It’s time to talk politics at work — and it’s time for leaders to be the ones leading the discussion.
This isn’t a popular thing to say. Politics has historically been off-limits when it comes to at-work conversation. For a long time, I agreed with this sentiment. Politics is personal. Work is work. Let’s just go about our business and not worry about trending into personal or potentially sensitive topics, for fear that doing so could potentially create an uncomfortable work environment.
But as I celebrated the Fourth of July holiday weekend, I couldn’t help but think that this taboo needs to go away.
We are at a unique time in our country’s history, where the political discourse has reached disturbingly nasty levels. As an essay in The Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, half of Democrats and Republicans now see members of the opposing party not just as ill-informed but as actually frightening, according to the Pew Research Center. What’s more, researchers have found that partisan animosity can now exceed racial hostility.
Citing recent academic research, the Journal essay pointed out that when awarding hypothetical scholarships and cash, we are more likely to discriminate based on politics than race. Additionally, as of 2010, a third of Democrats and half of Republicans said that they would be upset if their children married someone from the opposing party, up from 5 percent for each group in 1960.
Never mind what’s caused this era of political divisiveness. There are too many reasons to list. The point is that, as our country looks for ways to solve the issue and come together, the workplace should absolutely be included in the arenas where these discussions should be allowed to play out, so long as it’s done in a civil and productive manner.
Why? For one, business is increasingly tied to the political debates of the day. From every corner of the business universe, every topic these days is tied to some policy or political statement. Minimum wage, climate change, the gender pay gap, the economy, technology, globalization — these are all issues affecting every business. They’re also issues that are at the epicenter of our current political debate. Talking about these issues without addressing the underlying politics doesn’t make sense.
Still, the biggest reason why I think it’s time for businesses to go full throttle on talking politics in the office is because it is likely to force workers to think outside of their own perspectives. Our workplace is perhaps the most diverse space many of us occupy; we encounter people at work that we otherwise wouldn’t, representing backgrounds and experiences of all stripes.
We as a country need to learn how to empathize with those who have different opinions, experiences or perspectives, because it’s a reality that will never go away. Work is the place we spend most of our waking hours; we can’t go on pretending that politics is off-limits in this environment.
Of course, how political discussions are facilitated in the workplace is another matter. Just because I say talking politics should be fair game at work doesn’t mean you can show up Monday with a list of your meanest political put downs. What it means is that leaders need to take control of the situation by laying out for workers how to have a respectful and civil conversation about politics without it going off the rails, and workers need to be prepared to not just share their views but listen to others.
It means that leaders should not only allow employees to have casual conversations about political issues, but they should also organize formal engagements where teams are taught how to emphasize and learn from others’ points of view. There are tough social issues facing our country — we need to be able to talk about them in a professional environment.
There are work-related benefits to talking politics at work. Of course, the point isn’t to agree on everything. The point is to learn how to listen to those who have different experiences or points of view. I mean really listen. Instead of fuming at the opportunity to argue an opinion, leaders can use politics as an opportunity to teach their employees active listening skills. Doing so will break the ice on initially difficult conversations, but in the end employees will likely learn to become close with one another in their working relationships.
It’s imperative that business leaders do their part to treat what ails our political discourse. Not only is it good for business; it’s good for society. Work is a place where we put much of our energy each day. It doesn’t make sense for it to be a place where we’re not allowed to talk about a topic that is so central to our existence.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email email@example.com