Finding a Safe Harbor in the Office When Talk Turns Political

Editor's pick: Originally published June 23.

This year has brought as brutal -- and personally nasty -- an election as anybody can recall, and that is bad news for employees who want to find a safe harbor on the job. Opinions are strong, they are loud, and they can get in your face.

How best to handle a coworker who suddenly is in your face yelling about Clinton, or is it Trump, or candidates further down the ticket? Maybe you too have strong opinions. But probably you want to keep your job and, in the bargain, maintain good relationships with your coworkers. That's why you have to know what the savvy thing to do is.

Know this: you can be terminated in most states for stating your political beliefs. That is fact. California is an exception. So are most public sector jobs. But work in the private sector and wearing a Trump button, or giving a pro-Clinton speech in the lunchroom, is plenty to get you fired.

Word of advice: if you are in the 49 other states and work for a private company, assume you have no rights at all when it comes to political speech on the job. Probably you do have some rights but rather than split hairs, just accept that this deck usually is stacked against you.

That's why the real question almost all employees seem destined to wrestle with this campaign season is how to stay safe - and sane - in workplaces where strongly held political beliefs are becoming commonplace. "This year it seems everybody has an opinion that is strong," said Marta Moakley, a legal editor with XpertHR.

April Masini, a relationship expert who blogs at AskApril, puts the issues into perspective: "The relationships you have with office mates, clients, bosses and employees are crucial to positive productivity and workplace mental health. So when a spirited election debate breaks out, it's important to keep the big picture in place — not the political big picture, but the workplace big picture. Chances are you won't convince your water cooler debate opponents, of your point of view, so is the conflict worth it? No."

Politics is not a special case, by the way. Multiple experts said savvy employees are well advised to duck heated debates about sports teams, too. Feelings may be strong, pro or against, Notre Dame or USC or the Patriots or the Yankees  - but that does not mean the workplace is the proper place to air those opinions.

"Whether it's sports or politics if it disrupts the organization we need to put a stop to this and focus on our work," said Stan Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer. "Pragmatically it is better to stay away from these conversations."

Doug Walker, manager of HR services at Insperity, a business advisory company, added another cautionary voice: "My advice is lay low on your opinions about politics. It can be a CLM - a career limiting move for most people."

He added: "Anything that causes upset to the workplace doesn't belong in the workplace."

What if a coworker is haranguing you - offering in your face political commentary? Midge Seltzer, CEO of HR solutions firm Engage PEO, suggested: "Politely decline to engage. That should work."

Just say: "Sorry, I am so busy today, really don't have time for this."

You get all that, but you want to speak your mind on politics? Masini has advice for you: "If you have a good natured and light-hearted attitude about a political race, then by all means, engage your colleagues in conversation to share views — but the second one of you becomes heated beyond friendly banter is the second you need to pull back and back off."

Put more simply: If you have a political viewpoint and are comfortable sharing it, in the appropriate circumstances do it if you can with a good natured tone of voice and especially without belittling all opponents and their supporters.

Better advice, from multiple experts, is if you can duck political conversations on the job, stay mum. That's the smart track to safety.

If that's just not you, speak your mind - but do it with respect for coworkers and opposing points of view. Probably that's fine. But remember too, you probably have no protected right to do that. Only silence is safe this season.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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