How To Avoid A Political Minefield


Published: October 20, 2012

Q. It’s presidential election season, and the water-cooler conversations have become much more political. Is it O.K. to express your views at the office, or is it best to avoid such discussions?

A. There is good reason for the adage about not discussing politics or religion in polite company, says Todd Fredrickson, managing partner of the Denver office of Fisher & Phillips, a labor and employment law firm. Although few employers actually prohibit political discussion, employees can be disciplined — and in some cases fired — for political activity at work.

If election-related conversations turn into heated discussions, they could offend someone or become a workplace distraction. “If you’re focusing on politics to the detriment of your job, you may be open to performance-related dismissal,” Mr. Fredrickson says.

Yet it’s unrealistic to think that you won’t ever talk about politics at work, since it’s such a big part of life outside the office. It’s best to play it safe and avoid stating your specific views about an issue or a candidate and to focus instead on the process of campaigning and elections, says Dennis Becker, a co-founder of the Speech Improvement Company, a communications training and coaching firm based in Brookline, Mass.

“If someone raises a controversial point about the content of the campaign, like where a candidate stands on health care or women’s rights, redirect it to your thoughts on the process — things like negative ads, the candidates’ speaking styles or campaign spending.” Mr. Becker says. “You can sidestep controversy by saying, ‘That’s important and I hope both candidates give specific answers to that.’ ”

Q. If you’re a manager, are the rules different for you?

A. Yes, because without intending to do so, leaders or managers with strong opinions can give the impression that they are trying to influence others, which could be seen as a misuse of power, says Jamie Showkeir, co-owner of Henning-Showkeir & Associates, an organizational development consulting firm in Phoenix.

“When you are in a supervisory position, what you say has more gravity because it comes with rank,” says Mr. Showkeir, co-author of “Authentic Conversations: Moving From Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.” So it’s best to avoid those political discussions. If you can’t avoid them entirely, ask questions about others’ views but don’t make statements about yours.

Q. What if, despite your best efforts, the discussion becomes heated and even turns ugly?

A. Try to find common ground, says Tasha Eurich, a workplace psychologist and principal of the Eurich Group, a leadership and organizational development consulting firm in Denver: “Say something like, ‘I bet we can agree that both candidates are smart people who care about their country a great deal, right? Let’s leave it at that.’ And then change the subject.” If your co-worker is unrelenting, she says, tell him or her that you fear you’re both going to become upset if you keep the discussion going, so you’re going to walk away.

You can also try to end the conversation by acknowledging what your colleague has been saying, says Joseph Grenny, a co-founder of VitalSmarts, an organizational performance improvement consultancy in Provo, Utah, and co-author of “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.”

“You aren’t pretending to agree; you are affirming the fact that they have thought a lot about this and you fully respect their opinions,” he says. “Tell them it’s clear the two of you are never going to see the issue the same way, but that you like them and want to preserve the relationship, so it’s probably best not to talk about it anymore.”

Q. Is there a risk that talking politics with a colleague who has opposing views will change your relationship?

A. It could. We perceive others based on their personality characteristics as well as their social identity — whether they are a Democrat or a Republican, what college they attended, whether they are a member of Mensa or the Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Eurich says. “The human brain loves putting things into boxes,” she says, “so as soon as you learn the group someone is in, you start looking at them through that lens.”

Because people’s political beliefs are full of emotion, differences in opinion can really sting, she says: “It’s not uncommon to begin to feel differently about someone when you learn they disagree on issues that are important to you.”