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How to Manage Political Discussions in the Workplace

Don’t talk about politics or religion at the bar. The old tried-and-true adage could once be applied to a handful of other situations, including the workplace. But now, with the country in the grips of heightened political polarization, trying to prevent politics from seeping into any setting feels nearly impossible. On one hand, increased engagement in politics can make for a healthier democracy. On the other hand, political discussions often create tension between coworkers and distract from the work at hand. So what’s a business owner to do?

1. Create a Clear Policy on Political Activity

You can’t dictate what an employee does off the clock, but you do have a say in what happens at work (with some limitations). If you don’t already have a clear policy on the books that defines what political activity is allowed at work, it’s time to create one. You don’t have to write one from scratch – plenty of human resources organizations offer templates to give you a jumping off point. In general, here are some questions to consider:

  • Can an employee use company equipment (printer, email system, bulletin boards) to disseminate political literature?
  • Can an employee circulate a political petition at work?
  • Can an employee wear political clothing to work? Or display a political message at their desk?
  • Can an employee solicit votes or campaign contributions at the office?

Legal Considerations

Many small business owners are worried about violating their employees’ First Amendment rights. But those protections don’t generally apply to the private sector. For the most part, as a business owner, you have the authority to set rules for political activity during work hours.

However, there are some limitations to what you can prohibit. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects your employees’ rights to organize – to share information, sign petitions, and seek to improve working conditions or wages – during breaks or in break rooms. This means that a blanket ban on political speech at work is not feasible. Any political discussion that touches on issues concerning unions, wages, or employee health care is considered protected. This means that an employee has the right to discuss a candidate for office as long as the conversation is related in some way to issues surrounding labor.

Every state has a different set of laws pertaining to political speech at work. You can make sure your policy doesn’t run afoul of your state’s laws by checking out this state-specific guide to laws on the political discourse in the workplace complied by the Society for Human Resource Management.

2. Set the Tone

Some business owners are more open to political discourse in the workplace. After all, civil engagement often goes hand-in-hand with being energized and well-informed – qualities you may want in your workforce.

If you plan on taking a relaxed approach to political expression in your workplace, you’ll need to create a culture of respect and civility, leading by example. Here are some questions for you to remember if you find yourself in any kind of heated discussion at work – political or otherwise.

Is it worth it?

Let’s be real. Political debates are less likely to change minds and more likely to drive a wedge between people. Even if the conversation remains civil, you may subtly—and permanently—damage your relationship. So ask yourself – is sharing my opinion on this topic worth the possible fallout? The answer might very well be yes, especially if you have deeply held beliefs about the subject at hand. But be aware of what you’re risking.

What’s your goal?

Be honest with yourself. What are you hoping to accomplish with this conversation? Are you hell-bent on making your point or winning the debate? If so, you’re going to view the person you’re talking with as an opponent, when you should be seeing them as a teammate.

But if you enter the conversation with an intention to learn and understand, you may come out of the discussion with a stronger connection to your employee and a deeper understanding of a different worldview. Keeping an open mind is easier said than done in heated conversations, but if you keep your cool, practice active listening, and ask open-ended questions, you’ll be modeling respectful behavior for your employees.

Am I making anyone uncomfortable?

Even in a workplace that feels politically homogeneous, you don’t know the details of your employees’ private lives. It’s important to make sure you aren’t making any bystanders uncomfortable with your conversation.

For example, you may be having a conversation with an employee during lunch about your mutual support for a certain ballot initiative. Maybe you even make fun of the people who oppose the initiative – after all, you both agree, so who cares? At the table next to you, another employee is left feeling alienated and upset because she will be negatively impacted if the initiative passes. She might spend the rest of the day feeling distracted, tense, and maybe even harassed. She may also avoid sharing her viewpoints going forward for fear of repercussion.

Can we find common ground?

If you feel the conversation going off the rails, take control and seek common ground. Even if you disagree deeply on a specific point, you can surely find something to agree on. Make sure to validate the other person’s feelings by saying something like “I can see that you feel very passionately about the economy! I do too. I hope our leaders can find solutions.” At that point, you may want to bow out of the conversation. It might feel unsatisfying at the time, but once your passions have cooled off, you’ll be glad you ended the conversation on a note of understanding.

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