Q: I work at a manufacturing plant, interacting with a variety of teams. I am constantly subjected to political conversations and remarks – and most of my co-workers have political views very different from mine. Being reminded of this all day makes me want to scream.
This happens despite my constant pleas to please refrain from such talk. I always felt and was taught that political conversations do not belong in the workplace, and that one should definitely not bring those topics up with colleagues (or people in general) you don’t know well.
Given the deaf ears of an indifferent human resources staff that has to juggle hundreds of employees, how do I navigate this politically charged climate and convince my co-workers to not discuss politics for eight hours a day?
– Buffalo, N.Y.
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A: More than a quarter of workers surveyed by the American Psychological Association this year reported that workplace political chatter was having some negative impact on them, from increased stress to decreased productivity. Meanwhile, a separate survey by Peakon, an employee analytics firm, found that more than a third of American workers avoid talking politics with colleagues altogether, to avoid disputes or discomfort.
So if human resources or management is simply blowing this off, they’re making a mistake. Surely it should be no surprise to anyone, given the political climate and the intense news coverage describing it, that this might have a real impact on a workplace if it’s allowed to dominate.
It sounds as if you’ve tried discouraging your colleagues from such talk in your presence, but maybe you can vary your tactics. It might be most effective to keep the request somewhat light: “Hey, I hear enough about that stuff on the news, mind if we talk football (or whatever) instead? Or, I don’t know, about our work?” Or just ignore political comments and introduce a new topic. If even one of your colleagues gets it and agrees, try to make that person your ally in minimizing these discussions in your presence.
Remember that you’re better off expressing disdain for such talk in general, as opposed to just advocacy of partisan views you dislike. It might also help your cause if you can put up with somepolitical commentary from time to time, so you don’t come across as trying to stifle others – you would just really appreciate more conversational variety.
If that just doesn’t work, you should bring the issue to the attention of human resources or a manager, and explain the problem: You don’t begrudge anybody their opinions, but this situation has gotten stressful enough that it’s having a negative impact. That’s a legitimate problem that they should want to know about, and resolve.
This doesn’t mean that your employer can, or should even attempt to, simply silence your partisan colleagues altogether. Among other things, political talk may overlap with discussion of workplace conditions, which labor law generally protects. (But to correct a common misconception, this is not a “free speech” issue, per se; the government can’t prevent you from hassling colleagues with partisan opinions or exhortations to back a certain political candidate, but in most circumstances a private employer certainly can.)
Given that our rather tense political moment and thorough media coverage of it show no signs of abating, this is an issue that managers and HR departments should be thinking about. Rather than shrug it off, management should figure out how to set the right tone – one that’s tolerant enough that someone can say, “Let’s talk about something else.”
Q: In your recent response to a reader who wanted advice about a superior who is a “mentor in everything but name,” you ignored one dimension: It is bad work behavior to form a bond with one’s supervisor’s boss. It makes no difference how weak or ineffective the person’s direct manager is. It is bad management policy (on part of the bosses) to tolerate an employee circumventing that supervisor. If the higher-up boss wants to mentor this employee, he needs to change reporting relationships.
– Ursel Dougherty, Cleveland
A: Agreed. Both the reader and the higher-up, de facto mentor in question should be mindful of official supervisory structures, and make sure nobody’s toes are getting stomped even as a result of generous intentions. It’s not clear whether such rules were actually in place here.
If a worker is going over a direct manager’s head for specific feedback that is supposed to come from that direct manager, problems are inevitable. The higher-up supervisor should clean up the situation.
That said, I’d still be wary of letting that cause a worker to back off having any sort of relationship with a genuinely helpful superior. I suspect there are ways to cultivate that person – again, recognizing the ambiguous nature of “mentorship” – that fall well short of circumventing anyone. A thoughtful superior who offers good advice out of genuine interest is worth keeping in your work life.
Send your workplace conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.