Navigating Political Discussions in the Workplace

“I just can’t seem to get away from it!” The frustrated admin was seeking insight. “Every day, my boss and my co-workers keep harping on politics in the office, and I just don’t want to discuss it!” I truly understood her frustration.

have all heard the admonition, “Never discuss religion or politics – especially in the office.” With today’s hyper-contentious political environment, though, that advice seems to be harder and harder to follow. Even when we want to, we can’t simply will our working environment to be an entirely politics-free zone. For many of us, we spend as much time with our co-workers as we do with our family. They become like family and hazardous subjects like politics and religion are bound to come up around the coffee maker, or at the company picnic.

many employers have policies in place intended to control or restrict political discussion at work, the vast majority do not; and discussing politics in the office can present, not only a potential disruption to productivity but they can also create a very tense working environment. In extreme cases, they can even foster open hostility. Co-workers who discover they disagree on hot-button issues such as health care, reproductive rights, immigration, defense spending or tax law, may find it difficult to set aside these differences to work together effectively on a project. The differences may even tear the fabric of trust between peers. In fact, research conducted by Robert Half found that 65 percent of workers surveyed feared the discussions about politics could get heated and end up offending someone.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 60.3 million workers report being affected by workplace bullying and 46% of those believe it has gotten worse since the election of 2016. With the unfortunate reality of workplace bullying and incivility on the rise, there is little doubt that some of these reported instances involved political debate.

The situation can be particularly challenging if the disagreement is between a worker and his or her supervisor. Supervisors should be extremely careful about engaging direct-reports or subordinates in any political discussion. In today's charged political atmosphere, where politics and religious views are often very closely entwined, it is crucial for leaders to avoid putting themselves and their staff in a situation that could lead to, or be construed as hostile working conditions.

Unfortunately, sometimes it's simply not possible to prevent politics from popping up in a discussion at work. In that case, having some guidelines to navigate the mine-field can be helpful.

Know the Rules –

Even though you may not be aware of them, many organizations have policies that prohibit wearing political clothing, slogans or insignia at work. Save yourself the long walk to the HR department by checking the rules before you put on that ball cap or lapel pin. The same also goes for bringing propaganda material to work, adorning your cubicle with the latest meme or picture supporting your position, sending out ANY political emails, or using company time to tweet or blog about your political view.


Don’t Initiate It –

It’s always a dangerous choice to start a political discussion. You can’t predict or control how your colleague will react. The only thing you have any control over is your choices and your reactions/responses. By the same token, if a co-worker or client asks your opinion about a contentious topic, remember you are not required to offer your opinion or thoughts on the matter. Engaging may fuel a lively discussion, but it could also bring about profoundly uncomfortable, opposing viewpoints. You can let them know, in a calm and respectful tone, that you do have a strong opinion on the subject, but prefer not to discuss it in the office. Then you can redirect the discussion to a work-related project or focus.


Always Be Respectful –

As I have said many times, you do not have to respect someone to treat them with respect. Separate the person from the issue being discussed and keep it as light and easy going as possible. Never resort to name-calling or offensive remarks to make a point. No matter how strongly you feel about a subject, it is never productive to call someone who disagrees with you a “loser,” “jerk,” “idiot,” or worse. Remember that these are people with whom you have to work tomorrow and the next day. Don’t shame them with blanket labels or statements such as, “I can’t believe you support that cause,” or “Only a (insert the derogatory label of your choice) would believe that!” Persecuting statement only serve to lower your personal and professional reputation and destroy trust. In all things and in everything you say, choose to walk the higher ground.


Know Your Facts –

Before you choose to open your mouth and jump into the fray, make sure you know what you are talking about. Don’t simply repeat things you have seen on Facebook, or Twitter unless you have actually taken the time yourself to investigate them and know them to be documented fact. Fact-check everything through multiple sources. If you enter a discussion, do so well-versed with factual information. Weighing in with unsubstantiated gossip and propaganda will only serve to destroy your credibility.


Be Willing to Listen and to Learn –

If the only point of view you are willing to hear to is one supporting what you already believe, what foundation do you have to stand your ground? So if a client begins voicing their thoughts on global climate change at the start of your appointment, give them your undivided attention. In most cases, their comments will be brief, and you can then steer them back to the focus of the meeting. Professionalism and relationship building is more important than proving yourself right. Choose to be amicable. No matter how strong your belief is, listening to opposing viewpoints can broaden your horizons to what others are thinking, believing, or going through. Listening puts you in a great position to learn not only about WHY the opposition feels the way they do but also more about your co-worker at the same time. Doing so could quite possibly build respect from your co-worker even though you disagree with each other.


Be Willing to Lose –

Be willing to respectfully ask questions, and actually listen to the answers without calculating how you will overcome them.  It's highly unlikely that you’re going to convince your colleagues to change political parties, who or what they are voting for or even their position on a particular issue. So, if you have compulsive need always to be right, and always WIN in a debate, it's best to walk away from it up front.


Don’t Let Your Guard Down Even After Work –

Although it may seem okay to talk politics after work, at a happy hour or on the weekend, tread softly and be wise if you do so. As unfair as it may seem, knowing your personal political views can quickly change someone’s opinion of you – and by extension of your work. Even if you believe you are 100% certain of the political leanings of those you are talking to – there may be others within earshot who will judge you accordingly. By the same token, a heated comment on your Facebook page or Twitter feed and easily offend someone and tarnish a hard-earned reputation.


Know When to Walk Away –

When you feel a touchy conversation getting out of hand, it’s time to bow out of it and walk away.  Convincing a colleague to see your point of is not nearly as important as keeping things calm, productive and professional in the office. I have a dear friend who, many years ago, allowed me to steal her exit line: “That’s a very interesting perspective. I see things so differently. Now I have to get back to work (to make a phone call/to go to the bathroom).” Or you could say, “I find that I’m not objective in this conversation anymore. I need to give myself some time and focus on something work related.” Or, “This conversation is getting a bit too heated, I’m going to let it go, and we’ll have to agree to disagree.”

Talking politics in the office can be a mind-field. When it can’t be avoided, don’t ever try to resolve the actual controversies – that is a fruitless and exhausting endeavor. Stay on the higher ground, remain calm and respectful, make your point if you have to and remember that you need to work productively together in spite of your differences.

References (2)

Workplace Bullying Institute: Workplace Bullying Survey 2017: Ruth F. Namie, Ph.D, Gary Namie, Ph.D: 2017
Robert Half International: Navigating Office Politics, Mastering Office Diplomacy: Accountemps: 2017

About the Author

As the daughter of a career Air Force officer, The Colonel’s Daughter, Lauren Schieffer, CSP gained a profound independence and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The lessons she learned from “The Colonel” have helped her make smart decisions and overcome adversity with humility and a sense of humor.  Lauren helps global audiences communicate respectfully and avoid unnecessary conflict. She has spoken in seven countries to associations, organizations, federal, state and local governments, and Fortune 500 companies.