Keeping Your Politics to Yourself

With the nation polarized, workplace discussions can get out of hand fast. Here are some tips for defusing the topic

By Liz Ryan

If you're like most corporate veterans, you can hold your own at the water cooler, whether the topic is sports, current events, or the hit HBO series of the moment. Unfortunately, though, in an election season in which passions are running hot, politics -- the national kind -- can overpower all other workplace conversations. And that can be hard on your office relationships, and perhaps hurt your career.

Social norms suggest that, even if you're Whoopi Goldberg, you should steer clear of politics and religion except with folks you know well. But as a practical matter, people trample all over this rule at work, especially in a tight Presidential race. In most offices, it's pretty easy to distinguish the Bushies from the Kerry-ites (from the Nader folks over in the corner). Sometimes, as with sports rivalries, the candidate banter stays good-natured. Sometimes not.

It's the latter situation that can have serious consequences -- and that you need to avoid, or at least handle adroitly. One reason is that the current, polarized political climate creates an atmosphere where one bit of information -- the knowledge that a co-worker supports one candidate or the other -- can color his or her relationships with team members in unfortunate ways.

DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL.

  For instance, if the entire office knows Joe supports Kerry and Tina supports Bush, that can create a set of (potentially false) impressions about both people. Heck, Joe must be a bleeding-heart, tax-and-spend liberal who would agitate for higher wages in the mailroom and letting the secretaries join a union. He probably doesn't even support our troops in Iraq. Who wants to work with a guy like that?

Likewise, Tina's support for Bush may load her down with weird baggage. Man, if I had known Tina was like that, I wouldn't have put her on our Minority Issues Taskforce -- what do Republicans care about minorities?

Such generalizations aren't reasonable, of course. But they can spread in a flash -- or not, if you resist the temptation to trumpet your political leanings. Should someone ask how you're voting, say: "I'm paying close attention to the campaign. Ask me after election day, and maybe I'll tell you then." Chances are, no one will believe that you're in the apparently tiny slice of the electorate that's still undecided. But how will they really know?

Just remember, if this sounds ridiculous, in very few scenarios will it help your career to make public your political preferences. And in plenty of scenarios it might hurt.

MEWLING RESPONSE.

  It isn't uncommon for corporate execs to subtly (or not) probe for the political proclivities of their staffs. Even if they don't ask subordinates outright to support a candidate -- most managers ought to know that they can get in big trouble for that -- they may begin to allow political opinions to influence their view of you: Your manager may make judgments about your character, your savvy, or even your patriotism, based on which politicians you support.

Don't believe it? Well, I hear from people in corporate settings quite often who are asked their views of candidates or their opinions on a campaign issue, and feel that they're being tested. What if you say the wrong thing? What if you cave, say what the boss wants to hear, and hate yourself afterward? How do you navigate those waters?

Here's my advice. Keep handy a set of safe -- but not mealy-mouthed -- responses, plus a "don't go there" rejoinder that you can use to back out of the topic.

I wish I had been ready a dozen years ago, when my CEO burst into my office in the middle of a rant about the first Gulf War, and challenged me to respond. "Of course I hate to see us at war," I mewled, "but thank goodness it has gone so well and so quickly." Blecccch.

CLOSED LIPS.

  Here's how you might react were you better prepared. Your boss, an in-your-face Democrat, asks: "Don't you think it's absurd that we would go to war on false premises?" You say: "I'm more concerned that since we're there, we manage the situation the best we can, get the country on its feet, and get our troops home. But you know what? I'm trying really hard this year to keep my mind open and my mouth shut. Do you want to go over that vendor performance analysis?"

This isn't kow-towing, and it isn't insubordination, either. You're essentially asking your boss to view your political opinions as he or she would your religious beliefs (let's hope!) -- with respect and tolerance, including understanding for your desire to keep your feelings on the topic to yourself.

With a little forethought, you can be ready for nearly any political question -- and calmly count the days until November. At least after Election Day, you'll have to listen to only one set of rants -- from the losing side.

Ryan is an at-work expert, speaker, and writer and CEO of the online networking organization WorldWIT

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