Co-workers should avoid talking politics at work

February 18, 2019

As we celebrate President’s Day this week, employers and employees need to be reminded about the risk of talking politics at work.

I was at lunch the other day with girlfriends where we all were of like minds and discussed the same political viewpoints. Behind us sat a candidate for office, who shared a different political viewpoint.

Our server overheard the conversations, and then made a point to share with us that she disagreed with the candidate’s viewpoint and agreed with ours.

The server and her co-worker sparred about whose position was the correct one. Her co-worker shared a different viewpoint.

Ideally, we can have healthy dialogue where we can share viewpoints, change hearts and minds and respectfully disagree where necessary.

In today’s world, such a logical, healthy approach to these discussions at work appears to be pure fantasy.

People are dug into their beliefs, and as soon as someone knows what side her or his peer is on, then anger, disappointment and torn relationships can occur.

The political concerns exist not just in sharing one’s political affiliation, but also sharing viewpoints about political positions that can lead to heated debates, such as abortion, policing, criminal justice, the death penalty, immigration and the like.

When we discuss these issues, sometimes our peers will make raw assumptions about us that are likely untrue.

Once peer relationships become divisive, it’s difficult to repair them.

No federal law prohibits discrimination based on political affiliation. Some states protect against such discrimination or harassment, and some company policies include this protection.

Regardless of the legal protections, or lack thereof, employers should not make employment decisions based on someone’s political affiliation.

A manager expressed concern to me once that he was going to deny a college student an internship because the student’s résumé said he worked for an on-campus political group. The manager felt that the student’s affiliation would be disruptive to the organization.

That manager shared a different political view. The manager’s initial reaction demonstrated how divisive we have become, where we can’t even hire someone of a different viewpoint or tolerate that person in the workplace.

Even though no federal law protects against discrimination or harassment based on political affiliation, sometimes these discussions at work can lead to a claim of discrimination or harassment.

One employee filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming national origin harassment when her peer supported the building of a border wall and she felt these discussions disparaged her national origin of Mexico.

Another female employee filed a charge of discrimination after her co-worker told her that she should be happy that then-candidate Donald Trump was for gay marriage since she was gay. The employee felt harassed based on her sexual orientation.

Revealing political affiliations and getting into political debates on a public social media site also can cause coworker relationships to deteriorate.

Managers should avoid disclosing or discussing their politics as employees may feel that they are not treated fairly if they share an alternative view.

For most jobs, having favorable workplace relationships creates a positive, engaging and enjoyable place to work.

In an ideal environment, political discussions can be healthy and respectful.

Since that isn’t generally the case in today’s environment, co-workers need to understand the risk of discussing politics at work and whether these discussions are worth the potential downside.