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How far is too far? Should you discuss politics in work, and how can you survive when people do?
Politics affects everyone. And we shouldn't need to mention that the political world has been going a bit crazy recently. What with Brexit, Mr. Trump, and a general election, there's plenty to discuss. That's before you even start to consider longer-standing issues. But is politics something you should ever talk about in work?
Is discussing politics in work a bad thing?
We’ve written before about the effect a noisy office environment has on productivity. The result might surprise you …
Because as it happens, humans are not designed to operate in a vacuum. This means that a bit of noise and stimulating conversation at work isn’t always a bad thing. It turns out that not only can you raise productivity by cutting hours, but also by letting people talk a bit more.
Also, most people dislike it when employers treat them like robots or children. Let’s face it: telling grown adults what they can and can’t talk about is a little … disturbing, to say the least.
To say that political debate can easily get strained is a huge understatement. For example, consider more or less every war ever fought that didn’t involve religion. How many of those were based on politics? People take this stuff to heart a bit.
And clashes of political opinion can occur even when people share a similar ideology. So when perspectives differ, things can get out of hand in very short order …
A debate about the future of the UK following Brexit could soon descend into a shouting match. Feelings get hurt, egos get inflamed. Pretty soon employees are calling each other deluded hippies and isolationist Nazis. Hair is pulled. Dummies are spat out. Not good.
The American Psychological Association has reported some dramatic trends about workplace political discussion. It described the 2016 US presidential campaign as ‘extraordinary’ in this regard. In fact, one study showed that one in four US workers felt the election had hindered their work. Political talk was the primary culprit here. Other interesting findings were that:
54% of US workers avoid discussing politics with colleagues.
US women (13%) were much less likely to discuss politics at work than US men (28%).
28% of 18-34 year old US workers said political discussion at work had made them feel stressed out.
Why is discussing politics in work so dangerous?
Most of us know that talking politics in a pub is a bad idea. Alcohol and strong opinions do not mix. But you’re supposed to be sober in work. We hope you’re sober, anyway …
Although you’re less likely to start a brawl in an office than you are in a pub, talking politics is still dangerous. The trouble is that you spend all day every day cooped up with the people at work. You know most of them well. So you’re aware that Darren from Accounts is a proud Brexiteer. You also know that Susan from Design is a passionate Liberal.
Open-plan offices have a lot to answer for in this regard. It can make your blood boil.
These people know that you know this. So if you start saying why you think Brexit is a load of rubbish, or that Liberals are stupid, it’s unlikely to go down well. Worse still, you’re likely to look quite passive-aggressive.
Passive aggression is not a good trait to be known for - especially in a business setting. How are you ever going to get that promotion if you’re known for sniping at people? If you have a problem, then it’s generally best to confront it head-on and say so. But these people’s opinions are not your problem …
Can discussing politics at work be illegal?
What can be a problem is political discussion when it becomes illegal. “But we live in a democracy” we hear you cry - “it’s not illegal to discuss politics”. This is true, and long may it stay that way. What is illegal though, is harassment. Then there’s the issue of hate speech …
Political inclination isn’t a protected characteristic under UK law. This means that criticising it wouldn’t usually fall under the definition of harassment.
But because political discussion often involves emotive topics, it could end up here. Anyone involved in discussion around a protected characteristic should bear this in mind. In the UK, a protected characteristic could relate to:
Marriage and civil partnership.
Pregnancy and maternity.
Religion or belief.
Harassment relating to one of these characteristics is against the law. But offensive behaviour that doesn’t relate to protected characteristics can also be problematic. This may fall under the definition of workplace bullying.
Workplace bullying isn’t illegal per se, but it’s hardly pleasant. It can also lead to problems including claims of constructive dismissal. Our employer guide to workplace bullying legislation covers this in more detail.
If political discussion becomes especially extreme, then it may constitute hate speech. This is a complex area of law which aims to prevent the incitement of violence and hatred. Hate speech is a crime that can carry a penalty of imprisonment.
How to survive a political discussion at work
With all the above, we’d forgive you for thinking that there is no place for political discussion at work. But wait a minute; remember what we were saying at the start of the article?
The point of it was that people aren’t robots. If you start telling employees what they can and can’t discuss, then what kind of working culture is that? Fun and vibrant? Not quite.
It’s a catch-22 situation.
So how can you ensure that political discussion stays on the right side of acceptability? Everyone plays their part in this, so here are some tips that we recommend:
Be honest with yourself
How strong are your political opinions? Are you 100% sure that the Ottoman Empire was right to invade Otranto in 1480? What if someone wanted to tell you otherwise? Could you handle it? Ok, we jest, but you get the point …
If you’re unsure that you could have a reasonable discussion about a topic, then work is not the place to try. If this is the case, then you need to remove yourself from the arena sooner rather than later.
Being passionate about something is great. But in a workplace political discussion, it’s never going to end well.
Step away from the soapbox …
Remember that there’s nothing wrong with saying ‘sorry, I don’t want to discuss that in work’. Be polite and it’s actually a very professional response.
But what if you’re forced to sit through someone else’s political discussions? Open-plan offices have a lot to answer for in this regard. It can make your blood boil. You’re sat there, trapped, listening to someone spout an opinion you don’t agree with. You (probably) don’t get paid enough for this.
Why listen to somebody else’s argument when you can listen to something you actually enjoy?
If your job allows, then headphones are an absolute game-changer in these situations. As soon as a colleague gets on their soapbox, get your headphones out. Crank up some good music, and forget it’s even happening. Next time you make a brew, you’ll be able to stride across the office / battlefield with your head held high.
Be more open-minded
If you do find yourself in a political discussion - intentional or not - the important thing is to keep an open mind. But while many people consider themselves to be open-minded, in reality, very few actually are. So how do you do it?
Well first, you need to accept that you are not always right. Nope; not even this time. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, isn’t it? But we guarantee that it’ll make you happier.
Don’t go into a political discussion intending to change anyone’s mind. You won’t manage it, and they won’t thank you for trying.
And it’s even more important that you don’t try to ridicule anyone. These are your coworkers, remember? Their opinion is as valid to them as yours is to you.
Of course that changes if a coworker crosses the boundary into harassment or hate speech …
If you think you’re witnessing harassment or a hate incident, then don’t get sucked in. Remove yourself from the situation and report what happened to your superiors. They have a duty of care towards employees and are responsible for dealing with this. Unless you have management responsibilities, it’s not your problem.
One golden rule
The key thing to remember in any of these situations is also something that you may have learned as a child. Quite simply, if you haven’t got anything nice to say, then don’t say anything. This will save you a lot of hassle.
Remember that you (probably) aren’t paid to have an opinion on politics. What’s happening in parliament shouldn’t affect your ability to do your job.
What if it’s the boss who’s discussing politics?
Here’s a subject that’ll strike fear into the heart of anyone who’s ever had a less than perfect boss. What do you do if it’s the boss who’s leading the political discussion? Not very polite to put your headphones in and zone out, is it?
The very fact that your boss is displaying a partisan opinion about politics is worrying. This indicates that they might not be very good at their job …
Think about it.
A good boss generally wants to keep the peace at all costs. They don’t want to wind anyone up or make their employees feel uncomfortable.
Bosses tend to have a different political perspective to employees. Whether you agree with the situation or not, they tend to earn more, invest more, and spend more. So they might be unlikely to support the same political initiatives as an employee.
Even if this weren’t the case, why run the risk? If you have an opinion on something, sooner or later you’ll find someone who thinks the opposite. That’s how life works. If you’re trying not to upset people, then politics is something to avoid.
Things could take a turn for the darker if your boss is trying to influence the way you vote. Ballots in the UK are secret, in order to avoid such situations. Any boss acting in this way would also be likely to fall foul of electoral fraud legislation. Impeding or preventing someone from exercising their right to vote is known as undue influence, and is an offence.
So what can you do if your boss starts talking politics?
Well the most pragmatic thing to do is to smile and nod. Remember how you pay your rent. Listen to them; you never know what you might learn. If you only ever talk politics with people who share your opinion then you’ll never grow anyway. By hearing the opinion of someone with a different point of view, you can further inform your own.
It isn’t the easiest thing to do, biting your tongue, but in this situation it could be worth it. Of course if your boss enquires about your opinion then you’re faced with a bit of a dilemma. What you do in this situation will come down to your own personal style. We’d advise against going off on a diatribe describing why you think they’re wrong, though.
Thankfully this situation is unlikely to happen. Most bosses realise the pitfalls of discussing serious politics with employees and will avoid it. If you do find yourself trapped in an uncomfortable discussion, then the smile and nod technique really does work wonders.
Conclusion: pragmatism is often the best option
What we’ve seen here is that there is little room for a heated political debate in the office. Freedom of speech is wonderful, but with great power comes great responsibility.
If you save the activist soapbox thing for time outside of work, then you’ll be doing everyone a great favour. Seriously. The same goes for your social media. If you know that you post a lot of political stuff on your feed, then it may be good to get a second account for that. You could also consider hiding your accounts and not adding anyone from work. While it’s not the most social thing to do, this can make a lot of sense. It also has the added bonus of hiding your holiday photos from your boss. You know the ones we mean.
In short, respect others, try to cultivate an open mind, and avoid emotive topics. Or just … you know … buy some headphones.
Written by Matt Atkinson