How To (Not) Talk Politics In The Workplace: A CEO’s Guide

As of this writing, the number one movie in North America is Alex Garland’s Civil War, a dystopian thriller about a second American civil war. Clearly, politics—and how divisive they’ve become—are on top of everyone’s mind.

But bringing up politics at the workplace is fraught with minefields, especially in this, an election year. And an election year like no other, as a glance at the headlines makes obvious.

Meanwhile, Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently warned employees not to “fight over disruptive issues or debate politics” at the office. This, a day after the company fired 28 workers protesting a cloud computing and AI services contract with Israel.

“There is very little upside from discussing that [politics] in the workplace,” said Kyllan Kershaw, a labor and employment attorney and partner at Seyfarth Shaw. “The safest bet is to keep your political views to yourself and keep it out of the workplace.”

But if you are going to talk politics at work—and some research suggests there are times when avoiding controversial topics can backfire—here are some tips to follow.

Navigating political discussions among employees

Employees have a right to free speech, but there’s also an important balance between free speech and respect in the workplace, says Debby Carreau, CEO of Inspired HR in Vancouver.

“There’s other times and places to discuss politics—usually the workplace is not the best place for it. But, that being said, you’ve got to be careful; you can’t stamp on people’s right to free speech.”

Debate and discussion in the workplace is ultimately inevitable. Here are some ideas to keep discussions in check and on track:

Have a policy in place. Ensure that the company handbook, if there is one, includes rules around political discourse, as well as a definition of same. This could help nip potentially volatile discussions in the bud. Also include rules on employees wearing or displaying purely political paraphernalia in the office or on the job.

Know the law. In the U.S., companies can restrict talking politics in the office. Exceptions include discussions about terms and conditions of employment, such as work-related topics like wages and working conditions, that are protected under the National Labor Relations Act. In Canada, political beliefs are not legally considered as protected grounds in all provinces.

Stay neutral. This is especially important for leaders who might be drawn into a conversation between two employees or colleagues. Remain reserved about your own views, not only with your words but also with your body language and tone of voice. Explain that you can see both sides, and don’t take comments personally.

If needed, provide forums for controlled discussion. Some issues demand attention. In these instances, the best approach is often a pre-emptive one. Provide those interested with a designated forum for sharing concerns and viewpoints — this can be an optional gathering during the workday, at lunch or even after business hours. While this approach is not without risks, it does provide a safety valve for discussion in a controlled, defined format.

Guidelines for leaders when sharing political views

CEOs, founders and other leaders may also have political views of their own and a desire to share them. CSuite Content cofounder Remy Scalza has developed a handy five-step guide for weighing in on hot-button issues at work.

  1. Start with why: “Before weighing in on a hot-button topic, business leaders need to ask themselves, “Why?” from both a corporate and personal standpoint,” Scalza advises.
  2. Are you truly being additive? “Do you truly have anything to add to the conversation, or are you just muddying the waters? Do you have unique insights? Or are you just talking to be heard or to be noticed?”
  3. Remember internal channels: “Business leaders often overlook the option of internal communications. But you can get the same benefits with fewer drawbacks by sharing your thoughts via your company mailing list, newsletter, or an all-hands meeting with your employees.”
  4. Do a consequence audit: “What will the likely pushback be? Are you willing to suffer the consequences if your comments go sidewise? Is it really worth it, or does it make more sense to stay on the sidelines?”
  5. When in doubt, wait: “The timeless advice to wait a day or two before sending out a heated letter or email applies doubly to business leaders.”

Additional tips for leaders wading into political territory include:

Assume nothing. You might think you’re among people who share your beliefs about, say, the outlawing of oversize soft drinks. However, the clients or business partners you’re chatting with might love (or even sell) Big Gulps. Don’t presume that someone agrees with you—or disagrees, for that matter.

Be polite. Conversations heat up when speakers impose their views and people become defensive when their beliefs and values are challenged. If you do find yourself in a political discussion stay cool, don’t shout, and watch your body language—i.e., don’t roll your eyes. “The minute you lose control, you lose all credibility,” advises Etiquette Julie

Know your stuff. If you do decide to wade into or even start a conversation, make sure you have some understanding of what you’re talking about. Citing facts, figures, surveys, and experts can be a way to keep a conversation about serious issues from going off the rails and open up the subject to a measured debate, especially if you can do so while maintaining a general or neutral stance.

Don’t pretend to know everything. Be open to the other side—listen to what the other person is saying. “I never thought of it like that” is a great bacon-saver in this regard. Be honest about what you don’t know. Other magic phrases include: “That’s very insightful, thanks for sharing your viewpoints with me.” These are also good lines to exit the conversation if it becomes too heated.

Exit strategies

When and if you do find yourself in an uncomfortable or unnecessary discussion, excuse yourself from it with grace. Know when to it’s time to lay down your weapons. It’s perfectly fine to agree to disagree, with the understanding that differences of opinion are normal and don’t need to impact working relationships.

Another important means of extricating from a difficult discussion is honesty. “I really don’t know enough about it to comment,” is both transparent and a powerful way of defusing political debate.

Of course, you can also use humour to diffuse a fired-up group: “Hey, did you hear the one about the Pope, Jesus, and the Dalai Lama walking into a bar?”

On second thought, maybe leave religion out of it, too.

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