How to Subdue the Potential Toxicity of Workplace Rhetoric

It’s possible for employees to talk about politics without poisoning the workplace culture

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A survey conducted last year by The Harris Poll for job-search platform Glassdoor showed that 60% of 1,200 respondents felt it was unacceptable to talk about politics at work. Yet almost as many said they nonetheless still do so, and 60% said they fear it could hinder their careers. Furthermore, 21% of those surveyed said they wouldn’t want to work with a co-worker who supported a presidential candidate they didn’t like.

These findings underscore what many of us already know from experience: Politics has rarely been so polarizing and volatile, not to mention ever-present, in the workplace. It also shows that many people apparently aren’t heeding Mark Twain’s old suggestion to never talk about money, politics and religion in polite company.

But here’s the thing — talking about politics isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided that participants follow certain guidelines centered on respect. And while it’s understandable why some organizations might even ban employees from talking about politics at work, such policies might indicate a problem with their workplace cultures, says Brittney Maxfield, senior director of marketing communications at VitalSmarts, a leadership training company.

“Politics is a big issue everywhere these days,” Maxfield says. “And people have divided feelings about what to do about it. Some think you shouldn’t speak about it at all — make it a taboo topic. Others want more dialogue and think organizations shouldn’t inhibit free speech. There doesn’t seem to be much consensus about any of it. But if you do have a policy against talking about politics, I think it says you’re not willing to have crucial conversations. And that attitude can carry over into your culture and result in less connection with colleagues.”

So how should organizations handle this hot potato? For managers, Maxfield suggests they hold a meeting and ask team members what they think and feel about talking politics.

“On moral ground, we should be able to talk about these things at work,” Maxfield says. “But managers also need to be aware that it’s a volatile topic that can affect your team. That’s why talking it through as a team is so important. If we open the door and talk about how we can approach this as a team, I think employees would be eager to come together as a team and find a way forward.”

Maxfield also says managers should emphasize that if political talk is allowed, dialogue should be respectful.

“People should talk about these things. Talking is how we get to unity on issues. But that’s where it gets difficult for managers … they need to keep their ears to the ground and if people are being disrespectful it has to end. It can get tricky.”

When and where employees talk politics matters, too. For instance, it’s not healthy to have an employee start out a meeting with a political rant that upsets some team members. In a case like that, Maxfield says it’s important for a manager to later ask that employee to please share their views at a more appropriate time.

“Respect should always be the foundation and as a manager, you need to hold your team to a certain standard,” she says.

Furthermore, managers should emphasize they’re not trying to silence political viewpoints, just keep them from negatively affecting work.

“And you should do this kindly and privately, not in front of the whole team.”

Moreover, pointing out the actual consequences of a political outburst — such as hurting productivity or creating resentment among team members — is an effective way to motivate people to stop disrespectful political comments, Maxfield says.

“That will do more to change their behavior than just telling them not to do it again. Furthermore, it gets them involved with the solution.”

Managers also need to be aware of political insults and inflammatory rhetoric employees post on social media, which some employees may view equally disrespectful as something said face to face.

“Workplaces need to keep an eye on that and be careful that it doesn’t bleed into the workplace.”

If an employee complains about another employee who’s outspoken about their political views, Maxfield suggests telling them they should have a “crucial conversation” about the matter with the outspoken employee.

“Put it back on your team members,” she says. “Tell them they might want to let that person know how their comments came across. Crucial conversations help to make relationships stronger.” 

As for handling colleagues who aren’t shy about expressing political beliefs, Maxfield recommends first doing some personal reflection to make sure you’re being open-minded and tolerant.

“If something rubs you the wrong way, ask yourself why. Is it because the remarks were disrespectful or because you simply don’t agree with them? If the remarks make you uncomfortable, that’s on you. It’s not illegal to express an opinion, and you don’t have to agree with it. So instead, be tolerant, engage in dialogue and learn.”

Maxfield also recommends against trying to change colleagues’ minds about their political views. The more you do so, the more likely they’ll resent your attempts, she says.

“So try to just come at it with a sense of genuine curiosity. Tell the person you’d love to hear about why they see things the way they do. But again, respect is paramount.”

It’s important to learn how to have difficult conversations in the workplace. But it’s equally as important to have rules regarding those conversations, centered on respect as an organizational value, Maxfield says.

“And if your team comes up with those guidelines and boundaries, it can help make it even safer to have those conversations — to be open and honest with colleagues.”


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