If there’s a high political season, this surely is it.
Monday’s Iowa caucuses kicked off what’s shaping up to be the most vitriolic presidential campaign in U.S. history. President Trump will deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night before a bitterly divided Congress and nation.
And on Wednesday, Trump, who became just the third American president ever impeached, is set to be acquitted by the Republican-dominated Senate after a controversial trial that included no witnesses.
Oh, and based on Gallup polls, Trump is the most polarizing American president ever, as adored by Republicans as he is reviled by Democrats.
So it may not be surprising that Americans don’t think they should stoke that incendiary cocktail by discussing politics at work. Perhaps it’s also no wonder they can’t help themselves, sometimes hurting relationships with coworkers and even prompting them to consider quitting.
Sixty percent of employees believe talking politics at work is unacceptable, a Glassdoor survey shows. Yet 57% of workers have done so, according to the mid-January poll of 1,204 employees by the job posting and employee review site, whose results were provided exclusively to USA Today.
“People, on an ideological level, say you should keep politics out of the workplace,” says Glassdoor career expert Alison Sullivan. But, she adds, ”Lots of political events are happening every day. It’s probably hard not to talk about it.”
Most workers say political water-cooler conversations have become more common in the past four years, according to surveys by staffing firm Robert Half and the Society for Human Resource Management in late 2019.
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“It happens to be a really turbulent political time,” says Ali Fazal, a senior director at Hibob, which provides companies human resource software and consulting services.
There are other reasons political chatter at the office is spreading. Technology like cellphones and text messaging and work collaboration tools such as Slack mean many employees are reachable and available for work-related tasks 24/7.
“As life and work bleed into each other, something like politics bleeds into conversations as well,” Sullivan says.
Meanwhile, millennials (age 24-39) and Gen Z (under 24) grew up on social media that encouraged them to vent their opinions whenever, wherever.
“It’s just how you express your authentic self,” Fazal says.
At the same time, he says, many baby boomers (56-74) and, to a lesser extent, Gen Xers (40-55) “believe you should never talk about money and politics” at work. “There’s a time and place.”
That generational divide can intensify workplace conflicts spawned by political differences that many workers view as deeply personal, Fazal says, centering on subjects such as LGBTQ and women’s rights, abortion and racial discrimination.
“People are close to a breaking point,” Fazal says. Office spats over politics, he says, “can fracture working relationships.”
Twenty-eight percent of employees say a coworker has tried to persuade them to change their political party preference, the Glassdoor survey shows. And 21% would not want to work with a colleague who plans to vote for a presidential candidate they don’t like in November, with a similar share of Democrats and Republicans expressing that view.
Jodi Millspaugh, 35, an office manager at a logging company in Elk, Washington, typically steers clear of the pro-Trump comments of several male co-workers at the 10-employee firm.
“I just don’t want confrontation when I’m at work,” she says. “I try to avoid it.”
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But about a month ago, Millspaugh broke down and criticized Trump’s sometimes coarse language online. Her older, male co-worker responded by “defending Trump,” she says. “He was getting upset.”
Worried that she had bruised their relationship, she quickly retreated. “I changed the subject,” she says. “He’s a really nice guy…We’re totally cool,” now.
Yet such debates can have wide-ranging effects. Sixty percent of the employees surveyed by Glassdoor believe discussing politics at work could hurt their career opportunities, including 62% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans. And 25% of employees would consider leaving a company if most of their coworkers had different political views than their own, including 29% of Democrats and 26% of Republicans.
Peter Treacy, 31, is an anomaly in the entertainment business — a conservative Republican who drives mostly liberal film and TV directors, actors and others to shooting locations in New York City during productions that last six to nine months. Directors frequently disparage Trump and have confided that they would fire actors and other employees who don’t share that view, he says.
Treacy says he’s careful to respond to their political banter neutrally, discussing how he would react if he were a Republican or Democrat. “I don’t talk about my personal feelings,” he says. “It’s easy for (a director) to say, ‘I’d prefer to get in a car with somebody else.’ Then I’d be driving a truck.”
Yet even his nonpartisan approach is sometimes viewed suspiciously. “They give you the side-eye,” Treacy says. “Some people want you to join their team.”
Conversely, Lynne Knowlton, a customer service representative in St. Paul, Minnesota, is “surrounded by Trump supporters” and periodically bombarded by boasts of his successes. “I either walk away or change the subject,” she says. Otherwise, “I wouldn’t have a job for long.”
Fazal advises companies to establish policies that set ground rules for open but respectful political debate that also allow employees to decline to participate. Such policies let employers mediate if a political argument affects working relationships or productivity, he says.
“You can set guardrails,” he says. “You can create a safe environment.”
Last year, Google created guidelines that discouraged employees from “disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story.”
“Don’t troll, name call, or engage in ad hominem attacks — about anyone,” the policy states.
Other tips for workplace political talk:
• Be curious and ask questions about your coworker’s point of view rather than trying to promote your own, says Glassdoor’s Sullivan.
• Try to approach it in a lighthearted way, Robert Half staffing says. “Limit yourself to general comments or try to change the subject,” the firm says.
• Don’t feel pressured into offering your views, according to Robert Half. “You can always politely excuse yourself by saying with a smile, ‘Wow, I’m staying out of this one!”
• Don’t put your opinions in work collaboration tools that are in public view, Sullivan says.
• Remember to be mindful of what you say to colleagues outside of the work environment as well, Robert Half says.