How to Work with People with Different Political Views
Like it or not, our world is fraught with conflicts about governments, lifestyles, history, and more. Keeping these disputes completely away from the workplace is equally impossible as solving them for good. So, how should we deal with political discussions and arguments at work?
Much more than just a way to keep everyone happy during a heated election season, defusing arguments when they arise and reaching a place of common understanding demonstrates effective communication, teamwork, and creativity. Navigating tense situations can help workers be more effective and create a much more open and communicative workplace environment.
If you’ve been trying to think up ways to better the company culture where you work, this guide offers tons of ways to help. Read on to find out how you can problem-solve to everyone’s benefit or agree to disagree without feeling shut down or frustrated.
What Does “Political” Really Mean?
For many people, politics has to do with elections and talking heads on TV news channels. However, all the things we do and believe are included in the politics umbrella in a general way. Lifestyle choices like veganism or vegetarianism, personal relationships, environmentally-friendly choices like recycling, and even the clothes we wear to work all demonstrate some form of opinion. That means conflict could arise from any of these topics.
The important thing to remember isn’t that everything is political, per se, but rather than everyone’s personality is constructed of countless opinions on things big and small. Sometimes people stridently defend opinions that sound completely innocuous because the subject matter just touches a nerve tied to their personal life experience.
Free Speech at the Office: How Much Is Too Much?
If arguments and disagreements are destroying the office environment, why not just ban the discussion of politics altogether? After all, the First Amendment only provides citizens protection against action from the Federal Government and doesn’t apply to speech in the workplace.
Laws like the NLRA do afford some speech rights to employees of private businesses, but not for the expression of opinions generally. Some companies have attempted to ban the general discussion of politics, but it’s really difficult to police such a rule, and in many cases establishing this directive could expose otherwise great workers to potential termination.
Nobody wants to spend their time in a place where they feel that they aren’t free to talk. Even though this may have nothing to do with their work duties, a feeling of openness and communication in the workplace is a great appeal for employees and leads to much higher retention rates. A very definite policy against discrimination, hate speech, and harassment is an absolute must but an outright ban on a concept as nebulous as politics is going to create lots of headaches down the line.
What Are Workers Allowed to Discuss?
No one can force you to listen to a coworker’s political opinions, but there are a few topics that employees can theoretically discuss without fear of retribution from the company they work for. For example, employees are allowed to talk to one another about their wages. That protection also extends to discussing the impact of political outcomes on wages.
It depends on the particular employer. Some are stricter than others while most set out their policies in the paperwork new hires sign and then don’t revisit it unless there’s a problem. As a very broad rule of thumb, it’s probably best to assume that there’s a limit established with your company and not push the envelope.
How to Avoid Conflict in the Workplace
There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure no one ever has an argument over politics at the office, but there are some things companies and workers can do to make sure that such situations are avoided and diffused when they do occur. Here are a few tips:
- Establish a Complaint Management System
You won’t be able to solve a problem if you don’t know it’s happening. Build some method for reporting concerns that everyone can use completely anonymously to stop small disagreements from getting out of hand. This is also important for reporting harassment from superiors without facing retribution.
- Use Progressive Discipline
For a complaint management system to be effective there has to be some set of consequences for people who break the rules. Start with something small like a warning and work up to more severe punishments like suspension with pay and then without pay for employees who repeatedly cause problems.
- Know Who You’re Talking To
It’s kind of common sense, but don’t walk up to coworkers who you barely know and start haranguing them on their political opinions. Getting to know your coworkers is always a smart move because it will make the office feel more welcoming, but don’t breach certain topics until you’re sure the other party is interested. If they don’t respond positively, switch topics.
Tips for Building a Welcoming Workplace Culture
If everyone at the office feels like they are part of the same team then they’ll be much more likely to handle conflict in a grounded way if it does happen.
The key to creating a truly inclusive atmosphere is to embrace people’s differences rather than try to hide them or pretend that they don’t exist. People should be authentically valued for who they are. In some way that also includes their political views.
That doesn’t mean you have to endorse anyone else’s opinion but up to a certain point acknowledging that you disagree with someone can even be a recurring joke. It all depends on mutual respect that has to be apparent and widespread throughout the office. Disrespectful behavior, even when it has nothing to do with politics or opinions, must be reprimanded whenever it occurs.
10 Strategies for Working with People With Different Political Views
Whether you work directly with them or they just share the same office space, dealing with people who disagree with you on some of your most fundamentally-held beliefs can be challenging. Use some of these tactics to make sure things don’t come to blows.
1- Live by the Golden Rule
We all learned it as kids but sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded: treat others the way you want to be treated. Even if a coworker has opinions you find abhorrent, you have to be civil for the sake of the working environment if not for the coworker’s humanity. The most angering thing about this golden rule is that you can’t force other people to live by it, all you can do is live by it yourself.
2- Don’t Gossip
If you want to alienate your peers and sow distrust around the office, gossip is a great way to do it. Not only is this a childish and frankly annoying habit that some people have, but it also leads to the creation of rumors and misunderstandings. When it comes to more explicitly political opinions, gossiping can also include mischaracterizing others’ opinions or arguments. Many people do this to win a debate, but just remember that you aren’t going to get any points for winning a no-stakes debate with a coworker.
3- Don’t Gloat or Condescend
Let’s say you just read an article online that completely changed your perception of a big world issue. Rather than gloat about how much smarter you are than your coworkers, why not take a different approach? For example, you might tell them how you found the article interesting.
Send it to them only if they’re interested in reading it and leave the discussion open-ended so they can form their own opinion. If people are particularly curious, you can even use such topics as a way to become better acquainted with your coworkers.
4- Everyone is Always Learning
If there wasn’t a time before you knew what you know now, then you’ve been leading a boring and unchanging life. Likewise, when it comes to other people, understand that they are also still learning and might not have all the same information as you. This ties in with the last rule about gloating: if you have some information, it’s not because you’re a huge genius. You just happened to find out about something first. Share it in a personable way and everyone could benefit.
5- Be Clear
If you don’t like talking about certain subjects, say so explicitly. Make sure whoever is making you uncomfortable can’t feign ignorance if you have to elevate things to HR or a manager. If you’re the one who wants to discuss politics, you can always ask if people are interested in discussing something before you jump into it.
Management should also be very clear about their rules and what the procedure is for correcting any disputes.
6- Know What You Can Control
There’s a limit to what you can do if you’re not the one initiating political discussions at work. We can’t make them do things and if they aren’t intolerable or impacting your ability to work you might have to put up with an annoying coworker. That being said, if they are affecting your mood and crossing some boundaries, the company should be able to work with both parties to make sure everyone is happy.
7- Acknowledge Different Points of View
We don’t all have to agree but that doesn’t mean there’s no common ground at all. Maybe you and a coworker get in a heated debate about the state of the neighborhood on your lunch break one day. Even if you blame different causes, you can agree that something should be done.
One great way to diffuse arguments is to demonstrate an understanding of the other side’s logic. Make sure they can see you aren’t writing them off completely but are trying to reach some point of mutual understanding.
8- Remember the Stakes Are Low
Unless you and your coworkers plan on demonstrating or lobbying, nothing is going to happen even if you do manage to convince someone that your political beliefs are right. At best it will be a bonding moment for the people involved.
Of course, if you’re in a situation to galvanize people at the office to contribute to your community or make an impact another way, you absolutely should. But that’s a much harder task to do than you’d expect.
9- Above All, Respect
Not only when people are having political discussions at work but at all other times as well, respect is integral in the workplace. Although there is likely a hierarchy in place from management on down, there should not be one in terms of respect. Everyone deserves to be treated like a thoughtful and individual human being.
Sometimes people lose track of this rule because apologizing is too humbling an experience for them. Even if you’re right, respect is the key to maintaining a healthy working relationship with coworkers.
10- Say “I Don’t Know”
Much like they do with apologizing, many people find it difficult to admit that they aren’t informed on an issue or that they don’t completely understand what other people are trying to say. It’s also important to acknowledge the limits of what you know, especially if you’re chatting with a coworker and have to explain why you think certain things.
Anyone should be able to identify with this feeling and the frankness will be refreshing if you show you know exactly where your expertise on a subject lies and where it ends. People who admit to known unknowns can come up with hypotheses and learn together.
Politics for Managers
All the rules we’ve already talked about work for managers as well, but the additional responsibility means management can strategize differently. More of the office culture and the formal complaint procedure is in their hands, so management should take care to approach differing political opinions in the following ways.
- Lead by Example
If you’re a senior-level manager, you might have different priorities from the rest of the staff. The important thing is to show how you expect people to act regarding their politics by acting that way yourself. Management who put up political posters or talk loudly about their opinions can’t expect the rest of the staff not to do the same.
- Be Fair, Don’t Be Punitive
Although it’s entirely legal to show a preference for other employees because your political views align more, you can get into trouble if you try promoting them or something more serious than granting more schedule requests, for example.
This also goes for people who have inadvertently broken rules about discussing politics. Unless it’s egregious or clear some other way that it wasn’t a mere honest mistake, going overboard handing out punishments will not create a relaxed work atmosphere.
- No Need to Pretend
Some people aren’t interested in politics but it’s no use pretending we don’t have some sort of strongly held opinion on certain subjects. Rather than pretending that you hold no views on any subject matter, it’s fair enough to explicitly acknowledge that work is not the place to have such a discussion and that you as a manager would be acting out of line by revealing your personal political beliefs.
- Value Diversity – and Mean It
We all know the kind of diversity on a college admissions flyer – just enough minorities to avoid trouble but nothing concretely showing they are a diverse institution. If you want to show employees that you value diversity, put your money where your mouth is. Take complaints seriously and eradicate bias as much as possible.
Get out of the office for team-building that lets employees showcase their cultures. Most importantly, give people some input and control over how prejudice and discrimination are handled, discussed, and policed at the company.
- Pay Attention to Detail
We all have some sort of bias baked into our thinking because we all have different lives that inform us differently. Make sure yours isn’t accidentally showing in email communications, presentations, and other communication tools. Even if you feel you’re even-handed, try anti-bias training from time to time. Be honest and don’t be scared to admit that you have some areas that need work, because that’s the only way that work is going to get done.
Everyone views important issues differently. Even things that seem unimportant can bring out emotional reactions in some people. Rather than walking on eggshells or pretending that our political views can be kept out of the workplace entirely, learning how to deal with people who have different opinions will help create a better and more open work atmosphere.
After all, if you can’t understand other points of view, you’re unlikely to be flexible enough to produce the best work. The communication you need to navigate tricky political situations in the office will come in handy in many other business applications as well, especially when communicating new ideas to others.