Dealing with Political Talk at Work

Published: May 10, 2017

 Workplace Issues       

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the communal kitchen, the President goes and fires the Director of the FBI. Now there's no way you're going to be able to grab a Keurig pod without hearing—or, worse, being expected to interact with—Jim from sales' hot, straight-from-Twitter take on what constitutes an impeachable offence, or Karen from accounting's defense of the action based on her close reading of Sean Spicer's body language during his latest press conference.

And, no, it's not your imagination or some kind of recency bias—political chat in the office has definitely gotten more prevalent and more partisan in recent months.

How much worse?

Well, according to the American Psychological Association, more than a quarter of all employed adults reported feeling tense or stressed because of political discussions in the workplace since the election. That's compared to just 17% who reported similar levels of stress or discomfort during the campaign—the period where you'd think that discussions and tension over competing visions of the future might have peaked.

Statista Political Tension

The reasons aren't especially hard to fathom: we're in the early days of a new administration which won unexpectedly after trailing for most of the campaign, and which has a tendency to announce major changes without a lot of foreshadowing. And, surprise factor aside, many of the issues that the administration has attempted to tackle in its early days—from immigration bans to healthcare reform—are in areas where there are stark political divides, meaning that they're all but certain to garner an emotional reaction when discussed.

Or, as David Ballard, the director of the APA's Center for Organizational Excellence puts it in the article I linked to above:

"The political tensions are about more than who won or lost an election […] People across the political spectrum have strong feelings about very personal issues that directly affect their lives, including equality, civil liberties, the role of government, social justice and economic security. Being bombarded with news updates, social media chatter and arguments with friends and coworkers can reinforce stereotypes about Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, perpetuating an 'us versus them' mentality and driving a wedge between people."

So, where do we go from here? How does someone avoid politically-charged conversations they don’t want to be part of in the workplace, or avoid making their colleagues uncomfortable if they do choose to participate?

The obvious answer is to recommend not talking about it: after all, politics is one of the Big 3 no-no topics for polite conversation. But, as the APA report shows, we're getting pretty close to the point where the Big 3 becomes the Big 2 in the workplace—so even if you decide not to participate, your chances of overhearing or being pulled into a conversation seem to be increasing all the time.

In those instances, it seems like the only remaining option is to remain calm—getting angry never helps—and to be as open and accepting of others' points of view as you can. The APA's Bullard notes that resisting "the trap of vilifying those with different opinions" is part of the key to creating a psychologically healthy work environment.

While that's not going to happen overnight, ultimately the only variable that you have any control over is your own response—whether that's to walk away, make an attempt to change the subject, find common ground, or simply explain that you'd rather not discuss politics in the workplace. All of these are valid options whose mileage will vary depending on the situation and the individuals involved. And choosing to pursue one or more of them rather than getting entangled in a heated conversation could well turn out to be good for both your psychological health and your career.