It's hard to get away from conversations about politics right now. The primary season is covered 24/7 on every TV network, opinions about candidates flood your social media feeds, and your circle of friends is likely abuzz with a play-by-play of the 2016 presidential race.
But what do you do when colleagues want to talk politics at work?
During a campaign season as divisive as this one, it's quite likely that this will happen (although not encouraged). There are emotions, opinions, “sides” and hot buttons. While avoiding the conversation completely would be nice, it's clear that this year's election is a hard topic to avoid no matter where you work.
If conversations about politics are coming up in your place of work, keep these tips in mind before engaging:
Understand Your HR Policy
Toni Howard Lowe, senior HR professional and founder of the career advice site The Corporate Tea, says most political topics are likely considered “protected concerted activity” by the National Labor Relations Board. “Before getting involved in political discussions, check to see if your company has a conduct and harassment policy and or non-solicitation policy,” she suggests. “In the chance one swift left turn in a political conversation results in an escalated conflict, employees could find themselves at risk of corrective action.” In other words, better to be safe than sorry.
Know There's No Victor
Even if you think you're "right", there's no winner in the workplace. The only way to have an appropriate discussion about politics on the job is to do just that: discuss. Not debate. Anne-Marie Fowler, a writer and researcher who has advised a number of data-science startups in recent election cycles and whose fieldwork has focused on unaffiliated and late-deciding voters in swing states, suggests getting rid of the “win or lose” mentality.
“By employing a more individually focused conversational approach, you won't ‘win’ the debate, but you won't lose either," she explains. "In the workplace, remember that your goal is to create a productive working relationship among skilled, talented and diverse colleagues. This doesn't happen if the other person agrees with everything you say, looks exactly like you or has your exact same skills. Innovation and value come from connection amidst diversity. If you see politics as part of that diversity, you can start to see more value in difference. Reframing the way you go into these conversations will create political discussions that are more productive and workplace appropriate."
Avoid Getting Heated
Remaining respectful of opinions is necessary in any workplace, especially when it comes to politics. Have you ever wondered why those talking politics can get so worked up so quickly? The old adage has never been more adequate: “Everything is political, except for politics, which is personal.” Knowing that coworkers might be talking politics but really are speaking from personal experiences puts the entire conversation in perspective. The biggest mistake you can make is letting the dialogue get too heated. “If you stop trying to ‘win’ a political debate, and start trying to know someone better through that same debate the conversation changes completely,” Fowler says. “If you see someone heating up? Ask why they feel as they do. Say 'I know what they said on TV – but I'm more interested in what happened with you, what guided you towards this issue.'”
If you're not in a position to get to know the other person and understand what's going on behind the “heat”, Lowe suggests sticking to vague headline topics. "Stay away from emotionally charged political topics related to race, gender, religion and sexual orientation where people draw very hard lines and glean a level of passion and debate not suitable for the workplace," she says. You'll likely know which route you need to go based on who you're speaking with.
Gracefully Wrap Up
No matter where the conversation leads, it's important that it ends well. Whether you casually redirect the chat to a different topic or you deflect the topic altogether, being the bigger person will always bode well in the workplace with people that you must see everyday. You can end conversations by acknowledging the varying perspectives and how that diversity will always lead to better solutions. Or, by simply stating it's interesting to hear your coworker's thoughts.
If the person who started the discussion won't let it go, Lowe suggests letting your colleague know that you have a pressing meeting to get to. “Invite your peer to lunch or dinner outside of work to finish your conversation if you feel it isn't the best setting for the discussion or if it's becoming distractive to others,” she said. "Leave the ball in their court."
If conversations about politics crop up in the workplace, keep these pointers in mind. Not every discussion has to be divisive, and if handled well, you could actually get to know your colleagues and the diverse set of opinions that make your office an even better place to work. Whatever you do, handle these conversations with care. They're more personal than you think.
Maxie McCoy is a writer and speaker with a message: how to find and follow your inspiration for an extraordinary life. Maxie delivers inspiring writings, actionable video, and customized sessions on maxiemccoy.com. She also develops curriculum and offline experiences for the Millennial career website, Levo.