What You Should Know About Talking Politics in the Workplace

Besides being one of the wackiest years in the books, 2020 is also shaping up to be an interesting election year.  With the motley crew of presidential candidates comes sure-fire heated political debates, and—for some—guaranteed entertainment, if you’re into that kind of thing.  If this were a normal year, the water cooler would be hopping with debates and predictions.  This is not a normal year, however.  While you might still be permitted to utilize the water cooler, loitering there is probably out of the question.  That said, discussing politics in the workplace might look a little different this year.

Before you repeat your stance for a third time through your double-layer mask, you might want to pause to find out what is off limits when talking politics in the workplace.  Your muffled voice could be the universe trying to keep you from saying something better left behind the mask.

Taking Cues on Politics in the Workplace

My father is a political science professor, and to say I’ve been surrounded by politics my entire life is an understatement.  When most kids were coming home from school and flipping on a kid program, McNeil Lehrer was what was on TV in our house.  It was non-negotiable.  The funny thing is, my father never actually talked politics at home.  By that, I mean he didn’t initiate political talk.  If someone else wanted to talk politics with him, they’d have to be the one to start the conversation.  Of course, talking politics in the workplace looked a little different for him, since his job was to do just that.

I’ve taken that life experience and tried my best to apply it to my life in the workplace.  While the right to freedom of speech allows us to legally share our thoughts and opinions, doing so doesn’t come without certain consequences.  Something people often forget is that we may say whatever we want, but our audience may interpret what we say or judge us the way they want in return.  Freedom of speech does not protect us from social judgement.  In fact, we willingly subject ourselves to social judgement as soon as we open our mouths.  No amount of disagreement changes that.  For this reason, people should be aware of the ramifications for discussing politics in the workplace.

Image of a woman reading an email conversation including politics in the workplace.

A CEO Politics No-No

A friend of mine recently told me about a time politics were mentioned at her work.  During a past election season, the CEO of the company where she was employed sent a seemingly innocent email.   In the memo, he tried explaining what the implications would be for voting for one candidate over another.  In other words, how would voting for Candidate A impact the company, and how would Candidate B impact the company.  Now, that was purely speculation on his part, because no one can actually forecast the future with pinpoint accuracy.  However, he wanted his employees to know that each candidate’s policies affected the line of business differently, and therefore his company.

Although my friend didn’t feel the CEO’s intent was confrontational, some employees were offended by the gesture.  He thought he was being informative, but others thought he went too far.  The email could have been perceived as political harassment at worst, or coercion at best.  Either way, a better approach could have been to simply send an email to employees detailing the workplace policy for voting during election season.

Politics in the Work Place Know / Nos

At this point, you probably feel a little uneasy and confused about politics in the workplace.  Good.  Hopefully that gives you some pause. Keith Yanner, political science professor at Central College, infuses his cautionary advice with humor, “People often mistake their opinions for fact and truth. Opinion is like bad breath – everyone has it but no one wants to smell it. Best to keep your political opinions out of the workspace.” Lawyers also recommend avoiding debating politics in the workplace, so let’s seek some specific guidance by going through the politics Know / Nos. 

People often mistake their opinions for fact and truth. Opinion is like bad breath – everyone has it but no one wants to smell it. Best to keep your political opinions out of the workspace.

Keith Yanner, Ph.D., political scientist and former journalist

Know:  Before you even open your mouth, you need to find out what rules your company has prohibiting politics in the workplace.  Check your employee handbook or ask HR about the company policies.

No:  Don’t assume your right to freedom of speech gives you an all-access pass to deck out your workspace with signs, bumper stickers, and bobble-head dolls of your favorite presidential candidate.  Ignorance is not a good excuse to get you out of HR trouble in this case.

Photo by Roger Goun | Source

Know:  While you are at work, your employer pays you to do a job.  You are not paid to be a member of your party’s campaign.  So, be careful about spending hours on the clock pushing your political agenda.

No:  It’s a good idea to avoid sending any kind of political messaging while you are on the clock, but you should especially avoid sending such things through work email.  Also, never tweet, comment, or post about anything political using the company account.  In fact, you should avoid even liking a political opinion or meme if you are operating as the administrator of the company social media account.

Know:  Know your audience.  This one can be particularly tricky because some people aren’t transparent with their political beliefs, and therefore you might not truly know where they stand.  The last thing you will want to do is alienate coworkers unnecessarily.

No:  Don’t assume just because you are a likable person that you can make any political comment your heart desires and get away with it.  Likability can diminish very quickly when people become bold with their political opinions. 

Know:  While talking politics in the workplace is risky, you should be aware that it’s still risky to have such conversations outside of work, but with fellow coworkers. In other words, just because you aren’t on the clock does not mean you can’t rub coworkers the wrong way.

No:  Avoid inviting coworkers to political events.  It’s fine to tell people you are attending a function, but inviting someone to attend with you could create conflict.  If someone wants to go, they’ll ask you for details. 

Know:  It’s not about you, it’s about how you represent your company.  Remember, you are the face of your company to many people, including business partners, clients, and prospects.

No:  Just like you should avoid talking politics in the workplace, you should also avoid talking politics with business partners, clients, and prospects.  Your reputation with them is just as important as it is with your coworkers, and you don’t want to do irreparable damage by rubbing someone the wrong way.

Know:  If you absolutely must talk politics in the workplace, try asking more questions than making statements.  There is nothing wrong with being inquisitive or seeking information.  However, be careful that your questions don’t come off as being accusatory.

No:  Do not try to change someone’s political opinion.  Like yours, that person’s opinion has been formed over a long period of time and through much life experience.  Thinking you will be able to sway someone in one conversation is pretty unrealistic.

Know:  Be aware of people who have a reputation for starting political debates, and do your best to avoid bantering with them.  Know when to turn and go the opposite direction.  Like, fast.

No:  Do not engage with someone in a political debate and then claim “he started it.”  If you exchange political unpleasantries with someone, you are just as guilty as he is, regardless of who started it.

Keep Your Politics to Yourself

The moral of this story is that the best way to talk politics in the workplace is with your mouth shut.  In other words, you can’t make a mistake if you don’t say anything at all!  A good practice is to avoid initiating banter with coworkers, business partners, and clients. 

However, that’s not very realistic, since we live in a society where we can’t seem to help but talk about our thoughts and opinions.  So, if you are going to talk politics in the workplace, do it mindfully.  Specifically, ask questions.  Asking questions with the purpose of understanding is better than making statements with the purpose of changing someone’s mind.

In summary, talking politics in the workplace can create a sticky situation, so proceed with caution during this election season. It’s more important to maintain your good relationships than to feel your opinion is right.

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This is not meant to provide legal counsel or advice. Every situation is different. Please contact an HR professional or employment attorney before taking any action.

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