The Politics of Discussing Politics in the Workplace

By Dan Stanton

an is by nature a political animal

—Aristotle

We spend a lot of time at work, much of it with the same group of people, engaged in a common purpose. Often the core values of that purpose and/or the means of achieving that purpose are generally understood but specifically open to interpretation. We get around our innate differences by engaging in behavior that has been formally or informally deemed “professional.” There is a general consensus that “professional” behavior is courteous, ethical and businesslike.

Because we spend so much time with others in the workplace, we bring in issues from the “outside world” as a way of relating to others and building relationships. Sports, books, movies and TV, even the weather, all provide fodder for informal discussion at the water cooler, in the lunchroom and before or after meetings. Is it possible for “innocent” discussions to adversely affect the workplace, and is it possible that expectations of workplace behavior may infringe on personal rights including free speech? Discussing politics in the workplace can put these issues to the test; should it, for this reason, be off limits? Opinions abound, especially in the wake of this heated election and as we approach Inauguration Day. Listen to a discussion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (Klein, Adams and Ambrose 2008).

Bruce Weinstein writes in BusinessWeek’s “Ask the Ethics Guy!” that “along with sex, money and religion, politics is one of the most controversial topics of conversation that exists” (2008). Weinstein argues that while all four are controversial because they are personal, money (specifically salary) is the touchiest. Sex and religion are up there because, in addition to being personal, they generally do not have much bearing on the mission of most workplaces. One must also consider the legal issues surrounding these topics in the workplace – harassment, discrimination, etc.

But politics? What could be more public than politics? Many of our founding fathers hoped for “an informed citizenry” to be the driving force in our governance. In addition, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of Speech.” This leads some to claim the right to discuss politics whenever and however they wish. Though this assertion is technically true, it is often realistically unwise. Politics touches each and every one of us, personally, and herein lies the problem. The range of attitudes and perspectives of the citizenry is vast, and opinions are often strongly held. But the purpose of the workplace is to get work done, not to debate issues illuminated in the public sphere. While most of us think we can discuss politics like just another topic, the issues might be emotional, considered private by some or even have legal ramifications if they create barriers to getting the job done.

Consider the diversity of candidates running in this most recent federal election, and some of the current hot-button issues: abortion, gay marriage, immigration. You may feel strongly about certain candidates based on the what you feel are legitimate “issues,” but if the discussion veers into areas of gender, race, religion or national origin, the issues may also be legal. Employees have a right to safe and hostility-free work environments. David L. Barron writes in Workforce Management Online, “Problems often result when employees lack direction and are confused about what they can and cannot say and do. An employer’s clear, consistent policy on political activity will help ensure that partisan politics don’t become workplace wars” (2008).

Results of a survey by the American Management Association confirmed that many employees are uncomfortable discussing politics in the workplace (2008). The study, Political Discussion in the Workplace Survey, found that 35 percent of respondents were uncomfortable talking politics with co-workers, while 19 percent were okay. And about 39 percent were not comfortable discussing their political views with their supervisor, while about 40 percent were. When it came to having written policies regarding prohibiting the distribution or posting of party of candidate material, about 39 percent said their company did, about 30 percent said their company didn’t and 31 percent didn’t know.

One would hope that colleagues would be able to have intelligent conversations that, if not friendly, are at least not hostile. Again, the focus should be on the conduct of employees within the context of the workplace. Where is the line? This awareness should not be limited to conversation. What about wearing buttons, distributing political information (print or email) or soliciting donations? In addition, think about the added dimension of supervisory power. If your boss doesn’t share your political perspectives, do you feel comfortable when politics are brought up? There may be feelings of pressure, or you may not feel comfortable standing up for your beliefs or otherwise responding to this because, hey, it’s your boss! Maybe you don’t like to discuss politics, but one of your staff does and happens to think the polar opposite. Can you be sure that your political differences will not affect your evaluation of this employee?

Keep it professional or try to engage before/after and outside of work, because politics can easily get in the way of productivity. Ultimately, the workplace is for work.

Works Cited

American Management Association. 2008. AMA 2008 Political Discussion in the Workplace Survey. http://www.amanet.org/research/pdfs/Political-discussions-08.pdf.

Barron, David L. 2008. “Avoiding Election Year Conflicts in the Workplace.” Workforce Management Online, February 2008. http://www.workforce.com/archive/feature/25/36/73/index.php.

Klein, Joel, Stacey Adams and Andrew Ambrose. 2008. Are Political Discussions Off-limits at Work? By Lynn Neary. Talk of the Nation, October 16, 2008. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95790306.

Weinstein, Bruce. 2008. The Ethics of Talking Politics at Work. Ask the Ethics Guy!, January 15, 2008. http://www.businessweek.com/print/managing/content/jan2008/ca20080115_994641.htm.