6 Things You Should Know About Discussing Politics at Work

Business people having casual meeting with coffee

Here's a campaign proposal most co-workers could endorse:
  • A promise for better office coffee
  • A mandate to double vacation days
  • A tougher stance on slacker colleagues
  • A tax deduction for team happy hours (They're charitable gifts to yourselves!)
  • And an expansion of The Casual Fridays Act to include Mondays, Tuesdays and – why not? – Wednesdays and Thursdays, too
Unfortunately, real-life politics are a tad more divisive. That's why, with the 2016 presidential election heating up, it's wise to think before you speak. Consider the following before discussing politics at work:1. The topic will probably come up. Every day, you chat with your co-workers during meetings, lunch breaks and cubicle conversations. And every day – all day, it seems – you absorb information about politics and current events via social media and the 24-hour news cycle. So expect some overlap. "To think that you're not going to say anything at all about politics is unrealistic," says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas.

2. Your company can't stop you or your co-workers from discussing politics. Employees have the right to engage in political discussions because the National Labor Relations Board classifies them as a "protected concerted activity," says Amy Maingault, director of the HR Knowledge Center at the Society for Human Resource Management. "An employer can't have a policy, and a manager can't say that employees are not permitted to have that type of discussion."

3. But your employer can step in on disrespectful or distracting discussions. You're not forbidden from talking about politics, but "an employer can definitely require employees to be respectful of one another and to behave in a professional manner when they have these kinds of conversations," Maingault says. Engaging in a civil discourse? Fine. Harassing or creating a hostile work environment? Not so much, so a manager or HR specialist is allowed to intervene.

Managers can also step in if the conversation impedes productivity. Whether employees are yammering about last night's game or primary debate during a sales meeting, for example, it's well within a manager's purview to have them zip it. With that in mind, "there are times and places that are better than others to have those types of discussions," Maingault says. Lunch breaks and happy hours trump – sorry! – client calls and business meetings.

4. You should try to avoid the conversation altogether or at least express neutral views. Many experts say you should never, ever discuss politics at work. After all, it can be a sensitive topic. "It touches on people's world views, how they believe the world and country should run and the way individual people should run their lives," Maingault says. "That's why it can be so explosive." And "explosive" is just about the last thing you want to be at work. "When you start getting charged up, and your face starts getting purple and green, it's almost as though you're not in control of your emotions," Gottsman says. "That translates into how you behave in the office and with a client."

Even if the conversation is low-key, you still open yourself up to judgment when you voice your political views. ​"[You] never really know where people stand," Gottsman says. "[Co-workers] might judge you perhaps based on something the candidate you're supporting did."

When it comes to discussing politics, Gottsman suggests remaining neutral: "What did you think about the debate last night?" "It was interesting." Or simply redirect the conversation: "I feel swamped in all this election coverage, so let's talk about something else. Have you been to that new restaurant ​that just opened up the street?"

5. You can (and should) confront obnoxious co-workers. "Some people love to debate. They love to get in there, roll their sleeves up and start sparring," Gottsman says. "But in business, it's not appropriate." A direct conversation will likely be more effective than complaining to HR, so speak up to that co-worker who treats every hallway interaction like an opportunity for his personal stump speech.​ "HR has limitations that the employee himself or herself doesn't have," Maingault says. ​HR can't tell employees they can't discuss politics, but an employee can tell a co-worker that she doesn't want to talk about the subject. Borrow this retort from Gottsman: "This is a no-win conversation. I think we need to keep our views outside the boardroom."

6. And you ought to own up if you're the annoying politics pusher. Say you have one too many half-price margaritas at happy hour or are just particularly jazzed about the upcoming election, and you become the one who disrespects a co-worker's political views. "You gotta fix it," Gottsman says. Apologize, admit to crossing a line and sweeten the deal by adding an offer all parties can agree on, Gottsman says: "Next time, happy hour is on me."
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