How to Handle Political Discussions in the Workplace
November is right around the corner—and with it, all the awkward political conversations many of us would rather avoid. Since the last election, researchers report that the majority of Americans actively dread the idea of having to talk politics at Thanksgiving dinner.
But what we all dread even more? Talking politics at work.
Almost half of American workers surveyed have reported witnessing a political discussion at work escalate into a full-blown argument. And unlike extended family at Thanksgiving dinner, our coworkers aren’t able to walk away and wait for things to cool off until next year.
Coming to work should feel like choosing to be part of a team—not picking a side.
Over time, employees say that discussing politics in the workplace hasn’t just kicked off a few office squabbles: it’s also resulted in reduced productivity, poorer work quality, difficulty getting work done, a more negative view of coworkers, more stress, and increased workplace hostility.
Talking politics at work can quickly lead to a toxic office environment. So when tensions start to rise, what are managers to do? Here are 5 ways you can keep political talk (and tempers) in check at work during this election season.
1. Acknowledge the political animals in the room
Politics aren’t going away any time soon. As easy as it sounds to simply put your phone aside and focus on work, social media has found a way to make the lines between “work” and “life” grayer than ever. Your employees will hear about political news at work from their coworkers—or even from your customers. There’s simply no way to leave it all at the door.
Instead of a zero-tolerance policy on talking politics at work, take this opportunity to show leadership through empathy. Be transparent with your employees about what’s happening. Acknowledge that political discourse is now a common part of the day-to-day for everyone, whether welcomed or not. Finally, make sure employees know it’s okay to have an emotional reaction or opinion.
Politics may also be an important part of your employees’ lives it’s just about the time and place.
2. Educate yourself on politics in the workplace laws
Still, acknowledging that politics exist doesn’t mean opening the office floor for debate. For example, what happens when an employee shows up to work wearing a MAGA hat or #MeToo button?
It depends–on politics in the workplace laws for your state, your type of workplace, and the content of the political talk or expression. However the answer is generally yes, you have the right to ask them to take it off.
Why? While free speech is protected from state or government action, it’s mostly not protected under private employers. Employees have First Amendment rights, but at work, private employers have a say first.
So for private businesses in at-will employment states, if an employee does wear something political, you have the right to ask them to remove it, and even terminate them if they refuse. The same goes for political discussions that get in the way of actual work responsibilities.
Keep in mind: even for private employers, employees do have protected speech on some topics under federal law. Employees are legally allowed to discuss labor issues, so if your employees suggest their coworkers should vote for a certain candidate because they’re going to raise the minimum wage, then that speech is protected and you can’t shut it down.
There’s no way to account for every workplace situation when it comes to employment and politics in the workplace laws. But walking in knowing your rights as an employer is very different than trying to diffuse a political argument when you don’t know what you’re legally allowed to say or do. To err on the safe side, take some time to check up on the individual politics in the workplace laws for your state.
3. De-escalate, don’t instigate
Even knowing your rights, political conversations at work can be as unpredictable as wild animals–proceed with caution. It’s hard to know what will happen in the moment. As a manager or business owner, one thing’s for sure: your employees will be watching to see how you respond.
Lead by example and try to cool things off, not fan the flames. In general, Harvard Business Review suggests that if you feel yourself getting emotional, then it’s time to end the conversation. Acknowledge what the other person is saying, make a vague comment, then change the subject to a work-related topic.
If they persist, tell them that the conversation isn’t appropriate for work and that you aren’t interested in participating. If the conversation is between two employees, let them know that they’re free to have an opinion—off the clock.
4. Focus on what you share, not what you disagree on
When it comes to discussing politics in the workplace, there is something everyone should be able to agree on. Because regardless of political beliefs, your employees all have one thing in common: where they work.
Your company culture should empower your workers, not break them down. Everyone deserves to feel safe and able to do their best work without harassment or hassle. In a divisive political season, a respectful team environment is a goal you can all work towards—together.
As Ask a Manager author and blogger Alison Green shares on “Marketplace,” knowing what is and isn’t a respectful workplace discussion is simple. “As soon as someone doesn’t want to be in that conversation or doesn’t want to have to hear that conversation, it’s inappropriate for work,” says Green.
If your employees aren’t sure if a political discussion is right for the workplace (a strong sign it probably isn’t) or you get pulled in to referee, start by asking these questions:
- Does anyone feel uncomfortable participating?
- Is the conversation having an effect on the work environment your team mutually shares (i.e., is it taking place in a common space employees are required to work in)?
- Is the conversation interfering with employees’ legitimate work tasks and responsibilities?
- Are other employees being forced to participate, not able to consent to being part of the conversation, or unable to leave?
- Is the tone or topic of the conversation out of line with your workplace values or culture?
If the answer to any one of these questions is “yes,” then the conversation isn’t supportive of a positive work culture.
Share this litmus test with your team and remind them that company culture is something you all contribute to. When heated debates arise, remind your team that discussing politics in the workplace affects everyone—and to think of others before engaging.
5. Put a formal policy in place
While larger companies are more likely to have official policies than small businesses, half of employees who have been subjected to uncomfortable political discussions at work believe their employer should have policies that address political issues.
To avoid making a potentially messy situation even messier, consider putting a formal policy in place. With a formal policy, everyone knows the ground rules. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a MAGA hat or a #MeToo pin. By wearing anything with a political slogan on it, employees may be violating the company dress code—especially if they interact with customers face-to-face.
The key to a political policy (and protecting your business) is enforcing it fairly and equally. Both the MAGA hat and the #MeToo pin should go. If you have a no political solicitation policy, then no political fliers should be allowed at work.
The dreaded anticipation of talking politics at work can leave us all feeling more than a little unprepared. However, handling political talk isn’t something business owners and managers need to be afraid of.
Understand your rights as an employer, take care of your culture, have a plan to de-escalate the situation, and keep the focus on what employees have in common, not political divides.
After all, political conversations are an inevitable part of life. But at the end of the day, remember what’s most important: coming to work should feel like choosing to be part of a team—not picking a side.