August 6, 2012

Little good can come of political debates in the workplace. And during a highly charged presidential election campaign, this is an understatement.

Political debates at work can result in a polarized work force, tinged with rancor and recrimination that can sour the atmosphere and stymie productivity. Employees can lose respect for each other and their managers. So what is a manager to do?

First, don’t get into political discussions with employees yourself or broadcast your political leanings at work. Doing so can result in your losing some people’s respect, which can undermine your authority. It can also lead to discrimination claims on the basis of political beliefs by employees whose views are different from yours.

man and woman squaring off at work

The most sensible approach to political discussions at work is probably to tolerate them as long as they remain civil and do not disrupt work flows. But if they become disruptive, managers need to intercede. Here are some suggestions for how to go about it.

  • When you happen onto a heated political discussion, politely say something like “I think political debates are healthy some places, but not at work. We are getting paid to (whatever the job is), and political arguments interfere with that.”
  • Put similar sentiments into an email, asking that employees limit their discussion of politics at work. Point out that it is an issue of respect for diversity, and that the company does not tolerate anything that resembles harassment. “Diversity” and “harassment” are laden with meaning for most employees.
  • If political literature, buttons, cartoons or jokes have been disruptive, you may want to ban them from the workplace. You should certainly ban their use in front of customers.
  • Single out agitators or those who ignore requests to turn down the heat. Have a private discussion with them. Explain your concerns. For example, point out how employees are becoming polarized into “blue and red” factions, and that prevents them from working effectively as a team.
  • Ask that they refrain from further political discourse during work hours, and tell them that their failure to comply will be handled as a disciplinary issue. Then, if necessary, follow your progressive discipline policy.
  • Implement a ban on using company resources to promote a political candidate, party or view. This includes phones, computers, printers, fax, smart phones and tablets.
  • Consider posting suggestions for how to have a civil discussion of politics “during breaks or before and after work.”

Following are some examples of suggestions you might want to post for employees:

  • Before expressing an opinion, think of how it might change other’s perceptions of you  in your role at work.
  • Be respectful of others’ opinions.
  • Allow others to speak without interrupting them.
  • Ask them questions about their views to try to understand them better.
  • If you can’t discuss a subject without getting emotional, it is best avoided.
  • Avoid topics that are highly charged or personal.
  • Don’t discuss politics with argumentative co-workers.

There is a place for political discourse and debate but, with few exceptions, it is not at work. It is the manager’s responsibility to stay out of the fray and to intervene if civility or productivity suffer from such discussions.

This article was originally posted on August 6, 2012 and the information may no longer be current. For questions, please contact GRF CPAs & Advisors at