How to Talk About Politics at Work

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

What do you do when a coworker tries to engage you in a conversation about politics, forwards you an email that supports a particular political viewpoint, or makes political comments that you feel are inappropriate? Likewise, if you are engaged in politics, what’s an appropriate way to be authentic to your personal beliefs without alienating someone who may disagree? Is it ever okay to talk politics at work?

According to recent survey by Fierce, Inc., which includes responses from executives and employees in the finance industry, more than half (54 percent) of workers say that political discussions are not healthy and do not improve communication. In fact, 78.1 percent of workers claim that political discussions cause coworker tension. Yet nearly the same number—80.4 percent—don’t want employers to forbid political discussions at the office.

How can we solve this dilemma?

One way is by establishing some ground rules. “Employees will talk about politics, whether it is allowed or not, so organizations should set guidelines on how to approach the subject of politics and what is acceptable behavior,” says Halley Bock, Fierce’s CEO and president. “Although political discussions may cause tension, management should never outlaw specific topics of conversation.”

Here are suggestions from Bock and others on the etiquette of talking politics at work.

Don’t Get Personal

Fierce’s study found that nearly 40 percent of those surveyed have witnessed a political discussion turn into a personal attack at least once. Therefore, Bock recommends steering clear of any language or finger-pointing that might make a particular colleague feel uncomfortable. “Explain that political conversations should focus on an issue, rather than an individual person, to avoid personal attacks,” says Bock.

Focus on Inclusion

Another finding of the survey is that 13.7 percent believe that some coworkers feel excluded from political discussions. To avoid this, try to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone in the office will feel comfortable discussing politics — so to raise a political topic risks alienating some of your colleagues. Bock recommends that if someone specific is causing tension, that person’s behavior should be called out in a one-to-one setting. “Ask to hear the coworker’s/employee’s point of view and issues,” says Bock.

Show Some Respect

Like it or not, political conversations will likely take place from time to time in the office. Bock recommends that employees approach political conversations with curiosity and an open mind, making sure to respect competing viewpoints. Christina Kugel, director of marketing at mobile and enterprise applications company TeliApp Corporation, agrees that the discussion of politics at work is completely acceptable as long as boundaries are respected.

“In order to ensure that everyone feels comfortable at work, managers must express the importance of—and enforce an environment of—mutual respect,” says Kugel. “No one should be put down, mocked or ganged up on based on a political belief. If someone thinks they can’t be respectful, then they should not be engaging in the discussion.”

Be Cautious

Some take a more cautious approach to broaching politics at work — and recommend avoiding it in most cases. “I discourage discussing politics at work unless the issues are directly related to the substance of the work,” says Tammy Gooler Loeb, who advises employees on leadership development. “Politics can get very personal quickly, and this can distract people from focusing on organizational priorities and productive workplace relationships. The most professional approach is to put the priorities of the business first.”

Jessica M. Timmerman, senior analyst at Sun Mergers & Acquisitions, agrees that the answer to whether to talk about politics at work is simple — just don’t. “Trying to tell someone their political views are incorrect is like telling them their baby is ugly,” she says. “You’re only going to cause hard feelings and resentment, and be unable to get the taste of your own foot out of your mouth for some time.”

To avoid stepping into potential political minefields when someone tries to talk politics to you at work, Tresha Moreland, whose background includes 15 years in human resources, offers these tips:

  • Turn your filter on. Nod politely but turn the tongue off. Resist getting into debates about who is more right than wrong.
  • Politely end the conversation. Often saying a simple, “Thanks for expressing your views” and nothing more will help bring the conversation to a polite close.
  • Redirect the conversation. Find common ground and redirect their attention to the purpose and mission of the company. Compliment their passion and ask them how they might contribute that passion to the company’s objectives.

Know the Law

The issues go deeper than simply trying to avoid offending a colleague. When politics are involved, HR issues may soon follow. “From an employer angle, there is a responsibility to protect employees from a hostile work environment, and unfortunately, the nature of politics means it can easily create such an atmosphere,” says Nancy Mobley, founder and CEO of HR consulting firm Insight Performance.

Mobley reminds employees and executives that politics cross many personal lines for people of different races, religions, ethnic backgrounds, genders, ages, sexual preferences, and more. Because of this, it’s important to remember that even seemingly innocuous comments could risk offending someone. In a worst-case scenario, this could prompt legal action.

“Our political system is set up to allow us to make a choice for representation based on our beliefs in and about such groups,” says Mobley. “At the same time, many of these groups are the same groups that are also protected classes in the workplace. Politics are personal, and the topic is fraught with potential to get heated when people don’t agree.”

She adds that part of discrimination awareness is recognizing that it isn’t the intent of what you say, but the impact it makes. “By expressing your political views, you may not intend to offend someone, but the potential still exists,” says Mobley. “Nothing good can come of discussing politics in the workplace.”