The 2016 presidential election season was the most divisive in recent memory. Every day there seems to be a new controversy or a new reason to dislike a politician, prompting emotional reactions that swing between bleak resignation and a fiery desire for change. And that’s just how the news makes us feel. At home, even seemingly casual political talk can polarize friends and family members and leave us all feeling raw and partisan.
This is true at work as well. “Office politics” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re talking about elections. With a 24-hour news cycle and emotions running high, it can be hard to keep conversation away from the topic. And now, as midterm elections approach, is the perfect time to consider how best to handle these conversations at the office. Here are five tips to help you navigate political talk at the office:
1. Know Your Boundaries
Some of us avoid political talk simply to keep the peace. But did you know that some workplaces actually regulate speech?
Depending on your office and what state you’re located in, your right to free speech in the workplace is either allowed or regulated. If you have a government job, chances are the laws are pretty generous regarding what can and can’t be said in the workplace. However, private employers can make different rules regarding what is and is not appropriate for workplace chatter.
Your first step should be to check your employee handbook for any mention of protected speech, according to Sevilla P. Rhoads, a labor and employment lawyer in Seattle. After that, visit the website of your local government (both city and state) to learn about what kind of speech is protected in your workplace. The National Labor Relations Board is another great resource for understanding freedom of speech rights.
Be aware that, thanks to technology, what counts as “speech” has expanded beyond the spoken word. The watercooler now exists online, so be aware that emails, or even social media posts, sent on company time or from a company computer could fall under restricted speech guidelines. Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules around this—Rhoads says these issues are still being debated in the courts—so it’s best to be prudent.
Regardless of any restrictions on speech, it is your right to vote. Each state has different rules for voter registration and voting, make sure you are aware of your state’s requirements and deadlines. USA.gov gives voter education and information on how to register to vote or change your registration.
2. Focus On Your Work
Political talk at work isn’t bad—in fact, such discussions are part of the fabric of our country—but when it starts to interfere with work, a line is crossed. “[At work,] your focus should be on making money,” says Charles Krugel, a lawyer and HR specialist in Chicago. “Any conversation that gets too heavy and intrudes on that is really detrimental for business.”
Getting back to work can be a convenient excuse to exit a charged conversation, change the subject, or set an example for colleagues who would rather trade barbs about politicians than complete the task at hand. Who knows? If you refocus your efforts on work every time a political discussion breaks out, your productivity could hit an all-time high this fall.
3. Keep It Light
Having a sense of humor is a tried-and-true method of defusing a situation, says Krugel. “If I’m walking by a couple people in the workplace talking about Clinton or Trump, I might say to them, ‘Hey, don’t turn this place into Jerry Springer,’” he says, referring to the talk show famous for its onstage brawls. Being funny can lighten the mood, maintain neutrality in a highly charged conversation, and send a message in a more good-natured manner than an emotional, knee-jerk reaction. The deflection provided by humor gives you the opportunity to change the subject.
4. Talk to HR
If you do find yourself in an uncomfortable situation or amid bad feelings, go see your HR rep. “When it comes to workplace disputes, the best thing to do is deal with them upfront and quickly,” says labor lawyer Rhoads. “They escalate when people avoid them, start talking about each other behind each other’s backs, and [don’t go] directly to somebody who’s informed about how to work with conflicts.”
Rhoads emphasizes that HR employees are trained in exactly this kind of conflict resolution and would be happy to help. “They love helping people feel comfortable in the workplace and usually much prefer it to drafting a policy.” If your workplace lacks a robust HR department, go to a trusted manager.
5. Be Decent
Conversations around politics may seem especially stress inducing, but both Rhoads and Krugel emphasize that they should be no different than any other discussion at work.
No matter what’s happening on the news, at work you should always respect other people’s views, notice when other people are uncomfortable, and take care to communicate responsibly. Simply approach discussing politics with the same decency and sensitivity you do any other issue in the office. “[The election] is like any other topic—it’s really a matter of respect,” says Rhoads. “You don’t need to know any of the laws or any of the rules if you conduct yourself in a respectable, professional manner.”
Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor who lives in Portland, Oregon.