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The Right Kind of “Office Politics”

September 19, 2016

A friend of mine recently started a new job. At lunch that first day she brought up the election and her co-workers looked at her sideways. That was how she learned that talking about politics at this workplace was just not done. So, she saved her political conversations for outside of the office and kept to “safe topics” – sports, family, and weekend plans – at lunch from then on.

My friend’s experience got me thinking about my own experiences of talking politics in the office. Whereas she was working in the for-profit sector, I have spent nearly my whole career in the nonprofit sector and have had many conversations with work colleagues about current political issues, elections, and candidates.

Was the contrast between our two experiences simply because we worked in different sectors? Whether or not that was the reason, other questions had also started to take shape for me: do any workplaces encourage conversations about politics? Should they? Are there any common policies in place?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is asking these same questions. They released their 2016 Policies on Politics in the Workplace survey in June, which sheds some light on how their members handle politics in the office.

It found that, in most organizations, talking about politics is discouraged – even though it is a protected activity according to the National Labor Relations Board. Only 4% of the organizations surveyed encouraged political activities, which includes activities in support of, or against, a political party, candidate, group/association, or agenda.

It makes sense that organizations don’t want to be encouraging their employees to have discussions that might lead to a heated argument. And in the case of nonprofit organizations, they can’t risk the perception that they are supporting or opposing a political candidate and jeopardize their tax-exempt status. But our democracy relies on informed citizens who vote and also requires us to understand and be able to handle different points of view. Given that we spend so much time at work with other people, it seems a natural place to have conversations about politics.

So what can workplaces do to support our democracy and voting while still remaining impartial to employee’s preferences? Here are some steps that managers can take to create the right kind of “office politics”:

  1. Develop written policies that can reduce the abrasive aspects of discussing politics in the office and encourage more collaborative and thoughtful discussions. For example, policies that prohibit employees from representing their organization while campaigning, donating, or endorsing candidates, from discussing politics in a disruptive way with co-workers, and from wearing or displaying campaign paraphernalia at work. One way to encourage more collaborative and thoughtful discussions is to have a respectful workplace policy that includes definitions of acceptable behavior, such as questioning a peer’s position on an issue politely – rather than asserting your position is the right one – and listening to your peer’s position with an open mind. For additional examples of policies, see pages 9 and 10 of the SHRM survey results.
  2. Allow employees to take unpaid time off to vote and remind all staff near Election day they can take time off to vote. And, if you can, let people take paid time off to vote. Taking actions that encourage employees to vote is not common, however, allowing people to take time off to vote is. While 77% of SHRM survey respondents do not encourage people to vote, 86% do allow time off to vote. This is because many states, including New York State, mandate that organizations allow their employees time off of work to vote. Your organization can go even further and provide information to employees on voter registration, voting locations, and times.
  3. If you are a nonprofit, find out if any of your funding contracts require your organization to offer voter registration forms to the public. New York City now requires 26 government agencies and their subcontractors who interact with the public to make voter registration forms available. Other cities have similar policies in place.

By Senior Consultant, Louisa Hackett