Common knowledge says you shouldn’t bring up politics or religion in any situation where the aim is to get along. Yet according to recent surveys conducted by SHRM, 42% of respondents had recently witnessed a political disagreement at work, and 56% believed discussing politics at work was becoming more common.
The downside of this discussion is that 12% reported experiencing bias based on their political affiliation at work, and 34% felt their workplace wasn’t inclusive of different political opinions.
In sales this is especially fraught as you balance the feelings of not just your coworkers, but also your prospects. Layer onto that the rise and reliance of social media and you have a recipe for either brilliance or disaster.
The goal of this article is to not only provide some do’s and don’ts, but also to encourage you to think about your own guidelines. Everyone’s preferences for sharing their political beliefs will be different and let’s be clear—political speech is NOT protected in the workplace. The First Amendment protects free speech outside of work, but not in the private workplace (unless you’re a government employee—then the first amendment does apply). There are a lot of nuances into what you can and can’t do (and what your employers can and cannot do). Rather than get into that here now, please check out this HuffPost article on topics that can get you fired.
Read your employer’s social media policy and employee handbook. Understand what behaviors and activities are expressly prohibited.
Each employer is allowed by law in the United States to govern employee behavior at work (and in some cases outside of work). For example, your employer can host a campaign event for a candidate you don’t support and still require your attendance (except in Oregon). Additionally, your employer can choose to terminate your employment if they hear you’re volunteering for a particular cause or candidate.
Ask consent. “I’d love to hear your thoughts on (topic). Is that something you’d be comfortable discussing?”
Since everyone has their own threshold, asking before diving in is a great way to be sure both sides are okay with talking. At the same time, you’re focusing on getting their thoughts, and inviting discussion instead of picking an argument.
Know your triggers and have an exit strategy
We all have “hot button issues”. Know yourself and don’t engage in discussing topics. If they come up, don’t let yourself get pulled into a situation where you’ll get upset or have your relationship with a colleague spoiled. If you feel yourself getting upset, remove yourself from the conversation before you say or do something to cause insult or tension. When in doubt “get back to work” or follow “nature’s call”.
Be curious. Be kind. Be polite.
Discussing politics at work can be a bonding experience under the right circumstances. Debating, interrogating, accusing, or insulting political ideas at work is never okay. Not only will it risk your business and reputation, but it will also jeopardize your job. If you can’t have the conversation in the spirit of kind curiosity—don’t have it.
Focus on the common ground, not differences
The basis for any discussion is the continued exchange of ideas. No one wants to participate in a discussion, however friendly it may be, where all they’re being told again and again why they’re wrong or different. Use your discovery skills and look for commonality. This will keep the conversation going and secure you in safe waters, away from disagreeable topics.
DON’T DO THIS
Confuse politics and morality
The workplace is never the place to discuss the nature of right and wrong. Nor is it a place to comment on the system of belief that guides those decisions, despite so much of today’s political discussion using (and over-using) terms like “right” and “wrong”. Do not fall victim to the desire to use those when discussing politics with co-workers or even describing your own point of view. Philosophy discussions can go into how a person derives their system of beliefs. Politics is a matter of policy—leave morality out of it.
Put things in writing
Hopefully, this is self-evident. If you want to talk politics at work—do that. Talk. Don’t engage in email, Slack, post-its, anything in writing. Ever. It’s just a bad idea unless you are beyond certain that the person you’re sending it to would never complain, feel intimidated, or insulted. Since it’s impossible to know how another person’s mind works that’s impossible. So just...don’t.
Try to convince coworkers to change their opinion
The workplace is not an appropriate place to campaign. If you want to talk politics—as mentioned above—focus on curiosity. Be aware that the more strongly a position is held the more likely a person is to harden their position when faced with contradictory evidence. It’s not worth it. If someone holds an opinion or position you don’t like to ask them why or how they came to that position. If you can’t be genuinely curious and not critique don’t get started.
Be dismissive or rude
It doesn’t matter how ignorant or annoying or silly you think a coworker is, you cannot be dismissive or rude. Don’t engage, respond—anything. Take a note from the “Do” section of this article and run away. Or take a note from the childhood classic Bambi: “If you can’t say nothing nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
Push your luck
The bottom line is simply that talking about anything political at work will happen, and it has risks. Use your sales skills to qualify your target, gauge interest, and ask permission. The safest thing to do will always be not to engage. If you’re not confident in your ability to stay polite and the other party being open— do not engage. If you get even a whiff the other party is getting frustrated—disengage. If you get upset—disengage.
One final note: Regardless of your personal tolerance for talking politics at work, please don’t fall victim to apathy towards politics outside of work. Register to vote, and participate in the process even if all you do is show up and vote. There are no wrong answers except disengagement. As sales professionals we see every day the variety of people, lifestyles, and personalities there are in the world.
I don’t pretend to have a clue to any answers to the problems facing this nation and our world. What being in sales has taught me is that pretending everything is fine is no excuse for picking up the phone and having a conversation. Maybe if the politicians acted more like Sales Pros our discussions wouldn’t be so contentious?