Talking About Politics at Work: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

Image: Talking About Politics at Work: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

Political Discussion in the Workplace

While Canada had its federal election in 2015 and the United States completed their federal election just recently, there is still a lot of political discussion happening in the world right now. There are certainly some very heated debates in my family! Naturally, we may want to discuss political issues, news, current events and other related topics with colleagues in the workplace. However, as you know, political opinions can be very diverse, very personal and very emotional. This combination makes discussing such topics at work potentially problematic.

Organizations often struggle with how to handle team members discussing politics and other potentially sensitive news stories while at work. In general, leaders need to tread carefully when it comes to political discussions in the workplace.

Political opinions tend to be very personal and very strongly held. This means that the potential for arguments, hurt feelings and emotional outbursts is quite high. However, employees often wish to discuss such issues with their coworkers as they spend a large portion of their time with their colleagues and they often feel personal connections to those that they work with. In some ways, it’s only natural that colleagues will want to discuss their hopes, feelings and fears with one another. It’s hard to work closely with someone every day and not discuss current events, especially in a world of 24-hour media coverage. In fact, if handled correctly, allowing such discussions to naturally arise at work can strengthen personal bonds and team cohesion.

That being said, it’s important that leaders ensure that any political discussion is respectful, civil and positive. Here are some tips on how to safely discuss politics in the workplace as well as some information on how leaders can ensure that “hot topic” discussions remain productive.

Don’t Assume

It can be tempting to assume that everyone shares your political beliefs, especially on certain issues. However, this rarely turns out to be true. Both leaders and team members should avoid making statements about issues or political candidates under the assumption that everyone agrees. Doing so can alienate or offend people and lead to serious issues in the workplace. Tread lightly when making disparaging comments about political leaders as your colleagues might have supported that leader and believe in their political views.

Frame Discussions as Learning Opportunities

Having a political discussion in an attempt to convince someone to change his or her views is likely futile. Most people have held their current political views for a long time and may be quite entrenched in their thinking. Initiating a debate in order to change someone’s mind has a high likelihood of leading to an argument and/or hurt feelings.

Instead, consider political discussions as opportunities to learn something new. Seek to understand why others believe what they believe and reserve making judgments. If you find out that someone has different political views from you, politely ask them why they feel the way they do and genuinely listen to their reasons. This typically won’t change anyone’s mind, but it could allow you to be more understanding of those who feel differently from you and allow you to form stronger bonds with them as colleagues.

Be Respectful

An honest discussion where both participants genuinely wish to learn something will be much more respectful than one where people are interested in influencing another person to adopt their viewpoint. Respecting those who have different opinions from you can be difficult, but it can also be very powerful.

Political discussions can be quite emotional, so it’s important to remain respectful and to never allow a discussion to spiral into insults and personal attacks. If you feel yourself becoming offended or defensive, remove yourself from the situation. A simple statement such as “I’m really exhausted by all of the political discussion happening these days. I’d rather talk about something else right now” is a good way to limit conversation before it gets too heated. It’s perfectly okay to “agree to disagree.”

Recognize Potential Harassment or Discrimination and Treat it Seriously

It’s important that leaders and team members understand that not everyone wishes to discuss politics or current affairs at work. If someone starts up a political discussion at work and you don’t wish to partake in the dialogue, tell them so. Say that you’ve had enough of the election coverage and you’d rather talk about something else that interest you, or say that you don’t discuss your personal values at work.

If someone tells you that they don’t wish to have a certain discussion at work, it’s important that you respect their wishes.

Political discussions can also lead to harassment, insults and other negative behaviour. If any of these situations occur, it’s important that leaders deal with the issues swiftly and appropriately. If a team member approaches a manager and lets him or her know that workplace harassment is taking place, how the situation is handled will be crucial to sending a clear message to all employees about creating a respectful work environment. Failing to treat such situations with the seriousness that they require can not only harm employee morale and engagement, but also lead to potential legal issues for the organization.

Leaders should encourage openness, respect, active listening and make the workplace a safe place to communicate. If topics are too heated or emotional it is best to park them until everyone is in place where they can listen and engage without making the conversation personal.  These are good lessons as well, for all of us, as we interact with family and friends during this holiday season.

Giselle Kovary

As president and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc., Giselle is dedicated to building strategies and programs that target, motivate and engage a multigenerational workforce. She is a sought after resource to industry leaders, having worked with 18 of the top Fortune 500 companies. Over 60,000 people globally have experienced an n-gen workshop or presentation. She has devoted more than fifteen years to researching the impact that generational differences have on organizational performance. Giselle has co-authored two books: Loyalty Unplugged: How to Get, Keep & Grow All Four Generations and Upgrade Now: 9 Advanced Leadership Skills. She has a Master’s degree in communication studies from the University of Windsor.

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