By Eileen Hoenigman Meyer

Is it ever a good idea to talk politics at work-especially now, with the midterms just around the corner? While the political scene seems to have reached a heightened pitch in recent years, the crescendo has been long mounting, and workplace conversations have followed suit. Human Resources service provider Randstad recently conducted a survey revealing that: “64 percent say political discussions at work have grown more heated over the past 5–10 years.”

Workplace culture is key to employee satisfaction and retention. How do political discussions help or hurt that culture? And what are some strategies for handling such conversations when they arise?

Talking politics in the office

Bart Turczynski, Managing Editor at Zety, shares survey results from 1,000 employees detailing their workplace conversational habits; he points out that around 83% of his respondents reported discussing politics at work.

Turczynski explains: “On average, respondents said these sometimes-sensitive exchanges occurred almost eight days a month – accounting for nearly a third of the days they spent around the office.”

The Ranstad study notes: “Sixty-five percent of employees say they’re comfortable discussing politics with colleagues, and over a third (38%) say they’ve changed their opinions on political issues because of discussions they’ve had with colleagues.” The same study found, however, that staff also experienced less favorable outcomes. The study states:

  • Over half (55%) have witnessed heated political discussions or arguments at work, and over a third (38%) have been involved in them.
  • Seventy-two percent feel stressed or anxious when heated arguments occur, and 44 percent say such arguments impact their productivity.
  • Fifty percent say their thoughts and feelings about colleagues have changed after discovering their political beliefs.
  • Forty-three percent have at least one colleague whose political views do not align with their own and have felt excluded at work as a result.
  • Thirty-eight percent of employees believe they have experienced negative bias at work because of their political beliefs.

While many employees seem to value having the space and opportunity to discuss politics in the workplace, some additional parameters and guidance may prove helpful.

Being present at work

It can be tempting to want to write off the whole topic, to aim to create a culture in which political conversations are categorically nixed. But is that realistic, and does it foster a healthy workplace culture?

Mikaela Kiner, founder and CEO of uniquelyHR explains: “How do you say bring your whole self to work but don’t talk about what’s going on in the world. . . it’s just gotten so much more about inclusion than exclusion. . . It’s used to be that you come to work, you do work, you talk about work. The whole personal side was a separate entity. But people have realized and acknowledged that there’s no truth to that. It all bleeds over.”

There’s value to having a workplace where you can be honest and genuine, and where you can grow and thrive with a team of people with whom you spend a tremendous amount of time. But it has to be enabled in such a way that it’s comfortable for everyone.

It’s hard to separate ourselves from the politics of the day. Kiner points out: “I almost feel like there’s no avoiding it. It’s natural to be talking about it right now.”

Kiner explains that even though there may be an inclination to discuss news and politics, it’s important to “understand who you are sitting at the table with.” She recommends doing a “bit of a check in,” to get a clear sense of who you’re engaging with. Know your audience before you start the conversation, and tread carefully.

Kiner also points out that a “curious dialogue” can be a good strategy for growth, if you’re “genuinely curious and not looking for an argument,” but you’re trying to start a conversation with a colleague whose perspective you know to be different than your own. She recommends a lead in such as: “I know we’re probably on opposite sides of the issue, and I’m really curious about what you think.”

It’s also important to have a palette of language that you can use to exit conversations that you don’t want to participate in:

  • I’ve put myself on a newsbreak. I need to step away sometimes-it’s refreshing to have a hiatus.

Politely leave conversations that you don’t want to be involved in, and respect others’ needs as well, especially if you know that a colleague is not open to these kinds of conversations. Respect is the key to making this work.

Designating an employee focus group gives employees space to discuss politics, news and world events freely, and it gives leadership some control over the mores that group members agree will govern their participation.

Kiner explains: “Typically when organizations have these groups, they are allowing for freedom of speech and they have some guidelines. Usually it’s something like: ‘it’s ok to disagree, but we’re not going to say things that are rooted in hate, make threats or use unprofessional language.’ So, they are inviting people to have a constructive dialogue.”

This can be a win-win, as it creates a proper space for productive, respectful political conversation. Kiner explains that these groups can happen via physical meetings, email lists, slack channels, chat channels, etc.

While you and your co-workers may not always agree on politics, you probably have core values that you share. Get back to those basics that bind you together. While you may not agree on the party or candidate that you support, you may find common ground on your shared support of Veterans, for example. Work with your colleagues on a project that reminds you that you’re all in this together. Because, despite your differences, you are.

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