How to Manage Political Talk at Work

It’s the fall of an election year. With the 24-hour news cycle, millions watching conventions, rallies and debates, and the never ending stream of social media, politics are the hot topic between now and November. It’s as ubiquitous as the weather. So how can this often-divisive topic be best managed in the workplace?

First, it’s going to come up. How often? A survey conducted by Vital Smarts shows that 28% of respondents report that they have had political conversations in the workplace.

Next, politics and work don’t mix well. It’s a personal topic. You wouldn’t want personal matters like religion or social issues to invade the work setting. You’d stay focused on the business, right? It’s no different with politics. The problem is that the amount of attention makes it a topic that lends itself to small talk. It starts as easily as someone saying “did you hear the news last night?”

Remember the rules. Employers cannot exert influence on an employee’s political preference or vote. And technically, employers cannot ban or outright forbid political discussion. It’s protected by the National Labor Relations Board. So what can a manager do? Here’s an easy list:

1.Keep things civil. Discussions need to be held to the same standard you’d expect on any topic. There is no room for obnoxious or hurtful people. Try to keep people focused on common business goals.

2.  Step in if it hurts work. A manager is well within their rights and duties if an issue – including politics – affects how much work is being done, or if it creates a hostile workplace.

3.  Set a good example. Bringing up an election or political issue in the break room or at a staff meeting is not a good idea.

Don’t get fooled in to a sense of ease by thinking employees all share a similar political leaning. Saying “It’s okay, because we’re all [Democrats/Republicans] in this office,” is not an excuse to encourage political talk. It still takes away from production and the focus on the business. Also, consider that other statewide and local elections or ballot initiatives don’t always follow clear party lines. Personal opinions will come to light if these issues are discussed, and potentially damage working relationships.

Managers and leaders can’t afford to let politics hurt work. Good leaders can remind individuals or the staff as a whole that political discussion is personal, and needs to be respectful and encourage employees to share their common goals a work, rather than personal political opinions.

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