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Workplace political debate has pitfalls


John A. Challenger is chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the global outplacement consultancy that pioneered outplacement as an employer-paid benefit in the 1960s. Challenger is a recognized thought leader on workplace, labor, and economic issues.

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With the contest and name-calling between the Democratic presidential contenders becoming more and more heated as the April 22 Pennsylvania primary approaches, the debate over which candidate should represent the party is undoubtedly spilling over into the nation’s workplaces.

As Americans spend more time at the office and the line blurs between employees’ work and personal lives, coworkers often become members of one’s social circle and therefore a sounding board for one’s political views and opinions. However, while political talk in the office should not be discouraged, it is important that

certain ground rules be followed.

Passions and tensions are high and the general election is still seven months away. The fight for the Democratic nomination is getting more rancorous and proponents of each candidate are getting more vocal. Political discussion is the hallmark of a free society, but when the debate enters the workplace, it can create some significant problems.

Political debates in the workplace not only can present a possible disruption of productivity, but they can create a tension-filled work environment. In extreme cases, these debates can even become hostile. For co-workers who discover that they disagree on a hot-button issue like the war in Iraq or abortion, it can be difficult to set aside these differences when it comes time to coordinate on a project.

The situation can be particularly uncomfortable if the political rift is between a worker and his or her supervisor. It is important to remain well-liked by your supervisor, so sharing political views with the boss can be a risky venture.

Thirty-five Percent Uncomfortable Talking Politics with Coworkers
Despite the risk, a 2008 survey by the American Management Association shows that 40 percent of business people surveyed are comfortable talking about politics with their supervisors. About 38 percent were uncomfortable discussing politics with their bosses and about 35 percent were uncomfortable talking about their political views with coworkers.

Interestingly, some of those who feel comfortable talking politics with the boss may not be as comfortable sharing his or her true positions. A Vault.com survey of workers last December found that nine percent of workers feel pressure to conform to their supervisors’ political views.

Most companies do not have a formal policy about political discussions in the workplace and most do not need one. However, it is something that department heads and managers should be mindful of in an election year. Nearly half of the Vault.com survey respondents have witnessed coworkers arguing about politics. When discussions escalate to arguments, it is time for management to intervene.
For the most part, employees have to monitor their own behavior. One of the keys to political discussions at the office is to keep them brief and light. The last thing you want is for conversation to become confrontational.

Supervisors should also be particularly careful about engaging subordinates in political debate. In today’s political arena, where political and religious views are often closely entwined, supervisors should avoid putting themselves in a position that could leave them vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits.

Tips for keeping political discussions from negatively affecting one’s career:

Keep it civil: Do not let friendly banter deteriorate into a name-calling shouting match.

Know your colleague: Career-wise, it is probably safer to converse with those who share your views. If unsure about a colleague’s views, then avoid political conversations or carefully probe for his or her views.

Do not campaign: Give-and-take conversations are acceptable, but campaigning can be off-putting. If someone expresses discomfort with political discussions, respect his or her wishes.

Stick to politics: While politics are increasingly entwined with religion, consider that aspect of the debate off limits.

Do not evaluate based on politics: You may not agree with a coworker’s political views, but, if you are a supervisor, do not let that influence your assessment of that person’s work and/or value to the company.

Workplace political debate has pitfalls © 2008, John A. Challenger, CEO, Challenger, Gray & Christmas;

The Office-Politics Industry Expert Opinion Column | www.officepolitics.com;

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