When politics are as heated and divisive as they have been during the current U.S. election cycle, it’s hard to resist the urge to discuss the issues with your work family aka colleagues. But talking politics in the office — whether in person or virtual — can mean wading into dangerous territory, especially if you’re working in government.
Political divides arise, relationships can sour and, if taken too far, you can even get into trouble for seeming partisan in your government workplace.
But according to the experts, talking politics, while tricky business in the workplace, is very personal for people and a big part of who we are. We are human, after all. And we all like to share our values with others from time to time.
The GovLoop team shared similar tips with our community back in 2016 about discussing politics at work, but this time around feels different. Tensions are higher, businesses around the U.S. are boarding up their office in case of election-related riots, and we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s against this backdrop that we’re sharing do’s and don’ts to keep in mind if you’re going to engage in political discussions at work.
- Know the rules. Various, if not all, government agencies have guidelines that prohibit wearing political clothing or bringing campaign material into the workplace. Think twice about starting a political conversation and check your department’s rules. Check HR guidelines before you display political swag in virtual workspaces or at your in-office desk.
- Ask for permission. Everyone has different boundaries around discussing sensitive issues. Don’t assume your coworkers all share the same political views as you do. Ask before you engage in discussing a touchy political topic. You can set the groundwork for healthy dialogue by saying, “I’d love to discuss tax policy. Would that be OK with you? Are you comfortable discussing that topic?”
- Know your triggers. For the majority of us, politics is very personal. But you may be more affected by certain issues than others. For example, you might have stronger feelings about immigration if your family was affected by immigration policies firsthand.
Whether it’s around certain issues or the candidates themselves, be mindful of your own triggers. This type of self-awareness can help you regulate your emotions rather than lose control and do something unprofessional that you’d regret – like yelling or saying something nasty to a coworker.
- Frame it as a learning opportunity. Rather than trying to change the other person’s mind or views, think of it more as an opportunity to learn from one another. Being interested in someone else’s thought process can be a great reason to engage in a political discussion.
Saying things like, “I know what I think about health care, but I’m curious why you feel differently? Would you be open to sharing your position with me?” Just make sure you’re actively listening to the other person instead of secretly hoping to convert them.
- Demonize the other side. You might be wondering how your coworker could possibly support a candidate who espouses views so completely in contrast to your own. Rather than labeling them as “ill-informed,” “crazy” or “uncaring,” understand that they have their own reasons for their political views.
Some people might be so far to the other side of the political spectrum than you, it might not be worth your time to engage in political discussion. If you do decide to, try and look for areas of agreement rather than trying to dehumanize the other side for their radically different views.
- Touch super-heated issues. There are times when a lively conversation about the environment or the economy can be enlightening. And there are some hot-button issues that are so contentious, they shouldn’t be brought up in the office at all. Issues like same-sex marriage or abortion are best avoided, for instance.
Opinions on such issues are often tied to religious or moral beliefs. Going down that road is more likely to result in super-intense conversations and hurt feelings. Remember that you’re going to have to see your coworker the next day, whether in person or online. So steer clear of these and other sensitive issues.
- Stand for disrespect. It’s completely possible to have opposing viewpoints without resorting to derogatory comments. When emotions are running high, a disagreement over political philosophies can quickly turn into personalized attacks.
Neither you nor your coworker deserves to feel insulted. Before that happens, agree to disagree with your colleague. If you can sense a discussion going south, try saying, “I’m honestly overwhelmed by all the coverage on this topic, let’s talk about something else.” It’s also OK to either excuse yourself to another conversation or leave the room.
- Let your guard down after hours. When it comes to social media or even conversations outside work hours, don’t assume you’re off the clock. Always do a quick check-in with yourself before you post or comment on anything political on social media, especially if you’re working for government. Picture your coworkers or your boss seeing it. Are you OK with them seeing it? If yes, then ask, “Would my job be affected in any way?” If you can answer “no” to that, then the post could be perfectly fine to share.
And when it comes to socially-distanced engagements or virtual networking, the best practice is to tread lightly. Even if you’re 100 percent sure all of your coworkers share your political leanings, there are plenty of others out there — i.e. clients or other government workers — who could be turned off. One helpful trick is to pretend everyone around you is of the opposite party and plan your political comments accordingly at happy hour.
As the old cliché goes, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. However, working for government means being extra cautious about how we share those closely-held beliefs. It’s OK to be passionate and political, just be more strategic about it when you bring it into the office.