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Can You Avoid Talking Politics at Work?

image for fizkes / Getty Images
fizkes / Getty Images
  • According to a survey from Glassdoor, 60% of respondents said they believed political discussions at work were "unacceptable," though 57% said they engaged in them anyway.
  • With a highly contentious election looming in November, 28% of respondents said they had a co-worker try to get them to change political affiliations.
  • Still, researchers learned that 54% of employees felt companies should encourage political activity or going to the polls outside of work.

There's a common belief that in the pantheon of conversation topics you shouldn't bring up in polite conversation, politics ranks right up there next to sex and religion. Yet as the 2020 election grows closer, it's become nearly impossible to escape our firebrand Republican president and the large group of Democrats vying for their chance to oppose him in the polls. People's feelings on the matter are red-hot, and if you're running a small business, you've likely overheard potentially contentious discussions among your employees.

Earlier today, Glassdoor revealed data that shows just how prevalent political discourse in the workplace has become. In an online survey conducted by The Harris Poll last month, more than 1,200 employed American adults shared their experiences and preferences with workplace political banter.

With politics serving as an ideological wedge throughout most of the country, you may want to stymie the conversation at your company altogether. Given Glassdoor's latest findings, as well as existing legal standards, there may be some steps you can take to bring the workplace Overton window back to the middle.

While nearly every part of the country is embroiled in what feels like one massive heated debate on the future of its democratic beliefs, Glassdoor's researchers found that most respondents wanted little to do with it in the workplace. While 60% believe the topic is "unacceptable" for the workplace, women were more likely to want to avoid the topic than their male counterparts by a margin of 66% to 54%.

Researchers also found that employees in some states are more likely to talk about politics at work, with 58% of employees in blue states (according to the 2016 election) and 56% of employees in red states saying they'd talked politics at work.

Further, 57% of respondents said they discussed politics regardless of the topic's perceived negativity at work. That kind of disconnect can introduce unwanted tension into the workplace. As a business owner, if things are getting tense in the office, you can try to set boundaries to potentially avoid such a situation.

"The amount of casual [political] conversation should be consistent with what that workplace has done traditionally," Sandra Spataro, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University's School of Management, told Monster. "What you don't want to do is introduce 10 minutes for politics talk in banking when that has never happened before. It should be something that occurs naturally or doesn't happen at all."

When considering their potential career opportunities, 60% of respondents said discussing politics at work could negatively impact their prospects, with 63% of employees aged 18 to 34 feeling the same way. Additionally, 62% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans polled said sharing their political views could hurt their career opportunities.

It's not much of a stretch to say that the current political landscape can be compared to a sporting event, with both "teams" looking to score "points" against one another. One way that people often engage in this back and forth is by trying to pull someone over to their side. Using persuasive arguments and their own political beliefs, people can often try to brow-beat a person into joining their cause.

According to researchers, such situations have occurred to 28% of respondents, who said they had at least one co-worker try to change their political preferences in the last year.

Such actions could be seen by some as a way to end any possible political squabbles through assimilation. Researchers found that 21% of respondents said they "would not want to work with a co-worker who plans to vote for a presidential candidate they don't like in the next election." That sentiment could also be drawn along party lines, as 24% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats felt the same way.

As a business owner, you're likely aware of the problem facing you for the next nine months. With tensions continually ratcheting up in Washington, things are likely to boil over if you don't address existing fault lines in your workspace. You may want to help, but can you? Should you?

It's important here to note that First Amendment protections do not extend into the workplace. Attorney Grant Alexander told the Society for Human Resource Management that "employees working in the private sector often [don't understand] that the constitutional First Amendment right to free speech applies to government employees but not employees working for businesses."

With that in mind, you are within your right to set boundaries for the kinds of political dialogue you allow in the workplace within reason, or in accordance with local or state law. Having an honest conversation with your employees about the problems such conversations can bring to the office can be one way to set expectations.

"As a manager, if I saw that there was an issue, I would remind people that there are standards of professionalism and common courtesy," Spataro told Monster. "What you don't want to do is introduce differences between employees that are going to bring in more conflict or negative sentiment."

While it may be tempting to stifle political conversations in the workplace, you could benefit from encouraging political activism outside the office. According to Glassdoor's data, 54% of respondents said they felt companies should "encourage their employees to vote or be politically active outside of work."

Creating a workplace culture where people can freely exchange ideas without being overly judgmental or prejudiced can be a tough yet rewarding experience. How you handle the current political climate in your office is ultimately up to you and your employees – creating an environment where people listen more to one another can go a long way. [Read related article: Are Workplace Politics Destroying Your Business? Here's How to Fix It]

Andrew Martins

I am a former newspaper journalist who has transitioned to strictly cover the business world for business.com and Business News Daily. I am a four-time New Jersey Press Award winner and prior to joining my current team, I was the editor of six weekly newspapers that covered multiple counties in the state.