Today is President’s Day in the United States which is a day when we honor all who have held the office, particularly George Washington as the day is normally observed on or very near his birthday. Given that we are in the midst of a Presidential Election cycle, I thought this might be a good time to discuss what I believe to be a workplace taboo…discussing politics in the office.
I work in a cubical farm, a nightmare of office design from the 1970’s whose creator initially believed he had solved several workplace problems by giving employees both “privacy and a view”, as opposed to older office designs which featured employees working at rows of desks similar to a classroom. The idea that cubicles afford privacy is a complete joke, especially in a situation where two or three employees share the same cube, which is how ours are arranged. Cubical farms are also notoriously loud and very distracting for everyone; I often hear the entire conversation of people from four cubes away as if they were standing right next to me, even though they speak in normal indoor voice.
Last week while returning to my desk I was treated to a very animated and very loud discussion about a certain presidential candidate whose last name rhymes with Dump. The main instigator of the conversation is one of those people who should never be in a cube farm because they have a voice which naturally projects, making sure that they are heard across the entire floor. In this case, because the speaker was very passionate about the subject, the volume was louder than normal, ensuring the entire floor heard his side of it at least. Even earbuds wouldn’t block out the conversation without turning up the volume on my iPhone significantly, so I decided to take a 10 minute walk around the block and hope the conversation was over when I returned.
Now it’s not that I dislike politics; I actually follow it rather closely and enjoy having in-depth, productive and civil conversations about them. However, I have lived in Kansas for nearly a decade, and one of the first lessons I learned when I moved to this area of the state was that productive political conversations are basically impossible to have. This state has one political color, with the only variances allowed for shades of that color. Anyone outside that spectrum is an outsider, and therefore a threat. For my own sanity (and at times for my own protection, given the passion with which people feel about their politics), I stopped discussing politics or my political views, especially in public places like the office. When I am asked, I simply respond “I don’t discuss politics at work” and that normally ends the line of inquiry. This is a piece of advice that is roundly supported by workplace experts from many fields.
I feel that discussing politics at the office is bad workplace behavior, especially in a cube farm, because in our polarized society it tends to be anxiety producing. It’s provocative for those who may not agree with a particular view, increasing the odds of a heated discussion or even an argument, which in turn is experienced by all via the rotten office design. It is a recipe for creating a hostile work environment, particularly for those of us who do not participate in the conversation and simply want to focus and work. Because this particular conversation involved a very divisive candidate, the odds of a hostile work environment being produced were amped up even higher. Productivity tanks as people either wind up riveted to the conversation, or desperately try to distract themselves or avoid it.
If you need more reasons for not discussing politics at work than not wanting to make yourself the target of an HR hostile work environment complaint, remember that discussing politics can damage or even end your career. If you are a particularly loud supporter of one side, while your boss or higher ups are not, it can add a barrier to promotions within the company. In an ideal world it shouldn’t, but we don’t live in an ideal world so it is wise not to give employees or coworkers something to use against you. The same rule applies when discussing other topics like religion or some of the more inflammatory topics in the 24 hour news cycle. You are afforded freedom of speech, but not freedom from the consequences of your speech, and HR functions are there to protect the company, not to protect you. Therefore it is wise to not give anyone any ammunition to use against you. Why risk damaging your career prospects at that company or anywhere else by indulging in this kind of behavior?
Also keep in mind that official protection from discrimination based on political affiliation or political activity is only available in Washington DC, New York State and Puerto Rico; the rest of the US states lack this protection and there is no federal law protecting workers in this case either. In plain speak that means you can be fired for your political beliefs, without protection of the law. While most employers wouldn’t use this as the sole justification for your termination, if you are routinely disrupting the office and creating a hostile work environment with your political rants and debates, those are offenses for which you can be terminated in most companies. So this election season, and for all election seasons to come, think before you speak.