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Politics in the Workplace

Should political conversations be banned at work?

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Photo by Jennifer Griffin on Unsplash
Photo by Jennifer Griffin on Unsplash

My mom always said, never bring up religion or politics.

I was reading an article recently about whether or not talking politics should be “allowed” in the workplace. The gist was that it shouldn’t,  or in the very least it should be discouraged, and then gave tips on how to prevent it.

It went on to say that talking politics at work is never a good idea because it’s harmful to productivity, performance, and culture as a whole.

I would disagree with “never” and would argue that banning politics as a topic of discussion and creating rules around that IS harmful.

Here’s the thing…

2020

It was not a regular election year here in the US. It wasn’t even a regular YEAR.

We work hard to create our mini worlds of company culture to be inspiring places for our team and a place where they have a positive professional experience.

AND there are things happening in the outside world that we can’t ignore. Big things. Scary things. Things that directly or indirectly affect our organizations, our team, and our culture. We can’t pretend it’s not happening.

For all you Star Trek fans out there: resistance is futile.

We bring our WHOLE selves to work, and things that happen in the outside world affect how we work. Attempting to force people to not be human at work is unhealthy, unrealistic, and quite frankly inhumane, especially now.

Am I suggesting holding full on political debates during your online team meeting?

No.

However, creating a rule or policy that says “no talking politics at work” will probably not be followed. It’s like telling the kids to keep their hands out of the cookie jar (although I don’t think political cookies would taste very good). And how would you enforce it, anyway? (That article suggested that you monitor workplace discussions and be prepared to step in when necessary. Who has that kind of time?)

For many of us, the fact that we are working remotely will limit the opportunities for these conversations to happen at all.

But for the rest of us who are regularly interacting with our coworkers in person, the topic of politics is bound to come up, especially when political things are prominently featured in the news daily.

The article also stated that talking politics should not be allowed because it could escalate into a physical altercation.

If your team is going to come to blows over a political conversation, your problem might not be the topic of discussion, but your training, recruiting and hiring processes.

With all of that said, politics IS controversial and can lead to heated discussions that can become disruptive and/or divert the team from your common purpose.

What does the law say?

It’s important to note that freedom of speech in most private companies is not protected by the First Amendment (surprised?).  Check with your legal counsel for specifics in your state that would apply to your company (#notalawyer), but basically private employers do have the discretion to limit political expression on property and during normal work hours.

So what’s the answer?

My suggestion is to make policy that focuses on the unwanted behaviors, not necessarily the topic of politics.

It’s those behaviors, not political conversation, that we should be talking about and making policy around.

Behaviors that are disruptive to the team’s performance and therefor your overall mission will undermine a healthy work culture.

You should already have such policies in place (like no fist fighting at work!). But if you don’t, here are some tips:

  1. When making policy, involve the team. Agree on non-negotiables (ie no hateful, racist or sexist remarks, no shouting or yelling, no finger pointing and shoving, no talking politics in front of customers or vendors.)
  2. Discuss specific guidelines with the team. This may include asking permission to talk politics with someone before bringing it up (many won’t want to for the sake of their mental health), respecting other people’s feelings and privacy, and disengaging if you can feel yourself getting reactive.
  3. Review the agreed upon policy and guidelines with the team whenever something happens in the political arena (that’s daily, right?) or ahead of any elections or scheduled debates. Be proactive instead of reactive.
  4. As leadership, follow your own rules. If you agree as an organization to not talk politics at work, leadership must follow that guideline also. As with anything, for any initiative to be successful long term, you need to be an example and practice what you preach.

This is part of why doing the work of creating your mission, vision, and value statements and sharing them regularly with the team is so important. When you agree that people’s feelings, safety, compassion, trust, diversity in thought, etc. are valuable to leadership and the company as a whole, then your team will feel safe and your culture will attract talent that will have no problems following whatever guidelines you make together.

It all comes down to this: what kind of work culture do you want to create for yourself and your team?

If you have created, with intention, a psychologically safe work culture, then banning political talk because it may become disruptive shouldn’t be an issue. It will happen organically as a byproduct of your policy and guidelines.

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