June 10, 2012
The real problem with talking about politics in the office is that I'm right and you're wrong and I hate you.
Just kidding. (I'm not kidding.)
As we enter the meat of the 2012 presidential campaign and our eyes and ears are bombarded with negativity, many are wondering about political chatter in the workplace and whether it's ever a good idea.
The historical answer is, "No." But it's also not a good idea to eat a hamburger served between two grilled-cheese sandwiches, and that never stopped us.
People are undoubtedly going to get into political discussions or disputes at work. The political climate in this country is far too hot to prevent it, so the best thing you can do as a boss or worker is be prepared and use a little common sense.
I spoke first with Daniel Prywes, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm Bryan Cave LLP.
"Employers don't want their employees getting into enraged disputes over politics," he said. "Political discussion can stir friction and acrimony and lower productivity. A self-interested employer will likely want to limit that kind of activity."
But the laws protecting employee speech in the workplace vary from state to state and tend to not be overly explicit.
"An employer certainly has the right to limit employee use of company resources, email systems, bulletin boards, telephone — certainly company letterhead," Prywes said. "Employers also aren't expected to pay employees for politicking, only for working. So if an employee is engaging in political activity on the clock, that could be grounds for proper discipline."
Another issue is workers wearing campaign buttons or decorating cubicles or offices with political signs. Prywes said policies on that need to take into consideration how much a worker is exposed to clients or customers. Most companies don't want to have their brand equated with a particular party or ideology, so managers would have a right to restrict the display of political material if it could harm the company's reputation.
But when it comes to chatty co-workers, it's impossible to wholly prevent political discussions.
So, whether you're a boss or an employee, you need to learn to enter and exit these conversations skillfully.
Peggy Klaus, an executive coach and humble author of "Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It," follows a few simple steps when someone starts talking politics.
First, don't be afraid to use a little humor. When Klaus, who hails from Berkeley, Calif., is talking to a hardcore Republican she says, "Look, I come from the land of fruits and nuts, I can't go back there if they find out I've been hanging out with a Republican!"
The second step, she said, is to know what political topics make you particularly angry. Have at the ready a "spectrum of responses" that are appropriate — that way you can react in a respectful way when the hot-button issues come up.
"I like to have ways of saying, 'I love you even though you're so diametrically opposed to me,' " Klaus said. "Otherwise I might jump on their back and start pounding."
Her next step is to ask questions. "Tell me more about why you think that?"
"First off, you might learn something different," she said. "And you're training yourself to be compassionate and inquiring and to not sound accusatory."
Finally, don't take anything too personally. Just because someone disagrees with you on a political topic doesn't mean that person's wrong. It just means that you think differently than they do.
The endless noise coming from right-wing and left-wing talking heads has forced us into a battle mentality. The concept of a reasonable conversation or a middle ground has been replaced by incessant yelling and intractable opinions.
Klaus' approach makes sense, and I think it's smart to establish your mindset before the political conversations that are bound to come, whether they happen at work or at the bar or wherever.
For a final thought on this, I turned to Roshini Rajkumar, a communication coach and author of "Communicate That!"
She said before getting into a political talk, have a reason for doing so.
"If you're going to enter into these kinds of conversations, even if it's around the watercooler, have some intent," Rajkumar said. "Maybe your intent is to educate someone about a view or a candidate he or she doesn't know, maybe your intent is to truly try convince someone. It should never be just to blow off steam or make casual conversation."
And when you talk, be authentic.
"If you want to share your opinion about a candidate or about a social issue, don't lie, don't put on a pretense of any kind," she said. "But know that not everyone shares your opinion."
And while it may not conform with our modern-day approach to politics — which is disagree, yell, then yell some more — try to show respect for your colleague's view of the world. After all, the politicians we elect couldn't find the middle ground if they had a map and a laser-guided middle ground-finder.
It's up to us to do better.
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