You’re With Who? Political Affiliation In The Workplace
Etiquette 101: Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.
When it comes to “polite company” situations, few can trump the workplace for required social nicety. After all, an impassioned argument about conflicting beliefs is conducive neither to friendly customer service nor productive collaboration between co-workers.
But at least one-half of this manners maxim is widely ignored in most workplaces. From crucifixes to headscarves and turbans, religious affiliation is often overtly displayed by staff members without raising the ire of colleagues and managers. Indeed, religious expression is protected under anti- discrimination laws in the UK and USA.
Political ideology, in contrast, enjoys no such legal protection.
Yet more than one-third of workers claim that they discuss politics at work. So, is displaying your political affiliation in the workplace acceptable? And, more to the point, should it be?
Is a Politics-Free Workplace Possible?
Legally, yes. Employers can forbid employees from discussing or displaying politics at work. Even in America, where many people mistakenly believe that voicing political opinions at work is covered under the First Amendment, staff can be disciplined or fired for their beliefs. One such casualty was Lynne Gobbell of Alabama, who did nothing more egregious that put a Democrat bumper sticker on her car.
However, law books rarely reflect accurately what happens on the ground: just 25% of companies have a written policy prohibiting political activities. Many may have concerns about coming across as too Big Brother and dampening morale if they try too rigorously to police what their employees say.
Moreover, in the digital age of social media, it’s rarely difficult to discover which political opinions your acquaintances hold. From political retweets to Facebook profile picture overlays entitled “I’m voting for …”, many of your colleagues will be well informed of your political inclinations with or without the accompanying party badge.
Different Rules for Different Workplaces
Displays of political affiliation are more acceptable in some workplace than others. For example, people working for a political campaign may be expected to exhibit party-themed memorabilia, whereas espousing political opinions as a police officer, teacher, medic, security personal etcetera would be wildly inappropriate.
This is because these roles require helping, influencing and protecting a very wide swathe of different-thinking individuals, many of whom may struggle to trust or respect anyone with beliefs that appear to either contrast their own or disparage members of their particular social group.
The Value of Values
In the private sector, however, companies often promote certain values, or even politics, which they feel espouse their particular brand. In an extreme example, the CEO of the marketing firm The Silent Partner vets candidates with a questionnaire designed to make sure that only applicants who are excessively patriotic and support gun ownership go through.
The test has attracted a lot of criticism and controversy, yet “entitled” Millennials who are “whiny” enough to take issue with the States sky-high gun homicide rate or the appalling antics of their President may be grateful that they were allowed to self-select out of such a company (and, indeed, 60% of applicants do).
Survey data on millennials shows that most of this cohort care passionately about working for a company whose values align with their own. This is undoubtedly easier to discern when companies and employees are both relatively open about their political inclinations. Indeed, companies who are political about issues that are also popular with their employees (say, for example, being environmentally friendly) may improve staff engagement. Employees who see their company as aligned with them in terms of beliefs and values are more likely to actively promote the company, stay loyal to it and work hard to achieve its aims.
Not All Politics is Controversial
Talk about politics in the workplace, and many people’s mind immediately jumps to highly controversial and hugely dividing issues. But political ideology covers a huge spectrum, and plenty of political promotion would be considered largely innocuous by most employees and employers.
Wearing a badge for the RSPCA, for example, is unlikely to cause much kick-back, in the same way that nobody bats an eyelid at working with a vegetarian or vegan who, by requiring a certain diet at work events, is technically ‘promoting’ their political opinion.
Some Political Opinions Are Human Rights
In many parts of the world, political stances on issues like feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and foreign-born workers are controversial. But the idea that a gay worker couldn’t, for example, display a photo of his wedding day on his desk because some co-workers may disagree with same-sex marriage is clearly unfair and unethical.
Even more overt political symbols of this nature – say a Pride flag or an ‘I Am a Feminist’ t-shirt – should be permitted in workplaces (assuming they won’t clash with general uniform or decorating policies). Discrimination laws are there to ensure employers protect employees from being treated differently because of the social group they fall into, and the promotion of equality is something all employers have a duty to encourage.
Is It Worth It?
Ultimately, there are many situations where an employee could display a political affiliation without being formally disciplined for it. But as with any statement we make about ourselves, such actions are always open to judgement by the people around us. The question employees should ask themselves, therefore, is whether espousing a particular political opinion is worth the risk of changing their colleagues and boss’ opinion of them.
It’s worth noting that we give our co-workers judgement-worthy information every day, whether by the way we dress or the music we play. However, politics is often incredibly personal, and the potential for permanent damage to a relationship much greater. Professional networks help us advance in our career, so it’s always worth considering what impression you’re making and what reputation you’re building.
Finally, there’s a huge different between displaying political positions and proselytising about them. Pushing your agenda onto other people who aren’t interested in engaging with you is rude and unproductive, especially in the workplace.
Beth Leslie is a career and lifestyle writer. She is also the editor of the Inspiring Interns blog, which provides graduate careers advice to young people looking to excel in the workplace.
Inspiring Interns is a graduate recruitment agency which helps career starters find everything from project management roles to marketing internships. Check out their listing for both graduate jobs London and graduate jobs Manchester.