Given the tense volatility of the political climate across the country, it is not surprising that 66% of US business professionals said that talking about politics at work is more common today than it was five years ago, according to a new report. The findings are the result of polling from more than 1,000 US workers, who were over 18 years old.

“Generally speaking, conversations about politics are more common leading up to an election year,” said Ryan Sutton, a district president for staffing firm Robert Half Technology, which developed the report. The survey was conducted by an independent research company in October 2019.

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Sutton added, “But also with so much buzz out of Washington these days, a 24-hour news cycle, and so much going on via social media, it’s an unavoidable topic no matter where you are.”

A notable key finding in the survey is that the determination of the appropriateness of political discourse at work is gender based. Of the general respondents, 22% polled said it was appropriate, but there was a significant difference between the mens’ opinions, and the womens’: 32% of men, and only 10% of women agree that political talk at work was appropriate

Our northerly neighbors, meanwhile, don’t mirror the US residents. Less than half (43%) of Canadian business professionals (of the 500 Canadian professionals polled) say they’re talking about politics at work more than they did five years ago. Also unlike the US, Canadian men and women are more of the same mind regarding the dialing up of at-work political commentary in the last five years (men, 44%; women, 42%).

Sixty-one percent of Americans responded that politics may be appropriate to discuss at work, “depending on the situation, and the people involved.” Of that 61%, 65% were women and 57% were men.

And, there are still Americans who kick it old-school and don’t believe in discussing politics at work, with 26% women, and 11% of men, for a total of 18%, who feel it is not appropriate at all to talk politics.

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Supervisor’s role when talk becomes toxic

“As leaders in organizations,” said HR consultant Matthew Burr, “we need to recognize that [political] conversations can distract employees in the workplace.”

When a supervisor needs to address complaints regarding political discussions in the office, Burr said, “Focus on job performance rather than political discussions specifically. If an employee spends too much time engaged in extra office chat, regardless of the topic, assume they are not performing their position to your organization’s expectations, or that they may be significantly distracting their co-workers. Have a direct conversation with these employees.”

Across most American businesses, the policies [banning political conversation] are the exception rather than the norm, said Zenefits spokesperson Danny Speros, who added that while Zenefits doesn’t have a ban, “the defacto policy is: Follow the other policies around respect, teamwork, and an open sharing of ideas. We recognize and reward people for doing those things, and we address it whenever those are violated whether it’s around politics or any other type of conversation.”

Canadian men are more inclined to find political chat appropriate, with 37% men and 26% women, for a total of 31%, deeming it appropriate. In the “maybe” category, 52% men, 61% women, for a total of 57%, agree that the waters miay be tested, given the people and situation.

Ten percent more Canadian men (57%) than Canadian women (47%), and only 37% of American women, as opposed to 59% of American men, are “interested” in political discussions at work.

There was a dramatic drop between “interested” and “uncomfortable,” the next category in the poll, with 27% of Americans, and only 14% of Canadians who feel “uncomfortable” when political discussions arise at work.

American women (23%) are more likely to be “irritated” by political talk than their Canadian counterparts (12%), and 16% of American men and 12% of Canadian men, in perfect agreement with the women polled, say political talk is irritating.

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When talk verges on offensive

It seems in today’s constantly breaking news environment, notably in the US, it is simply inevitable to come across some kind of discussion on politics, whether it’s predictive of the democratic primary, or yet another insane Tweet. But if you’re at work and someone tries to engage you in something that’s emerged as politically newsworthy, “No one should feel pressured into participating in political banter,” said Sutton. “If political conversation is not your thing, politely let others involved know you’re uncomfortable with the conversation, or politely excuse yourself by saying that you need to get back to work.”

There’s also the possibility that you might overhear something you find truly offensive. What’s your recourse? Sutton offered, “If you’re bothered by something you overheard in the office, consider the nature of the comment and why it’s upsetting you. Most people are well-meaning and wouldn’t intentionally offend their coworkers. Try approaching the person to let them know they upset you before escalating the situation to management. On the other hand, if your colleague made a threat or is exhibiting harassing behavior, and you don’t want to go to work or can’t focus as a result, report the situation to HR.”

If you’re a manager or supervisor, you have the lion’s share of responsibility in the direction of how conversations go in your office, amongst your team (as well as the office culture and environment). “Managers can play a key role in keeping political discussions tame and limited in the office, Sutton said. “They should lead by example and always be respectful of others’ opinions. Employers should also put a policy in writing with specific guidelines to help manage potentially divisive debates about politics.”

Political opinions don’t suddenly stop across different industries, and it’s likely that the state of the government, and its effect on constituents can be profound. Some businesses are more directly affected by governmental actions and legislations than others. Sutton said, “This survey didn’t look at workers by industry, but I would imagine certain teams and industries are more susceptible to conversation in general, be it political or otherwise, just by nature of the work, office set-up, the structure of the team, etc. It’s natural for colleagues to find some common ground to chat about during the day, so whether it’s around sports, local events, national news–conversations are bound to happen.”

He added that tech employees “are just like everyone else when it comes to these matters. Political issues impact us all, but the level of enthusiasm for certain issues vary for each individual and it’s best to be considerate and respect the opinions of others, especially when it comes to our colleagues and members of our team.”

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Policy for politics

Michael Polydoris, director of HR at Propllr agreed that “actual written” policies for no political discussion are rare. “It is,” Polydoris said, “fine to casually discuss a political preference or invite a coworker to attend a rally or an event and for the company to make allowances for staff members to display a political sticker/badge in their cube or office.

“It is problematic though, when the interactions become negative or if the pressure toward a particular viewpoint makes the other person uncomfortable,” he continued. “This can create a credible harassment claim if it permeates the workplace environment, or the requests are continual. In this polarized environment, conflicts are bound to happen, and HR leaders and company supervisors should be trained in and comfortable with resolving employee disagreements. Even if the resolution is to simply ‘agree to disagree,’ employees need to maintain respect for each other as individuals and get back to the business at hand. A good, anecdotal workplace guideline is to treat the subject of politics, much like the topic of religion, as if you were at your in-law’s thanksgiving dinner table.”

Political discourse at work can be a slippery slope. Of course, if everyone in the office is of one mind, there may be fewer disagreements, and a verbal brawl may become less likely, but everyone should take into consideration that they may have colleagues who prefer to keep their beliefs (political and otherwise) private, which is their decision, call, and right. And they may agree with you, but they just don’t want to discuss it or have it discussed around them, so sensitivity and awareness and agency in your behavior at work can be critical.

Image: Iakov Filimonov, Getty Images/iStockphoto