October 27, 2010
Is it ever okay to talk politics at work?
Between President Obama's recent pit stop at Top Pot Doughnuts, the bevy of hot-button initiatives on the November 2 ballot, and the incessant churn of Beltway gossip this election season (paging Ginni Thomas), it's becoming increasingly difficult to not talk politics. But should you really be dishing the political dirt with co-workers and business associates?
[Flickr photo by aprilzosia]
Unless you work in the mayor's office or the state capitol, you may have no clue about the political leanings of Alice in Accounting. One minute the two of you could be talking about something Jon Stewart said the previous night, the next you could find yourself in a heated exchange about whose candidate is the virtuous, good-hearted one and whose is the lying weasel in Wall Street's back pocket.
Yet talking politics at the office seems to be as common as breathing. A survey conducted in 2008 by human resources firm Adecco USA found that 50 percent of U.S. employees polled openly talked about election politics on the job. Among Millennials, that number jumped to 61 percent.
Work/life balance reporter Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal also dug up these statistics this week: "Some 35 percent of bosses openly share their political views with employees, and 9 percent of employees feel pressure to conform, says a 2007 survey of 727 workers by Vault.com."
When writing about political talk in the workplace during the 2008 presidential election, I learned that, one, many private sector employees think they have free speech rights in the workplace, and, two, nothing could be further from the truth.
As a recent column by MSNBC's Eve Tahmincioglu wisely reminded, "There is no First Amendment in corporate America." Why? Because employers don't want anything that sounds like harassment or discrimination coming out of their employees' mouths, and because managers want their people working, not getting all het up about whose candidate is the better pick.
In fact, the WSJ's Shellenbarger reported that "Some employers...forbid or regulate political activity in the workplace or by employees," and that according to a 2008 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, "...more than a third of surveyed employees had written or unwritten policies governing political activities in the workplace."
Although advice from workplace experts on how and whether to talk politics at work runs the gamut, it often includes these chestnuts:
- Before you open your mouth, check your employer's policy on political talk at work.
- Keep political signs, buttons, and apparel in the office to a minimum.
- Think twice before making politically charged posts to Facebook or Twitter if you're connected online to co-workers, managers, and other colleagues.
- Know that you don't have to chime in on political conversations. Nor do you have to respond if a colleague asks you where you stand on the issues.
- To deflect attention from yourself, ask the person who's put you in the hot seat why they're supporting the candidate or initiative they are. Be sure to use a non-confrontational tone.
- If a colleague's political banter makes you uncomfortable, pull them aside, tell them so, and ask them to stop. Only a bully wouldn't honor this request.
- If you can't resist talking politics with colleagues, do it on a break, away from your work area, so that you don't distract others. Even better, save it for happy hour down at the corner bar.
What do you think? Do you talk politics with your boss or co-workers at the office? If so, when and where do you do it? How do you handle opposing views?
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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