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How to talk about politics at work

Political discussions are stressing American workers out. “Ask a Manager” author Alison Green is here to help.
ImagE: Colleagues working together on a tablet in the office
During a heated election cycle, some people may be especially eager to talk politics with colleagues.Getty Images

As the 2020 elections approach, “Ask a Manager” author Alison Green has been flooded with letters from readers who desperately want to avoid talking about one thing: politics.

“They’re bystanders to coworkers’ conversations about politics and they can’t get away from it,” Green tells NBC News BETTER.

Political discussions at work are increasingly stressing out American workers, according to a 2017 study from the American Psychological Association.

Growing enthusiasm around the #MeToo movement and the controversial appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in October have heated up the debate further, says the management consultant. In the last few weeks, Green’s daily stream of reader emails has become a deluge.

“People who are just incensed by the conversations they were hearing colleagues having around them,” she says.

Their ire has little to do with partisanship, she explains. Even when coworkers agree with their colleagues’ political views, they simply don’t want to hear it, Green says.

“A lot of people really are so drained by the news cycle right now that they want to be able to control when and how they access it, and at work you are sort of a captive audience,” she says.

How to establish boundaries

Should people simply refrain from talking about politics on the job? The answer, according to Green, is complicated.

“One thing that I think happens is a lot of people assume the coworker they’re talking to has the same political views as they do,” says Green.

If a coworker is saying things that offend you, you might fear getting into an argument, or may simply feel awkward. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to politely end the conversation, says Green.

“One thing you can do is say, ‘Actually, we see this really differently, it’s not something I want to get into at work,’ and then just change the subject,” she says.

Maybe you agree with your colleague’s politics, but would rather focus on work. If that’s the case, let your coworker know you are taking a break from politics right now, advises Green.

“You can say it in a warm, polite way,” says Green. “Most people won’t take offense.”

Read your coworkers cues

What if you’re the one who’s chit-chatty about politics? When you create a political environment at work, it can be unpleasant for coworkers whether they agree with your views or not, says Green.

Some coworkers may not have the confidence to tell you how they really feel, says the author, so pay attention to your their cues. Are they actively participating? Do they look a little upset or exhausted? Are they giving you one-word answers? Do they look like they’re trying to escape?

Even if you think we should all be able to have collegial, civil conversations about whatever political issue you feel like talking about, you’ve got to respect that your coworkers might not be in the mood for it.

“Pay attention to whether or not people want that, because it can be a very draining environment if you can’t ever get away from politics,” Green says.

If a coworker tells you they don’t want to talk politics, that’s something you need to respect, Green stresses. If you and a colleague are having a civil discussion about politics, Green says to keep in mind that those around you might not want to hear it.

“Even if you think we should all be able to have collegial, civil conversations about whatever political issue you feel like talking about, you’ve got to respect that your coworkers might not be in the mood for it,” she says.

You’re not at work to push political viewpoints

During a heated election cycle, some people may be especially eager to talk politics with colleagues. Green says this might be fine in some workplace cultures. But understand that telling coworkers who you plan to vote for, or asking them how they plan to vote, can be perceived as crossing boundaries.

“You’re not there to advocate for a candidate, or a particular issue, you’re really there to work,” she says.

Green says it’s also important to understand that decorating your desk or office space with political merchandise and slogans can be viewed as propagandistic.

“People who are around you at work are a captive audience,” says Green. “It’s not really fair to inflict campaign propaganda on them when they can’t get away from it and when they have to maintain pleasant, cordial relations with you.”

Should you unfollow coworkers on social media?

Social media is another place where coworkers may be exposed to one another’s political views.

While it’s important for people to be able to express their beliefs on social media, it can also create conflict with coworkers.

Does this mean you should unfollow coworkers whose views conflict with yours, or censor what you share? Not necessarily, says Green.

“I think the important thing is for you to just be aware of the types of problems that it could potentially cause and decide if you’re ok with that or not,” she says.

If it’s a concern, Green advises making use of the restriction features available on your social media accounts. Some platforms like Facebook will allow you to restrict certain friends from seeing your posts, and from you seeing what they post, she says.

Whether political or not, coworker conflict should be resolved face to face, not electronically, says Green.

“If you talk face to face you can convey tone much more easily, whereas if you put it in email, your tone can be misinterpreted, you can cause more tension,” she says.

Understand that talking politics can impact career goals

Green says it’s fine to be passionate about politics, but understand how it can impact your career.

“If you’re moving up to a leadership role, you need to show that you are able to get along with all sorts of different people, that you’re not pushing your own political viewpoints at the expense of the comfort of other people in your office, that you’re going to treat people of all political persuasions fairly,” Green says.


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