Weekly Wrap: Talking Politics in the Office? It Never Comes to Much Good

I’ve worked and managed for a long time, in a number of office environments, and if there is one constant in all that experience, it’s this: certain topics simply should not be discussed on the job.

For example, despite all the calls I hear for salary transparency, what I’ve found is that co-workers talking about salaries and pay rarely leads to much good.

But today, I’m reminded that there is another topic area that also leads to bad blood and hostile feelings when broached at work — elections and politics.

Yes, talking to your co-workers about who you want to be president is all well and good as long as they agree with you, but of course, they don’t always do that. When they don’t, it can lead to all sorts of workplace issues.

66% don’t share their political affiliation at work

The latest CareerBuilder workplace survey zeroed in on this, and it reports some findings that probably won’t surprise you because overall because it found that workers are generally more comfortable keeping politics out of the office. It also reports that:

  • Two-thirds of workers (66 percent) don’t share their political affiliation at work, and 28 percent of workers said they feel like they need to keep their affiliation secret around the office.
  • Men are more likely than women to share their political beliefs at work, with 37 percent of men sharing their affiliation compared to 31 percent of women.
  • Workers who keep their political affiliations secret at work usually do so because they don’t feel politics should be discussed in the office unless it affects their job (68 percent) and only 13 percent keep their affiliation secret because they think their co-workers mostly support the opposing part.
  • Employees new to the workforce and the voting population are less likely than their older co-workers to share their political affiliations around the office. Just 21 percent of employees between 18 and 24 share their political opinions at work, compared to 29 percent of workers 25-34 years old, and 36 percent of workers the age 35 and older.
  • Not surprisingly, 82 percent of respondents said that they plan to vote in November, while only 52 percent of workers believe that the President of the United States has an actual effect on the unemployment rate.

When a conversation becomes an argument

It is easy for a conversation about politics in the office to become an argument about politics,” said Rosemary Haefner, Vice President of Human Resources at CareerBuilder, in a press release about the latest survey. “For the most part, people want to avoid controversy in the office as much as possible. Avoiding discussions of politics may be one way they can do that.”

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If you must discuss politics on the job, Forbes recently gave some pretty good tips for what you should and shouldn’t do, but the last tip gets to the heart of what I’m talking about:

  • “Remember you’re speaking to someone you work with. In the heat of a debate it’s easy to forget that you’ll have to sit next to this person tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day …  Just as you expect respect, extend the same deference to your fellow worker. You don’t want good-hearted discourse to negatively impact your workplace.”

From my perspective, “good-hearted discourse” can quickly turn ugly, and when it does, you’ll find there are long-term repercussions to discussing politics in the office that can have an impact on your workplace long after Election Day has come and gone.

Red or Blue? Liberal or conservative? President Obama or Gov. Romney? You probably have a strong opinion on this stuff, but take it from me: getting into it in the office or on the job is foolish and counterproductive to your long-term workplace relationships. Better to express your political opinions privately when you close that curtain in the voting booth instead of publicly on the job.

How banning email increased productivity

Of course, there’s a lot more than how people feel about discussing politics in the office in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.
  • What if your boss tells you who you should vote for? Here’s another reason why I don’t like politics discussed on the job: when senior management tells you who you should vote for. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “The CEO of … Cintas, a top Republican donor, sent an email to employees obliquely sharing his concerns about a second Obama term. One Florida executive flatly told his 7,000 workers that there would be layoffs if his taxes increase as a result of the election, and another asked his employees to give money to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The line between business and politics seems to be blurring as the too-close-to-call presidential election approaches, to the dismay of some employees. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which removed limits on corporate campaign contributions, has allowed business leaders to go further in urging their employees to vote a particular way, and Romney himself has encouraged business leaders to do so. But the boss is treading in tricky territory when he or she talks politics with employees, some warn.”
  • Productivity surges when CEO bans email. I’m not one of those people who has suddenly turned anti email, because I still feel it is a useful business tool. But that’s not the case for one CEO, as reported in MediaBistro’s MediaJobsDaily: “Shayne Hughes, chief executive of Learning as Leadership did the unthinkable. He announced to his staff that all internal email was forbidden for an entire week! Here’s why: Realizing internal emails equate to 50 to 75 percent of all traffic, reviewing, responding and managing, they consume large chunks of time for employees. … Although his team initially had reservations, Hughes quickly noticed the elimination of “background noise” and as a result, he began to “carve out power hours” to tackle challenges. Their mindset changed from an urgent must respond now to messages into focusing on productive energy.”
  • Fearful at work and on the job. Halloween is a week for scary stuff, and this story from Miami Herald workplace writer Cindy Krischer Goodman focuses on the things that frighten people on the job. “American workers (have) real fear about what the last few months of the year will bring. Workplace fright has gripped everyone from top executives to desk clerks. It ranges from fear of being fired to concerns about hitting performance goals or losing business to a competitor. “There’s a lot of uncertainty out there in this business climate and that has created a lot of fear,” says Ryan Skubis, Florida district director for staffing agency Robert Half International. A new survey by Accountemps, a Robert Half company, shows it is not ghosts, goblins or even public speaking that scare workers most — it’s making a mistake on the job. This angst stems from scaled down workplaces where workers now do the job of two, three or four workers. “People are putting so much pressure on themselves,” Skubis says. “They have a lot on their plates and they don’t see a lot of hope for slowing down.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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