Is Talking Politics at Work the New Norm?

according to the gatekeepers℠…

Find out what you need to know for your career… 

Can a difference in political opinions matter enough to derail an important business deal? A client of mine says yes. He relayed to me a conversation with his partner that happened the day after the US presidential election:

 

He said, “Good day to wear black. I’m in mourning for our democracy too.”

 

She said, “He’s just like Ronald Reagan. We all need to give him a chance.”

 

He said, “I was in college during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan.”

 

She said, “At least Trump isn’t a convict – like Hillary.”

 

Apologies all around. Meeting over.

 

It’s Inauguration Day now, my client’s contract has yet to be signed, and neither side is picking up the phone.

 

Today, U.S. and post-Brexit UK citizens seem more divided than ever, and it’s unlikely that the U.S. will heal its divisions any time soon. Does this new environment, where “fake news” rules and everyone is watching the latest Presidential intrigue like it’s an episode of House of Cards, mean that the rules have changed? Leaders everywhere are expressing opinions and taking sides. Could it actually hurt you to stay on the sidelines when asked your opinion?

 

What’s the best way to protect your career?

 

 

We recently asked the gatekeepers℠, a community of 75 CEOs, board members, C-suite executives, executive search partners, private equity partners and heads of human resources, if the old adage, “never speak about politics at work” still applies.

 

Gatekeeper Donna Morea, member of the board of directors at SunTrust Bank and SAIC, feels that advice may, in fact, be old news. She believes diverse points of view are what America is all about, and that political discourse, even in the workplace, is healthy: “It would be silly to deny that I or any executive had a point of view.”

 

But like the American and UK electorate, no one viewpoint clearly prevailed. The gatekeepers are divided. Here is what we heard:

 

The Party of No

 

Thirty-five percent of the gatekeepers still believe the answer is cut and dry: they advise strict avoidance of political discussions at work. Gatekeeper Joseph Griesedieck, vice chairman and managing director at Korn/Ferry International, commented, “discussions around partisan politics, much like religion, often tend to lack objectivity and rationality – the opposite of what is required in business.”

 

Sean McCormack, chief technology officer of Harley Davidson, brought up the personal and professional tensions that can result from political discussions: “They do nothing to encourage unity in the workplace, and instead can cause disunity.”

 

Stephen Herbert, chairman and CEO of USA Technologies, takes a pragmatic approach, saying he doesn’t comment on politics in his official capacity because “one runs the risk of alienating up to 50 percent of the customer base.”

 

The “Proceed with Caution” Party

 

Thirty-five percent of our respondents said if they’re asked to weigh in on political issues, they do, but most are very careful to keep it general and high level. “Where a discussion can’t be avoided, I do reflective listening,” says Mark Sullivan, president and CEO of Cast Nylons. “I hear their point, restate it back to show understanding and participation in the conversation.”

 

David Finke, founder of the Digital Transformation Practice and leader of the Global Technology Sector at Russell Reynolds Associates, says, “It’s hard to avoid the topic and refusing to engage can be perceived as rude. However, I am careful not to paint myself into a corner, in case my counterpart looks at the world through a different set of lenses.”

 

Tom Geisel, executive vice president at Sterling Bancorp, says his inclination to talk politics at work depends on the environment and the participants. “If the conversation becomes emotional or takes an irrational turn, I will typically back off by acknowledging or minimizing the differences and then changing the subject.”

 

The Third Party: Only if it’s Relevant

 

Thirty percent of respondents thought political conversations should be framed within a business context only.

 

Alan Jope, president of personal care at Unilever, says that while the company doesn’t take sides or contribute to political campaign funds, “We do explain to employees and other stakeholders our assessment of the likely impact of different political outcomes on our business.”

 

Clearly, the gatekeepers aren’t 100 percent aligned on whether political discussions belong in the workplace. But they mostly agree that strong or emotional opinions should be kept to oneself.

 

It’s impossible to predict whether your business colleagues will agree with your political positions, so if you value your standing, avoidance or reflective listening is probably still the safest way to protect your career ­- even when it’s so very hard to bite your tongue.