Be Careful When Discussing Politics at Work

Unless you’re a politician or a journalist, and in many instances even then, talking politics can be dangerous business. This is particularly true in the workplace, where discussing politics can be disruptive or even divisive.

There are two schools of thought on this. One says the company should get right out in front of the potential problem and declare that its workforce will not discuss politics. The other says to accept that political discussions at work are likely to occur and equip employees to have such conversations tactfully.

Because political allegiances can become closely aligned with people’s identities, restricting employees from expressing them may be akin to asking them to deny who they are. If a company asks its employees not to discuss politics at all, the diversity executive is likely best equipped to explain why. Or, if a company wants to ensure employees’ political discussions are constructive, its diversity executive can do much to set the appropriate tone.

Party Lines
This issue is increasing in importance as the American electorate becomes more polarized along partisan lines. Plus, it’s an election year, which increases the volume of political conversations.

“Interactions across party lines can take on a level of controversy that perhaps is distinct from the way things were in the past,” said Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Minnesota. “There’s less ideological overlap among Democrats and Republicans than there used to be, and there’s also more heated partisan rhetoric between candidates running for office in the two major political parties. The increase in politics as a team sport — it’s my team versus your team — can cause problems in the workplace.”

Pearson, whose research focuses on elections, political parties, women and politics, and public opinion, said this can cause conflict at work. “If people come to the workplace with strong political views that are reinforced at home, in their neighborhoods, by the news they watch and by the politicians they support, there’s the potential for a difference of opinion,” she said. “Whether or not it spills over into conflict depends on the people involved. Can they agree to disagree or do they want to have a spirited conversation? Can you even have a spirited conversation while still agreeing to disagree or does it become personal?”

According to Bruce Weinstein, author of Ethical Intelligence: Five Principles for Untangling Your Toughest Problems at Work and Beyond, political discussions do become personal. “I respectfully disagree with the idea that there may be an ethically intelligent way to talk about politics at work,” he said. “Discussions about politics are significantly different than let’s say music or movies or television shows. If you’re for a particular political topic and I’m against it, or you’re a member of a certain political party and I’m a member of an opposite party, you probably think not that I have a different point of view than you do, you probably think that I’m mistaken.”

These differences of opinion can become psychological and lead to severe conflicts that disrupt the workplace. Weinstein said someone could feel that his or her status in an organization is affected by a political discussion, whether it actually is or not.

Despite the need for caution, one can easily imagine a scenario in which a political event triggers discussion at work. Say a heated political debate was televised the night before and analysis of it is all over the morning news. It’s natural that event would be top of mind when people get to work. But Weinstein said the ethically intelligent manager or employee will leave those ideas behind.

Weinstein said in an election year such as this, organizational leaders may want to tell employees in a staff meeting to avoid political discussions at work, adding if they feel they have to express political views in the workplace, “I suggest you work somewhere else.”

But this level of suppression may not be possible. “It would be nice if politics could be kept out of the workplace,” said Carole Weinstein, conference program manager at The Conference Board. “However, since people want to bring their whole selves to work, it is hard to realistically assume it is not brought in, whether it is in attitudes towards others who believe in following another party and its values, or in ways people behave toward others whom they socialize with at corporate or other events.”

Another complicating factor is that people may speak in political terms when they discuss almost anything. “The words we use to describe how people think and behave — e.g. conservative, liberal, left, right, middle, neutral — also affect the way people treat each other,” Weinstein said. “The way organizational cultures are described is very political in tone and decision making, and that too affects inclusion and how people feel about where they work.”

Deal With It
Weinstein said in her experience, diversity executives don’t initiate or frame political conversations, they deal with them. “If they come up, they keep an objective, balanced perspective to enable free thought and expression, but don’t enable one side of things or another,” she said. “They don’t want to insert a business’ interests into political agendas. Truly inclusive cultures don’t lobby and focus on free expression without negative confrontation.”

But communication coach and author Roshini Rajkumar said diversity executives should go further than just curating these conversations when they come up. “Too many people hide behind the real substantive issues of the day, and they think that someone else is going to take care of it; it’s someone else’s problem,” Rajkumar said. “When you’re the diversity executive, guess what, it could become your problem. Don’t hide from it; get in front of it; set the tone.”

Still, Rajkumar said it’s also wise to approach potentially controversial political topics cautiously in the workplace. Written policies can help to ensure an organization’s views are clear and that everyone has the information needed to behave according to the company values.

“Everyone’s voice is heard,” Rajkumar said. “You can express your opinion and be yourself, be authentic and not feel like you’re being muffled, but also respect that there’s a company culture here and respect the politics of your colleagues.”

Ultimately, few companies are in the business of talking about politics or social issues. Most companies are trying to turn a profit. “If these sorts of conversations get out of hand, then you’re starting to lose money as a company,” Rajkumar said.

David Casey, vice president of workforce strategies and diversity officer at CVS Caremark Corp., agreed. “There’s a time and place for everything,” he said. “We’re a customer-oriented and customer-focused company, so if they’re on the clock, our first and foremost focus should be on what we’re doing to serve the needs of our customers. I know that’s still a pretty high-level response, but I think it bears to be said.”

However, Casey said some amount of political discussion will occur among the workforce. People make friends at work, and these sorts of conversations naturally come up. But CVS strives to create a workforce where employees know when to agree to disagree. “Our goal is really more structured on how we equip people to have productive conversations in which they may have differences of opinion,” he said. “That pertains to politics [and] it pertains to any other diversity-related topic where there could potentially be a difference of opinion.”

Just the Facts
CVS is a public company, so at times it does have to communicate with its employees on political matters to keep them abreast of events that may affect its operations. “We are impacted by decisions that come out of D.C.,” Casey said. “We have a political action committee, a PAC, as most large companies do. We impart facts to our employees if this legislation or regulation passes, here’s how it’s going to impact the way we do business.”

Casey cited the health care reform bill as an example. “We’re going to have more people accessing the health care system than we ever had before as a result of health care reform. That’s going to mean we’re going to play a different role in that health care value chain,” he said. “We don’t ascribe any judgments to that legislation or regulation; we just display the facts. So, there could be positives or potential negative implications, regardless of the party. The legislation or regulations are what they are, so we don’t steer people toward making a value judgment about that; we just try to be very clear about the potential impact on the way we do business.”

The health care reform bill itself was and continues to be a divisive issue in a political landscape filled with them, particularly since the Republican Party selected its nominee to challenge President Obama in the fall.

“Certainly, in this particular nomination season we’re seeing social issues come to the forefront, which given the significance of the economy if you look at surveys of voters is a bit surprising,” Pearson said. “That gets a little bit trickier when you’re talking about the social issues that are being discussed [at work].”

Rajkumar elaborated on this. “If someone’s opposed to Rick Santorum, then all of the sudden you’re going to be getting into some fight about contraception or abortion or women staying home at the office, and so now you have an entirely different kind of scenario on your hands, and that’s when things can get really personal,” she said.

This is why companies need to have a policy on political discussions in the workplace — to guard against disruption, Rajkumar said, “No one’s ever going to muzzle people, but they’re got to get the business done.”

Local Politics
Another essential factor to consider is that political concerns aren’t limited to national elections. As former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” Geography affects political discourse as much as anything else.

Weinstein said geography frames politics in terms of the communities people live in — southern versus northern; urban versus rural; middle of the country versus east or west. For companies located all over the country, this adds another layer of challenges when contending with politics, first in dealing with the law.

“We are impacted by local, state and federal legislation,” Casey said. “So the impact of any one of those levels of legislation and regulation could be different depending on where you are in the company.”

Geographically diverse companies are challenged further in that their approach to discussing politics at work might need to be adjusted for regional offices. “One thing that may apply in Nashville doesn’t necessarily apply in L.A. or Chicago,” Rajkumar said. “It’s not easy and it is absolutely regional.”

Diversity executives can use this as an opportunity to reach out to colleagues in different offices to share the leadership role in setting a policy on workplace political discussions. “Let them take some ownership over this content area and really seek their advice for how to set some rules or policies,” Rajkumar said. “Set a tone company-wide that doesn’t seem like it’s being dictated out of New York [or] a central location that knows really nothing about that particular region where one office is. Customize it.”