5 Tips for Talking Politics at Work
By Cara Newlon
Depending on where you work, the conglomerate of political views in your office space could be as diverse and polarizing as those of your extended family at Thanksgiving—and like Thanksgiving, you may find yourself trapped in an unwanted discussion around politics. Yet, it’s extremely important to tread lightly. According to Workplace Fairness—a nonprofit advocacy group—most political speech, especially in the private sector, is mostly unprotected by anti-retaliation laws.
However, when political discussions inevitably come up, it is possible to have productive conversations around politics with your coworkers. Here’s how:
1. KNOW THAT YOU CAN GET FIRED FOR TALKING POLITICS AT WORK...
In 2011, Megan Geller reportedly was fired from her job waitressing at Outback Steakhouse after wearing a yellow Tea Party bracelet, the New York Times reports. While the chain insisted that she had been fired for performance issues, rather than her political opinions, it’s actually not illegal in most states to terminate employment for representing political beliefs at work.
“The argument [can be] made that when wearing a work uniform, you are representing the brand and the company,” Rachel Rider, founder of MettaWorks LLC and an Executive Coach and Leadership Consultant, tells mental_floss. “If you are wearing some political paraphernalia, you are misrepresenting the company. Employees should not be citing the company name or say where they work in relation to stating their personal views.”
Workplace Fairness states that only California, New York, and the District of Columbia have specific laws that prohibit discrimination based on political affiliation at private companies (public organizations are another story), while two other states—Colorado and North Dakota—prohibit discrimination on the basis of “lawful conduct outside of work,” which includes political activities (attending rallies, etc.).
2. ... SO KNOW YOUR COMPANY’S POLICIES.
According to Forbes, a survey by the Society for Human Resources conducted in 2012 found that a quarter of employers had specific policies on political activities, which can include restrictions on political talk in the office, and about a fifth of companies reported having unwritten policies. Another 5 percent of workplaces said they had disciplined workers for noncompliance in this area in the year before the survey.
However, those policies are usually flexible—and dependent on workplace culture. “Obviously most companies have zero tolerance policies for hostile work environment, or harassment,” says Suzan Agulnek, a former HR Business Partner and Principal of Alacrity Executive Coaching and Consulting. “But I think it’s very important to be able to feel comfortable to speak. [Millennials are] very educated, the most educated generation ever. You have to trust people to talk about it in a way that you are not putting each other down.”
Many workers today value honesty and transparency between them, and that extends to political beliefs. “Even large corporations have finally realized that they need to change any kind of stiff or restrictive kinds of policies,” says Agulnek. “You should have conversations about politics, no matter what side you’re on, but they shouldn’t escalate.”
3. BE CONSCIOUS OF YOUR OWN POLITICAL RIGIDITY.
“Overall, be emotionally intelligent,” says Rider. “If someone chooses to engage, say 'I was thinking of voting for X [candidate].' What you don’t do is talk about how anybody who votes for the other side is an idiot, or only young people would vote for Bernie Sanders.”
But American politics are more polarized than ever before. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, the typical Republican expressed more conservative views than 94 percent of Democrats, compared with 70 percent in 1994. Likewise, the median Democrat is more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans, compared with 64 percent roughly two decades ago.
This means that there’s a fair amount of antipathy associated with political views. “The decision to discuss politics may be helpful if you understand just how rigid you feel about it,” says Rider. If you have rigidity, the workplace might not be the best place to talk about it. It may just devolve into a discussion that isn’t helpful.”
4. LIMIT YOUR POLITICS DISCUSSIONS TO YOUR PEERS.
Speaking about politics with your peers and colleagues may be kosher in a more relaxed workplace, but if you’re a manager, you should never, ever speak about politics with subordinates—doing so can put your employees in an uncomfortable position. And on the flip side, engaging your boss in a political discussion could open you up to potential retaliation.
“If an employee did engage the manager and employee in conversation about politics and they were not in agreement, an employee can use that,” says Agulnek. “And there are some managers who will retaliate. That’s a reality.”
If bosses do say something you find personally offensive, it can be a tricky process to navigate. “The first step—in the moment—is calling an offensive comment out,” says Rider. “The second step is to go to your HR professional.”
5. AND IF IT’S YOUR CLIENT, STAY QUIET.
What if you work in consulting—or any service industry—and your client is a vocal Trump (or Hillary) supporter? While many companies have policies against political speech in the workplace, those unfortunately won’t always extend to your clients.
“Look, people have to use their common sense,” says Agulnek. “If somebody needs to vent, as a representative of your company, I would not give any of my opinions whatsoever. And I would say, 'Okay, let’s get back to our work.' You know that when you have clients, no matter what you do for a living, you are also their therapist as well.”