Can we talk politics at work? Thirty years ago, you'd never have heard this question asked. Political discussion was discouraged at dinner parties and taboo at the office.
But things are different today. Thanks to social media, the lines between personal and professional connections have shifted and blurred. Where we used to categorize Facebook for friends and LinkedIn for work colleagues, we now regularly intermingle the two, often without realizing it. The proliferation of online news and user-generated content is vast, and we share it -- along with our corresponding opinions -- because it feels good to have these places for open discourse. When we "like" something online or update our profiles with various affiliations, we're painting a public picture of ourselves. And we can't un-ring this bell. Once we start voicing our thoughts online to our various connections, we begin to see and know things about each other that we can't simply un-know. This is why, in the recruiting industry, experts repeatedly caution candidates to pay attention to what they post. Unless you work very hard to maintain it, there is really no hard distinction anymore between your private and your work life.
I think the question, therefore, isn't really a matter of whether politics should be discussed in the workplace. If you're talking about it online, you're indirectly bringing it into the office already. So it's more a question of when it happens, how do we handle it -- both as employers and employees? Is there a way for colleagues to converse about political issues that not only isn't detrimental to our ability to collaborate, but that might actually help us work better together?
1. Express yourself -- with empathy.
I think a good first rule of thumb is to remember that we all have a right to an opinion. And yes, we have a right to express that opinion -- even at work -- if we can do so responsibly and respectfully. Our opinions and unique perspectives are part of our authenticity, and authenticity is how both companies and employees set themselves apart in today's competitive landscape. But how we express our thoughts and opinions also matters greatly, especially when you're a manager or executive. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable or threatened in their work environment, so you have to walk a very fine line. There will always be people who agree with you and disagree with you and that's how it should be.
Here's an example. I recently posted something on Facebook in the wake of the nightclub shooting in Orlando. I didn't do it by accident or not knowing my employees would see it. In fact, I knew some employees specifically who would see my post and disagree with me on the point I was trying to make. But after this tragic event, and because I'm 53 years-old (and a former journalist) and I have been reading three newspapers daily since I was a teenager, I felt like I'd earned the right to articulate a point of view as a citizen. I also felt, as the chief executive of a company, that I had a responsibility to communicate to my employees that they have a boss who is interested and invested in more than just company profitability. They have a boss who cares about our country and social issues. At the same time, I understood that I had to share my thoughts in a way that would not demean or belittle or insult those employees of mine who would read my thoughts and have a different perspective.
2. Silence is cool, too.
The second thing to remember is that we live in a democracy, where we get to vote alone inside a booth. In fact, one of our country's bedrock principles is that citizens should feel safe voting their consciences without explanation or defense. So as political discourse creeps further into our social and professional lives, we must be absolutely certain that our open discussions don't inadvertently coerce employees into articulating views they'd rather hold privately. Just because you can assess a person's political standing by looking at their social profile doesn't mean they want to discuss it with you.
3. Corporate culture is the great equalizer.
What I've decided is that the question of politics in the workplace comes down to company culture. Either you have a culture that can handle disagreements without detriment to collaboration, or you don't. Period. And here's the other thing: You can't just have the culture on paper. You have to have a workforce that sustains and supports this culture, that was hired because they sync with this culture and that chooses to stay with you because they believe in this culture.
At Jobvite, our culture is defined by a set of five values, and for each value, we have three commandments that clarify the things we will do or not do to support those values. Half of our commandments have the word "don't" in them. Some people thought that might come across as negative -- but I firmly believe that a company's culture should define the behavior that's not okay. You can't just talk about behavior that is valued: "Thou shall have a team-oriented environment." That's positive, but it's not clear. A clearer picture is painted with the commandment: "Thou shall not waste other people's time." My point is that if you want to hire people to fit your culture, you are looking for people who won't do the things that you don't want to see in your company.
Why does this matter so much right now? Because the political pendulum is swinging to extremes. This election season is ridiculously contentious, and people are starting to hold more passionate points of view on very different sides of the political spectrum. It's vital that CEOs foster and encourage the kind of company culture that doesn't allow the suppression of authentic yet respectful thought. But that takes work. You have to work to create an environment where different points of view don't define employees as good or bad people. This isn't just for the sake of safe political discussion; it's because honest disagreement is a proven catalyst to innovation. I've said before that diversity in the workplace, in everything from personality to work style, is what makes a team productive.
At the end of the day, we're all still citizens of the same country and employees of the same company -- and the corporate culture should state that we don't have to agree on how to achieve company goals as long as we agree on the goals themselves. As our discourse continues to open and emotions run heated for the next few months (and maybe longer), make sure your culture encourages the type of environment where mutual respect abounds and the inability to listen without judgment is not permitted.