How to navigate political talk in the workplace

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It can be tough, especially during an election season as polarising as this one, to stay silent about your personal presidential preferences in the workplace. 

In fact, you spend so much time at work that you may have built up a chummy relationship with your coworkers and bosses, which makes you feel entitled to express your opinions. 

But you’re walking a fine line when you bring politics into the workplace.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s probably best to avoid talking about politics on company time for a couple key reasons:

1. You’re not doing your best work when you’re more focused on defending your political stances

Passionate discussions are to be expected in the workplace, but they should really be focused on work-related issues.

 At the end of the day, you’re there to do work, and arguments about whose candidate is better can be distracting to both you and your coworkers. 

2. As an employee expressing yourself at work, you have less protections than you’d think — and if your boss doesn’t like what they hear, you could get fired for it

First of all, your company may have rules specifically prohibiting political paraphernalia or using social media to express your political affiliations, so it’s always good to get acquainted with your employee handbook.

And unless you signed some sort of contract that says otherwise, it’s very likely you’re an at-will employee. This means that your boss can fire you whenever they want without having to establish just cause.

Of course, there are labour laws that exist in this country to protect people against adverse employment actions due to discrimination. So if your boss fires you, for example, simply because you’re a woman, that’s wrongful termination, and you could sue them for that. 

But very few laws exist that truly protect private sector employees against getting fired for expressing their political affiliation. There are a handful of states like New York and California that have laws that offer protections for political affiliation, but even some of those are fairly limited.

What’s more, talking heatedly about politics at work could be construed as creating a hostile work environment, and people could file a harassment complaint against you for that.

At the end of the day, if all your politics talk could be construed as interfering with your productivity, that could be just cause for termination.

What to do when you can’t avoid the politics talk

If people are talking politics around you and you start feeling yourself getting heated, the best thing you can do is take a break and remove yourself from the discussion if you can. If there’s talk going on all around you, put on some headphones and get back to what you were doing.  

And if you do find yourself talking about politics at work, then there are a few good guidelines to follow. Essentially, you want to treat the discussion like any other difficult workplace conversation:

Don’t think of it as an opportunity to change the other person’s mind, because you likely won’t. 

Treat it as an opportunity to understand the other person more. Ask questions and try to learn where the other person is coming from, keep an open mind, and try not to take criticisms of your candidate as personal attacks. 

Be respectful! This means no personal attacks, keep it civil, keep it calm, and avoid “you” statements, especially ones like, “You people are a bunch of idiots.” 

Avoid the really sticky issues. Abortion, gay marriage, and sexual harassment are all really important topics, but they’re too provocative for “water-cooler” talk.

Ultimately, try to find common ground. You could say something like, “I disagree with this candidate’s parental leave policies, but I agree that parents in this country need more support, and I’m glad that’s a real concern for both candidates.”

Give yourself a time limit —  however long you think is appropriate to take a break at work, that’s how long you should allow the conversation to go on. Once the conversation passes the ten minute mark, tell your colleague, “I think we can agree to disagree on a few things. Let’s get back to what we’re here to do.”

It may seem hard to keep your political opinion to yourself, especially if you disagree heartily with someone else’ presidential pick, but it’s important to remeber that, at the end of your day, it’s not your job to defend your candidate, and you’re at work to do your job. 


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