Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Every election year, my mail at Ask a Manager fills up with letters from people who are fed up with political discussions at work. They’re aggravated by the co-worker who won’t stop pushing political opinions on them, or they can’t escape from the political talk that’s taken over their team meetings, or they’re uncomfortably realizing there’s a gaping divide between their colleagues’ values and their own. Often it’s not even about agreeing or disagreeing—people just want a space where they can focus on work without having to hearing political rants, even when they’re on the same side of the aisle as the ranter.
This person’s account is pretty typical of the complaints I hear:
I have had an awful time shutting down my boss’s political rants. While her politics are closely aligned with mine, today’s political landscape has been spiking my anxiety to the point of making me physically ill, and the only way I can cope is to maintain a complete news embargo. I have already voted absentee, so I’ve done all within my power, but every time she starts off on another rant about the latest thing that upsets her, I can feel my blood pressure start to rise, and I know I’m in for another sleepless night.
This doesn’t happen in formal meetings, just in conversations, and I try to manufacture some reason to end the conversation (“oops, my cat just threw up” has been my go-to), but it’s exhausting to have to keep dodging her.
I’ve long given the same advice on the topic: People should avoid discussing politics at work, period. But if you’re going to do it, watch carefully for cues that your co-workers aren’t interested, and be willing to move on. Don’t assume the person you’re talking with shares your beliefs. Be aware that something that seems theoretical to you might have real-life ramifications for them. And realize that people at work are a captive audience, and they may worry about sharing what they truly think because they need to preserve good professional relationships, especially if there’s a power dynamic at play.
But this year, that advice has felt harder to give.
Part of that, of course, is that the politicization of COVID-19 is hard to avoid when the pandemic is affecting so many aspects of work life. This person’s frustration is typical of a lot of letters I’m receiving:
I have one coworker who is very outspoken about his view that the COVID-19 crisis is overblown, that the virus isn’t as deadly as everyone is saying, and the numbers don’t support the hospitals being out of beds so the hospitals must be lying. I don’t agree, and it makes me angry. My spouse works in the ER of our local hospital, and they are getting absolutely slammed because we are in a part of the country whose COVID rates are highest right now. …
I only reply to him calmly (I can stay on mute and yell if I’m angry), but now twice this week I was reduced to tears and had to leave the call because I just couldn’t listen to him anymore. I understand that my stress about things outside of work [is] hindering my ability to ignore this guy, but I just can’t sit there and listen to him tell me COVID isn’t real when, after work, I’m looking for somewhere else for my husband to live so he doesn’t get me or my toddler son sick after his 12th day in a row of treating COVID patients. My new coping mechanism is just to leave the call as soon as COVID comes up, but I’m really missing the connection to my other coworkers.
Part of it, too, is how much race, racism, and police brutality have entered the national dialogue this year—a good and necessary thing, but one that has made political conversations at work intensely personal and painful for many people. Here’s one letter writer:
I’m a black woman who is exhausted from hearing about brutality, about discrimination, about subjugation of black folks. Even from my fellow BIPOC folks. It’s not that I don’t care or that I don’t think those subjects are important. It’s just triggering at this point. It’s frustrating that I have to be further traumatized because white folks have just now realized there are injustices again marginalized people in America. Unless the subject is relevant to work, I really don’t want to talk about it.
But the solution isn’t as easy as “no political talk” at work, because blanket bans can end up feeling like a stance in themselves. A workplace that doesn’t allow discussion of Black Lives Matter or police brutality isn’t going to seem neutral; it’s accepting, or even endorsing, the status quo.
And just as many people are burned out, distracted, or otherwise negatively affected by politics in their work environment, there are others for whom keeping politics out of work is distracting, painful, and a reminder that they and their communities aren’t fully welcomed or supported by American professional culture.
Plus, what is and isn’t political can be in the eye of the beholder (masks, anyone?). And when the issues are as fundamental as people’s right to safely exist, labeling that as “politics” can come across as dismissive and out-of-touch.
What’s more, honest discussions of current events can be crucial to getting the best work results. Here’s one such account:
I work for a community organization that has had to deeply grapple with our organizational relationship with police services over the last few months. Our leadership shouldn’t have needed prompting to re-evaluate this, but I’m glad these conversations were seen as integral to how we work and not as “politics.” We didn’t make this change because of a meeting with an agenda item like “reflect on current news and what it means for us.” We changed because a staff person shared in a team meeting what a hard time they were having seeing all the media about the murder of George Floyd and how deeply painful it is for them, as a Black person, to see our organization talk about working closely with police services without reflecting on how that relationship might diminish the trust our Black clients have in our services. It was honest, highly personal, and deeply political, while for many of our non-Black staff it had been something they thought of as important but distant (I’m in Canada). That personal, political discussion led us to completely reevaluate an element of our work, for the better.
So, at a moment when everything seems political—and when some people need to talk about what’s happening in the world and others need space to work without talking about it—where does that leave workers who want to navigate this well? I wish I had an answer! It’s messy and it’s hard. I do think much of my old advice still applies—don’t push your political beliefs on a captive audience at work, and be aware of power dynamics—but a blanket ban on talking politics at work breaks down as a solution in light of the factors above.
One option some are trying, although it’s not available to everyone, is to just temporarily sidestep the question entirely. This year, for the first time ever, I’m hearing from multiple people that they’re planning to take vacations from their jobs on the days around Election Day. It’s hard to blame them.