Election season is upon us, and it is impossible to listen to or watch any news program longer than two minutes before someone is discussing a political candidate. In a corporate environment, anyone can easily get caught up in political water cooler talk, which can lead to a divisive discussion, particularly in the current political climate. You want to steer clear of such conversations for many reasons, just as you should any discussion about compensation or religion, but for today we will stick with politics.
During my career, I have worked in industries on either end of the political spectrum. When I worked in a creative advertising agency, the staff was dominated by Democrats, while when working in banking, the landscape was mostly Republican. Whatever side of the fence you sided with or none at all, I have witnessed political debates and conversations ruin friendships, sideline loyalties, and like it or not, disrupt careers. Politics, like religion, are topics fraught with emotion, passion, personal values, and in many cases, family history. In most cases, the issues I have experienced people discussing are not the “middle of the road” topics; rather, they are the ones packed with the most emotion and passion. As an employee looking to advance your career and be liked by the decision-makers, how does one navigate this minefield?
In The Trenches:
There are going to be times when, like it or not, you will be drawn into a conversation about politics. Two people may be debating either side of an issue, and only because you are walking by you are asked, “What do you think?” If this is a discussion amongst peers, you may be able to get away with siding with one or the other with no real repercussions. However, if you are in the boardroom with your boss and they ask you, “what did you think of the President’s speech last night?”, you are almost compelled to answer. You want to show your boss or peers you are aware of current events, but not take a side in a public forum.
What is the Harm?
No one “wins” a discussion about emotional, political issues. Even an innocuous topic can quickly diverge into a highly charged subject. Feelings can be hurt, and presumptions can be made based on the “side” you take or comment you make. The best thing is to avoid the conversation or redirect it productively and beneficially. In the process, you may be helping someone else who unwillingly got dragged into it.
Tips To Redirect A Political Discussion:
- Be direct and let people know you do not discuss politics at work. In most cases, people will understand, but sometimes, there will be those who will see that as a cop-out. Stand your ground and excuse yourself from the conversation professionally and politely.
- If you are a particularly witty individual, use humor and exit immediately. If someone asks if you agree with the President’s new policy, answer sarcastically like: “More importantly, did you hear about the new two-hour lunch policy?” and then leave immediately.
- Change the subject entirely. When asked about a particular issue, ignore it entirely, and ask if they knew what the lunch specials in the cafe were for today.
- And, the ultimate political discussion killer: Ask someone a work-related question. A direct question about a current project, even if you already know the answer, can derail the conversation quickly as all involved will remember they are at work and have to get back to it.
Everyone wants to be personable and friendly at work. Your political party affiliation has no part in the everyday business relationship building. Sure, you may have a strong opinion about an issue for a relevant and logical reason. You may even join other like-minded people outside of work to support those viewpoints. But many others, no matter how valid your argument, may disagree. Building a successful career in the corporate world takes long hours, hard work, and sacrifice. Why make it harder on yourself? If your manager holds a different opinion than you, why make that a differentiator? Do not give others the ability to form false perceptions about you based on your political viewpoints. The only gauge anyone should measure you on is your work performance.
Here are some other well-written articles about the positives, negatives, and possible issues of political discussions in the workplace: