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When Employees Are Outspoken About Politics

Dear Brittney,

I have a few employees who are unhappy with the change in our government’s administration and they tend to be very outspoken. I believe people shouldn’t discuss politics in the workplace, especially if they’re just voicing opinions to someone who hasn’t asked for them. How should I address this with the people in my office so we can continue to work together peacefully?

Signed,
Manager Caught in the Middle

Dear Manager Caught in the Middle,

Thank you for raising such a relatable issue. Likely we’ve all found ourselves in the audience of someone airing an unsolicited political opinion. While I’m sympathetic to your frustration, I also see this as an ideal moment for some important self-reflection. Before jumping straight to solutions, I’d like to invite you to evaluate your role in this common challenge. Is the problem really about “outspoken” individuals who don’t like the new administration? Or is the problem more about an inability to hear their opinion? Are these individuals’ opinions really affecting your employees’ ability to work together peacefully, or are they just different than yours and therefore unwelcome?

I realize these questions are direct, but I hope you find them helpful. Your efforts to address this situation will go much better if you first check how and whether you are contributing.

So, first identify the real problem. Is it people airing their frustration with President Biden and his administration in an outspoken and unwelcome way? Or are you and others unwilling to hear an opinion that’s different from your own?

I’ll leave the self-reflection to you and suggest that if the challenge relates to the latter, then examine how you can create a more inclusive and respectful workplace for people on both sides of the political spectrum.

If you determine people truly are crossing a line in venting their opinions in the workplace, here are some things you can do.

Formalize It

It’s true, the workplace is often an inappropriate forum for discussing sensitive topics. Some workplaces have formal policies around discussing politics, religion, sexual orientation, etc. And that’s certainly an option you could pursue. If you’d like to create something formal, talk with HR and find ways to add a policy to your company handbook. If you enact a policy (or already have one), you could have a simple discussion with individuals crossing the line. Say something like, “Would you mind complying with our policy to avoid discussing politics at work? These topics are so personal and sensitive that we’d rather not bring them into the workplace and cause unnecessary stress and anxiety.”

Get Consensus

Are others feeling as tired and taxed by the political discussion as you are? Poll the team and ask who would prefer to leave politics out of the office. If 80% feel this way, for example, you might set a boundary that captures the feelings of the majority of the team. Let the team know, “Hey, let’s acknowledge that it’s been a tough year and a majority of us would appreciate a break from political discourse at work. Let’s agree to leave this conversation at the front door. And let’s also make it okay to kindly remind each other of this agreement when needed.”

However, I caution you to make sure the agreement is not partisan. Political commentary goes for ALL political comments, not just those you might disagree with. Those who are now seen as outspoken may take issue if their peers were allowed to freely vent about President Trump and his administration over the past four years. If they don’t get the same privilege they watched their colleagues enjoy now that President Biden is in office, you may meet resistance. Honestly consider if this has been the case, and if so, tread lightly or move to the next tip.

Address Your Colleagues Directly

Assume your “outspoken” colleagues are reasonable and rational. Perhaps the best course of action is to simply pull the few individuals aside and kindly ask them to temper their political vent sessions. Don’t silence their views, just explain that there are times and places to discuss politics, especially in the workplace. Share some of the natural consequences that occur when they volunteer an unsolicited political opinion at work. For example, their comments may derail more important matters at hand, affect the pace of work and progress of meetings, or threaten the cohesiveness of the team. I’d be willing to bet they’ll be understanding to your kind approach. And if they see it differently, take it as an opportunity to listen and learn.

For better or worse, political discussions have wormed their way into every aspect of our lives. We are all responsible for the reality we are now living in—one where we often struggle to calmly and respectfully share our opinions and often struggle to calmly and respectfully listen. We would do well to learn how to both share our opinions in ways that will be heard and listen in ways that will drive change. I hope these tips help you to that end.

Best of luck,
Brittney

What do you think? You can join the conversation in the comment section at the bottom of this page.

Brittney Maxfield

"I share insights and lessons learned from successes and failures as a working mom and 15-year student of crucial skills.” Brittney Maxfield is the Senior Director of Marketing Communications at VitalSmarts. For the past 15 years she has worked alongside the cofounders of VitalSmarts to drive awareness and adoption of the skills taught in its New York Times bestselling books and award-winning courses. She loves to spend time with her three amazing kids and musical husband.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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11 thoughts on “When Employees Are Outspoken About Politics

  1. This is a well written answer to the question. I have seen several times since the inauguration where people that had political rants over the last 4 years, now want the other side to say nothing.
    With that said, i fall into the group that is simply tired of all the political discourse. It has destroyed friendships and in some cases family. We need to all be tolerant of others beliefs.

  2. I agree that it’s best practice to regularly consider our own role in a challenge and do some honest self-reflection. And I think the three strategies offered to Manager Caught in the Middle are solid and very helpful. I also believe that we need to be careful about the stories we might be telling ourselves about the possible role of Manager Caught in the Middle’s challenge.

    Perhaps the source of his/her perception that it’s a challenge has more to do with a belief that certain categories of conversation are not appropriate for the workplace because of their potential to offend and divide, than it has to do with his/her personal beliefs about specific statements or positions being shared under that category.

    Perhaps a more engaging approach would be to first seek deeper understanding of the manager’s statement of “I believe people shouldn’t discuss politics in the workplace…” Initial questions related to that might have been more effective than suggesting that if there’s no current impact, there’s no need for concern, or that the problem may exist because the individuals’ opinions are “just different than yours and therefore unwelcome.”

    Your questions are valid, but they could be perceived as dismissive or accusatory if they don’t relate to manager’s the true concern. And if you lead with those questions, you may lose the opportunity to get to the true concern.

    1. Thanks for taking time to read the article and for sharing your thoughts. I can see what you are saying. You’ve surfaced a very valid point around the importance of addressing the heart of the questioner’s concerns. That principle is important when approaching tricky interpersonal situations in general. I think the tips I shared still stand for someone who fundamentally doesn’t believe politics should be shared in the office. Hopefully they’re helpful, actionable ideas for this manager who is looking to respectfully limit political discourse at work. Please share any additional ideas you might have for this manager. This open forum is such a wonderful place to share ideas and help one another through these tricky situations.

  3. I have a completely different perspective from Ms. Maxfield. Consistently and regardless of the details, I believe it is absolutely inappropriate for coworkers to be discussing religion or politics in a workplace setting–because Crucial Conversations! People are more deeply emotionally committed to opinions (often without rational basis) related to religion and politics than about most other topics. Thus, the risk of conflict arising because of divergent opinions on these topics is too high for management to tolerate in an employment context.

  4. Today much of your advise was spot on. But for the first time in maybe twenty years of reading Crucial Conversation advice, I strongly disagree with one recommendation, that “…the workplace is often an inappropriate forum for discussing sensitive topics.”
    Regulating topics, opinions, or feelings is a fools solution. It won’t work, managers will end up arbitrating subtle distinctions and employees will be driven to mask their beliefs or speak them quietly in the absence of a manager.

    But even more destructive is that our society, our culture needs these discussions to go on in every setting, workplaces, clubs, churches, schools, etc. The discussions just need to done with civility and respect for differences of opinion. Check out the book UpSwing. The evidence is in that we have been driven to echo chamber extremes precisely because we have so few chances to have such discussions with people holding differing views in a safe environment characterized by mutual respect. Thats how we gravitate to more agreement on what is fact; what really is the problem, issue or challenge; and what solutions are reasonably likely to help us make progress.

    In fact holding such discussions in many local settings including the work place gives us the practice needed to have civil and respectful discussions when stakes are high and emotions are charged about work related topics too.

    1. Spot On, Michael.

      Less we forget these folks are humans and humans have opinions, beliefs, agreements, disagreements, etc. on all/every topic and that is part of what makes us great. We need these discussions, all discussions, (if done civilly/respectfully) everywhere.

      We do not need them more now than ever, we have always needed them and will always need them.

      And we are not looking for consensus of opinions and likely will not even get consensus of facts, although knowing where undisputed facts are is valuable.

      I’ll check out The Upswing by Putnam.

    2. Yes – important. It does not prevent conflict to outlaw conversation.

      That said – for complex conversations, an active workplace may not offer enough time for reflection or exchange, so the idea “let’s get back to work, and plan for anyone who wants to follow up on this conversation at the end of lunch hour (or other named time). I think universal rules do shut out some people, and worse, turn other employees into judges if they try to remind some to be quiet. But informally, most agree that work is the key focus, so reminding people informally on let’s get back to our work, is a kind way of reminding without judging.

  5. I’d like to recommend a good read by Adam Grant of Wharton School: The Science of Reasoning with Unreasonable People (NYT) In this short article he outlines a way of learning from those with whom we strongly disagree and who may not be very willing to change their minds. He also demonstrates how really listening to someone on a delicate topic may help them calm down too and become a tiny bit more open to reconsidering some of their position. Still, we can’t count on their change – but we can be open to growing ourselves!

    1. Thanks for the recommended NYT article. I really like its concluding statement:
      “I no longer believe it’s my place to change anyone’s mind. All I can do is try to understand their thinking and ask if they’re open to some rethinking. The rest is up to them.”

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