Talking politics at work

Taboo or Talk Through? Politics at Work

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Today’s toxic political climate is difficult to escape, whether at home, work or the neighborhood coffee shop. At work, talking politics can be dicey. It stokes emotions, creates conflicts and challenges relationships, in an environment where productivity requires everyone to cooperate and get along. So, should politics be taboo at work? Is it time to clear the air and discuss the elephant in the room? Can colleagues share opinions without devolving into a hostile exchange?

The Elephant in the Room

The Clintonesque avoidance technique of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military transcended to corporate America when it came to religion and politics. Keeping the peace meant avoiding controversial topics. Fast forward to 2017, when the elephant in the room is too big to sweep under the rug. A constant barrage of news and opinion pieces flood the internet and televisions across the world, inciting wars on social media and violence in the streets. Are we ready for peace talks when it comes to our relationships at work?

Diversity of Thought

If diversity is an important part of the work culture, then a diversity of thought in the way of politics and religion are part of the mix. Our culture is evolving. Sensitivity to others is at an all-time high. Political correctness has gone overboard; what once may have been considered a harmless remark might now be interpreted as divisive, offensive, or hate speech or cause for legal reprisal. Rather than walk on egg shells, some companies are opening a channel for political discussions, with this imperative in mind: Neither side is right or wrong.

Humans and Morality

In John Haight’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, he neutralizes the opposing forces of right and left with his Moral Foundations Theory with specific identifying the factors:

Foundations of Morality in Human Beings

  1. care/harm
  2. fairness/cheating
  3. loyalty/betrayal,
  4. authority/subversion
  5. sanctity/degradation
  6. liberty/oppression.

Liberals today heavily favor three above the others:

  • care/harm
  • liberty/oppression
  • fairness/cheating

Conservatives use all six foundations in equal measure, according to Haight.

Peaceful Talks at the Office

Companies with the most diverse work teams may also face the most conflict when it comes to political views. Managers are wise to keep private their own political beliefs, to better serve as a neutralizer in staff political discussions. If tensions arise between employees of opposing political views that inhibit their work relationship, it’s time to step in. Rather than discuss the conflict with one or two employees, bring in the entire staff. If you personalize the conflict singling out certain employees, they may get defensive and resentful, exacerbating the situation. Managers must convey this message:

Focusing on team work.
Talking politics can get in the way of productive teamwork.

“Neither side – right or left – is right or wrong.

They are just different.

Moral judgments have no place in any workplace discussion. Beliefs are opinions, not facts, and beliefs are to be respected in an environment where diversity in all its forms is embraced. Deep political discussions are inappropriate at work. Employees are paid to work, not spend time on defending political stances. If they choose to spend time debating politics they are free to discuss anything on their own free time. Political discussions are often exhaustingly futile, time-consuming and fail to convince people already entrenched in opposing beliefs. Debating politics at work is a big time waster.

Make Boundaries Clear

There is no one-size-fits-all workplace policy that works for all organizations. If you find political discussions getting in the way of productivity, it’s o.k. to establish a politics-free zone, or “save it for quitting time” policy. If the political talk is work-related, such as topics on equal pay or inter-departmental communication, employees should be encouraged to share their views privately with the manager, or if the issue is pressing and affecting the group, a formal staff meeting may in order.