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How to Talk Politics at Work

Nov 06, 2012

On Election Day, plenty of people are eager to talk about their views at work. However, there are numerous pitfalls to avoid when talking politics at the office.

In the past, it was generally understood that there were three things you didn't discuss at work: religion, sex and politics. This, of course, was during the "keep it to yourself" era. Today, as evidenced by social media's meteoric rise, we're in a sharing kind of mood.

Politics in the office, however, is still bad news. Given the way the nation is split politically and the rhetoric is so much meaner than in the "I-can-disagree-with-you-and-still-respect-you" days, it's even more critical to tread carefully when airing political opinions in the workplace.

Online message boards haven't helped. When you can sit at your computer every night and cheerfully attack opponents under an alias with no danger of exposure, it's sometimes hard to remember that when you call the marketing manager a moron because of his political stance, he can actually see you.

While simply avoiding politics at work may be safest option, it can be tricky to pull off. Political opinions spill into every facet of life, from health care to energy to discussions of U.S. manufacturing. In fact, they probably spill over into your employer's business.

In the months running up to an important election, political discussions at work are even more unavoidable: passions run high and the news - once read at home in a newspaper after hours but now often viewed on the Internet or wireless devices throughout the day - is pervasive. Although it may be impossible to avoid political discussions completely, it is possible to handle such scenarios with tact and discretion. In fact, total avoidance, in the form of abruptly changing the subject or walking away, could be harmful to professional relationships.

Since it's important to get it right (many a career has been lost thanks to office political disputes), here's a tip-sheet for surviving political discussions at work:

Learn how to grit your teeth. You need not listen for long, and you need not contribute more than an occasional nod, but staying civil while someone you disagree with airs his or her opinion has never killed anyone. A brief, "I see your point" can help end a conversation well and maintain office relationships.

Avoid the "my facts are better than your facts" scenario. In a 10-minute Internet search, you could probably find solid evidence, backed up by real facts, that green manufacturing jobs, for example, are both a help and a hindrance to the economy. It's all in the way facts are presented, and most studies not required to follow the scientific method are going to be somewhat skewed to someone's agenda.

Find common ground. Few people sit fully on the extremes of either side of the political spectrum. In other words, offices are full of conservatives who think home solar panels are a pretty good idea as well as liberals who support domestic oil drilling.

Remember that you're not always right. While most of us like to think our political opinions are infallible universal truths, chances are, we're swayed by some less-than-factual rhetoric from our own side.

Pay attention to your tone. Civil discussions can still happen if both parties keep their tones moderate and avoid getting personal. If the tone or volume level is on the rise, it's time to diffuse the situation. Speaking in a passive voice helps. Instead of, "I think global warming is..." try "it has been said that global warming is..."

Concede when someone on your side errs. Regardless of which side you're on, there will always be at least a few times when someone whose politics you agree with oversteps the bounds and says something appalling or offensive. Don't feel you have to jump to that person's defense if he or she doesn't deserve it. Be ready to say, "Yes, that was a bad comment." Full stop, with no "buts."

Finally, remember that free speech isn't absolute. While many people are quick to claim their right to free speech in the fallout from an office political discussion, they often fail to recall that the right to say whatever you want to whomever you want has consequences and limitations. Your employer can forbid you to have political discussions at work, and the company can fire you if you fail to comply.

The government cannot abridge your right to free speech, but the same is not true when working for a private company under an employment contract. (Though there are a number of exceptions, particularly where politics intersects with union discussions, as Forbes explains.)

In the end, all you can do is use your common sense and discretion. And remember: you have to work with these people every day, so try not to alienate anyone simply for having differing beliefs.