COVER STORY: Political beliefs – Censored at work?

Depending on the sort of friends you have, your preferred prime minister might be great dinner party topic. But what are the protocols when it comes to workplace chatter?
Conventional wisdom is clear. Talk about politics ranks alongside sex and religion as no-no in most people’s books. Some career advisers even extend the list to include problems with the hubby or missus, your worrisome kids and parents, your dodgy heart and skiting about your future stellar career. That leaves food, sport, holidays and which puppy you’d like for Christmas (or should that be seasonal end-of-year celebration?).
A growing number of commentators have been prodding the debate along this year. Stewart Friedman is founding director of the Wharton School’s leadership programme and its work/life integration project. Bets are he’s responding to this year’s presidential elections in the US. Still, his arguments ring just as true for election-year Kiwis.
Earlier this year, Friedman argued on Harvard Business online ‘conversation starter’ for more frank talk at work. The usual story, he says, is that political chat in the office is distraction or waste of time. “If you’re manager you should be cracking the whip and urging everyone to get back to work, right? Absolutely not. [For] people who work together talking about our political futures isn’t off target. It is the target.”
Friedman argues that, as long as the discourse is civil, such conversations enhance esprit de corps and greater sense of belonging to something that’s bigger than our own small worlds of work and family. “Call it community. People feel better when they feel they’re part of one. Smart managers, therefore, encourage real connections among people, not just as employees but as real human beings dealing with the difficulties of everyday life. They build community.”
Friedman believes we should cherish political discussion at work because of its ability to reveal each individual’s values and aspirations.
“People talking about what they really care about in life builds trust. When I know more about you as person, I understand you better. In most cases, it makes me care more about you. I’m more willing to help you.”
Such arguments clearly touch chord with other business folk. At the start of this year, an online BusinessWeek debate attracted frank posting from reader Pamela Robinson: “For all the diversity talk in most corporations, the one area that lacks diversity is one of opinions,” she wrote. “We’ve accepted that being mindless drone is part of the corporate culture… True maturity is learning how to live and work with others who have differing opinions. We can disagree but not be obnoxious.”
Problem is, we all know it’s easy to get obnoxious about politics. ‘So who are you going to vote for?’ can be about as socially endearing as asking 40-something-year-old woman at board meeting to reveal her birth date, pay packet and favourite brand of contraceptives.
Casual office talk about politicians readily boils over into heated and unproductive argument. It can sour into bitter, adversarial and divisive shouting match.
Sheffield director Ian Taylor reckons Kiwi society encourages us to play it safe at work.
“When it gets to matter of deep principle, New Zealanders are prepared to get stirred up, whether it be Greenpeace, All Blacks tours or Maori marches,” he says. “But those things are few and far between in our culture and history.”
Generally, says Taylor, we like to be seen as personable and friendly, making an effort to get on with other people and not ruffling feathers.
Savvy employees and managers take their cues from the culture of an organisation. “So in place where the values are right, where there’s an open culture and transparency and there’s intelligent debate to be had, of course such conversations do take place,” says Taylor. “But I don’t think this happens [here] unless people are in an unusually enlightened environment… It’s like your family – you know what to shut up about and you know what you can talk about.”
It’s tempting to believe that reluctance to flaunt one’s political colours is just generational issue. Maybe as Gen Y takes over the planet we’ll all grow out of it. Indeed there’s some evidence to suggest this could be the case. Separate pieces of research in the United States by both workforce solutions company Adecco USA and global research company Harris Interactive show younger people are far more comfortable sharing their political views than their older counterparts. The Harris Interactive research reported that 84 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds would even feel fine telling their boss which candidate they support.
Here in New Zealand, EPMU national secretary Andrew Little agrees that many young people are only too glad to share their political views with the world. “But, having said that, there’s now generation coming through what I think is almost the de-politicisation of lot of issues,” he says. “There’s an a-politics around lot of issues.”
By and large, the question is more fraught at the top of the corporate ladder anyway. It’s especially nuanced for senior managers who rightly worry that they may unwittingly influence or put pressure on junior staff. As consequence they tip toe around the issue, afraid to allow political dimension to discussions for fear of repercussions.
Over in the United States, raft of recent surveys backs up this instinct. When asked, almost half of the 6000 respondents to Beyond.com survey said they think it ‘inappropriate’ to talk politics at work. Fifty-eight percent of the over 7000 respondents to Monster Meter poll said they would not be comfortable doing so. And an American Management Association (AMA) survey showed 35 percent of managers (out of 700) weren’t easy about sharing their political views with colleagues.
There’s talk in the United States about rolling out specific protocols around how to discuss politics at work. According to report in the Kansas City Star, handful of organisations are reputed to ban it outright. And the AMA survey showed almost 40 percent of companies surveyed had written policies prohibiting workers from handing out literature endorsing political parties and candidates.
In New Zealand, the Human Rights Act and other anti-discrimination statutes cover workplace discussion of politics. In the private sector, most companies we spoke to reckon they’ve got it covered with their existing company values. They don’t see need for specific written protocols around political talk.
Many companies say it is simply not an issue for them, which begs the questions why an unusually large number of companies refused to talk to us about how they handle workplace discussions of politics.
Among those who were happy to talk, Healtheries managing director Sarah Kennedy says senior managers take into account relevant government policies in their strategic thinking. Apart from that, politics is private matter unless it is affecting the business in some way. “We don’t have protocols around how politics should be discussed at work but we have set of company values that form our behaviour and these include respect for different opinions.”
ICT services company Gen-i tries to be as non-prescriptive as possible, says its communications and media manager Carmela Salisbury. “It’s all about tone and respect – they are important. We aim for harmonious workplace and this is covered in our company values.”
Westpac New Zealand media relations manager Craig Howie says his company’s general code of conduct, diversity policy and media policy already cover off any issues relating to political discussion.
Over at South Island tourism company Real Journeys – where employee numbers can easily swell to 450-plus during the busy holiday season – CEO Dave Hawkey says he must have supporters of every political party on his staff. Such differences are not problem. Hawkey’s bottom line is mutual respect.
“As manager, I wouldn’t push or

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