Do’s and don’ts of talking politics at work

If presidential elections tend to bring out our basest emotions about politics, then somehow the 2016 presidential campaign has managed to tap into something downright primeval.

Americans of all political persuasions have some pretty strong opinions about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and people aren’t shying away from sharing their feelings. Even at work, where cooler heads should prevail, it’s gotten difficult to avoid hearing someone talking about this election and not feel the need to throw your two cents in.

Accountemps, a Robert Half company, recently surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. workers about talking politics at work and discovered something interesting. The Accountemps survey shows more than half of workers believe political discussions in the office could get heated and offend others. That said, 22% of workers still got into what they’d call heated discussions with coworkers over this year’s election.

Given that this is an election year, many voters are divided about various issues and, as a result, the temptation to discuss politics at work is stronger, explains Jim Jeffers, metro market manager of Robert Half in Madison.

“In the past, political discussions might have been more common at home, when most people got their news from the nightly television news,” says Jeffers. “In today’s information age employees can get the latest political news online, sparking conversations at work as news develops.”

While 56% of survey respondents believe workplace political discussions can get too heated and become offensive, men were more likely than women to think political conversations in the office actually help keep workers informed (52% to 34%).

Younger workers are also more likely to engage in an office political discussion, according to the Accountemps survey. Thirty-one percent of workers age 18–34 have gotten into a heated debate because of political differences, and this group is also most likely to be less productive due to discussing politics, notes Jeffers.

Accountemps didn’t specifically ask why men or younger workers are more open to political discussions in the workplace, Jeffers explains.

“It may be that [younger workers] are more open to sharing their views publicly in general, particularly in today’s age of social media. Regardless, it’s important to know your audience when considering political discourse at work. You never know if your comments may offend someone, creating potential rifts and hindering collaboration with colleagues.”

That last point is important because 43% of all workers surveyed say a major reason their workplace productivity has suffered from office political discussions is due to their workplace relationships becoming strained.

Lunch or happy hour could be considered more appropriate times to have political discussions since you’re typically with workplace friends, Jeffers says, but the same rules still apply about being cautious and not getting too heated — which may be easier said than done.

“Even if the environment is casual the discussion could get heated, so it’s best to tread lightly.”

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Defusing the discussion

Jeffers notes the old advice about avoiding politics and religion around the dinner table holds true for work, too. However, passion sometimes overrides judgment, and workers wind up embroiled in a fiery debate without an easy way to extricate themselves.

For those times, Jeffers offers some do’s and don’ts for keeping the office political discussion civil.

  • Managers should lead by example. Set the tone from the top that it’s okay to have differing views and learn to respect others’ opinions. A discussion about politics can be just that — a discussion, not a debate. “For private employers, you might consider writing a company policy about discussing politics in the workplace. If you think a political discussion will be disruptive to work flow, put it in writing to clarify with your staff,” suggests Jeffers.
  • If you’ve said or done something that you think may have offended someone, the most important thing to do is apologize immediately and make sure your apology is sincere.
  • Discussing politics in the workplace should be low-key and appropriate for the occasion. You should avoid making a joke at someone else’s expense or saying something that could be viewed as offensive.
  • If you’re not engaged in the discussion but your work is still being disrupted, quietly and casually let the participants know that you’ve got a call coming up or that you’re trying to meet a deadline. They should definitely get the hint, and most of the time those types of reminders are received as a welcome opportunity to halt the conversation and get back to work.
  • If you’re a manager, it is best to tread lightly when discussing politics with your coworkers. A manager should not appear as though he or she is telling other employees how to vote.
  • Don’t debate or lecture. Try to approach the conversation in a lighthearted manner, if you must indulge in political talk. Instead of focusing on hot-button issues or opinions about political candidates, limit yourself to general comments or try to change the subject. For example, “The debates have been interesting to watch, it reminds me of House of Cards,” and then try to change the topic to avoid ending up in a heated debate.
  • Know when to walk away. If the discussion becomes confrontational, change the subject or express your preference to keep political discussions outside of the workplace. Remember, too, what you say to a colleague outside of work regarding political discussions may cause them to form an opinion of you at work.
  • Quite simply, don’t bring up politics. The best thing to do often is to not bring up politics at all. Instead, talk about what you did over the weekend, if you are looking forward to the holidays, or other non-political news.

“Regardless of where you work, some conversations may turn negative,” Jeffers says. “While you can’t control other employees’ actions, you can control your own. When in doubt, avoid these discussions at work.”

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