To Discuss or Not to Discuss: American Politics in the Workplace

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

It’s almost unavoidable this political cycle. There’s just too much going on for people not to talk. Thing is, how do you deal with that?

It’s almost unavoidable this political cycle. There’s just too much going on for people not to talk. The thing is, how do you deal with that in the workplace? As an employer, should you forbid it? Should you pick sides?

They’re hard choices, especially seeing as so many people are so deeply involved. That’s only going to get worse as things heat up.

It might feel like we’ve already run a marathon, but there are months of infighting, grand standing and sound bites left. It might well get worse before it gets better (though admittedly that is hard to believe).  

So what to do? For an employee it’s probably pretty straightforward. Don’t talk about it. But as a manager you might not have that choice.

Related Article:How Each Presidential Candidate Could Affect Your Business Income

Preempt Them

Especially as an employer, you need to be proactive, not reactive. As they say, an intelligent person can get themselves out of problems that a wise person would never have let themselves get in to. So, if things haven’t blown up yet and there’s still an opportunity to be wise, consider doing something now.

Admittedly, this runs the risk of letting the genie out of the bottle, but with so much of the season left that was probably going to happen sooner or later anyway. And at least this way you’re letting off some steam in a safe and controlled manner rather than letting the pressure reach such heights that the office explodes.

Consider Doing a Poll

This will help you figure out if there is actually any risk of a serious argument breaking out in your office as well as if you need to take any further action to prevent that. After all, if everybody is on the same side of this issue, talking politics can be a real bonding experience. That won’t be the case, however, if people are on different sides and very committed to their positions.

How to conduct a poll without offending anybody:

  • First explain the reason for the poll; that you are trying to figure out if you need to take any further action to prevent conflict in the office.
  • Make sure that they are aware you are not here representing your personal views and that you are not pushing any party or political position. Instead you are here to promote office harmony and that you will do your best to be impartial. Ask them if they’re okay with you in that role. If they’re not, ask them to suggest somebody else.
  • Tell them that the poll will be anonymous and that you will not share the results.
  • Explain how the poll works. People can fill in:
  1. Which party they support (Republican, Democratic, Independent or Other).
  2. What candidate they support.
  3. How much attention they’ve been paying to this election cycle (‘none at all’, ‘paying some attention’, ‘read the news daily’, and ‘I check the news every opportunity I get’)
  4. How emotionally involved they feel (‘not at all’, ‘slightly’, ‘I’m emotionally invested’, and ‘I feel we’re deciding the future of our country’)
  • Make them aware that they can also opt out of any of the questions (make sure there’s a box for them to tick) but that if they do so they’re making it harder for you to make decisions about what will happen next. This will cut down on the likelihood of them choosing this option, without making them feel like they’re being forced to reveal something about themselves that they don’t want to reveal. 
  • Don’t collect their answers in your hand if at all possible. People might feel you’re breaching their anonymity. Instead put them in a box or a hat. Remember to destroy the results after you’ve looked at them.

Related Article:Office Politics: Necessary Evil or Totally Unnecessary?

Now if everybody is like-minded in their politics or not very political, you don’t have to take further action. If, on the other hand, people are clearly on opposite sides of the aisle and are very motivated, or alternatively somebody has opted out of answering the questions thereby showing that they are sensitive to these types of issues, you’re going to have to do more. But what? 

Be Careful About Forbidding It

If there is a risk of a blow up you could consider saying, “Office politics is enough, let’s keep American politics outside the door.” Often you’ll be in your right to say so. The first amendment applies to government, not to private individuals and companies. That said, some states explicitly forbid you from restricting free speech.  

In these cases you are only allowed to take legal action if expression of political opinions interferes with the functioning of the work place. Even then, you might still potentially be sued for discrimination. So consider seeking legal help if you want to follow this route.

Ask People to Voluntarily Avoid Talking About It

A much better strategy might be to simply ask people not to talk about politics. If you’re working with mature adults, simply asking them and saying that you fear that otherwise the atmosphere at work might be negatively affected might actually work.

And they’ll sure prefer being treated this way, rather than you outright forbidding it. Giving them respect and responsibility goes a long way.

Do not add that the reason you’re asking this is because people are from different sides of the aisle or because you believe there will be conflict. Doing that will provoke people’s natural curiosity and they might not be able to stop themselves from wanting to find out other people’s political affliations. And then you might have caused the very problem that you’re trying to prevent.

Related Article:7 Marketing Lessons Businesses Can Learn From Obama

If You Do Want to Pick Sides

Be aware that a corporation is only allowed ‘to persuade a “restricted class” of individuals to vote for or against a political candidate. The “restricted class” is defined as “executive or administrative personnel” who are employed by a corporation on a salary basis and have policymaking, managerial, professional or supervisory responsibilities’ according to federal law. This means you can’t influence the votes of rank-and-file employees. And that’s just federal law. State law might restrict you even further. So be careful.

Politics Is a Minefield

And it’s better to steer your company around it in a wide birth rather than obliviously march into the middle. People already have enough trouble fitting into a workplace.  It will get even harder if we allow politics to poison the atmosphere.

Of course, you might feel that one side is right and the other isn’t. And that is fair enough. Everybody should have an opinion. But maybe don’t get your business involved. After all, isn’t that part of the reason that politics are in the dire straits they’re in?

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