10 Tips for Talking Politics at Work

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: November 5, 2012

Politics in the Office is Inevitable

In a perfect world, this article wouldn't have to be written. When it comes to politics, reasonable people would agree to disagree, cast their ballots in private without fanfare, and then go back to office small talk. But during this election season in the most politically divisive time in recent memory, that's just not in the cards. So the question isn't whether or not people should talk politics at work, but how to survive talk of the election during office hours.

It's hard to escape politics these days. As Election Day nears, the political ads are all over TV and radio, candidates engage in a series of debates, the 24-hour news cycle has fresh content every five minutes, and the advent of Facebook and Twitter means millions of Americans have a platform on which to feature their political leanings. As work and life turn into more of a blend than a balance, it's only natural politics will come up at work as well as at home.

But regardless of how you're voting in November, there are unspoken guidelines you should follow when it comes to talking politics during work hours. Because after months of mudslinging and debate, the next president will be chosen, but you'll still have to get along with the same coworkers and bosses. Here's how you can do just that.

10. Keep the Office/Cube a No-Spin Zone

It's great to be involved in current events and have opinions on political matters. But try to draw the line at displaying those opinions on your cubicle or office walls for all to see.

First of all, you should check with human resources to make sure the posting of political propaganda is even allowed, since many companies opt to restrict such things. But even if you CAN do it, that doesn't mean you should. If your office is where the majority of meetings are held or you're consistently bringing clients in there, it might not be the smartest idea to create a space rife with tension and potential disagreements. Also, why take the chance of raising the ire of your boss if he/she turns out to be a fan of the candidate you abhor?  

Furthermore, if your colleagues -- who you likely see every day -- hold strong beliefs that directly contradict yours, then you're intentionally creating a hostile environment. And that benefits no one.

9. Don't Use Work Email/Supplies to Spread Your Message

We know you care who gets elected, but is it really worth your job?

Almost every company has email regulations and chances are, they include not using work email for personal reasons. More than that, your employer almost certainly does not want you taking work distribution lists and using them to spread messages either promoting your candidate or trashing the opponent. People get enough spam in their personal folders, they certainly don't need you clogging their inbox at work. And we're guessing you don't want to be fired for violating company policy.

Besides, it's safe to assume people are being barraged by more information than they care for during election season. No need for you to add to the chaos unnecessarily.

8. Be Mindful of Social Media

Granted, most people use Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. for personal reasons. But even though it might be a personal account, be wary of who is watching when you use social media as a platform for your political opinions.

Do you have bosses and coworkers on your friends list? Are people at work following you on Twitter? Even though you might post your political rants from the privacy of your own home while you're off the clock, you still have to come face-to-face with potentially irritated coworkers and managers the next morning. So either ramp up those privacy settings or think long and hard about whether your love/disdain for a specific candidate is worth the aggravation it might cause for 40 hours a week.

7. Try to Be Non-Confrontational

When it comes to talking politics at the office, many people take a "only if I'm asked" approach.

After all, what does a heated political discussion in the average American workplace really accomplish? Are you really trying to sway the (most likely few) undecided voters in your row of cubicles, do you get a kick out of stirring the pot, or are you genuinely interested in a respectful debate regarding the issues of the day? If it's the latter, there's some merit to that if it's conducted the right way. But more than likely in today's political climate, it will turn into a debacle by the water cooler.

So you might be safer waiting until you're asked directly about something, that way you can gauge who is asking you and take an educated guess at what his/her true intentions are. While politicians in a debate are criticized for staying neutral, members of a team still have to worry about promotions, raises and office politics.

6. Avoid the Instigators, Debaters & Pot-Stirrers

You know who to avoid when it comes to political talk in the office.

They're the instigators, debaters and pot-stirrers. Most of them are nice enough people ordinarily, but election season brings out everyone with an agenda, cause and/or affiliation. Their cubes are covered in political stickers, their cars are plastered with bumper stickers and they take every opportunity to talk politics in the workplace. We know it can be tempting to rise to the occasion, but when it comes to these types it's best not to feed the trolls between 9 and 5.

They clearly enjoy the attention and revel in the havoc they create. They're looking for a reaction, so don't give them one. It's one thing to have an enlightened and informed conversation at work about a political topic, but setting fires just to watch them burn doesn't benefit anyone.

And if you're the one who makes a habit of this -- cut it out.

5. Be Wary of the Personal Issues

It's one thing to go back and forth on tax plans and foreign policy differences between the candidates, but it's a whole different ballgame when some of the hot-button social issues come into play.

First of all, even when you think you know your coworkers well it's very possible you don't. So when a contentious and very personal topic like gay marriage comes up, you never know if your assertions that marriage is strictly between one man and one woman are deeply offending a coworker who is gay. And remember, not all of the people you assume to be heterosexual really are. Other political issues, such as abortion, fall into the same category. So no matter what your personal views are, they're best left unsaid if there's even the slightest chance you'll end up offending or shaming a coworker.

Some will argue that it's impossible (and a waste of time) to tip-toe around everyone's feelings, but this is a workplace we're talking about -- not a public forum to air grievances about the political issues of the day.  

4. Know Your Audience

It's not ALWAYS a terrible thing to talk politics at work. But to do it, you need to be smart. And that starts with knowing your audience before you step up to the microphone.

If you hang out with the same small group of people at work all the time and you're friends as well as coworkers, then knock yourself out. Whether you're all in agreement politically or you disagree but you know each other well enough not to be offended, then there's nothing wrong with talking amongst yourselves. It's a good idea to make sure no one around you is going to notify human resources because of your conversation, but if you have like-minded co-workers or bosses who you share a certain comfort level with, you should be in the clear.

3. Listen and Keep an Open Mind

Politics -- and society in general -- could benefit from a little more listening & a little less noise.

Again, this is the difference between having a conversation about politics and turning water cooler chats into political trench warfare. It's understandable (and even commendable) to have strong opinions that are backed up by facts, logic and reason. But it's also important to remember that we are always learning new things. So instead of closing your mind and simply formulating your arguments while the other person is giving his/her point of view, how about actually listening to what they have to say and take it to heart? Or at the very least, pretend that's what you're doing.

This goes beyond political talk and has more to do with respect for coworkers and making people feel like what they say matters. If you've already got a reputation in work meetings as the person who does all the talking and is dismissive of new ideas, your inflexibility during political office debates is only going to make things worse.

2. Get Educated on the Issues

Forget for a second whether talking about politics at work is advisable. Think about the importance of knowing what you're talking about in the first place.

The level of political discourse varies from person to person, but all too often it devolves into both sides falling back on the same, tired rhetoric because people are shooting from the hip without having researched the issues first. We live in the Internet Age. A glorious time when a cornucopia of information is at our fingertips and just a Google search away. So if you want to argue about whose tax plan is better for the country, look it up. Use a variety of sources to avoid media bias and figure out, as best you can, what the facts are. Then, if you're going to talk politics at the office, at least you're armed with solid information instead of being uninformed.

1. Just Walk Away

Sometimes the best (and only) thing you can do in these situations is walk away.

Whether you simply abhor politics or someone has crossed a line and the political conversations at work are getting offensive and/or destructive for the office, it's perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself from the conversation. You don't have to be rude about it, but a simple "You know, I'm not really comfortable talking about this at work so can we just move onto something else?" will do just fine.

Or, if you're worried about offending someone by taking that route, just whip out your smartphone and pretend you have a pressing appointment/meeting/work email that requires your immediate attention. The point is, everyone should feel comfortable in a workplace and you're being paid to work, not to reenact presidential debates.

Exercise Common Sense

In the end, this all boils down to common sense.

Notice we're not saying all political or non work-related conversations should be eliminated. An office that never talks about anything other than work will ultimately lack a culture and personality that attracts top talent. But politics is very personal to a lot of people, and if a political diatribe upsets a coworker (even if it was unintentional), that fallout could have repercussions both personal and professional in terms of the bottom line. And if you offend a boss with your politics, it might end up costing you a raise, promotion, or even your job.

Only you know the culture of your workplace, so act accordingly and take these tips to heart until the election is over. Then enjoy the next few years until it happens all over again.

Recommended Reading

Thank you for reading. As an added bonus, the Salary.com editorial staff has compiled a recommended reading list regarding this topic. Enjoy:

  • The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Know to Handle Conflicts at Work, at Home, and In Life
  • Coping with Difficult People: The Proven-Effective Battle Plan That Has Helped Millions Deal with the Trouble Makers in Their Lives at Work and at Home
  • Dealing with People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst
  • Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job