How To Defuse Tense Political Conversations At Work

You may never get the Democrats or Republicans on your team to agree on politics, but there are strategies for keeping teams on the same page about work.
Here's how to address tensions and jabs about the 2020 election and beyond.
Here's how to address tensions and jabs about the 2020 election and beyond.

You often cannot choose who you work with, and unlike with family members, you cannot just avoid co-workers if you disagree with their politics.

It’s estimated we spend over 2,000 hours each year working closely with our colleagues. And as Election Day looms and the division and animosity between both political parties deepens, the hours we spent with co-workers of opposing political beliefs may get more awkward and uncomfortable.

In an October poll of 617 job seekers using Monster.com, more than 1 in 3 said they had changed their opinion of a co-worker due to that person’s political affiliation. Thirty-two percent said they were uncomfortable discussing the upcoming presidential election with their co-workers.

You may be hearing underhanded jabs or direct comments about the presidential candidates or where people would side if the election leads to a constitutional crisis. When a work conversation is going off the rails due to election talk, it takes strategic finesse to call it out and bring the topic back to firmer ground, all while making each person feel heard.

State your discomfort with where the conversation is going.

If you believe talking with your co-worker about politics will not be productive and will disrupt everyone’s workday, one option is to directly state that you don’t want to get into the election and what the Trump administration has done today.

Gregory Tall, a workshop facilitator with more than 15 years of human resources experience, said it’s effective if you first validate your colleague’s interest in discussing politics with a statement like, “Thank you for your interest” and then let that co-worker know you would rather not discuss your personal political views in the workplace.

“What I found is that even if the conversation is uncomfortable, things tend to go a lot better if you first give the person a chance to respond one on one.”

- Gregory Tall

This is step one in the “swivel” strategy communication experts use, in which you acknowledge what the person is saying, show appreciation and empathy, and then use “and” or “while” statements to firmly switch the conversation to something you actually want to talk about.

Of course, if the co-worker’s comments are making everyone uncomfortable and are creating a hostile workplace, escalating the situation to human resources is another option. But having a private, one-on-one talk can be effective in defusing tensions if you feel personally comfortable doing it.

“Even if the conversation is uncomfortable, things tend to go a lot better if you first give the person a chance to respond one on one,” Tall said. “No one ever appreciates when you’ve gone and told HR on them.”

If you go the chat route, pull your co-worker aside privately and share how you have been receiving their political comments with a statement like, “This makes me feel quite honestly uncomfortable,” Tall said.

Workplace bans on politics chat can backfire. Here’s what actually works.

If the election is causing so much internal bickering, is it better for companies to ban talk of politics and elections altogether at work?

HR specialists say a total ban is legally dicey because workers covered under the National Labor Relations Act have the right to discuss their workplace conditions with each other, which can include topics like how a Biden or Trump administration would affect their benefits.

Moreover, a ban won’t stop charged conversations from happening. “Those conversations then go underground,” Tall said.

Phyllis Hartman, founder of the human resources company PGHR Consulting, noted that banning all political speech might also “bring more attention to it.”

What is more effective is setting clear and consistent expectations and boundaries about what is and isn’t acceptable to talk about at work and how to do it before there are simmering resentments. Examples may include limiting politics talk to breaks and prohibiting campaign paraphernalia at work, including both MAGA hats and Biden/Harris stickers, Tall said.

“They have to be applied consistently,” Tall said. “We can’t lay down an expectation that is lopsided.”

And if you are part of a politically engaged workforce, one way the company could better serve everyone’s interests is to facilitate opt-in, moderated spaces to talk about politics, Tall said. That could mean inviting staff to a company-hosted forum to discuss what different political policies might mean for the business, for example.

If you’re a manager, it’s your job to set expectations.

When politics talk is derailing work, it’s a manager’s job to keep everyone on track.

Take, for example, a colleague who spends too much time in a meeting talking about their political beliefs. Tall recommends addressing this the moment it starts being disruptive, even if it’s public, so that others in the room don’t begin to believe it’s acceptable.

“People have a hard time being direct, but the value and importance of that, particularly as managers and leaders and people in highly visible roles, is that how we respond or [do] not respond to things becomes what is accepted norm,” said Tall.

When you do address it, keep it focused on a specific behavior, such as how the person is interrupting the meeting, rather than engaging in what the political views are about.

Hartman said even if a manager privately agrees with one side of an argument, they should not publicly weigh in between two disputing co-workers. As a manager, “You’ve got to be separate from that, you’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to be more factual because you’re the one keeping things in line,” she said.

Keep in mind that if a co-worker is having emotional outbursts over politics during work time, that can be a sign of someone needing help. Managers can be helpful by reminding them of any employee assistance programs the company offers, Hartman said.

When in doubt, use productivity as an explanation for why heated or distressing political discussions can’t happen at work. “Rather than tell two people you can’t talk about politics at work, as a manager, you can say, ‘Look, we’re here to do work,’” Hartman said.