By Joyce E.A. Russell
Special to The Washington Post
— What a great time of the year to teach leadership. As it gets closer and closer to election time, leaders take center stage in the news, in debates and on the campaign trail.
Whether it's the presidential race or local races, there are many great (and not so great) examples of important leadership attributes on display, qualities such as charisma, inspiration, emotional intelligence, empathy and decisiveness. I love facilitating these discussions, whether at a corporate client site, with an executive I am coaching, or in a business classroom.
But talking politics can be awkward at times. This year at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, one of our executive MBA students is a close relative of a vice presidential candidate. Fellow students and faculty may be a little more guarded so as not to indicate whether they are Republican, Democrat or independent.
It can be particularly tricky in the workplace, where such conversations can lead to conflicts among colleagues, getting them distracted from their duties and leading to major rifts among co-workers. This is even true for co-workers who are voting for the same candidates. They still might disagree about specific ballot issues.
A recent CareerBuilder poll found that 42 percent of people said they don't talk about politics at the office, while 44 percent said they talk about it, but shut down the conversation when it gets heated. Only 14 percent said they enjoyed discussing politics and having a lively debate at work.
Generally, talking about politics at work is not a good idea. It is seen as problematic as talking about religion, money and sex. Such topics tend to be irrelevant to the work at hand, and the conversations can trigger major clashes and bad feelings. Being tactful and sensitive to others' views is a sign of good emotional intelligence, and is important to maintain morale and a respectful workplace that values everyone.
If you insist on talking about politics at work, here are some tips to think about before jumping into the conversation:
• Consider your audience. Will they be receptive to a political discussion or will they be upset that you brought the whole topic up?
• Think about your purpose. Is it to share your ideas, ask questions about the candidates, or persuade others?
• Consider the setting. Is it a good idea to debate at a company team-building event or an orientation session?
• Don't make assumptions. Politics, like religion, can be very complex. Assuming someone has the same views as you can have repercussions if you think you are speaking to a sympathetic ear.
• Be informed. There's nothing more upsetting than when people get into debates and have little to no information about the issues or candidates' stances.
• Don't goad. If colleagues say they would rather not discuss them, let it go.
• Deflect with good humor. If someone tries to provoke you into a political debate, say something like "Are you kidding, no way am I taking on this conversation.' "
• Don't take it personally. According to a CareerBuilder poll, 23 percent of workers who have discussed politics at work reported having had a heated discussion or fight with a co-worker, supervisor or someone else higher up in the firm.
Employers, too, should be mindful of their responsibility. The Society for Human Resource Management reported that 25 percent of employers maintain written policies on political activities, and some of these involve conversations about politics at work.
One key area of responsiblity is making sure all supervisors are trained in understanding laws regarding harassment, etc. Some conversations about politics can steer into inappropriate (or harassing) comments about gender, race or age, for instance. Or a manager's opinions on a race could be regarded as contributing to an uncomfortable work environment, where employees feel pressured to support this candidate or that.
Some companies have rules against party organizing, governing activities such as soliciting campaign donations, posting political signs or holding rallies in places such as the work cafeteria. Others have policies that frown on wearing campaign gear or clothing with political slogans, and they bar expressing political views in e-mails or on bulletin boards and company stationery.
Talking about politics at work can be fun, but mostly when the other person has the same opinions that you have. Sometimes, it's a smart idea to just leave this conversation to before or after work hours when you are with family and friends.
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Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.