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How to Talk About the Election at Work

HR professionals share their tips for navigating this tricky time.

By Madeleine Kim

These days, thinking about the upcoming election feels inescapable. November 3rd stars in my stress dreams and graces my T-shirts. And I think about it during work, too. But does that mean it’s okay to strike up a conversation about it with my co-workers? I mean, it’s kind of impossible not to…

This year’s election is unusual in that it’s set against the backdrop of a global pandemic and a national reckoning over systemic racism in our country. And both individuals and the companies they work for have had to address those things head on. “This long-overdue moment, after the murder of George Floyd, is unlike anything we have ever seen in terms of resetting expectations around equity and inclusion in workplaces,” says Kia Roberts, Principal and Founder of Triangle Investigations. Indeed, M.M.LaFleur, like many other companies, has spent the past few months developing an updated plan to fight racism in the workplace, and our work is far from done.

“Let’s just say it straight,” says Roberts, “For many employees, especially BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employees, President Trump, the Trump brand, and the Republican Party have become completely synonymous with racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence. I cannot overstate how many inquiries/investigations we currently have due to employees complaining of co-workers publicly stating their support for President Trump and his policies.”

There are many wrong ways to talk about politics at work—but what is the best way to have a professional conversation about the upcoming election? I tapped a few HR professionals to weigh in.

Keep an Open Mind

Avoiding stereotypes is always a good rule of thumb, and it’s especially important in the workplace, where you need to get along with people whose opinions may differ from yours. Dr. Meagan E. Brock Baskin, Ph.D., a Chapman Assistant Professor of Management in the Collins College of Business at the University of Tulsa, explains: “Identification of others’ political affiliations serves as a grouping mechanism in which we can categorize others as ‘like us’ or ‘not like us.’ This allows us to stereotype others’ values, attitudes, and beliefs based on the group in which they have been categorized. Both parties view the other party as less intelligent. As employees, we then take these stereotypes and apply them to our co-workers in the context of their jobs, and it begins to shape the way we see and interact with each other.”

Julia Spahiu, an HR Manager at Edi and Sienna Group, adds: “The best way to navigate working with people you know don’t share the same opinion as you is to come to terms with the fact that not everyone thinks the same or has the same life experience as you.” Not sure where someone is coming from? Just ask. “Politics are a taboo topic, but it is natural to want to discuss them,” says Dr. Baskin. “It’s normal to feel uncomfortable around co-workers with differing beliefs. But most importantly, it is okay to ask questions. Questions allow us to uncover truth and make more informed decisions.” 

Bring the Focus Back to Work

At the end of the day, it’s in your best interest to make sure election-related conversations don’t get in the way of your (or your team’s) work performance. “The workplace requires individuals to set aside their differences and focus on the job at hand,” says Laura Handrick, an HR & Business Consulting Agency Owner and writer for Choosing Therapy. “We’ve all seen how political conversations devolve into name-calling and insults over social media. It’s crucial to avoid that kind of tension in the workplace. My recommendation as an HR professional is to train managers and supervisors to nip such commentary in the bud, regardless of their own beliefs, by saying something like, ‘Let’s keep our focus on the (customer/client/product) and maintain a professional, inclusive work environment by keeping political views to ourselves.’”

Know How to Exit the Conversation

We all want to be professional and polite in the workplace, and it can be tough to know how to end a conversation you don’t want to be a part of. Handrick’s advice: “Use ‘I’ statements so that the person sharing his/her opinions doesn’t feel rebuffed. A manager can say, ‘Let’s not get into politics in the workplace—it’s too divisive.’ An individual can say, ‘I don’t talk about politics at work,’ or, ‘I’d appreciate it if we could focus on the job.”

Take Care of Your Mental Health

If the looming election is putting a strain on your mental health, you’re not alone—but that doesn’t mean the office (virtual or otherwise) is the place to seek solace. “The horrific landscape of 2020—the deadly pandemic, the racial uprisings, the fragile economy—have combined to make a very difficult year for Americans generally,” says Roberts. “Many employees are understandably carrying this strain and stress into their workplace. We are advising our clients to invest in mental health resources for their employees who have voiced stress about the election or other outside factors.” Handrick adds: “If you’re feeling stressed about the election, it’s best to talk to friends and family outside of work, schedule a therapy appointment, or talk to your EAP counselor. Your employer likely provides you with resources to assist with work and home stressors. Stress from the upcoming election is no different than stress you may feel due to your dating, housing, or health. It’s something you need to seek help for outside of the workplace.”

Know Where to Draw the Line

It’s typically best to avoid conflict in the workplace—but in some cases, it’s necessary. “I usually encourage embracing the awkward, as awkward conversations promote growth,” says Dr. Baskin. “However, in the context of an election year and a climate that is ripe with national unrest, I think you have three options: Confront, Deflect, or Avoid. All of these options require you to be adept at impression management to varying degrees. In my personal opinion, confrontation should be reserved to situations in which the conversation is resulting in inappropriate stereotypes and the provision of information that is not based in fact.”

Focus on Civic Engagement

Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on, it’s important to do your civic duty and vote. This year, M.M.LaFleur is offering its employees a paid day off to work on voting-related projects—whether that means getting voters registered, volunteering at the polls, or anything else that will help others show up this year. Working toward a common goal brings people together, and it just might spark some productive dialogue among co-workers.

Written By

Madeleine Kim

Madeleine Kim is the Senior Brand Manager at M.M.LaFleur, where she started out as a stylist. She loves developing styling-focused content and creating newsletters that bring the M.M. community together.

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