The 2016 presidential election is the most contentious race in recent memory. Whatever your position on the question of Trump versus Clinton, chances are, you’re just ready for this election season to be over.
What should you do when water cooler chats take a political turn? Tread carefully, say experts.
“With passions running high this political season, individuals run the risk of saying things or behaving in ways that can be considered unprofessional or discriminatory toward each other,” Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer for CareerBuilder, said. When the job search website surveyed people back in May and June, it found that 30% of employers and 17% of employees had argued with a co-worker over a candidate, most often about Donald Trump.
Office political debates were most common in the IT sector, followed by manufacturing and business services. Men were more likely to get involved in presidential election arguments than women, and younger people got into heated debate more often than older workers.
Political debates aren’t just happening between co-workers. Sometimes, CEOs and bosses jump into the fray, encouraging employees to vote for one candidate over the other. Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, estimates that as many as 14 million Americans had experienced political coercion from an employer, such as being told to vote for a certain candidate or risk losing their job.
Political disagreement and discussion may be unavoidable at this time of year, but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Before you get into a debate about the merits of Trump versus Clinton with your co-worker, make sure you’re aware of these five tips for talking politics at the office.
1. Don’t do it
In the interest of productivity, try to keep your political conversations restricted to non-work times, Bruce Tulgan, a management expert and founder of Rainmaker Thinking, said. Focus on the job at hand, rather than the latest Clinton or Trump bombshell.
“You don’t want to feel like you are muzzled at work when it comes to talking about non-work matters,” Tulgan told The Cheat Sheet. “But most people have more work to do than they have time. If you don’t have enough time to get your work done, then you should definitely not spend valuable work time talking about politics. That’s especially true when it comes to controversial topics, especially controversial topics about which people are likely to have especially strong feelings.”
2. Understand the ground rules
A workplace free of presidential election chit-chat might be best for productivity, but it’s probably a pipe dream. With an election this dramatic, people are bound to talk. But before you hang up your vote Trump bumper sticker or “I’m with Her” poster in your cube, check to see what’s allowed and what’s not.
Some workplaces ban political paraphernalia, like posters, signs, and buttons. Others clamp down on political talk entirely. About one-quarter of employers have a formal policy on political activity and speech at work, according the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). With a few exceptions, companies are free to shut down political talk in the workplace.
“Private-sector employers may generally impose broad limits on employees’ political activities and discussions during working hours, even if other types of personal activities are permitted,” Dan Prywes, partner in the District of Columbia office of the law firm Bryan Cave, told U.S. News and World Report.
3. Keep it civil
Roughly one-quarter of HR professionals said they were seeing more political volatility in their offices compared to previous election cycles, a SHRM survey found. With tensions running high, discussions can quickly get heated. Some fights have even turned physical, the Chicago Tribune reported.
When you do wade into the political waters, try to do so respectfully. Unrestrained comments about women, Muslims, immigrants, or other groups may be offensive to some, and could violate workplace harassment policies. And remember that not everyone shares your political beliefs, even in an environment where political opinions seem homogeneous. Your co-workers may keep mum about their stance to avoid conflict, according to SHRM survey respondents. You could inadvertently put your foot in your mouth if your start spouting off about the one of the candidates. The same goes for clients, where a moment of candor could cost your company business.
4. Be diplomatic
You might prefer to keep your political opinions to yourself, but your nosy co-worker just has to know who you’re voting for. When someone tries to drag you into a political discussion you’d prefer to stay out of, you have two options. One, share your opinion briefly and diplomatically. Two, decline to get involved.
“Don’t be coy about it — that will only make people more curious and feel like they have the go ahead to badger you into talking,” Tulgan said. “But also don’t feel like you owe it to people to let them know where you stand politically. Do say, ‘I prefer to focus on work when I’m at work.’”
What if a persistent colleague just won’t stop pestering you to talk politics? (Or is trying convince you to switch sides?)
“All you can do is keep demurring as politely as you can,” Tulgan said. “Put it in terms of not wanting to spend valuable work time on discussing non-work matters, especially matters that might leave you or others feeling agitated or even just distracted.”
5. Watch what you say online
These days, many of our political conversations happen online and via social media. Some of that conversation is civil, but Facebook discussions, internet memes, and Twitter wars can get ugly. If a co-worker spots your off-color response to your Trump-supporting uncle on Facebook, it could come back to haunt you at work. People have been fired for broadcasting their personal political views online.
“Political or not — even if intended as satire — an employee who offends reasonable people with his online speech risks losing his job,” attorney Eric Meyer told the SHRM.
Does that mean you shouldn’t feel free to express yourself on social media? No. But you should be thoughtful about what you say and share. You should also be prepared for the possibility that others will see your comments, and that you may be dragged into a political discussion as a result.
“If you decide to post online, especially if your co-workers, direct reports, managers, vendors, or customers might see, then you will have a much harder time steering clear of the subject matter at work,” Tulgan said.