Politics round the watercooler

2008

Growing up, I was warned to avoid three topics at the dinner table when in polite company: money, religion, and politics. And with the U.S. presidential election getting into full swing, perhaps the same sound advice should be extended to include discussions around the office watercooler.

Unless you've been living on another planet, you can hardly failed to have noticed that the race for the White House is reaching a critical stage. What's more, I can hardly remember an election lead-up that has inspired so much interest – especially from people not normally into politics.

But it's gotten to the point now where election fever has started to permeate the workplace, much to the chagrin of many (including me) who would rather keep the workplace a politics-free zone.

In keeping with the political climate, others would take issue with me on this. In fact opinion is firmly split as to whether the office is an appropriate place to discuss the merits or otherwise of the various presidential candidates.

According to a study from the American Management Association (AMA), more than a third (35 per cent) of Americans feel comfortable discussing politics at work with their colleagues as opposed to four out of 10 (39 per cent) who do not. A further quarter are neutral on the issue.

Surprisingly, more people feel more comfortable discussing politics with their manager (40 per cent) versus 38 per cent who do not (22 per cent are neutral).

Still, although political chatter can hardly be avoided during a presidential election year, most of us would probably draw the line at colleagues actively campaigning in the office for their favorites. And thankfully, the survey suggests that this is rare, with more than nine out of 10 respondents saying that no one from their company — either management or labor — has recommended voting for a particular candidate.

Companies as a whole also are shying away from endorsing political favorites, with eight out of 10 senior executives confirming that their organization does not contribute to a particular political party.

Yet although most of us would probably agree that there is nothing wrong with a mature, insightful conversation about politics, I've seen too many hot-headed folks lose their cool when conversations turn political – not the mention seeing the odd closet extremist reveal his or her true colors in such situations.

And, let's face it, it's pretty hard to keep hold of your tongue and not fly off the rails at a colleague you violently disagree with.

With the AMA survey finding that more than half the organizations they surveyed have no written policies prohibiting the distribution or posting of material endorsing a political party or candidate, perhaps we all need to remember that a heated political discussion can be a powder keg just waiting to explode in the lap of some hapless HR manager.

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