Politics at Work: The New Normal

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During 2016’s long and grueling presidential campaign, millions of Americans with widely different opinions had at least one thought in common: “At least this will all be over soon!”

So much for that crazy dream, huh? As the early days of the Trump administration play out, the amount of political friction seems to keep increasing. Demonstrations and marches abound. Social media is exploding with righteous indignation and outrage. Citizens are urged to call their congressional representatives constantly. Office lunchrooms boil with both gloating and anguish. Who has time to get any work done?

One nationwide survey—first reported in the Atlantic Monthly—found that 29 percent of workers surveyed say they’ve been less productive since the election. The vast majority—87 percent—admitted reading political content on social media during the workday, and fully half have seen political arguments break out at work.

An earlier survey by the American Psychological Association, taken during the campaign, found that one in four workers had been negatively affected by political talk at work. Political stress was higher among younger workers and twice as high in men as in women, for one simple reason: “Men were more than twice as likely as women to have said they regularly discuss politics with coworkers (28 percent vs. 13 percent) [and] more than four times as likely to report having argued about politics with a coworker (18 percent vs. 4 percent).”

It’s not just that politics are more divisive. The way we get and share news has been completely transformed by smartphones, Slack channels, Facebook and Twitter, fake news, and memes. And it has all combined into a bewildering new workplace environment.

What should you do? What should your boss do? Does being a conscientious employee make it impossible to act openly as a concerned citizen?

Old Boundaries Have Dissolved
A generation ago, the advice was simple—avoid discussing religion or politics at work, and don’t even think about activism during the day. Devoting minutes to such personal interests was considered “timethefting,” since your company was paying you, and it had no work value.

That attitude is obsolete today, especially among younger workers, with social media in everyone’s pocket and employers expecting you to answer texts and emails after hours and on the weekend. The boundaries between work and time off are much hazier in both directions.

Is reading a political post OK? What about sharing it? Adding a comment, or two, or ten? How about dropping sick burns on Marty from Purchasing, who’s commenting in the same Facebook thread but is completely wrong?

At the same time, politics is now part of the workday too. President Trump has vowed to do everything differently than a typical politician would, from international trade to government regulations and health care, and he’s been doing exactly that in his first few weeks. If you sell locally grown apples at a farmers market, all this turmoil might not affect your business just yet, but at most workplaces you’ll probably have to make adjustments.

Politics Affects the Personal
Cabot Brown is the CEO of Carabiner LLC, a San Francisco–based financial advisory firm specializing in health care, education, and sustainability. He works with a lot of different businesses, and these days, he told The FruitGuys Magazine, “I don’t have any [work] conversations that don’t involve politics.”

Questions such as these come up: Will the economy grow or shrink? Should the government invest billions in infrastructure repairs, and where would it get the money? How do companies get some of that business? Will new government debt raise interest rates? If our company buys parts from China and sells to Europe, what will trade tariffs mean for our bottom line?

In Brown’s main field, health care, 20 million people have medical insurance through the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), and their medical expenses are a big part of hospitals’ budgets. Trump has also vowed to lower drug prices without saying how; those details will affect a lot of people and a lot of businesses large and small.

Most people will discuss these kinds of possible policy changes at work, often as a key part of corporate strategy. Or they may feel compelled to follow breaking stories that affect them personally, and be prompted to contact their elected representatives during work hours.

Brown observed, “People are mad. I’ve never seen this kind of anger at the system ever, in my entire life… They’re not thinking of it as using company resources. They feel more like someone whose family member got hit by a car—of course they’re going to use their work computer and phone to try to fix things.”

Consult Your Office Handbook
How can you have these discussions and advocate for issues without fights, disruptions, feuds, and lost productivity? Or, more to the point, without getting fired? A few states have laws making it illegal to fire employees for political opinions, but even there, you can get canned for neglecting your work tasks, or using company equipment for personal purposes without authorization.

Legally, the answer is simple. Jack Pessia is recently retired after many years as the human resources director for the Oregon State Bar. (That’s the official agency that regulates lawyers, not a government tavern.)

“Your first line of defense, as always, is to check your office’s written personnel policy,” which almost certainly covers things such as doing personal tasks during work hours, and personal use of company computers and phones. In almost every case, he told The FruitGuys Magazine, “You can take part in any political activity you want on your break or lunch hour, provided you use your personal smartphone. Can you use your desk computer or phone, or call during company time? It depends on the written policy, but the answer is usually ‘no.’”

If you’re not sure, ask someone in the HR department. Some industries and government agencies have very detailed policies concerning employees’ First Amendment rights inside and outside the workplace. And use common sense; if you already have problems with your boss, or your political opinions differ from most of your coworkers’, tread very carefully. Brown added that phone calls are safer than emails through your company email account, which is easily (and typically) scanned.

Focus on Work
Legalities aside, the main thing is to remember that you are at work and you need to get along with your coworkers. A good rule of thumb is to not discuss politics unless you need to. When it does come up, focus on facts over feelings. Don’t assume you know what someone thinks because of their age, gender, or ethnicity, and don’t take silence as an agreement—especially from someone you manage. They may simply be afraid to disagree, and you could be creating a hostile work environment without realizing it.

Instead of arguing with coworkers, do something positive. Gather your like-minded office pals together for an off-site lunch-hour postcard writing session or phone-your-rep campaign. If the political talk in the office break room is getting you down, avoid the situation with a lunchtime walk or mini-workout. And if social media and news sites rile you up and make it difficult to focus, it’s wise to block your own access to those websites during the workday (browser add-ons like Firefox’s LeechBlock make this simple).

Remember, your coworkers probably have opinions about TV shows, cars, fashion, and home furnishings that are incredibly different from yours too, but you manage to look past all that and get work done. Though it’s hard to believe, you can do the same with politics, even in 2017.

Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution. He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association; his work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.


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