Monday, November 08, 2004

The Aftermath of Political Debates in the Office

A wise person once said that political and religious debates in the workplace don't mix well. This year's presidential election stirred up much emotion and ignited fierce debates in offices and workplaces nationwide. Like political advertising these debates (between colleagues, supervisors and subordinates) often took a nasty turn. Now as the season begins to wind down, companies need to take a careful look at the damage this debate has inflicted. Have your teams become so polarized that they can't effectively work together? Are there employees who have lost respect for their boss? Have partisan alliances developed that might lead to unfair treatment for these not a part of the group?

A Harvard Business Review case study from the October issue doesn't offer much help in regard to political debate in the office. One expert suggests that political debate is good for team spirit. Another, a CEO at a respected company, recommends executives lead the political debate by informing employees of the company's agreed upon political beliefs.

I advocate encouraging employees not to get into political and religious debates with coworkers on the job. From a business perspective there is absolutely nothing positive to be gained. From a societal standpoint, there's not much to be gained either. As we all know, few minds are changed from such debate. And while there are few if any positives, there are plenty of negatives. Many of which are potent and long lasting.

How does one gain back respect for someone they think is a fool? How do you work together with a colleague who has raised their voice to you and called you names? How does the employee labeled a "conspiracy theorist" ever build bridges with a team of people who have belittled his questioning of the status quo?

While I don't suggest censoring speech, I would advise reminding managers of their responsibilities in keeping the workplace harmonious. It's not difficult for a supervisor to ask employees to knock it off when the debating around the water cooler gets loud and angry. Managers can meet privately with the debate instigators and ask for their assistance in keeping political and religious debate out of the office. Staff should be reminded that debating is inappropriate in the workplace and ask for their help in turning the discussions to less volatile subjects. Most employees appreciate such discipline as they already know that they are venturing into a lose-lose situation.

Beth C.

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