HR Answers: 5 Tips to Handle Political Talk in the Online Workplace

stressed businessman gestures angrily at laptop screen
By Angela Civitella

4 minutes

While water cooler chats may have morphed into Zoom meet-and-greets, that doesn’t mean tempers won’t flare over current events. Here’s how to help maintain harmony.

If you thought the last four years were difficult trying to keep politics out of the workplace, get ready for the next month. The race to the November election is heating up, and you can bet that discussions about politics will bleed into the workplace—including online, if your employees are still working remotely.
Even if you manage to successfully avoid those dreaded political discussions with your colleagues, the election may very well still come up with members and vendors.
Discussions about politics in the workplace have proven to reduce productivity, decrease quality, increase negative feelings among coworkers, add to job stress and generally make employees dread coming to work. In short, talking politics at work equals a toxic work environment. If you think you’re safe because you don’t see people face-to-face right now and are working from home, think again.
Here are five ways you can keep political talk (and tempers) in check at work during this home stretch of the election season.

Establish Ground Rules

Some companies decide to implement a “politics-free work zone” and take this very seriously, whether in person or online. Another approach it is for an organization to make a statement about the general political discourse. Let everyone know it’s OK to have emotions about what is taking place but not to lose sight of the greater picture of the business, your team and your members. The correct approach to take is a decision that your credit union will have to make for itself.

Separate Your Online Personal and Professional Life

At some point, a coworker or member may very well check you out on social media. If you are someone who tends to post your political views or talk about other controversial topics online, consider adding some form of privacy settings to your profiles, such as only allowing your direct connections to be able to see your content—or going private altogether. Remember that anything you post to social media has the potential of being discovered by others. Be smart about what you post, and remember: Sometimes it’s best just to remain quiet.

Don’t Fan the Flames

A lot of business is being done on Zoom calls, and you never know when someone might start talking about politics during a break or while waiting for other attendees. If the tone of the conversation gets contentious, it’s time to end things. Acknowledge what the other person is saying, make a polite but vague response if necessary and then change the subject to a work-related topic. This allows you to acknowledge a differing—or perhaps just passionate—point of view while keeping things civil and professional.

Keep Your Background Professional

When talking to coworkers, managers or members on Zoom or Skype, remember that with these video platforms not only can they see you, but they can see your background. Keep it professional. Refrain from backgrounds that display political banners or pictures. Wear neutral, professional attire and avoid political shirts, hats and buttons that can start a confrontation.

It’s Always Your Right to Decline Comment

If a coworker or member really pushes you to discuss politics, remember that it is always your right to not comment. Simply say, “I’d rather not discuss my political views at this time. I wish you the best with your political decisions.” Or, “I’m still evaluating the issues and would rather focus on getting the best results on this project right now.” Be polite but firm, and don’t lose your cool even if they push you to discuss.

Find Common Ground If You Do Discuss

It is usually possible to find common ground in politics. Even colleagues with differing political views can find topics where they see eye-to-eye. If you do decide to engage in political talk, focus more on the topics you agree on and avoid the areas of disagreement—save those for another forum outside of work if you really want to discuss.

The Takeaway

The dread of talking politics at work can leave us all feeling anxious. However, handling political talk isn’t something business leaders need to be afraid of. With a little mental preparation and a plan to disarm tense situations if needed, this time leading up to the November election can go smoothly, at least in the workplace.
The reality is political conversations are an inevitable part of life. At the end of the day, remember what’s most important: Coming to work should feel like choosing to be part of a team—not picking a side.
Angela Civitella is a business leadership coach and founder of Intinde.

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