Red Office, Blue Office

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by Candace Moody // from the June issue of 904 Magazine

For many of us, the office is a small pond filled with shallow relationships. We work together; we discuss business. We rarely get personal. And we like it that way.

When we do discuss topics not related to work, most of us know better than to touch on subjects like religion or politics. But not all of us. According to a 2012 CareerBuilder survey of 4,000 workers, 36 percent discuss politics openly and 43 percent plan to discuss politics during an election year. In another office survey by career advice site vault.com, 30 percent of workers said that someone at the office tried to influence their vote during an election.

Men are more likely than women to discuss politics, according to the same survey (44 percent of men versus 28 percent of women). Older workers are much more likely to get involved in political discussions than their younger coworkers; 43 percent of workers over 55 think politics is fair game, whereas only 25 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds feel the same way. Since older workers are more likely to be in supervisory roles, the discussion can be more than uncomfortable; it could be perceived as coercive.

Approximately 25 percent of companies say that they have policies regarding political discussions at work, according to the Society for Human Resources Management. Employers are within their rights to limit speech in the workplace; policies usually cite issues of productivity and disrupting teamwork. But without a policy in place, employers can be accused of discrimination if they appear to discipline a worker after expressing political views.

Although employers can limit political speech, they cannot limit engagement in the political process in most states. The right to time off to vote is protected under the law in 31 states and 24 states specify that the time off must be paid. Generally, a worker must be a registered voter and demonstrate that he does not have a reasonable amount of time outside his shift to vote. In most states, early voting periods do not preclude the employee from asking for time off to vote on the day of the actual election. Florida is one of the few states whose laws do not address the issue at all.

Tamara Joiner, president of IntelliTalent Management Consulting, says that putting a good policy in place is not just about preventing disruptive behavior. “Politics gets personal very fast, it’s possible that the discussion will cross over to issues of race, class, gender or sexual orientation—all protected classes of workers. You might be at risk of employee grievances or lawsuits,” she says. Joiner also adds that companies can cover some political campaign issues under the dress code policy: prohibiting buttons, pins or tee shirts with slogans in the workplace, for example. Companies can also add policies that prohibit private social networking activities (like supporting a candidate) during office hours.

Here are some tips for staying above the fray and de-escalating conflict between less evolved workers. According to Celeste Blackman, a consultant and co-founder of The Green Zone Culture Group, a practice dedicated to creating organizational cultures where “high trust, emotional commitment and collaboration thrive.”

Blackman agrees that political discussions are not helpful in a team environment where cooperation and relationships may be damaged by highly charged disagreements. “The key to not being drawn in is recognizing your own triggers,” she says. “Once emotions get engaged, it can be hard to calm down and calm others down.” Blackman suggests using neutral language. “I have a policy of keeping my politics separate from my work—I choose never to discuss issues like these in the office.” Stating the issue as a matter of privacy and part of your values system takes any sting out of your refusal to engage. Blackman cautions that you have to be consistent and firm when you choose this approach; if you are discovered later in a spirited conversation with people who think and vote like you do, it will be hard to win back trust.

If a group of co-workers allows a discussion to become disruptive, you may have no choice but to intervene. Use a light tone to nudge them back to the task at hand. “I’m pretty sure we can’t solve the world’s problems before 5:00. So how about channeling some of that energy into these accounts?”

Eventually, after the 2016 election is over, we can go back to making fun of politics instead of arguing about them. In a prescient nod to Comedy Central’s Daily Show, Will Rogers quipped in the 1930s: "Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke."