It can be tempting to discuss politics at work. After all, whether it’s a looming national election or a local one, you have a perfect right to strongly endorse a candidate and to discuss who won a debate. But don’t do it at work!
That’s the advice of business etiquette expert and communications consultant Barbara Pachter, whose client list includes Microsoft, Pfizer, Chrysler, Cisco and ConEdison. “The problem is that people often have strong opinions when it comes to politics. And in today’s super-charged political climate, it’s easy to say something that might insult or enrage your boss, a customer or a co-worker,” she explains. “Political discussions can quickly and easily escalate into arguments, sometimes heated ones.”
Pachter, who’s the author of numerous books, including The Power of Positive Confrontation, says the following questions are “hot buttons” you should avoid:
- “Who are you going to vote for?” Never ask this question. You may get an answer you didn’t want or expect. “Your opinion of that person may be changed if they are not voting the way you believed they would, “ Pachter tells Synergy. “This can put a negative slant on relationships in the workplace.”
- “Don’t you think the candidate’s stance on ______ is outrageous?” Using this kind of strong and negative language can come across as “fighting words” to other people. If you do comment on an issue, a less argumentative way to word your statement would be: “I disagree with the candidate’s position on _____because of_____.” Better yet, avoid this question inside the workplace.
- “Who do you think won the debate?” It’s understandable that a public or televised debate between candidates can spark discussions in the office. However, the odds are you and your colleagues may have very different opinions about who seemed most effective or honest behind the podium. Arguing these points isn’t going to be productive. So if a colleague keeps pushing his or her opinion about a debate, Pachter advises simply saying “Let’s agree to disagree.” Then change the subject.
- “How can you possibly vote for____?” Asking this question at work is an especially bad idea, Pachter points out. It not only comes across as critical, but it puts the person you are asking on the defensive and can trigger arguments. Even if you sensibly keep your candidate choices to yourself at work, the odds are some people simply won’t stop asking you questions about your political beliefs.
What’s the best way to respond? “Remember, there is absolutely no rule that you have to answer every question asked of you. So change the topic or quickly excuse yourself from the conversation,” Pachter tells Synergy. “Be assertive and politely tell the person, ‘I’m uncomfortable discussing this at work. Let’s get back to business.’”
“It’s not a good idea to say you’re undecided,” she adds, “because there’s a good chance the person will then try to convince you to vote for his or her candidate. If co-workers send you unwanted emails about politics or even leave political brochures on your desk, Pachter says it’s time to clearly say “please don’t send me this.” If the email or other political materials continue to come your way, calmly explain you’ve asked several times for them to stop and the information is being sent to your spam folder – or thrown in the trash.
Despite your best efforts, some people you work with may continue to try to engage you in a political discussion. When changing the topic and clearly stating you don’t want to discuss politics doesn’t work, Pachter suggests answering with this question: “Well, who do you want me to vote for?” “The person will tell you and often go back on a tangent and they never get back to what the question they asked you,” she explains. “Or, if they do, just say ‘you know, you bring up some good points’ or ‘I’ll consider that’ and leave it at that.”
Even if a manager or supervisor tries to discuss politics with you, opt for staying neutral. The key? Use some side-stepping techniques, including what Pachter calls the “broken record”. If you politely say over and over “I’m not discussing this at work… I’m not discussing this at work…” whenever asked about politics, sooner or later, most people will stop asking. You can also use non-specific phrases such as “That’s interesting” or “Oh, really” without agreeing or disagreeing or getting into a heated workplace discussion.
Remember that the election season will pass and, for now, concentrate on staying out of any office political fray to keep work distractions and interpersonal conflict to a minimum. “After all,” Pachter says, “the beauty of this country is that nobody knows what button you push on Election Day. It’s between you and the ballot box.”