When politics comes to work
Some call it silly season: the 4 to 6 weeks before the national election. In reality, there is nothing silly about it, beyond perhaps some of the candidates' campaigning behavior. Decisions in the upcoming election are of utmost importance, particularly as the nation faces serious issues such as the economy and the Iraq war. The stakes are high.
People can be very passionate about political issues and their candidates and there are many other underlying hot-buttons, such as abortion, gay rights, and religion, to name but a few. Add to that the fact that with a minority, a woman, and a senior citizen running for the highest offices, there's something to potentially offend everyone in the way the candidates are discussed. A conversation that starts with a little good-natured ribbing can quickly turn uncomfortable. Tempers can flare. Resentments can ensue.
Surveys reveal mixed attitudes on the part of employees about whether politics should be brought to work. In an American Management Association survey, more than one-third of the 700+ respondents said they were uncomfortable discussing political views with coworkers. But in a survey conducted by Office Team, 67 percent of the 500+ respondents felt that political debate in the workplace is okay in small doses; only 18 percent found such discussion "inappropriate."
Human Resource Executive (HRE) features a thoughtful article on office politics, which would be well worth your time. Here is an excerpt:
"You really have to be careful if you start this kind of dialogue, because people feel so passionately about politics and tend to get emotionally wrapped up in it," says Dawn Usher, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Silverado Senior Living Inc., in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. "As long as you're not offending anyone or trying to force people to your views, it's OK to have the conversation, but once it becomes intrusive, then it needs to stop."
That approach is right on track, according to Bruce Weinstein, a New York-based corporate consultant and ethics analyst known as The Ethics Guy. He likens talking politics in the workplace to talking about religion or sex -- two topics that are widely recognized as taboo.
"In most workplaces, these subjects not only have nothing to do with the work at hand, but because they're so controversial, engaging in discussions about them may very well impede one's ability to work well with other people," he says.
Our past post on the topic - when politics spin over into the workplace (note: some links in the article have expired) - includes a roundup of opinions on the matter of politics, with the consensus being "try to keep politics out of the workplace." But that may be easier said than done. In terms of employee rights to engage in political discussion or activities, the law firm Fisher & Phillips offers thoughts on what activity is protected and what isn't protected in their article Tis the Season: NLRB Clarifies Its Rules on Politics at Work.
The HRE article discusses various ways that actual employers handle politics in the workplace. One concept we liked was the idea of setting some ground rules of mutual respect. One commenter even suggested having employees sign a contract agreeing to respect other people's opinions. We like the idea of a "culture of respect" - it might be a good idea for management to issue communications setting that expectation should any political discussions occur. But it certainly sounds like a "culture of respect" is something you might want to foster at all times, not just during the political season!