Anybody in business knows that when it comes to good manners, there are certain rules we should all practice in the office. But one of those rules of business etiquette is increasingly being broken, especially this time of year:
Don't talk about politics.
It's admittedly a difficult topic not to discuss with everything going on in the news these days. The war in Iraq, immigration issues, the Mark Foley Congressional page scandal and plenty of other concerns--from polarizing political ads to homeland security--are turning up in daily conversations everywhere. Even bringing up pop culture these days can lead to an intense political discussion: Witness Rush Limbaugh's tirade against Michael J. Fox's recent political ad that supported a candidate who supports stem cell research.
Because we're so inundated with the news these days, there's almost no way to get away from it. Cable news shows are on 24/7, friends send you political jokes via e-mail, and we're all just a few mouse clicks away from online news sites. And anyone who's interested can unwind late at night with The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, then share some witty political one-liner the next morning with a colleague, a boss or an employee. It's impossible to avoid the blogging heads.
But no matter how pervasive it's become, we keeping hearing the same advice from experts: Try to keep your mouth shut. Otherwise, when you open wide, you risk an entire Pandora's box of problems spilling out into the office place.
Still, if you can't keep your opinions to yourself--or someone else in your workplace can't--and you're worried about possible fits and fists, here are five things to try when political arguments start to threaten the sanctity of the workplace.
1. The boat isn't moving, so don't rock it. If you're near the low end of the totem pole, many experts agree that the best way to diffuse a political argument is not to begin one in the first place. "Being different, even having different opinions about politics, can be career suicide," warns Patti Fralix, founder and president of the Fralix Group Inc., a leadership excellence firm in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Echoing that thought is Margaret Morford, president of the HR Edge, an international management consulting firm specializing in human resources issues. Morford says, "Mavericks don't survive long term at work stations." In other words, if you work in a culture that's primarily conservative or liberal and you do your best to stand out and make your views known, chances are, you're not going to fit in for long. And Morford recommends not complaining to the boss if your supervisor espouses political views. "If they're that rabid about their political views and you complain, you'll suffer for it. Legally, should that be able to happen? No, but it's the reality."
2. Respect everyone's views, even if you disagree. Professor P.M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, has given a lot of thought over the years to discussing politics in the workplace. He's also the director of the Civility Initiative at The John Hopkins University.
"My main suggestion is to exercise caution, common sense, restraint and respect," says Forni. "I think this is what is incumbent upon an entrepreneur, a boss, to embody civility. Political debate in the workplace is always potentially divisive, and the role of the boss is neither that of squashing the free expression of ideas, nor that of transforming the workplace into a town meeting."
So assuming we're not dealing with radicals whose political agendas include racism or anarchy, it's smart to treat everyone the same, no matter what their political views. If you step into a political fight, don't take sides. Suggest to your co-workers that they work out their problems with their manager, which will probably be enough to snap them back to reality and get back to work. If you're the manager or boss, you might want to suggest they take a break or a long lunch, and make it clear that this is the reason the company doesn't encourage discussing politics in the office.
What if someone asks for your view? Take the diplomatic route and say that injecting your views would only cause further debate and that's what you're trying to get away from in the first place.
3. No subliminal politicizing, please. When it comes to airing your political views, subliminal politicizing--subtly pushing your political agenda to your colleagues or employees--doesn't work. Because no matter how subtle you think you're being, you're not--in general, people aren't stupid.
Morford says she once had a powerful CEO as a client who wanted to invite a conservative governor to visit his company to give him a chance to talk with the employees and shake hands and such.
"I suggested he not," says Morford. "Or at least invite his opponent to the firm, but he said he definitely didn't want to give [the opponent] a platform for his views. So I kept telling him that if he made his employees feel like they were being forced to vote a certain way, it would give the workplace a Big Brother oppressive tyrant sort of feel."
In the end, the CEO took Morford's advice--almost. He sent out a memo, sending a positive and neutral message to his employees, encouraging them all to vote. But then, Morford adds, he added a P.S., his way of sending what he thought was a subtle message, and pointed out that everyone at his company worked at a business and that the governor was very pro-business. "That was basically all he wrote, but even for that," says Morford, "he got some backlash from his employees."
4. Nip it in the bud. Before something becomes a real problem, end it. Carly Drum and her CEO father, Brian, run New York City-based Drum Associates, a global executive search firm that has 40 employees of its own. The Drums are willing to let people discuss politics in the workplace--they don't run a gulag--but the moment there's a hint that it might be getting out of hand, they step in.
Carly recalls an employee a few years ago who made her views about how she didn't like a certain politician running for reelection very well known. "She wore pins on her jacket and sent out political petitions via e-mail that requested signatures from various colleagues in the office. We shut that down pretty quickly," Carly says. "You're allowed to have your own views, but if you parade them around the office, you can quickly make people feel very uncomfortable."
And so in that sense, whether you're the owner of a company or you work in the mailroom, you should decide what your limits are--and the more strict, arguably, the better. Talking about the issues of the day in your office car pool is one thing, but putting up campaign posters around your cubicle, wearing political buttons or T-shirts, or taking donations for a candidate is just asking for trouble.
5. Think twice before lowering the Iron Curtain. Be careful where you draw your line in the sand. As the boss, if you make a firm rule that there'll be no discussion of politics in the office, you're just asking to have it discussed more than ever. "If it becomes taboo, you'll just drive it underground," Morford says. "And you don't want to do that--you want to know what's going on in your office."
But what if you suggest to your boss or employees that they not talk politics and they throw the old "free speech" line in your face?
As Morford puts it, "You have a right to free speech, but people don't understand that in the workplace, it's a little different." For instance, you may work at a movie theatre but you can't shout "fire" and cause a stampede and claim that's free speech. Or you may work in a retail store or restaurant, but you can't stroll up to your supervisor and make suggestive and sexist remarks without expecting a sexual harassment suit.
In other words, politics in the workplace is a lot like politics in real life. When you're mixing it up with other people, you have to be careful what you say. And no matter what you say and believe, some people will think you're full of wit and wisdom--and others will think you're just full of it.
Geoff Williams is a freelance writer in Loveland, Ohio.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.