This highly publicized election has us politics and work mix?

Unless you are working in the campaign office of one of the candidates or are a political journalist, focusing on the election is probably not your primary job. However, keeping politics completely out of the office talk can be tricky – you might even find that some hiring managers can ask the dreaded “Who are you voting for?” question in an interview! After all, the election cycle raises controversial and interesting issues, and since we spend so much time at work, avoiding discussing politics in the workplace altogether can be difficult.  

Talking politics in the workplace (in an appropriate way) requires you to be informed. So, in the interest of giving you a complete roadmap to making a decision that won't derail your career, let's start with a reality check.

What is legally allowed?

Freedom of speech is an important American value. However, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, those words may not mean what you think they mean. Indeed, you can say what you want, but you are not necessarily insulated from dealing with the fallout of your words.

To go back to the facts, the First Amendment applies to situations where the government may be trying to restrict your free speech. However, your First Amendment right to free speech does not protect your expression of political views in the office. In other words, private-sector employers have the ability to restrict your speech while you are at work. And, if your political discourse veers into a territory that could be viewed as sexist or racist, it could land you in hot water with the legal department.

One of the notable exceptions to the employer's ability to restrict speech and expression at work is covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA protects the employee's ability to discuss wages, hours and working conditions. In that context, you are protected when you urge co-workers to vote for Candidate A because he supports higher wages – but not when you cite his strong foreign policy. Tricky enough for you yet?

Understand your workplace

If the legal landscape sounds difficult to navigate, things are about to get even more messy as we consider your work environment. It is a good idea to take a clear-eyed look at the written (and the unspoken) rules that apply to your office. Several scenarios are possible, with many grades and shades between them.

Some employers actively discourage all political conversations. While that may come across as a highly restrictive policy, consider the situation from the employer's point of view. Discussing politics in the workplace can be extremely polarizing, and as such can have a negative effect on the work environment. That can lead to a long list of undesirable consequences, from the risk of harassment or discrimination lawsuits to lower productivity and higher employee turnover.

Other employers choose to allow for informal political discourse, as long as it is respectful and does not interfere with productivity. And many others are somewhere in between the two, making this a tough puzzle to solve.

My advice is to take the pulse of the acceptable practices in your office, and to be present to circumstances where an employer has a lot to lose or gain from the outcome of the election. For example, if you work for a defense contractor you may choose to be cautious in your outspoken support of a candidate who opposes military spending.

Now what? Blueprint for making the decision

Now that you understand the legal and situational aspects of the decision to discuss politics in the workplace, it's time to put the puzzle together. Here is a series of questions that I recommend considering before you bring up a potentially charged political issue at work – or allow yourself to be pulled into a heated debate by the watercooler.

Do I understand the rules?

Understanding the formal and the informal rules for what constitutes unacceptable conversations at work is critical. Remember that your intentions behind the conversation will matter little if someone else takes offense to your words and chooses to elevate the issue.  

What am I trying to accomplish?

While discussing politics in the workplace, you may be genuinely interested in having a friendly debate to explore complex political positions and stress-test your opinions. Perhaps you are undecided on an issue and would like more education around it. Alternatively, you may want to bond with others who share your views. All of those desires are valid.

If your primary motivation in talking about politics in the workplace is to get others to change their mind, that is valid too. Understand, however, that an entrenched position is extremely difficult to shift, and that a conversation between two sides that aren't listening to each other can quickly become unproductive and uncivilized.   

What can this cost me?

Sure, you might not get fired for openly supporting one candidate over the other, but political disagreement has a way of alienating people. Consider your social capital at work and be wise in how you spend it. Discussing politics in the workplace can also cost you productivity and create additional stress – after all, discussing sensitive topics with co-workers can be draining and time-consuming.

What are my options?

List all possible courses of action, no matter how ridiculous: from having daily drag-out political debates with the office manager who sides with the other party, to leaving the room any time a political subject is mentioned. You might also list never again speaking to Sam whose views are the complete opposite of yours, or calling Sally an idiot for seeing the issues the way that she does. This is your private list, and sometimes just putting an option down helps you release the steam.

What options will I choose?

Having listed all possible actions and considered the costs, what will you choose? Be sure that your decision is strategic and grounded in an honest assessment of your work environment. Clarity on what you are hoping to accomplish is critical, as well.

As you can see, talking politics at work makes for some difficult terrain to navigate. One might bemoan our apparent inability to simply speak our minds in the work setting, but the reality of the situation is that the consequences may or may not be worth it. Consider how important it is to you to be able to express your political stance, and what avenues outside the office may offer constructive ways to do it.

If you do choose to begin discussing politics in the workplace, do so without judgment and manage your mental state to keep the conversation civil and respectful. Remember that others will form and revise their opinions of you based on the political stand that you choose to express, which makes you vulnerable to their judgment. At the end of the day, you can never hurt your career by keeping your eye on the ball and making sure that your contribution to the work environment is constructive and productive.

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Image courtesy of John Haslam on Flickr

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