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Why NOT to Talk Politics at the Office

by | Sep 20, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

A simple question: Is it appropriate to discuss politics at the office? The simple answer (that would make this the shortest article we’ve posted by several pages): No. The last decade or so has seen the most divisive and polarizing political figures, policies and actions that the North American populace has seen for a generation or more. We have seen a trickle-down of a lack of respect from leaders that has made open displays of contempt for political adversaries nearly acceptable and commonplace. So often, it seems, political views can become so diametrically opposed – and so personal – that they lead to bullying in the workplace. This is not behaviour that can be condoned.
Why NOT?

If you’re in a regular office environment the people you work with are likely the people you spend the most time with. You don’t want to ruin your relationship with them or make it more difficult by talking politics. The truth is, if you’re having the conversation to try and persuade your colleague to join your side, to see your way of thinking, statistics say that just isn’t going to happen. In fact, the more likely outcome is that your co-worker will dig in their heels and put up even stronger arguments against your position.  Here’s another thing; it’s your private business. There is a reason we vote by secret ballot. It also can create a bias and distrust between team members. In fact a recent Forbes poll found that employees in the majority political group at an organization are twice as likely as those in the minority group to avoid interacting and working with others who are on the opposite side of the fence politically. There is no way to move forward with the creativity they were hired for if people don’t trust one another and work together.. And, maybe worth the most thought, it is also possible that bringing this type of rhetoric into the office could tick off  your boss enough to hinder your career.

 

So what can the boss do about it? 

The boss can put an end to these conversations, even ban them outright, if they are causing distractions or tensions in the workplace. There are some labour-related issues such as unionizing, wages and working conditions that are protected under the National Labor Relations Act in the United States and under the Canadian Labour Code in Canada. It would be worth brushing up on the legislation that affects you before you find yourself in a situation that requires knowledge.

Who are you going to call?

The Human Resources department has, in most cases, become the arbiter where conflicts arise. In some small businesses it might be “HR, party of one”, or maybe just the owner when you’re just starting out. Even with limited knowledge of HR practices, there are a fer things you can do:

  • Establish office policies and hold training sessions on showing respect to co-workers (really the crux of the whole thing), but don’t focus specifically on politics. That can have the effect of fueling conflict.
  • Make what constitutes an “opinion” and what rises to the level of harassing another worker clear—admittedly a difficult task.
  • Set an example at the top. If the boss talks openly about supporting one candidate or another, employees can feel intimidated or worry they’ll be treated differently if they disagree.
  • Steer conversations in meetings away from politics or keep discussion to the more generic aspects of an issue.
  • Limit or ban visual displays in the office, such as campaign buttons, bumper stickers and posters.
  • Lots more to it, but this is a good start.

    Is it that easy a question?

    Maybe not. There are those who believe that talking politics in the workplace can be useful and is maybe unavoidable. Work relationships generally begin with what some call “Tier 1” communications; talking about things like sports, weather, pop-culture, etc. But as time progresses it is natural for people to have more substantive conversations, and it is as likely as not that politics will be introduced. While most experts will agree that talking politics at work is a tricky business, Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Crucial Conversations and cofounder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training company, believes learning how to talk about politics in a productive manner can help you “manage other difficult conversations at work,” including peer performance reviews or disagreements over strategy and policy. Politics is just another topic where “emotions run strong, the stakes are high, and opinions vary,” he says.

    If it’s that tricky a business, almost assuredly with more negative outcomes than positive, it is probably best to avoid it. There are lots of other things to talk about at the office besides politics. Discuss vacation plans or a favourite recipe or restaurant. Talk about who looks good to take the series this year, your pick for “Best Picture”. Or commiserate about the good old days when you could kill an hour around the watercooler rehashing last night’s Seinfeld episode. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.