Watercooler chit chat isn’t always captivating: Martha’s got a new cat, traffic really was terrible today and Garrett wants to explain the difference between bouldering and top roping, again. But conversations at the watercooler don’t always stay cool. Talking politics at work can heat things up very fast. With the midterms less than a month out, it might seem impossible to avoid. We caught up with Ask a Manager’s Alison Green for some advice on how to gracefully navigate political chat.
Best practice is to not talk politics in the workplace. But that seems impractical?
If we were all in agreement that that was best practice, it would be pretty practical. I think the problem is there are a lot of people who want to talk politics regardless of the interest level of the people around them.
What if I’m the only one who doesn’t want to talk about it?
It really is OK to set boundaries. If you don't want to talk politics at work, you can be direct about that. You can say “you know, I'd rather not talk politics at work” or “we look at these issues pretty differently and I'd rather keep politics out of our work relationship.” You can even say that you're taking a break from politics right now. You probably will not be the only person in your office who would like that break and other people may actually be relieved that someone is setting that boundary.
My workplace isn’t like that, it’s acceptable to talk about politics. So I’m good?
There are offices where political talk is common and where it does not end in disaster. So there are people who are happy to talk politics with their co-workers. If everyone involved is consenting to the conversation, that's fine. I would say you want to be aware of trapped bystanders who might not appreciate the conversation as well. If you're having a heated political debate with a co-worker and you're both perfectly happy to be part of it, you still don't want to subject other people to it. That's a good way to drive your co-workers mad or just make it hard for them to concentrate. So you've got to be respectful about that.
Agreeing with co-workers is ideal. But if managers are only hiring people they politically align with, if the workplace is a monoculture, that’s an issue.
Yes, absolutely. And even in something that feels like a monoculture or appears to be one, it can be pretty dangerous to assume that you know what someone's political viewpoints are. And I think that's a problem that I hear about from readers a lot too: they're working in an office where their political views are very different from most people around them. But people are assuming that they agree and they're drawing them into conversations, sort of making them feel complicit in viewpoints that they find pretty harmful or offensive.
OK, but even if you’ve committed to stay apolitical at work, it’s hard to suppress all of your reactions.
I think you've just got to be aware that you are probably working with people with a diversity of viewpoints and most people want to be able to do their jobs without having to inject politics into their relationships there. I think it can be useful to think about it from the other side. If your coworker were talking about a candidate all the time who you found frankly harmful or had a big sign in their office promoting them, it might impact the way that you thought of that person, it might impact the relationship in subtle ways. Maybe it wouldn't, but for some people it would. And there's no reason that you need to inject that into your workplace. There are a lot of other times and places to use your voice in the political process but work generally should not be one of them.
What about nonverbal messages, a "Make America Great Again" red hat or a shirt that reads “My Body, My Choice,” what place do those have in the office?
I’d avoid it at work. I am all for expressing your political opinion outside of work. But at work you need to be able to work effectively with people from all over the political spectrum. Politics, most of the time, isn't going to be relevant to those relationships. And there's more harm than good that's likely to come from injecting your political viewpoints into relationships with people who you rely on to be able to do your own job effectively.
This sounds similar to advice around conversations about religion at work. Do the same rules apply?
I think it is similar to religion in a lot of ways, in that, if you're having a one-on-one conversation with someone you're both happy to be discussing religious differences with each other, there's no one else around who you're forcing to be subjected to it, go for it. As long as you can keep it respectful and calm. But as soon as someone doesn't want to be in that conversation or doesn't want to have to hear that conversation, it's inappropriate for work.
Alison Green is a workplace advice columnist and author of “Ask A Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work.”
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