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How to Navigate Political Discussions at Work

by Ruthy Hope
Coworker discussion

What’s your state of mind these days? No, really. I want to know. Try to talk about it without mentioning the pandemic, the jobs report, your child’s education, the housing market, inflation, or climate change. These topics aren’t inherently political and yet almost no one can bring them up these days without weaving some of their political opinions into it. This is where we are right now; however, it’s not a novel concept. The political arena usually reflects the current state of our world and vice versa. But we all know that the air we breathe is more intense these last few years. As managers, part of your job is to be able to quickly turn down the temperature when necessary, no matter the topic.

The most important thing you should know is that it’s okay if your coworkers share their opinions with each other. You want them to get along and engage with each other about a variety of topics because this makes working together easier as well. But you also need to be able to navigate rough waters, should they surface. So, let’s take a look at some of the do’s and don’ts of handling thorny political discussions in the workplace.

The Dos

  • Crystal Clear: The best way to let employees know what you expect from them is through policy. Make sure your employee handbook covers the topic of political discussions. Having periodic sensitivity training sessions will help make it even clearer.
  • Know Their Rights: Depending on your geographical location, your employees may be allowed to display their political opinions. Before telling Jalissa in accounting to rethink her pro-life sticker, make sure you know what is permitted in your region by checking with your local labor board.
  • Make it Legal: Familiarize yourself with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) which details what can be discussed at work between coworkers that may have a political bent.
  • Follow the Leader: Never forget that you are the person they look to for how to behave. The way you act in any situation sets the tone for how they may react. If you are the consummate adult in the room, they will seek to emulate that behavior. You can change the subject of a discussion by simply reorienting it back to the work at hand. You can ease tensions by asking how people are doing or if they need anything to help them do their jobs. Let them know you are available if they have any concerns.

The Don’ts

  • Less is More: Do not run a public social media account that espouses your political views. You don’t just have employees with divergent opinions. You also have clients who may not agree with your views. Best to leave those thoughts to a private account or to a pseudonym, if you really want to be able to express yourself freely. Encourage the same for your employees.
  • Let Them Be: Don’t automatically assume that a political discussion will go south. Let people talk if they want to, so long as no one is being harassed in any way.
  • Passive Aggression: Don’t subtly share your own views by, for example, playing your favorite news station in the lobby or adorning your office with an ornately framed copy of your preferred candidate’s photo. You can do all this in your own home with your own friends and family. Give it a break at the office. This allows all of your employees to breathe freely.
  • Out of the Sand: Don’t be an ostrich. Be aware of the office climate at all times. If necessary, consult with your legal department, HR, or your local labor board.

Peace, Not War

People need to be able to communicate freely with each other. We certainly don’t want to be in a position of babysitting their discourse. Nevertheless, the workplace is not really the place to hash out our differences. So while you are encouraged to permit all sorts of spirited conversation to take place, you want to make sure that wars don’t break out. It’s best to remind your employees to assume that every single person comes from a different point of view than their own. It’s also best to enlist the help of trainings, written guidelines, and human resources for the most delicate issues.

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