A Primer on Talking Politics at Work

During contentious election seasons, political debate permeates the air, making it tempting to engage co-workers in conversations about campaigns and candidates.

Many companies discourage this kind of discourse, however, because it can distract from work and raise topics that offend some employees. Even in offices where such discussions are permitted, workers may discover they prefer it when colleagues keep their opinions to themselves.

“Think long and hard about whether it is appropriate or wise to engage in political debates in the workplace,” advises Michelle Lee Flores, attorney and partner with the law firm Akerman.

Political Rights at Work

In general, employers cannot adopt or enforce policies intended to control or direct employees’ political activities or affiliations, according to Flores. However, employers can dictate how employees spend their working hours, which means they can put in place reasonable rules that effectively limit campaigning at the office.

For example, a companywide policy prohibiting workers from displaying personal items at their desks could prevent people from hanging election stickers or posters. Dress code rules about branded clothing could ban t-shirts bearing political slogans.

These policies should be “clearly job-related and implemented consistently,” Flores says, and informed by this question: “Is there going to be any perception we’re targeting employees of one political affiliation or another?”

Employers are responsible under federal law for ensuring their offices aren’t ” hostile work environments” for people of color, women, immigrants, older workers and people with disabilities, among others. So organizations could remind employees to be careful about conversing about topics that may be “too inciteful for the workplace,” Flores says, especially those that might strike some people as harassing or discriminatory. Additionally, to ensure no workers feel disadvantaged because of their own political opinions, companies may suggest to managers that it’s a bad business practice to discuss politics with subordinates.

There’s one important exception to the political speech limits companies can impose at the office. Employers may not prevent workers from organizing, bargaining collectively or engaging in other “concerted activities” designed to protect their labor rights, thanks to the National Labor Relations Act. That means worker conversations about wages, benefits and workplace safety are generally protected, even if they veer into political territory.

“There’s a fine line if the political speech is supporting someone pushing to raise the minimum wage, for example,” Flores says.

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Election Day Rights

Unlike in other countries, Election Day is not a federal holiday in the U.S., meaning many workers have to balance their civic duties with their work responsibilities. That can be difficult: More than a third of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll of registered voters who didn’t cast ballots in the November 2014 election cited work or school conflicts.

Some states, such as Maryland and Hawaii, do observe Election Day with a work holiday. Others, such as California and West Virginia, require employers to provide paid time off to vote, while a third set, including Alabama and Illinois, mandate Election Day time off that may be unpaid. In many states, companies may require workers to request time off for voting in advance. Check your state’s laws here.

For the 2018 midterm elections, 44 percent of private employers plan to give workers paid time off to vote, according to reports from the Society of Human Resources Management, Bloomberg reports.

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Etiquette for Political Discourse at the Office

Even if you’re allowed to discuss politics at your office, there are plenty of good reasons not to.

Most companies strive to “create an environment of civility and respect, where people can have common goals and focus on the common mission,” says David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the American Psychological Association. That can be hard to maintain if employees regularly discuss hot-button political issues, as revealed by an APA survey taken after the 2016 presidential election.

Forty percent of 1,311 employed adult respondents indicated that political conversations at work negatively affected them by increasing their feelings of stress or cynicism or by hurting their productivity. Nearly a quarter said they avoided some co-workers because of their political views, a third said they’d overheard or witnessed colleagues arguing about politics and 15 percent said they themselves had participated in an argument with a co-worker about politics.

Interestingly, while 18 percent of survey takers indicated workplace hostility had increased as a result of political conversations, 30 percent indicated they felt more connected to co-workers.

“In work environments where people tended to agree with each other more, they reported more positive outcomes of political conversations, such as bonding with co-workers,” Ballard says. “Where there’s political diversity, there are more disagreements, which are related more to those negative outcomes.”

[See: 8 Skills That Set Millennials Apart at Work.]

Dealing With Diversity

How can you tell whether your colleagues are likely to share your beliefs? Although it’s safest not to assume, political campaign donation data from the Federal Election Commission provides clues. 2015 analysis of individuals’ giving patterns from Verdant Labs found a concentration of conservative donors in some occupations and liberal donors in others, while many jobs attract workers whose views span the political spectrum:


— Fossil fuel engineers and workers (89 Republican donors for every 11 Democrat donors)

— Farmers, loggers and ranchers (72 Republican for every 28 Democrat)

Surgeons (69 Republican for every 31 Democrat) (For pediatric surgeons, the ratio is nearly reversed at 74 Democrat for every 26 Republican)

— Truck drivers (69 Republican for every 31 Democrat)

Insurance agents (69 Republican for every 31 Democrat)


Social workers (93 Democrat for every seven Republican)

— Editors (92 Democrat for every eight Republican)

— Librarians (91 Democrat for every nine Republican)

Teachers (79 Democrat for every 21 Republican)

— Therapists, counselors and psychologists (90 Democrat for every 10 Republican)

— Professors (90 Democrat for every 10 Republican)


Doctors (53 Democrat for every 43 Republican) and veterinarians (51 Republican for every 49 Democrat)

Accountants (51 Republican for every 49 Democrat)

Police officers (51 Democrat for every 49 Republican)

— Investment bankers (51 Republican for every 49 Democrat)

The data suggest some workplaces are more politically heterogeneous than others. In an airport, for example, pilots are more likely to be conservative, while flight attendants and air traffic controllers lean liberal. On a construction site, pipe fitters and sheet metal workers are more likely to support Democrats, while roofers, HVAC contractors and foremen tend to support Republicans.

If you labor in this kind of politically diverse workplace, you may feel especially compelled to campaign among your co-workers for your candidate of choice. Before you risk it, though, remember that this strategy is unlikely to convert any colleagues to your side of the aisle. People’s political views are shaped by their personalities, upbringings and deeply rooted values about morality, equality, economic security and citizenship, Ballad says.

“We know from research you’re not going to convince someone that their perspective is wrong,” Ballard says. “You’re not going to change core beliefs by presenting a logical argument.”

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A Primer on Talking Politics at Work originally appeared on usnews.com