Talking About Politics in the Workplace

[Editor’s Note: APAForum is a discussion list for librarians and other library workers to discuss issues of interest, including political issues and candidates. This list is open to ALA members and others. To subscribe to the APA Forum, visit http://lists.ala-apa.org/sympa/info/apaforum.]

The 2008 presidential election demonstrated the great strides America has taken towards increasing opportunities for women and for people of color: an American First Lady ran for the Democratic nomination for President, an African American male won the Democratic nomination and a woman was selected to run on the Republican Party presidential ticket. And on November 4, 2008, America elected its first black president. These accomplishments, surely, inspire us to fight racism, break glass ceilings and battle pay inequity in our own workplaces. But while “discusion around the watercooler” can bring those together who share the same views, it can strain relationships among those who don’t.

Given the excitement garnered by the election and the issues it raised, it is tempting to discuss politics in the workplace. Information professionals face particular temptations; having access to a number of information resources, co-workers and colleagues seem to be more willing to discuss their views openly, and libraries and companies with open work spaces seem to foster open communication concerning a variety of issues. And it is understandable that, given our current economic state, many employees might find discussing current affairs to be therapeutic. The economy is tightening, and many information professionals face the possibility of layoffs or drastic changes to 401Ks, health benefits, social security or 529 plans. But while “discussion around the water cooler” can bring those together who share the same views, it can strain relationships among those who don’t.

Wherever you work, your employer wants you to focus on your job. It is your responsibility to minimize distractions, and one way to accomplish this is to avoid emotionally charged discussions in the workplace. Many institutions, well aware of the emotional nature of much political debate, prohibit political discussion both for team productivity and for the comfort of the individual worker. Even if your institution allows political discussion, it is a good idea to avoid it. A spirited political discussion can quickly devolve into yelling, hostility and other conduct inappropriate to the work environment. Frustration and hurt feelings over a debate turned sour can fester and ultimately damage workplace morale for all employees. And though some may have the temperament to discuss politics dispassionately, many more do not.

[Editor’s second note: For more information on this topic, read Library Journal’s article “Office Politics: A Guide for the Politically Challenged Librarian,” available at
http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6606476.html&.]

Jamal Cromity

Jamal Cromity is a 1998 American Library Association Spectrum Scholar. He is the recent winner of the NCSLA 2008 Horizon Award and has a MLS from NCCU and an MBA from NYIT. He is a Product Developer for Dialog, which is now a ProQuest company. At Dialog he is responsible for developing new products and solutions for research needs of clients. Jamal has over nine years of experience in the information retrieval market. He is also a coach in the Quantum2 program, which is a leadership development program, provided by Dialog. He can be reached at: jamal.cromity@dialog.com.