The Ethics of Talking Politics at Work

The hot-button issues of politics can lead to inflamed tempers that can impede your productivityand possibly, your progress

Who do you think should be the next President of the U.S.? John McCain? Mike Huckabee? Barack Obama? Hillary Clinton? Oprah Winfrey? Jon Stewart? Regardless of who gets elected, there is no question that this is the most diverse and exciting campaign in many years.

Given what is at stake in the election and the historic nature of this year's race, it is tempting to discuss the issue at work with those colleagues we're accustomed to chatting with and hashing out so many things. Yet there are very good reasons why we shouldn't.

The Fearsome Foursome

Along with sex, money, and religion, politics is one of the most controversial topics of conversation that exists. I submit that money, more than sex, is the most personal aspect of our lives, and it is the one that opens us up to the greatest potential for embarrassment. Only the most boorish among us would ever think about asking a colleague, "So, how much did you make last year?" Thanks to reality television, cell phones, Facebook, MySpace (NEWS), blogging, and other 21st century technological developments, we know far too much about people, but however thin the line between professional and personal is getting, many of us still value a modicum of privacy, particularly when it comes to what we earn.

Sex, too, is still an off-limits topic for discussion at work and not merely for the legal reasons relating to sexual harassment. We talk about sex with our closest friends (with whom we probably would not even discuss our income), but this kind of conversation is wisely held after business hours. Neither your salary nor your sex life is anyone's business at the office. Nor, for most professional settings, are your religious beliefs. Discussing the existence of God is fine for a college philosophy class or a third date but not at a company whose mission is banking, insurance, public relations, or just about any other field one can think of.

Politics may not be as close to our hearts, minds, and souls as money, sex, or religion, but it's not too far away, either. In its purest form, politics is to our country what ethics is to us as individuals or social groups. Ethics asks, "How should I live?" Politics asks, "How should we live?" It's true, of course, that the term "politics" has come to be practically a slur word. When we are prevented from accomplishing a goal at work, we often say that what got in the way was "office politics." If a less-qualified job candidate is hired over a more qualified one, we conclude that it was "politics" that somehow won the day. However, where I am using "politics" here, it is in its classical sense: the study of how our society should be ordered.

When talk in the office turns to politics, the conversation inevitably touches on the meaningful issues at stake in the election, and most of these issues are by their nature highly divisive. Among the questions now on the table are:

• Should abortion continue to be legal?

• Should same-sex marriage be legalized?

• How relevant to holding public office is a person's religion?

• How much should the wealthy be taxed?

• To what extent should the federal government be involved in social programs?

No matter what your position on these issues is, it is clear that:

• There is disagreement about them.

• The passions raised by each question are strong.

• In all but a few instances, where you stand on each issue has little or no bearing on the job you are doing or your ability to do it.

In considering whether it is appropriate to have political discussions on the job, five fundamental ethical principles are at stake: (Do No Harm ); Make Things Better; Respect Others; Be Fair; Be Loving.

Here is an example of the very real danger of allowing free and unfettered discussions about Presidential politics at work.

Let's say that you and your boss are arguing the respective merits of your preferred candidates. Unbeknownst to you, your boss is very passionate about the abortion issue, but your candidate—and you—hold a view that is contrary to your boss's. As much as your boss might strive to respect your right to have and express your opinion, can you be sure that s/he won't hold your position against you when, say, your performance review comes around? If you are the boss in question, can you be certain that your subordinate's political beliefs won't affect your decision to give her a raise or even keep her on?

Preferences about music, art, or food are three of the many areas in which reasonable people may disagree. Your co-worker likes Madonna and you like U2? No problem. However, when someone holds contrary political beliefs from us, do we say that he or she merely has a different opinion? No. We say, rightly or wrongly, that he or she is mistaken, and this has troubling implications in the workplace. If you believe in evolution, and you suddenly discovered that a colleague is a creationist, can you honestly say that your view of him or her would not then suffer? Might this not affect how well you work together on a project that has nothing to do with how the world came into existence?

"But I'm not that way, and neither are my colleagues," you argue. "We're able to take the high road even when we talk about controversial subjects." Even if this is the case, it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of other people will follow in your footsteps, as nice as that would be.

"This is utter nonsense," you claim. "I have a right to talk about politics if I want to." Yes, of course you have a Constitutional right to free speech, and there may be no prohibitions in your workplace against discussing whatever you like, short of committing harassment or other hostile acts. But just because we have a right to do something doesn't mean that it is right to do it (, 10/11/07). When we reflect on how we ought to conduct ourselves, it is more important to ask, "Is this the right thing to do?" rather than, "Do I have a right to do it?"

Simply put, we shouldn't discuss politics in the workplace because, with very few exceptions, these discussions have nothing to do with our job and can only interfere with it.

Toward a More Respectful Workplace

One might conclude that what I am calling for will lead to a chill in the workplace or, worse, a corporate police state in which speech is carefully monitored and wrongful talk is harshly punished. Rather than make a fetish out of what each individual should be allowed to do (or get away with), a more appropriate perspective to take here—and with all issues concerning conduct at work and beyond—is to consider how our actions might adversely affect others and fracture the community of which we are a part (, 6/28/07). Yes, in the best of circumstances, discussion with people who hold different points of view can lead to greater understanding of beliefs different from one's own. Yes, it may be possible for you and your colleagues to have a civil, respectful conversation at work about the politics of abortion, euthanasia, creationism, the existence of God, your sex life, and your salary.

If you are able to have such polite repartee, you are in the minority. For most people, these kinds of discussions too often degenerate into loud arguments and the conclusion that those on the opposing side of the fence are "idiots." In what sort of business would this kind of behavior promote doing one's job effectively? As engaging as such conversations might be, to what extent will they enhance the ability to carry out one's duties and meet the needs of customers and company alike? More to the point, won't such conversations likely impede the performance of one's assignments?

Bottom line: the very real and important need for lively, informed, and vigorous debate is best met before and after one goes to work. Everyone in the body politic will be better off if this rule is treated with the respect it deserves.

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