes complicated issues around employee attraction, engagement and retention. When she's not working, Amy spends as much time as possible reading, pretending to be a chef, writing short stories, eating Nutella out of the jar, waiting for CTA buses and trains, going to see her favorite bands live, and spending time with people who inspire and challenge her.
24 comments
Bob
Bob

Interesting that you, Keith, chose a discussion on the propriety of political discussion in the workplace to make a veiled political point.

You said: "We have been and slowly continue to be de-Americanized in the public square, schools and the workplace. We once valued freedom and independence with individual accountability in thought word and deed, but no more. Now it’s all “group think” and being an offended victim……"

You remind me of Ronald Reagan when he said "I can remember when there wasn't a race problem in this country." I doubt many African-Americans shared Reagan's memories of those golden years ... or yours.

Bob
Bob

Interesting that you, Keith, chose a discussion on the propriety of political discussion in the workplace to make a veiled political point.

You said: "We have been and slowly continue to be de-Americanized in the public square, schools and the workplace. We once valued freedom and independence with individual accountability in thought word and deed, but no more. Now it’s all “group think” and being an offended victim……"

You remind me of Ronald Reagan when he said "I can remember when there wasn't a race problem in this country." I doubt many African-Americans shared Reagan's memories of those golden years ... or yours.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

To Julia (and everyone else), thank you for your thoughtful comments regarding this issue.

Julia, to address your concern specifically, my intention when initially writing this was to present both candidates fairly and neutrally, and that has not changed. However, when I originally posted this (last week), I had mentioned in my introduction Barack Obama’s upcoming speech and John McCain’s soon-to-be-announced VP pick - both pretty innocuous facts/links and fair amount of buzz surrounding each.

But, since we wanted to share this in today’s newsletters, I updated the intro yesterday to reflect this week’s events, since the ones I had mentioned initially had already passed. Those two things (the speech and Palin as VP pick) were the most recent that popped into my head – as Obama’s speech was quickly followed up by McCain’s VP choice – and yesterday, it made the most sense to me. I did research for a while to find an article about Sarah Palin that presented the issue neutrally, and ended up linking to the UK’s Guardian Web site in the hopes of presenting an outsider’s perspective. But in thinking about it now, I can see how to someone reading, it may seem skewed or intentional. Please understand that any bias in linking was not my intention, and I will take special care to avoid this in future postings. I really appreciate your comment and feedback.

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

To Julia (and everyone else), thank you for your thoughtful comments regarding this issue.

Julia, to address your concern specifically, my intention when initially writing this was to present both candidates fairly and neutrally, and that has not changed. However, when I originally posted this (last week), I had mentioned in my introduction Barack Obama’s upcoming speech and John McCain’s soon-to-be-announced VP pick - both pretty innocuous facts/links and fair amount of buzz surrounding each.

But, since we wanted to share this in today’s newsletters, I updated the intro yesterday to reflect this week’s events, since the ones I had mentioned initially had already passed. Those two things (the speech and Palin as VP pick) were the most recent that popped into my head – as Obama’s speech was quickly followed up by McCain’s VP choice – and yesterday, it made the most sense to me. I did research for a while to find an article about Sarah Palin that presented the issue neutrally, and ended up linking to the UK’s Guardian Web site in the hopes of presenting an outsider’s perspective. But in thinking about it now, I can see how to someone reading, it may seem skewed or intentional. Please understand that any bias in linking was not my intention, and I will take special care to avoid this in future postings. I really appreciate your comment and feedback.

Julia
Julia

Career Builder emails are typically very helpful and we use them often in educating our managers in the hiring process, among other topics. Whether in management or part of a front line team, we would be well served in our professional (and personal) lives to consciously choose to treat other people as they would like to be treated as much as possible, and not necessarily as we would like to be treated ourselves. Spreading of this philosophy by word and example could go a long way in any place of business toward non-confrontational handling of matters generally protected under the umbrella of free speech and expression in the U.S.

Ms. Chulik, thank you for taking the time to address this valid issue in the workplace. I agree this is something employers and employees are dealing with across the board. I was concerned when I received in my work email account this article from Career Builder (a vendor my company does business with) because of the top two links in the article (an article which debates whether politics should even be broached in an office setting) as a "positive" link for one U.S. political party’s news item and a "negative" link for another political party’s news item. News stories are in abundance, and we are responsible for which of them we present to others and which spin, if any, we put on facts. There are equally important positive and negative news items about both major political parties right now. Next time, do you think you could more effectively underscore your point, Ms. Chulik, if these links were all positive, all negative, or- better yet- left out completely from future articles of this nature? Thank you for taking the time to listen to my concern.

Julia
Julia

Career Builder emails are typically very helpful and we use them often in educating our managers in the hiring process, among other topics. Whether in management or part of a front line team, we would be well served in our professional (and personal) lives to consciously choose to treat other people as they would like to be treated as much as possible, and not necessarily as we would like to be treated ourselves. Spreading of this philosophy by word and example could go a long way in any place of business toward non-confrontational handling of matters generally protected under the umbrella of free speech and expression in the U.S.

Ms. Chulik, thank you for taking the time to address this valid issue in the workplace. I agree this is something employers and employees are dealing with across the board. I was concerned when I received in my work email account this article from Career Builder (a vendor my company does business with) because of the top two links in the article (an article which debates whether politics should even be broached in an office setting) as a "positive" link for one U.S. political party’s news item and a "negative" link for another political party’s news item. News stories are in abundance, and we are responsible for which of them we present to others and which spin, if any, we put on facts. There are equally important positive and negative news items about both major political parties right now. Next time, do you think you could more effectively underscore your point, Ms. Chulik, if these links were all positive, all negative, or- better yet- left out completely from future articles of this nature? Thank you for taking the time to listen to my concern.

Andrea Loar
Andrea Loar

I'm so glad this conversation is going on. I was approached by an employee this week who was very upset at having another employee listening to the Democratic National Convention in a common area of our office. Unfortunately, there is no private space for any of our employees, so it was not an option to take it somewhere else. The complaintant is not a Democrat and finds Democratic ideas to be "offensive." (Her exact wording.)

As a manager, I don't believe that my employees should be required to listen to anything that they find offensive, but I also agree that political discussions and debates, if respectful and centered around the associated ideas (not people), can teach employees about working together as a team even when the ideas and ideals of individuals may be in conflict.

For now, I have suggested that all employees try to keep their personal politics out of our office.

Andrea Loar
Andrea Loar

I'm so glad this conversation is going on. I was approached by an employee this week who was very upset at having another employee listening to the Democratic National Convention in a common area of our office. Unfortunately, there is no private space for any of our employees, so it was not an option to take it somewhere else. The complaintant is not a Democrat and finds Democratic ideas to be "offensive." (Her exact wording.)

As a manager, I don't believe that my employees should be required to listen to anything that they find offensive, but I also agree that political discussions and debates, if respectful and centered around the associated ideas (not people), can teach employees about working together as a team even when the ideas and ideals of individuals may be in conflict.

For now, I have suggested that all employees try to keep their personal politics out of our office.

Mary Gray
Mary Gray

I think that most employers expect their employees to be politically aware. While I certainly don't expect my employees to promote a candidate at work, I do admire employees who follow the candidates and their campaigns so that they can make sound decisions when casting their votes. Personally, I am not offended by anyone having an opinin different from mine, as I find that I learn from others who have different view points. Being someone who loves politics, I encourage my employees to discuss things they have learned about the candidates and express what they think about it. So far, we have been lucky that we can remain civil and open-minded in our political discussions. Hopefully, we have all learned more as a result of it. I would never want to work somewhere where I or my employees had to hide their political preferences or opinions. This is not, after all, a totalitarian society--we are allowed and even encouraged to think!

Bob Gunnoe
Bob Gunnoe

I resist saying that things are "banned" from the workplace unless they are illegal or unsafe. That being said however, the workers and management have a responsibility to ensure that conduct and conversation stays at a level that ensures professionalism and does not rise to the level of being dissruptive. Anyone who cannot behave in a professional manner that does not cause a disruption to the nromal work activity should be held accountable regardless of the topic.

matt
matt

The freedom of expression is something any employee would consider as a highly valued perk of the workplace. Whether it's being able to decorate your cube with your college football team fanaticism or exposing your Trekkie-ness (sorry, I think Trekker is the preferred label) with Mr. Spock bobbleheads and posters, it makes individuals feel comfortable (though sometimes it can make others wonder about you, like a former 35+-year-old co-worker of mine who adorned her cube with photos of the Backstreet Boys).

But the issue is when that expression becomes potentially devisive. While some may escalate their emotions on who the greatest Star Trek captain is (Kirk would get my vote, I suppose), there's little chance, unless it's at a convention of people wearing pointy ears and dressing as their favorite character, of blood being spilled. That's not always the case with politics though. During the controversial 2000 presidential election, a very heated conversation broke out in my office between Bush and Gore supporters as Florida ballots were being counted.

I believe discussion is always healthy in the workplace regardless of the topic, so making topics taboo certainly detracts from a positive environment. Individuals (and more specifically, managers) just need to make sure hearts aren't stitched to shirt sleeves, and that respecting other opinions is the overriding attribute for any conversation.

matt
matt

The freedom of expression is something any employee would consider as a highly valued perk of the workplace. Whether it's being able to decorate your cube with your college football team fanaticism or exposing your Trekkie-ness (sorry, I think Trekker is the preferred label) with Mr. Spock bobbleheads and posters, it makes individuals feel comfortable (though sometimes it can make others wonder about you, like a former 35+-year-old co-worker of mine who adorned her cube with photos of the Backstreet Boys).

But the issue is when that expression becomes potentially devisive. While some may escalate their emotions on who the greatest Star Trek captain is (Kirk would get my vote, I suppose), there's little chance, unless it's at a convention of people wearing pointy ears and dressing as their favorite character, of blood being spilled. That's not always the case with politics though. During the controversial 2000 presidential election, a very heated conversation broke out in my office between Bush and Gore supporters as Florida ballots were being counted.

I believe discussion is always healthy in the workplace regardless of the topic, so making topics taboo certainly detracts from a positive environment. Individuals (and more specifically, managers) just need to make sure hearts aren't stitched to shirt sleeves, and that respecting other opinions is the overriding attribute for any conversation.

Stacy Jackson
Stacy Jackson

I think it's good to have a healthy discussion about what's going on in politics especially this particular historical election. Where I think we go wrong is when we BASH the candidate that we don't agree with and assume that everyone shares the same belief. I think negative conversations & possibly offensive jokes about race, gender and age should be left out "at work" and saved for personal time. I have gotten numerous Obama/Clinton/McCain bashing e-mails from co-workers even one a very strong and offensive one that suggested that one of the candidates was the Anti-Christ. On all, I let the forwarder know that they shouldn't assume everyone shares the same beliefs and they probably shouldn't forward to other co-workers because it could offend. Other than that, I think employees should be able to think and talk freely regarding politics and other things going on in the world.

Stacy Jackson
Stacy Jackson

I think it's good to have a healthy discussion about what's going on in politics especially this particular historical election. Where I think we go wrong is when we BASH the candidate that we don't agree with and assume that everyone shares the same belief. I think negative conversations & possibly offensive jokes about race, gender and age should be left out "at work" and saved for personal time. I have gotten numerous Obama/Clinton/McCain bashing e-mails from co-workers even one a very strong and offensive one that suggested that one of the candidates was the Anti-Christ. On all, I let the forwarder know that they shouldn't assume everyone shares the same beliefs and they probably shouldn't forward to other co-workers because it could offend. Other than that, I think employees should be able to think and talk freely regarding politics and other things going on in the world.

keith
keith

We have been saturated with political correctness, tolerance, diversity sensitivity training, and amoral standards for far too long already. Must we now surrender our political free speech lest someone gets their nose out of joint?
We have been and slowly continue to be de-Americanized in the public square, schools and the workplace. We once valued freedom and independence with individual accountability in thought word and deed, but no more. Now it's all "group think" and being an offended victim......... sad.

keith
keith

We have been saturated with political correctness, tolerance, diversity sensitivity training, and amoral standards for far too long already. Must we now surrender our political free speech lest someone gets their nose out of joint?
We have been and slowly continue to be de-Americanized in the public square, schools and the workplace. We once valued freedom and independence with individual accountability in thought word and deed, but no more. Now it's all "group think" and being an offended victim......... sad.

R. B.
R. B.

I don't believe banning a topic is a reasonable response. It's reactionary (in my opinion) and overkill. It's better to encourage people to interact respectfully, regardless of the topic of conversation and to save the more extreme measures for those who engage in discrimination, retaliation or harassment, be it sexual or otherwise, which need to be banned because they're wrong and illegal. If you ask 20 different people what they think about any given topic, you'll get 18 different responses and since people have strong opinions about politics, they are going to talk about what they think and feel. In my mind, the important thing is that they so in a reasonable, respectful manner and that they don't disrupt the flow of work in the organization.

R. B.
R. B.

I don't believe banning a topic is a reasonable response. It's reactionary (in my opinion) and overkill. It's better to encourage people to interact respectfully, regardless of the topic of conversation and to save the more extreme measures for those who engage in discrimination, retaliation or harassment, be it sexual or otherwise, which need to be banned because they're wrong and illegal. If you ask 20 different people what they think about any given topic, you'll get 18 different responses and since people have strong opinions about politics, they are going to talk about what they think and feel. In my mind, the important thing is that they so in a reasonable, respectful manner and that they don't disrupt the flow of work in the organization.

Kevin
Kevin

I am not a fan of blocking or banning anything that is not detrimental to the organization. In fact, we have already had our first "dust up" over the election when one employee accused another of being racist because they did not support Obama. We deal with issues like this on a day-to-day basis anyway, but this election will create opportunities for individuals predisposed to seeing conspiracies or bias to have "irrefutable evidence" that it exists.

Having said that, I think it will actually give us opportunities to show employees that believing in one candidate or the other does not mean you are biased, it means your ideals and beliefs more closely with that particular candidate. I also think it gives managers and HR professionals great opportunities to explore healthy debate as a tool as opposed to source of organizational conflagration.

While it may make my job a little more challenging for the next few months, I am looking forward to it!

Kevin
Kevin

I am not a fan of blocking or banning anything that is not detrimental to the organization. In fact, we have already had our first "dust up" over the election when one employee accused another of being racist because they did not support Obama. We deal with issues like this on a day-to-day basis anyway, but this election will create opportunities for individuals predisposed to seeing conspiracies or bias to have "irrefutable evidence" that it exists.

Having said that, I think it will actually give us opportunities to show employees that believing in one candidate or the other does not mean you are biased, it means your ideals and beliefs more closely with that particular candidate. I also think it gives managers and HR professionals great opportunities to explore healthy debate as a tool as opposed to source of organizational conflagration.

While it may make my job a little more challenging for the next few months, I am looking forward to it!

Lisa Tollefson
Lisa Tollefson

I think that topics of conversation at work, like clothing worn, should be limited to those that support the work being done. True, debate of any kind can ignite creativity and brain power, but politics is an issue that's likely to bring up anger and judgement rather than creativity in most people. Political opinions quickly turn into clubs that people use to bludgeon any opponent.

My other concern is that there's already too much fear of superiors in the workplace. I know too many people who are putting up with difficult, even abusive bosses because they don't trust that they can bring up the issue without heavy consequences. Encouraging political "debate" is likely to make the problem worse.

That said, I don't believe in banning anything. Please let's encourage thinking, not put artificial limits on it. Choose not to have those conversations. Don't force the powers that be to choose for you.

Lisa Tollefson
Lisa Tollefson

I think that topics of conversation at work, like clothing worn, should be limited to those that support the work being done. True, debate of any kind can ignite creativity and brain power, but politics is an issue that's likely to bring up anger and judgement rather than creativity in most people. Political opinions quickly turn into clubs that people use to bludgeon any opponent.

My other concern is that there's already too much fear of superiors in the workplace. I know too many people who are putting up with difficult, even abusive bosses because they don't trust that they can bring up the issue without heavy consequences. Encouraging political "debate" is likely to make the problem worse.

That said, I don't believe in banning anything. Please let's encourage thinking, not put artificial limits on it. Choose not to have those conversations. Don't force the powers that be to choose for you.

Michael
Michael

We have to be careful about creating general policies in the office that suppress independent thinking. The greatest value in any company is the intellectual power of each individual. Making rules out of managerial convenience, because managers aren't capable of teaching their people how to have a respectful debate, is just a bandage on an issue of weak management. It's not easy, but as managers we need to teach people to think independently and respectfully debate differing opinions. Such debate, even if it is about politics, can ignite the brain power of our teams.

Obviously, it's easy to debate about things like politics. It's far more difficult to debate about the vision for the future of your company. If we want to have a staff of Lemmings (reference an old computer game) who just do what we tell them to do, then suppress topics like these. But, if we're paying people to think, we should leverage the opportunity of a political season to teach our teams how to have a good and respectful debate. Learning this kind of skill will pay off when it's time to debate more important business issues.

Michael
Michael

We have to be careful about creating general policies in the office that suppress independent thinking. The greatest value in any company is the intellectual power of each individual. Making rules out of managerial convenience, because managers aren't capable of teaching their people how to have a respectful debate, is just a bandage on an issue of weak management. It's not easy, but as managers we need to teach people to think independently and respectfully debate differing opinions. Such debate, even if it is about politics, can ignite the brain power of our teams.

Obviously, it's easy to debate about things like politics. It's far more difficult to debate about the vision for the future of your company. If we want to have a staff of Lemmings (reference an old computer game) who just do what we tell them to do, then suppress topics like these. But, if we're paying people to think, we should leverage the opportunity of a political season to teach our teams how to have a good and respectful debate. Learning this kind of skill will pay off when it's time to debate more important business issues.

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  1. [...] discussed previously, there’s a bit of controversy over whether it’s acceptable to discuss politics in the workplace, in light of the little [...]

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  3. [...] debated whether politics belonged in the workplace during the 2008 election, and while  a lot has happened in the last four years, one thing [...]

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