Let’s face it, political topics are bound to work their way into water cooler talk during this particularly contentious election year. But is it a good idea to weigh in on the candidates, the debates and the issues dominating the headlines with people in the workplace?
Elaine Hill, a PC network systems analyst and president of the Eastside Republican Club, doesn’t think politics should be off-limits at work.
“Politics flows through all of our lives, because it’s about our lives, and you have to talk about it,” she says. “How do we work anything out if we’re so afraid to step on each other’s toes?”
Hill, who describes herself as a tree-hugging Republican, spent more than five years at an advertising agency in Seattle. “Everybody I worked with was liberal, and I’m conservative,” she recalls. “I felt like I had to tiptoe around everybody because they didn’t feel the same way I did.”
Though Hill, 54, considers herself an easygoing person, she remembers some tense times at her former job, including with a woman she considered a good friend. “We had talked about everything women talk about — sex, even religion,” Hill says. “I made a comment about Al Gore, and she slammed her hand on the table. I turned around and walked away, rather than get into a fight with her.”
A new survey from staffing firm Accountemps shows that workers are split on political talk at work, but there are clear differences by gender and age. For instance, workers over 35 believe that political discussions can get heated and possibly offensive, and women were 18 percent more likely to believe that than the men polled.
Workers 18–34, however, were more inclined to think that political discussions at work helped to keep people informed about the issues. And that’s largely thanks to social media, which “creates the mind-set that ‘I can talk about anything, so it’s no big deal,’” says Arden Clise, president of Clise Etiquette. “Everything is so much more public these days, and then that translates when you’re at work.”
Still, Clise thinks controversial topics like politics and religion should be off-limits at work. “It’s not appropriate to talk about those thing with people you don’t know well,” she says.
Others might feel as though you’re pushing your political views on them, and it can actually make them feel like they’re being harassed, Clise adds.
“When people talk about politics, they tend to be somewhat vitriolic and judgmental. It’s the rare person who can have a civil political conversation,” says Clise. “If you can listen more than you share, then it’s just fine. But most people can’t do that.”
What if you’re talking to someone you know shares your political beliefs? “If you do, it needs to be away from the office, where no one can hear you,” Clise counsels. “Your views will color people’s opinions of you, like it or not.”
“Politics are very emotional, and political decisions are very deeply rooted in a person’s belief system,” says Josh Warborg, district president of Robert Half staffing company. (Robert Half owns Accountemps, which conducted the survey.) So it’s important to keep in mind that when you challenge someone about a candidate or political party, you’re actually challenging their personal beliefs, Warborg adds.
His advice? Keep politics out of the office, just like Grandma always told you. “You have enough to worry about to focus on the mission and the operations and the execution of the job,” says Warborg. “You’ve got a choice, why not talk about something else?”