Toning down contentious political talk at work

April 6, 2012, 1:53 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I work in a small (20-person) department of a huge company, for a boss who I think is fundamentally a good guy. He’s a devoted dad, very fair to us employees, and usually a pleasure to be around. The problem is his political opinions, which are so extreme they make Rush Limbaugh look like a flaming liberal. He and I are on polar opposite sides of almost every issue in the news these days, from immigration policy to health care reform.

That would be fine if he didn’t insist on talking about politics all the time and trying to get the rest of us to agree with him. A few of my colleagues, who I happen to know are way more moderate than they’re letting on, are kissing up to him by pretending to agree in order to get on his good side, but I’m just not going to do that. Can you or your readers suggest a diplomatic way to shut down all this yakking and let us get back to work? — Gritting My Teeth

Dear G.M.T.: For what it’s worth, you’re not the only one wondering. Many other readers have been asking lately how to persuade colleagues to leave their political views in the parking lot. One issue is that some people believe they have a First Amendment right to spout off at work. But as I wrote in a column during the 2010 Congressional elections, guess what: Private-sector employees on company property (and company time) have no First Amendment rights.

“Political talk does seem unusually heated this time around,” says Roshini Rajkumar, head of Minneapolis-based communications coaching firm Roshini Performance Group and author of a book called Communicate That!. “It’s a little different than in previous election years because, although Romney is ahead, he’s not a clear favorite. His opponents have so many avid supporters that it opens up a lot of discussions.” Moreover, she adds, “Some of the issues on the table this time are very emotional, and many people seem to be taking extreme positions.”

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Since you note that you work for a huge company, there may be a written policy somewhere — in the employee handbook, for example — that prohibits outside distractions, including political talk, that get in the way of work. “If your company has such a policy, you could alert human resources to this situation,” Rajkumar says. “But that would be a drastic measure.”

A better course of action: “Mention the policy in a private conversation with your boss. Don’t bring it up in front of other people, and don’t be confrontational or critical. Say something like, ‘I wonder if you’re aware that all the political discussion around here makes the atmosphere uncomfortable for people with different views. Is there a way we can all agree to tone it down?’”

Stay cool. “The calmer you are on the inside, the more persuasive you’ll be,” Rajkumar notes. Whether with your boss or with coworkers, don’t be drawn into arguments that are likely to produce nothing but hard feelings. “When others are talking about political subjects, or in fact any subject that you don’t think is appropriate, it’s perfectly all right to say nothing,” she says. “Then if someone asks why you’re not piping up, just answer that you’re busy working.”

For anyone who (unlike you) actually enjoys talking politics with colleagues, Rajkumar has some common-sense reminders about keeping the discussion civil. “Political conversations can go downhill fast,” she says, “and people may make snap judgments about you based on your views. Debates are fun, but they’re not worth risking your career.” A few pointers:

Always let coworkers speak without interrupting them. Difficult though it may be, “respect their opinion even if it’s very different from yours,” Rajkumar advises. “Ask follow-up questions and find out why your coworker believes what he or she believes.”
Who knows, you may end up altering your own position.

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Don’t raise your voice. “The moment people start cutting each other off and raising voices is the moment the conversation becomes a fight,” she adds. You don’t want to go there.

Stick to the facts. “If you don’t know the answer to a question or can’t offer a factual basis for your beliefs, resist the temptation to make something up,” she says. “A fabricated answer may come back to haunt you, hurting your credibility.”

Avoid hotheads. “Politely decline to discuss politics with coworkers who like to start arguments or ruffle feathers.” Enough said.

Consider limiting political discussions to certain times. Your first priority is obviously to concentrate on work, so if someone raises a topic you’d like to get into in detail, put it off until lunch or a break.

Aren’t you glad elections — even this one — eventually end?

Talkback: Is there much political discussion going on in your workplace? Do you participate, or avoid doing so? Leave a comment below.


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