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If You’re Going to Talk Politics in the Office, Here’s a Few Talking Points (so to speak)

As discussed previously, there’s a bit of controversy over whether it’s acceptable to discuss politics in the workplace, in light of the little upcoming contest on November 4th (You may have heard a bit about it in the news lately). To this point, I’d like to offer a few guidelines for those who dare talk about “Country First” vs. “The Change We Need.” You know, the ones who feel compelled to share their thoughts with others while presenting at the morning team meeting (a la the Emmys), or want to debate whether that study about political views being “all in the mind” is really true while lingering around the soda machines.

After all, 50 percent of American workers are talking politics in the office, according to Adecco USA’s most recent Workplace Insights Survey. Gen Y workers are reportedly leading the pack, with 61 percent of them discussing politics at work – a significant jump from 45 percent during the 2004 presidential election (Bush vs. Kerry). In contrast, roughly 35 percent of workers say they are uncomfortable discussing politics with their bosses or co-workers, according to a release from Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

The way I see it, there are three ways for companies to approach this.

They can:

  1. do nothing and let things happen as they will,
  2. restrict their employees and impose a ban on talking politics,
  3. allow such political discourse, but gently remind employees along the way of guidelines to keep in mind should they choose to engage.

If your choice is “c,” you may want to consider passing along the following guidelines in order to keep the peace (and keep your face off your co-worker’s dartboard):

  1. Be respectful of others and their limits.

    When having these types of conversations at work (or anywhere else, really), be cognizant of those around you. Respect the fact that some co-workers aren’t interested in your latest rant about Obama or McCain. If you have a group of co-workers with whom you regularly discuss politics – great. Otherwise, you may be treading on thin ice. Bottom line: don’t put those you work with in an uncomfortable position. Feel out any situation before you open your mouth and say something you may regret.

    At L.L. Bean, for example, there isn’t a specific policy regarding talking about politics in the workplace. “We do have an expectation that employees will respect one another, and they have an expectation that they will not be put in an uncomfortable position,” said L.L. Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem. L.L. Bean workers can display political material in their personal workspace, but it hasn’t come up as an issue, Beem said. “We hope that if it was an issue, (employees) would let us know.”

  2. Listen.

    I know, with all of us wanting to finish each other’s thoughts – and get ours out before the other person is even finished – “listening” may seem like a foreign concept. But if your workplace is going to have an open policy about politics, it’s important to follow simple rules of etiquette, so that co-workers can engage in healthy conversation and avoid food fights shouting matches . And hey – you might even learn something new!

  3. Don’t get your pantsuit in a bunch.

    Avoid personal attacks and keep a focus on the issues, not the gossip and speculation. There is such a thing as taking the conversation too far – and it can have serious consequences. At times it may be tempting to trade insulting jabs back and forth about candidates, but really, it’s easy for things to get personal and cause a strain on employee relationships. Not only may tempers be raised, but someone may hit on a sensitive topic and really offend someone else. While an employee may think they’re throwing around friendly banter, the person on the receiving end of the conversation may be far from okay with it. Avoid letting things get out of hand.

  4. Take responsibility as a leader.

    Realize that if you are in a leadership role, you are in a more delicate position. As a leader, remember that more eyes are on you, and employees may regard your views as the standard for what views they themselves may express. While this may not be your intention, you may in fact be suppressing their opinions by expressing your own. If you are going to express your views, make sure that you are encouraging an open environment for your subordinates, and make it clear that everyone’s opinions and ideas are welcomed and accepted, no matter how different they may be from your own.

  5. Communicate.

    Most issues can be solved simply by communicating with each other. Don’t feel comfortable with someone’s conversation? You can walk away, but if it’s a persistent problem, why not tactfully tell them you’re not cool with it? If they respect you, and they should, they’ll go somewhere else to have that conversation, away from the office.

    Feel that your co-worker gives you the death stare every time he or she passes by your cubicle (and your “Change” picture)? Why not pull that person aside and ask them if the picture is bothering them? If it’s a real problem and politics – or other controversial topics – are having an adverse effect on your work relationships, it’s time to make “change” yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a co-worker directly, go to your supervisor. They can at least act as a mediator and help to get things back on track. You never know; these types of difficult conversations may open up formerly closed lines of communication and strengthen relationships.

What if talking workplace politics just doesn’t suit you?

There are many out there who would rather not dip their pen in the, ah, political ink. Younger generations are generally said to be more comfortable being open about which candidate they support and about expressing their views – some may even feel the need to do so (whether right or not). But even some Gen Yers shy away from this kind of disclosure. What then? It’s just as acceptable not to discuss personal political views at work – and your employees should never feel pressured to participate. Here are a few guidelines for those non-participants too.

Creating a culture of respect

As workplace environments do vary drastically across the board, there is no one right formula. You know your particular culture and policies, and you know more than people outside your organization what will fly and what will end in Ralph Macchio-style showdowns. As an article in the Portland Press Herald points out, political discussion can improve camaraderie if the majority of co-workers are in support of the same candidate or party – but it can also divide if there’s a lot of disparity. But with that said, those companies that create a culture of respect and trust may manage to avoid some of these issues altogether.

Thoughts? Are you having issues with employees discussing politics at work? Do you support political water-cooler discussions, or do you see a problem with it?

Amy McDonnell

About Amy McDonnell

Originally hailing from Ohio, Amy is the creative services 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.
4 comments
Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Melanie, thanks for your comment. I agree that an existing baseline of respect must be present in the office for these types of conversations to work and to be productive and civil, rather than caustic and damaging to the workplace environment.

With that said, I also think that it's never too late for workplace environments with issues in this regard to change for the better...

Amy Chulik
Amy Chulik

Melanie, thanks for your comment. I agree that an existing baseline of respect must be present in the office for these types of conversations to work and to be productive and civil, rather than caustic and damaging to the workplace environment.

With that said, I also think that it's never too late for workplace environments with issues in this regard to change for the better...

Melanie Sklarz
Melanie Sklarz

Thanks for sharing these guidelines. We certainly agree with you and advocate that everyone, first and foremost, be respectful of other's beliefs in the workplace.

With that said, it is possible to have these discussions at work, but it requires that there already is a respectful environment in the office.

Melanie Sklarz
Melanie Sklarz

Thanks for sharing these guidelines. We certainly agree with you and advocate that everyone, first and foremost, be respectful of other's beliefs in the workplace.

With that said, it is possible to have these discussions at work, but it requires that there already is a respectful environment in the office.

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