Election year is prime time for workplace disagreements

Diane Stafford
Kansas City Star

The lunchroom conversation started out with what seemed to be a simple observation about the news — a comment about results of the Iowa caucuses. It didn’t end that way.

A co-worker, actually just passing by the table where the conversation began, wheeled around and delivered a fervent advocacy for one of the losing candidates, with unkind words about the winner. The pair at the table, somewhat stunned at the outburst, let him speak his piece. One of them responded with a noncommittal, “I hear ya.”

Fortunately, an explosive encounter was avoided, but it showed how the workplace can be hostile ground for politics. Even when strident opinions aren’t said aloud, there are many ways for co-workers to make their thoughts known through social media posts or even facial expressions and gestures.

Those thoughts can color workplace relationships. Here’s the thing: We naturally are inclined to want to work with, to do business with, people who think as we do. That’s one of the reasons diversity can be difficult, for some people more than others.

Especially when political races heat up, there’s plenty of verbal gunslinging. Passions rise. Supporters want others to take the positions they take, to back the candidates they like.

The workplace danger is when political leanings infect the ability of co-workers to get along or for managers to treat their employees fairly.

It’s ridiculous to assume that touchy topics — religion, abortion, guns, gay marriage and the like — could be banned at work. It won’t happen.

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with calm discussions about important issues. But it takes sensitivity to keep tempers from becoming inflamed and causing irreparable damage.

Workplace peers might be able to shrug off or mostly avoid a co-worker with whom there’s a big philosophical disagreement. If that’s not possible, it may require a direct response on the order of “I’m simply not comfortable with talking about or listening to this at work. Could you please respect that?”

As with most workplace interactions, the pressure is greater on managers to nip disruptive comments in the bud. If it occurs in a meeting, attention should be diverted quickly to the business topic. If it’s observed among employees — or if an employee complains — it needs to be addressed personally.

Managers should call the too-strident employee in for a private conversation: “I understand you’re passionate about this, but I need you to respect the fact that others disagree and are uncomfortable. I hope you will agree to direct your energy to supporting this cause outside the workplace.”

Diplomacy and humor may help deliver the message. If it doesn’t, the offending worker may have to be put on notice that work expectations aren’t being met, either because of wasted time on the job or inability to work with the team.