Talking Politics at Work: Where to Draw the Line

As midterm elections loom, the conversation at work might turn to politics. What’s a small business owner to do?
people arguing
If the conversation in the workplace turns to politics, it might make for an uncomfortable atmosphere. Here’s how to keep the peace. (Photo: pathdoc/Shutterstock)

Nowadays, you can’t turn on the TV, log on to Facebook or open your mailbox without being bombarded by political ads. This can only mean one thing: it’s election time.

As a small business owner in the midst of such discord, you’re faced with an important task: making sure the political persuasions of your employees don’t alienate or negatively impact your customers, or one another.

But how? We asked a handful of small business owners how they’ve navigated these rough waters, and they seem to fall into two buckets: those who take a zero-tolerance approach, and those who believe there’s no way to avoid the topic altogether and therefore adjust their policies accordingly.

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The ‘Zero Tolerance’ bucket

It’s tempting to dive into a discussion when the topic is something you can get behind. But many managers say it’s better not to give in, no matter what. Rhonda Keels, co-owner of Quest Building Services, a commercial cleaning company in Columbus, Ohio, says she takes a zero-tolerance approach to political discussion.

“We have quickly learned to divert the topic if an employee starts talking politics,” Keels said. “If a co-worker knows my affiliation and is on page with me, I still divert as soon as possible.”

Staci Epstein, principal of Be Group, a talent-placement firm in Philadelphia, put it even more simply: “I wouldn’t bring it up on a date, and I wouldn’t bring it up to coworkers.”

Staci Epstein, Be Group

“I wouldn’t bring it up on a date and I wouldn’t bring it up to coworkers.” – Staci Epstein, Be Group

Of course, even the clearest and most direct policies can falter when times get really tense. When that happens, many managers choose to handle the problem preemptively.

“I don’t believe [an official policy] is necessary as the vast majority of people understand how to work with people they disagree with and remain civil, even in our heightened political state,” said Rich Franklin, owner and director of recruitment at KBC Staffing in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Nonetheless, we just sent out an email last week in advance of the midterms reminding people that diversity of opinion must be tolerated and for people to avoid talking about their political beliefs should they become so heated that they feel like they may have trouble controlling their emotions.”

Franklin also said he advises new hires to avoid the topic whenever possible, especially as a newbie.

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“Politics, religion and sex are those subjects that, rightfully, should rarely if ever be discussed in the workplace,” said Jason Patel, founder of Transizion, a college prep company based in Washington, D.C. “If you are a goal- or customer-oriented company – as most companies should be – these subjects do nothing but take the focus off important outputs and projects that can add value to customers’ lives.

Jason Patel headshot

“Harboring dislike in a team is the first step to bringing a small business down.” – Jason Patel, Transizion

“Furthermore, those who can’t speak about politics in a courteous manner are bound to divide the team,” Patel continued. “A divided team doesn’t function well since no one has each other’s backs. Individual and petty motives will then take priority over the team’s goals. This is a worst-case scenario. Harboring dislike in a team is the first step to bringing a small business down.”

Many managers have chosen to draft a formal policy against political discussion. If you choose to do so, it’s advised that you explain clearly and directly why such a policy is necessary.

“Regardless of the political topic and opinion, someone is likely to be alienated if their personal beliefs differ,” said Jeffrey Hensel, a mortgage banker with North Coast Financial in Oceanside, Calif. “We want our employees to express their political beliefs, but the office is simply not the appropriate venue to discuss these types of issues.”

The ‘If You Must’ bucket

People talk. About the weather, about their children, about their favorite sports team … and yes, about politics. Trying to stifle it, especially in a small business, usually proves fruitless.

“As an employer, I think it’s best to use your intelligence when it comes to speaking about politics at work,” said Will Craig, managing director of LeaseFetcher, a car leasing comparison website in the U.K. “It can obviously be tempting to consider banning all political talk full-stop, but doing so is pretty futile: you can ban your employees from speaking about politics, but chances are that this talk will still go on. Your employees are only human and they’re entitled to free speech and to hold their own views.

“My policy is to allow short conversations, in moderation,” Craig continued. “Some political talk is fine, but abusive, disruptive or confrontational behavior isn’t.”

“Employers need to remind employees of appropriate workplace conduct and applicable practices and policies that govern behavior.” – Wendy Silver, Beyond the Workplace (Photo: Wendy Silver)

Banning certain speech in small businesses is “unrealistic” in many settings, said Wendy Silver, owner of Beyond the Workplace, a HR consulting firm in Needham, Mass. “However, employers need to remind employees of appropriate workplace conduct and applicable practices and policies that govern behavior. Then employers need to make sure they adhere to these policies and enforce them consistently. If individual employees seem to be voicing strong opinions that are impacting them, or others in the workplace, then I recommend coaching that employee to refrain from a future conversation on the topic, citing the tension and distraction it may be creating.

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“My advice in handling these conversations,” Silver said, “is to focus on the work and the job. If it is not getting done as a result of distracting conversations or creating an uncomfortable work environment for others to get their job done, it must be addressed.”

In many business environments, it is not only possible to allow political discussion, it’s essential.

Robert Basso mugshot

When managers and leaders allow for an open dialogue, organizations are stronger.” – Robert Basso, Associated HCM

“A trusting, collaborative environment needs divergent opinions,” said Robert Basso, owner of Associated Human Capital Management, a payroll and human resources firm in New York. “It’s the individual that needs to be cognizant of their standing with their co-worker. They must decide how much, if any, to share of their views. While this may sound unconventional, our nation runs on this freedom, and it should be permitted.”

There are limits to this permission, however, and your staff would be wise to hold political discussions “primarily during breaks or lunch and not during times when work must be done,” Basso said.

“The key here is leadership,” he added. “When managers and leaders allow for an open dialogue, organizations are stronger.”

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