Everyone has opinions — especially during election season. But pushing your political beliefs on your co-workers can be problematic. In fact, workplace experts say even a casual discussion about politics in the office can get dicey, so it’s usually best to avoid the topic altogether.
“When it comes to topics of conversation, every workplace has their own sets of norms and standards for what’s taboo or off-limits,” says Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, organizational psychologist and author of "The YOU Plan." “Generally speaking, I advise people to avoid getting into politics at work, particularly when it comes to customer-facing positions.”
Plus, when you’re at the workplace or on the job, you are being paid to execute an assigned set of tasks, not campaign for your party, he adds.
Samantha Zupan, a spokesperson for the online jobs community Glassdoor.com agrees. “Unless politics or a certain issue has something to do with your job or your ability to do your job, it’s best to leave these conversations outside of the office.”
National workplace expert and author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant," Lynn Taylor, concurs. “It’s generally not a good idea,” she says. “If you’re with a colleague who is a friend, and are on a break, then your discussions may well be more personal and you may have a comfort level with that. Politics is one of those more personal, subjective topics that are more safely kept to those kinds of relationships, and outside of work time.”
So why isn’t it a good idea to discuss politics at work? The experts say relationships can be strained, your work may suffer, and your colleagues will feel uncomfortable.
Steve Kane, a Human Resources expert, says though talking politics in the office doesn’t have the same legal status, there is little difference between this and discussions over sexual or other sensitive issues. “There is very little benefit in running the risk that somebody will feel discomfort, just as if one were discussing sex or telling sexual jokes, religious matters, one’s income, et cetera.”
Obviously if you work in a political office or are volunteering for a politically-related cause, it’s expected that you’ll discuss politics, but otherwise the risks are greater than the reward, Taylor adds. “Even if you bring up politics at lunch with your boss or co-worker, like religion, the topic is often too personal, can be divisive, and may even become confrontational. That’s not something employees need to risk in their careers.”
If you have strong political views, you have to be careful about how passionately you express them, Woodward says. “All too often passion will get in the way of reason and tempers will flare.” Whenever you forcefully express a strong opinion, you run the risk of appearing dogmatic. This can come across to others as not being a team player, a cardinal sin in any organization, he says.
“True enthusiasm for a cause can be a powerful motivator for affecting change, but when it goes too far you can inflict serious and unnecessary damage to your relationships,” he adds. “Success at work is all about relationships and pushing your political positions can create discomfort in the office. When you create discomfort, people withdraw and you become isolated. Once you become isolated, your days are numbered.”
Aside from ticking off your colleagues and possibly tarnishing certain relationships, talking politics in the office could affect your work.
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Taylor says one litmus test you can use for any topic that is unrelated to work is, “Does this discussion enhance productivity?” Odds are, those political conversations don’t.
She says it’s a good idea to have camaraderie in the workplace; to be a team player and be communicative. But the office is a place to deliver your best performance. “You may get sidetracked from these types of conversations, and you can create unnecessary conflict for yourself and others by engaging in a heated debate or series of them over politics.”
But if you’re really passionate and simply can’t help yourself, only discuss politics or the election with trusted colleagues who are friends, outside of work time, Taylor suggests. Also make sure you take a cautious approach, as you never know how a particular topic or issue may offend one of your colleagues, Zupan adds.
Katharine Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin and author of "You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career," says you shouldn’t impose your opinions on others. “If you feel strongly about something, you can state your opinion if asked, but don’t belabor it,” she says. “The bottom line is that you are at your office to work, and unless you are working for a politician or politics has a direct influence on your job, it’s best to stick to other topics.”
If you’re the one who is uncomfortable and your boss or colleagues try to drag you into political discussions, the best thing to do is simply not engage in the conversation, Kane says. “This may mean smiling and nodding, or making some neutral comments in reaction to the speaker. Sooner or later, the speaker will get the picture that this is not something you’d like to continue to pursue.”
Taylor also suggests you try to steer the conversation to your mutual projects diplomatically. Do more listening than talking, avoid getting into the fray and push the conversation to work-related topics.
If the boss starts proselytizing his or her politics, you need to nip it in the bud, Woodward says. “I’m typically not a fan of running to HR at the first hint of a problem, so I always advise people to gracefully duck out of the conversation and let them know you are not comfortable talking politics at the office,” he says. If you let people know up-front what types of topics you are and are not willing to discuss, it helps set the boundaries of your relationship.
In the event that the proselytizing persists to the point where it begins to interfere with your work or personal comfort, you have to take whatever steps you feel necessary to ensure the environment is a positive and productive one, Woodward adds.
If someone at work asks your opinion on a political topic or who your choice is for president, you don’t have to answer; simply let the person know that’s something you like to keep to yourself, Zupan says. “Never assume that someone shares the same political views and opinions as you. It can be easy to go from what you thought might be a light and casual conversation to something more heated if you don’t expect the unexpected. And, if you do find yourself getting into a bit of an intense political topic, do your best to find some middle ground.”
Politics isn’t as simple as Republican or Democrat, Woodward explains. “There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all platform for most folks. So, what happens is many individuals end-up with some sort of buffet style approach. However, this can get lost when discussions become focused on just one or two polarizing issues that cause emotions to run high. I’m a firm believer in creating a culture of both open dialogue and mutual respect. When you don’t have this type of culture, which is unfortunately most companies in America, you should avoid talking politics at work altogether.”
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© 2012 Forbes.com