Recently, divisive politics seem to be everywhere, dominating newscasts, opinion pages, social media, and almost every conversation we encounter. People are literally protesting in the streets every day, sometimes violently. Far from blowing over, today’s stormy political arguments are becoming all encompassing. Arguments are growing more rancorous as they challenge our long-held personal and societal habits and core beliefs.
While civic engagement is a good thing, it can be a disaster in the office. Even polite disagreements about current events or political policy can plant seeds of discord, especially at a time when those with differing viewpoints are labeled evil and monstrous. No one wants to be in or even near a heated political argument on the job – not our coworkers, not our vendors, not our customers. It can ruin our workplace culture and grind productivity to a halt.
Here are some practical tips for keeping politics out of the workplace, and keeping conversations civil when the topic inevitably pops up.
As usual, the best way to stop a fire is to prevent one from starting. Set some strong, clear policies to head off bad situations. Politically-charged hats and shirts have no place at work. Slogans and hand gestures can creep into our daily lives. Keep them out of the office as much as possible. Make sure everyone in the office is, at the very least, aware that they should not bring political arguments to work with them and cannot use them to disrupt the office. Managers should intervene upon hearing something brewing, reminding employees of any workplace policies.
Some offices tend to be a monoculture, where everyone is assumed to have the same political leanings. This is very often a false assumption. People with similar opinions on one topic may have wildly different views on another. We can’t assume someone with a political party’s bumper sticker on their car will agree with everything in that party’s platform.
Even if we are positive the participants in our political conversation all agree, we must be beware of trapped bystanders who may be uncomfortable. A coworker overhearing our talk could feel alienated or offended; a customer may simply take her business elsewhere.
There may be some people who aren’t able to speak up or feel uncomfortable speaking up with their unpopular opposing views. This person will have to either shrink away in silence or stake out a lone, defiant stand. No one should have to feel like a freedom fighter on their lunch break. It’s not fair and can be tantamount to bullying.
Stand in someone else’s shoes
It’s hard to suppress all our reactions to what’s going on. But imagine someone with the opposite views and how their words or actions might affect us. Things will quickly escalate. So keep it out of the workplace.
Justify the policy
Last, we need to be clear with our coworkers and with ourselves that we are not being overly politically correct by prohibiting at-work political discourse. This is important. Serious issues are being raised in our society and deserve our attention. It’s up to each of us to educate ourselves. Our educated opinions on these topics are important, but so is our understanding that other people are coming to completely different conclusions about the same topic. Discourse, no matter how apparently benign or civil, cannot interfere with our work. Our company is here to fulfill a mission. If that mission encapsulates the politics of the day, then we need to find a way to talk that forwards our agenda. Politics outside our work agenda should not come into the office.
Some companies may have stated positions on social or legal arguments at the heart of political debate. It is always acceptable to back up your company’s policy, provided it’s done within the company’s code of conduct. If your employer has a pledge to support equal pay for men and women, employees have been given a green light to speak out on this issue. This is not, however, a green light to belittle or alienate people with differing opinions. We can be both politically engaged and respectful. In the office, it’s vital.
Have divisive political arguments disrupted your workplace? How have you dealt with this, or its threat? Have you felt your voice squelched by office policies? How have you let your feelings be known without upsetting the workplace culture?