Realpolitik – The perils and plusses of water cooler politics

Realpolitik – Two years ago, during one of the most contentious elections in American history, a survey by the American Psychological Association found that on-the-job political discussions (not to be confused with office politics) were taking their toll.

The upshot, according to the APA, was that many workers felt more stressed and less productive when talk turned to politics – at least this time around. Younger employees were more likely to be stressed, the survey showed, while men reported being less productive. For some, these workplace discussions also led to increased hostility, more negative views of colleagues, and feelings of isolation.

This year, as pivotal midterm elections loom in the U.S., people are again talking. Not that they’ve ever really stopped since the last presidential election, but realpolitik discussion is on the increase. And again, some don’t like it.

In some instances, employers may not care, or consider it an issue, as they themselves may be sharing political views and encouraging employees to vote (and donate to) red or blue. In fact, since employers are no longer prohibited from discussing politics with their employees, as the result of a 2010 Supreme Court decision, some go beyond encouraging.

But in other instances, employers do consider this an issue, especially when it impacts employee productivity and wellbeing.

So what can be done to keep the realpolitik peace? It depends on who’s doing what.

Employees who come to work wearing political buttons, hats, and T-shirts, etc., can be asked to adhere to a dress code that prohibits these. Bans can also be placed on the display or distribution of political materials, and on soliciting donations for candidates.

In addition, rules or guidelines can be established around realpolitik discussions and political activities, though these should be neutral and apply to all, so that no group or individual feels singled out.

Most important, however, is taking steps to ensure that employees adhere to requirements for a respectful and inclusive workplace, which are typically spelled out in a company’s code of conduct or employee handbook.

Although discussions about news and current events are to be expected among coworkers, political talk that becomes heated, or comments that are perceived as offensive, can violate a company’s policy against unlawful harassment and discrimination. This, as many know, can trigger legal action.

That being said, though, political discourse that doesn’t become disruptive or cause worker angst has its benefits. It can help promote tolerance, which seems to be in short supply these days, as well as diversity of thought.

For many, the workplace is the only place where they routinely interact with those outside of their social circles, and in some cases the only place where they’re consistently exposed to divergent social and political views. When these views are shared in a polite and respectful manner, there can be greater understanding of how and why differing opinions are formed. And, hopefully, less polarization.

This in turn fosters a culture that values all types of diversity, which, as many studies have shown, helps increase engagement, innovation, and — not surprisingly — a company’s overall profitability.