9 Tips for Discussing Politics in the Workplace

    If you’re an IT leader, the last thing you need is for your team to waste precious time getting into heated debates — if not an outright brawl — over political differences in the run-up to what has become an extraordinarily emotionally charged presidential election. So what can you do to help nip that nonsense in the bud?

    Doug Walker, manager of HR services at Insperity, a human resources outsourcing services provider in Houston, has come up with a list of nine tips for helping organizations avoid the political landmines that can so easily damage productivity and camaraderie in the workplace.

    Separate work life from personal life. Because many IT professionals work long hours, it is easy to forget the need for boundaries between employees’ personal lives and professional lives. Employees also should remember that workplace friendships are different from personal friendships. Workers should be careful about being too outspoken when it comes to their political views, even in cases where they believe coworkers might share some of the same opinions. Oversharing carries the risk of tainting opportunities for future advancement, alienating coworkers, or even current and future customers who do not share a similar ideology.

    Keep the political gear at home. We advise employees to refrain from hanging campaign gear, such as posters or bumper stickers, in the office. Companies should also urge their employees not to display political materials. In fact, companies should consider banning political gear in all public spaces and in all areas where employees have direct contact with clients and vendors. In most cases, it is best for businesses to avoid taking an official stance on a particular candidate or political issue.

    Be aware of office policies. Employees should be aware of any company policies that relate to political activity to ensure they are not breaking any rules. Workers also need to make certain their personal views are not incorrectly misunderstood to be the official company stance.

    Consider changing the channel. While it has become commonplace for American offices to have TVs on so that workers can remain up to date on current events, consider changing the channel or turning off the TVs during political coverage. The partisan attacks may increase the risk of political oversharing in the office, or even cause unnecessary stress for employees.

    Understand that it’s not OK to ask. While it may seem like a good idea to proactively ask a colleague or employee about his or her political stance so as to avoid uncomfortable conversations, the question itself can cause discomfort. In addition, there is also a risk that an employee may believe a future event, such as the failure to obtain a promotion, may somehow be linked to a previous conversation about personal political views.

    Set the tone. IT leaders and managers should remember they often set the tone for the office. Company leaders may consider asking managers to be mindful about comments on political matters. Conversely, if a supervisor is highly vocal about his or her politics, staff will likely follow suit. It may not be a door you want opened.

    Provide guidance. While a company cannot ban political discussion, leadership may consider asking employees to limit political talk or activity to the lunch hour or other work breaks. It is also important to remind staff to respect the views of others.

    Be quick to respond. Companies should quickly investigate any employee complaints that may arise, but focus only on the workplace behavior and the impact it may be having on relationships and results and not on the differing political opinions.

    Bottom Line: When in doubt, don’t. Because issues like politics and religion can be so emotionally charged, the consequences for an employee and his or her career, as well as for the business, can be significant if one expresses a belief or opinion that varies from those of others. Talking politics can be a CLM — a Career Limiting Move.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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