Politics in the office: Worse than office politics

July 18, 2008, 8:27 PM UTC

Every time politics comes up in my household — especially these days — it ends up being a very long conversation. It was no different the other day, when a colleague stopped by for a visit. Except that the discussion wasn’t about John McCain or Barack Obama or even a policy question; it was about how uncomfortable we are talking about the candidates in the office — and how much more comfortable others seem to be.

We’re both in media, both Gen Y, both cool-enough downtown girls (we hope). Yet based on the venting going on in my living room that afternoon, we also seem to have deep-seated issues with how the exciting general political climate has translated into what should be the less-dramatic workplace.

And we’re not just talking about old-school corporate institutions here. My friend works at an openly liberal entertainment media company, which might explain why some of her coworkers feel it’s alright to do some Barack Obama organizing in the office. But even at a company that’s in the business of ideology — one where you might think you know everyone’s views — it’s almost never a good idea to take the conversation from the general to the specific by, you know, doing things like sending group invites to Obama events to the entire work e-mail list.

By now, we should all be saying, Stop it. Nobody sent out Obama fliers to their office list. That would be crazy. (Everybody knows, and this New York Times story will confirm, that even political paraphernalia in your own office is bad, never mind in everyone else’s inbox.) But that’s where, apparently, we’d all be wrong. Because this is exactly the situation that got my friend going in the first place. And not necessarily because she’s not an Obama supporter. Sending what amounts to political advertising to all your colleagues — particularly if you’re at a company of more than, say, three people, and don’t know everyone’s feelings on the matter — is about as tactful as filling their in-boxes with Scripture. Put plainly: Not cool.

Now, I have to admit that when I brought this outrage up with my sister, expecting equal amounts of ire, her response surprised me. Social justice-minded 23-year-old who she is, she went in six seconds from, “That’s an, um, conservative tack for you take,” to, “Why isn’t it okay to say, ‘anyone who thinks coastal oil drilling is a good idea is an idiot’ at work?!”

Maybe she’s right to feel that, in the face of problems we have today, your comfort or mine shouldn’t be her primary concern. But here’s the trouble: When you take that fight to a coworker, you’re assuming that they agree with you, and if they don’t, you’re forcing them to pretend they do, or admit they don’t, opening the door to a potentially volatile situation.

That’s all well and good at three in the morning sitting around the old freshman dorm, but it doesn’t work in the office. When it comes right down to it, most of us are at work to achieve our own and our company’s goals, not to have values debates. And no matter how ideological your business, if the last decade of election results are any indication, for every person with your opinions, there’s at least one other person with completely opposite views. There’s probably at least one of those people on your office e-mail list, whether they’re “out” about it or not. And every time you choose to ignore that, you risk alienating that person.

Not only is that kind of friction — be it overt or covert — going to be detrimental to achieving your career goals, it’s bad behavior. Part of being human, never mind American, is respecting other people’s right to be who they are, and when it comes to something as intensely personal as one’s vote, well, what’s more fundamental than that?

None of this should be breaking news. It wasn’t so long ago that talking politics — or religion, or money, or relationships — at the office was considered a serious faux pas. But as we’ve said before (e.g. “Your salary: Don’t ask, don’t tell?”), that list of taboos is getting shorter, and obviously, for some people, it no longer includes politics. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s so much a conscious decision as a kind of (usually) benign obliviousness. And I’d like to believe that if the people doing the political proselytizing really knew how it was perceived, they might do things a little differently.

So, by all means, talk politics. Talk about what an amazing, historic election this is, what a committed electorate we suddenly have, or what strong contenders our candidates have become. Just do it with the same decorum and care you’d use with any other sensitive subject. And realize that, even when you think you’re being careful and measured in your casual chatter, someone with different opinions might not see it that way. (It’s hard, for instance, to say you think anyone who’s pro-coastal drilling is an idiot without being just a tad pejorative.)

While it might be fine to go there with close friends, or even coworkers who are also close friends, chances are you aren’t close to everyone you work with, so better to leave the controversy at home (or at the bar, or at the local Greenpeace chapter — whatever floats your boat. Or, er, sinks it. See? This is exactly what I’m talking about.)

Even more, if you see a fellow Gen Yer — or anyone for that matter — heading into dangerous territory, consider finding a kind and subtle way to tell them so. And remember, too, that when this sort of thing goes on, it allows older folks to see us as a monolith. If you’re young and vaguely hip, whatever your actual opinions are, you’re assumed to be an Obama fan. Sure, Obama has had unbelievable success using Facebook and other Gen Y-friendly strategies, but that doesn’t mean every Yer’s a Barack booster.

And even if am a fan — and hey, I might be — nobody likes being stuffed in a box like that, especially when it comes to politics, and in an election as hotly contested as this one.

(Some of you longtime Gig fans will no doubt be thinking, But Nads, this is what we do every week: Generalize about Gen Y! Okay, but that’s in the service of understanding each other and explaining ourselves, not marginalizing each other’s perspectives. And some of it’s even based on actual observation and research! But it’s nice — and important — to be reminded that, in reality, we’re dealing with individuals. Sometimes we may act like we share a brain, but we don’t. For the most part.)

Call it my conservative (lowercase “c,” guys) New England upbringing, or just my nice-guy empathy for differing viewpoints, but we’re at work to be put upon by our bosses, not other people’s politics. And let’s be honest, the world is better that way: When I got one of those Obama blasts on our own work list, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if someone had responded with “Go McCain” or some such. A-w-k-w-a-r-d.

So have you noticed it, too? Do you have your own tales of inappropriate office politics to tell? Or do I just need to loosen up?