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August 20th, 2008
12:00 PM ET

The Ethics of Talking Politics at Work

Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
AC360° Contributor
The Ethics Guy®, BusinessWeek.com

The hot-button issues of politics can lead to inflamed tempers that can impede your productivity—and possibly, your progress.

Who do you think should be the next President of the U.S.? John McCain? Barack Obama? Jon Stewart? Regardless of who gets elected, there is no question that this is the most diverse and exciting campaign in many years.

Given what is at stake in the election and the historic nature of this year's race, it is tempting to discuss the issue at work with those colleagues we're accustomed to chatting with and hashing out so many things. Yet there are very good reasons why we shouldn't.

The Fearsome Foursome.

Along with sex, money, and religion, politics is one of the most controversial topics of conversation that exists. I submit that money, more than sex, is the most personal aspect of our lives, and it is the one that opens us up to the greatest potential for embarrassment.

Only the most boorish among us would ever think about asking a colleague, "So, how much did you make last year?" Thanks to reality television, cell phones, Facebook, MySpace, blogging, and other 21st century technological developments, we know far too much about people, but however thin the line between professional and personal is getting, many of us still value a modicum of privacy, particularly when it comes to what we earn.

Sex, too, is still an off-limits topic for discussion at work and not merely for the legal reasons relating to sexual harassment. We talk about sex with our closest friends (with whom we probably would not even discuss our income), but this kind of conversation is wisely held after business hours. Neither your salary nor your sex life is anyone's business at the office. Nor, for most professional settings, are your religious beliefs. Discussing the existence of God is fine for a college philosophy class or a third date but not at a company whose mission is banking, insurance, public relations, or just about any other field one can think of.

Politics may not be as close to our hearts, minds, and souls as money, sex, or religion, but it's not too far away, either. In its purest form, politics is to our country what ethics is to us as individuals or social groups. Ethics asks, "How should I live?" Politics asks, "How should we live?" It's true, of course, that the term "politics" has come to be practically a slur word. When we are prevented from accomplishing a goal at work, we often say that what got in the way was "office politics." If a less-qualified job candidate is hired over a more qualified one, we conclude that it was "politics" that somehow won the day. However, where I am using "politics" here, it is in its classical sense: the study of how our society should be ordered.

When conversation at work turns to politics, it inevitably touches on the meaningful issues at stake in the election, and most of these issues are by their nature highly divisive. Among the questions now on the table are:

• Should abortion continue to be legal?
• Should same-sex marriage be legalized?
• How relevant to holding public office is a person's religion?
• How much should the wealthy be taxed?
• To what extent should the federal government be involved in social programs?

No matter what your position on these issues is, it is clear that:

• There is disagreement about them.
• The passions raised by each question are strong.
• In all but a few instances, where you stand on each issue has little or no bearing on the job you are doing or your ability to do it.

In considering whether it is appropriate to have political discussions on the job, five fundamental ethical principles are at stake: Do No Harm, Make Things Better, Respect Others, Be Fair, and Be Loving.

Here is an example of the very real danger of allowing free and unfettered discussions about Presidential politics at work:

Let's say that you and your boss are arguing the respective merits of your preferred candidates. Unbeknownst to you, your boss is very passionate about the abortion issue, but your candidate—and you—hold a view that is contrary to your boss's. As much as your boss might strive to respect your right to have and express your opinion, can you be sure that s/he won't hold your position against you when, say, your performance review comes around? If you are the boss in question, can you be certain that your subordinate's political beliefs won't affect your decision to give her a raise or even keep her on?

Preferences about music, art, or food are three of the many areas in which reasonable people may disagree. Your co-worker likes Madonna and you like U2? No problem. However, when someone holds contrary political beliefs from us, do we say that he or she merely has a different opinion? No. We say, rightly or wrongly, that he or she is mistaken, and this has troubling implications in the workplace. If you believe in evolution, and you suddenly discovered that a colleague is a creationist, can you honestly say that your view of him or her would not then suffer? Might this not affect how well you work together on a project that has nothing to do with how the world came into existence?

"But I'm not that way, and neither are my colleagues," you argue. "We're able to take the high road even when we talk about controversial subjects." Even if this is the case, it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of other people will follow in your footsteps, as nice as that would be.

"This is utter nonsense," you claim. "I have a right to talk about politics if I want to." Yes, of course you have a Constitutional right to free speech, and there may be no prohibitions in your workplace against discussing whatever you like, short of committing harassment or other hostile acts. But just because we have a right to do something doesn’t mean that we should do it.. When we reflect on how we ought to conduct ourselves, it is more important to ask, "Is this the right thing to do?" rather than, "Do I have a right to do it?"

Simply put, we shouldn't discuss politics in the workplace because, with very few exceptions, these discussions have nothing to do with our job and can only interfere with it.

Toward a More Respectful Workplace.

One might conclude that what I am calling for will lead to a chill in the workplace or, worse, a corporate police state in which speech is carefully monitored and wrongful talk is harshly punished. Rather than make a fetish out of what each individual should be allowed to do (or get away with), a more appropriate perspective to take here—and with all issues concerning conduct at work and beyond—is to consider how our actions might adversely affect others and fracture the community of which we are a part. Yes, in the best of circumstances, discussion with people who hold different points of view can lead to greater understanding of beliefs different from one's own. Yes, it may be possible for you and your colleagues to have a civil, respectful conversation at work about the politics of abortion, euthanasia, creationism, the existence of God, your sex life, and your salary.

Nevertheless, if you are able to have such polite repartee, you are in the minority. For most people, these kinds of discussions too often degenerate into loud arguments and the conclusion that those on the opposing side of the fence are "idiots." In what sort of business would this kind of behavior promote doing one's job effectively? As engaging as such conversations might be, to what extent will they enhance the ability to carry out one's duties and meet the needs of customers and company alike? More to the point, won't such conversations likely impede the performance of one's assignments?

Bottom line: the very real and important need for lively, informed, and vigorous debate is best met before and after one goes to work. Everyone in the body politic will be better off if this rule is treated with the respect it deserves.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Weinstein will be discussing this column on Issue #1 on Wednesday at 12:24 p.m. ET and again on American Morning on Friday. You can read more from Bruce at TheEthicsGuy.com


Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Ethics • Raw Politics
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    My team at work never discusses religion but we do discuss politics – often and vigorously. We are a support team and are expected to take calls 24 hours a day 7 days a week. After you have worked problems at 3 and 4 am with your teammates, you either get to where you can't stand each other or you become fast friends – luckily for us it was the latter. We don't all agree on the politics and we tease each other about going to vote to cancel out each others vote but we enjoy our political discussions and no one has ever gotten upset or defensive about it. We don't include our team lead though – some things you just leave the boss out of.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 20, 2008 at 9:12 pm |
  2. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    Peartree...............it IS because of the color of his skin.......

    Never..........never, ever before would people even think of electing a 72 yr old President to a first term when his Party's President is at a 27 % approval rating.......Never, til now. There is hope though.

    I sold Obama t-shirts recently and an old white man came up to me. He asked me if I was one of the people making donations to Obama. I said yes. He hesitated and then bought one. He said" I hope I can get the guts to wear it". I said........You will. We can change Peartree. Even if it is one at a time.

    Obama 08

    August 20, 2008 at 8:59 pm |
  3. Joy in Seattle

    I work at a University and have had drinks with my coworkers in the evening and lunches. I've most certainly talked about sex with several of the girls here. Politics has been discussed, including a heated but friendly argument over abortion rights.

    My boss occasionally razzes me about my conservative views, but it's good natured. I think he likes me better since I've opened up and allowed him to see who I really am. Talking about politics isn't completely off the table, it just depends on the atmosphere of your workplace.

    That doesn't mean there isn't a line. I am not going to walk around with an insulting T-shirt or put a NOBAMA sticker on my office door. A polite and respectful attitude is important no matter what you talk about.

    August 20, 2008 at 7:54 pm |
  4. Peartree from NC

    You know what though americans. Me as a middle class black man in america know the real reason for all the independant voters who don want to vote for Obama, Know the real reason. I am very educated and i know its the color of his skin. I say that because never in history what is happening with the independent vote and voters saying they want another canidate has never happened. If Obama was white all this wouldnt be happening. You know this and i know this. People can say its not tru but i know for a fact its tru. Listen to how these so called politicians talk about him and what he is doing. Its undercover hatered. I can read between the lines. As a country we will never put the color of a mans skin behind us. I say that because alot of politicians in our government with power are from the 60s and 70s. What beliefs you think the parents instilled in them. Look at how politicians ly in our faces. im tired of it. We need new blood in DC. OBAMA'08

    August 20, 2008 at 6:06 pm |
  5. Peartree from NC

    Kent: You are absolutely right. Americans let the media use them as puppets. Instead of researching there candidates to find out the truth they just turn to the TV. Americans what are you doing. I will never watch FOX news again because of that reason. Americans wake up, vote for the right reasons. Make your life better. Ive been a republican since ive been registered to vote and this is the first year im going to vote Democrat. My fellow republicans couldnt fix our country so now im going to turn to the democrats. Americans at least vote to make your life a little bit better.

    August 20, 2008 at 5:55 pm |
  6. Vegas

    Nichole in Alabama:
    "Now this lady is about 55 yrs and returning to workforce after staying home for past 30 yrs because she needed health insurance and couldn’t get medicare, lives w/ her daughter because she cannot afford to live alone and rides to work w/ another coworker because she doesn’t have a car. So I called her out on this. I asked her what have the Republicans done to improve her life since she has been faithful to them all her life. She got really mad and to this day that lady will not speak to me."

    You're right... hasn't contributed for 30 Years but deserves a free ride... guess she should have went on welfare, food stamps and free clinic... you know... paid for by the people that work. So she goes and gets a job to pull her own weight... and you think there is something wrong with her? I guess we could elect that moron Obama... who will tax the big compainies (maybe yours) to death... forcing them to leave... and then all your dreams can come true.

    August 20, 2008 at 5:35 pm |
  7. Michael J. Arch

    A very good corporation has had guidelines in place prohibiting this kind of behavior in the work place ... When will business get back into the business fairness privacy and sound judgment that protects the rights of individuals in and out of the work place ?

    Buisness and consumers are like a key and a lock where you need both to work. I say consumer because your employee is also your consumer .. You would be wise to take care of your consumer including proper wages – medical insurance fair and balance labor laws .

    August 20, 2008 at 5:20 pm |
  8. Renee

    We discuss politics at the office. It is part of the lunch time day. We are split 1/3 each and are trying to sway the Independents. It is a lot of fun because we are all responsible and intelligent people. Many of us are news junkies so it seems appropriate to have some banter.

    And seriously some of it is so strange we have to discuss it all to figure it out. IE: Senator Craig and the toe tapping. I had to ask the guys about that and of course the women had to ask if any of our guys had been tapped at all. It makes for some good humor which is often lost in the workplace.

    August 20, 2008 at 3:23 pm |
  9. Bryce

    Its understandable why a job would have a ploicy against talking politics at work. However most of our close friends share the same views as ourselves on most issues. The best opprotunity to have a conversation with a person who may feel different comes at the work place. I understand political conversations can become heated and thats why we must use our best judgement . These conversations are best held a way from the job site at lunch or in a setting where the entire work place isn't in the conversation, just 2 -3 mature adult. If you want to know how real everyday people feel about issues that effect us all its better to hear it from real people instead of what we hear on the news alone. Political analysis cut off each other everyday to get there point across and don't take it personal. The rest of us are adult enough to have conversation with out causing a problem or developing a negitive opinion of person.

    August 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm |
  10. Susan

    Leave your politics at the door. That is just a good commonsense practice. Why add more stress to your day !!!!!

    Susan
    Phoenixville,PA

    August 20, 2008 at 2:49 pm |
  11. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    Politics at work...........I don't think so. I agree with what Bill Maher said on Larry King last night. He stated something to the effect that Americans are basically stupid as a whole. They have no idea when it comes to politics what they should do, or who they should vote for.

    I work with very politically dumb people at work. They don't pay attention and don't much care. Yet, some will vote. That makes no sense at all................guess that is the people the GOP targets and why Republicans get voted in most of the time.............pretty sad..

    August 20, 2008 at 2:26 pm |
  12. Donna A. Reuter, Bremerton, WA

    I work for the Federal Government and I have to follow the Hatch Act.

    August 20, 2008 at 1:47 pm |
  13. JC- Los Angeles

    Bruce, if you want a more respectful workplace, the Federal Government should finally crack down on corporate malfesance, outright fraud, shoddy executive leadership and enforce, for once, Sarbanes Oxley.

    The workplace has become one big fraudulent cesspool of executive incompetance and executive over compensation.

    I assure you a water cooler conversation cenetred around politcics is the least of corpoarte America's worries.

    How are writedowns, restatements of earnings and outright fraud not violations of Sarbanes Oxley; how about addressing the root of the problem.

    August 20, 2008 at 1:42 pm |
  14. Nicole in Alabama

    It was the day after Fox News referred to Michelle as Obama Baby Mama and most of the woman @ work was really mad about it and natuarally the conversation went into politics in general. There this older lady that started working with us about a month prior and she joined in on the conversation and stated that she liked Obama alot however she could never vote for him b/c he is pro-choice and she has voted Republican all her life.

    Now this lady is about 55 yrs and returning to workforce after staying home for past 30 yrs because she needed health insurance and couldn't get medicare, lives w/ her daughter because she cannot afford to live alone and rides to work w/ another coworker because she doesn't have a car. So I called her out on this. I asked her what have the Republicans done to improve her life since she has been faithful to them all her life. She got really mad and to this day that lady will not speak to me.

    August 20, 2008 at 1:30 pm |
  15. Cindy

    Talking politics at work is no big deal. You just have to agree to disagree. Can't go wrong there.

    And hey...Jon Stewart as the president...I'd go for that!! LOL He can't screw up anymore than the rest of them. Plus he'd keep it real and extremely funny! LOL

    Cindy..Ga.

    August 20, 2008 at 12:59 pm |