Death Wish? Discuss Politics at Work
BY Jon Morris
Discussing politics at work is a sure way to derail a safe, inclusive, and constructive environment.
Some rules of business etiquette have changed over time, but this well-known adage from Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms, a guide to writing and etiquette from 1879, is still a common standard: "Do not discuss politics or religion in general company. You probably would not convert your opponent, and he will not convert you. To discuss those topics is to arouse feeling without any good result."
The inauguration of President Obama, the debt ceiling, and other hot-button political topics might generate a lot of discussion in your office this month. But if you're a CEO and want to build the best place to work, sharing your political views with your employees can dismantle it.
In a March 2012 survey, Careerbuilder found that 23 percent of workers who have discussed politics at work had a heated discussion or fight with a co-worker, boss, or someone else higher up in the organization. While some people might not consider that a significant number, the short-term and long-term impact on your culture can be substantial. Even one fight can derail the making of a safe and constructive environment.
The political arena has become more polarized in recent years, and people can more easily express and share their feelings on a particular matter with social media. There are many CEOs and business leaders who have chosen to talk openly about their views on health care, immigration or other political issues. If your employees know your stance, they might feel uncomfortable if they disagree with you.
People want an environment where they can thrive and be respected. However, a chief executive's actions, implicit or explicit, can create a tense atmosphere. Knowing how strongly someone feels about a controversial issue can alienate customers and pressure employees to keep silent. Secondly, it places two key traits of an effective organization at risk: the company's reputation and employee morale.
While you might want to share your point-of-view, you have little to gain and a lot to lose as a CEO. Assuming that all companies strive to be best places to work, sharing your political views can hurt the achievement of that goal.
How to Handle It
So if you're facing this issue at your workplace, how do you address it? There is a fine line that senior business executives must walk: creating an inclusive place to work and honoring one's freedom of speech. It's a delicate and difficult task but it's possible. Fostering mutual respect as a core value can lay a strong foundation for any business, but the responsibility starts with the leader who leads by example.