Heated political debates at work can cause more stress in the workplace, affecting productivity and work quality.
Whether it’s talking about a controversial $95,000-a-year intern hired at the Houston Airport System or the will-they-won’t-they talk of an impeachment inquiry in Congress, it’s hard to get away.
With the average U.S. employee spending 8.5 hours at work on weekdays, you’re bound to get roped into conversations about what’s going on with American politics,
The fights don’t come from who goes on to become the president of the United States, said David Ballard, director of the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace program.
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“On the surface, that’s what it’s about, but it’s about those serious issues that are personal and important and can divide people, whether it’s national security, immigration or diversity issues,” Ballard said.
But how do you talk about politics without getting into fist fights?
Know your rights
First, know your workplace’s policies. A good workplace will have a manual or handbook outlining the dos-and-don’ts about employee behavior.
It might range from company to company. But at the very least, you should know three things: what your company defines as harassment and discrimination, what its guidelines are when interacting with clients, customers and other workers and what the policies are when it comes to social media use.
If you’re an employer, you should set expectations about how workers treat their colleagues and clients as soon as possible.
“You could say that employees can’t take an official stance in front of customers or other employees as a representative of the organization,” said Jill Chapman, a senior performance consultant at Houston-based Insperity.
Workplaces can also set dress codes barring political messages, such as campaign buttons, on workwear. But employers need to heed Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees employees the right to wear union buttons, shirts or other organized labor-related clothing.
The First Amendment protects your right to free speech as a citizen, but not so much as an employee of a private company. Private employers could bar political discussion entirely — but human resources experts say that doesn’t work, so it’s more likely they’ll put some sort of limitation on how the Democratic debate can be discussed.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to have carefully crafted restrictions on speech as a reminder the company does not tolerate disruptive behavior,” said Nehal Anand, an attorney at labor and employment litigation firm Littler Mendelson.
A 2017 APA survey found that 31 percent of employees surveyed had seen their colleagues arguing about politics in the workplace, while 24 percent of employees avoided people because of their political views.
For workers who want to still get along with their colleagues regardless of who they support in Houston’s hotly contested mayoral race, the best approach is to be as nonconfrontational as possible.
Experts recommend bringing up conversations you want to discuss, such as feedback on a new Metro bond initiative, by starting with open-ended questions. For instance, try “Did you hear about the Metro item on the ballot? What do you think of it?” instead of, “That new $3.5 billion Metro bond is stupidly expensive.”
That’s how you get someone to respond thoughtfully and engage in discussion. Plus, if you’re looking for a fight, it’s better to take that to a different venue.
“If you hesitate or pause because you don’t know if you should actually bring this up or talk about this,” Chapman said, “ then probably that’s your first clue to not bring it up in the workplace,”
Right not to speak
It’s also important to recognize that not everyone wants to talk politics — a lot of people try to avoid it. If you’re one of those people, remember that it’s fine to avoid diving into heavyweight topics such as if Washington’s doing enough about climate change. You can say “I appreciate that you’re invested in discussing policy, but I don’t want to talk about this right now,” or “Maybe we can debate this at a later time.” (After all, you’re getting paid for something other than talking about the impeachment inquiry.)
“Often times, people assume that everyone likes a good heated debate,” Anand said, “but many people will understand and stop once you ask them to and let them know you don’t want to engage in such discussions.”
That may not be the easiest way out if you directly report to the person who’s bringing up the Green New Deal, or if someone comes up to you at the microwave every single day to ask for opposing views on whatever C-SPAN is playing on the lunchroom TV.
Get HR involved if you feel like the person is harassing you or making it intolerable to be at work.
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Remember those policies you acquainted yourself with earlier? This is when you can start documenting each instance. Write a short synopsis of what happened on your phone and save it to your Notes app.
If the harassment continues at your desk, keep a running log of when, where and what happened on a Google Doc, for easy access on both devices.
The onus isn’t just on workers. Leaders should model the behavior and tone of respect that they expect their employees to have. That also means consistently enforcing policies, not just ones in favor of one candidate.
“It’s being mindful of the fact that not everyone around you may share the same view and perspective,” Ballard said.