Don't get trapped in your employer's politics

When your office environment is politically charged, maintaining your equilibrium and your sense of personal integrity calls for tact and forbearance

Dear Bob ...

I work in an industry whose leaders have decided the Obama administration is headed in the wrong direction. Our CEO has been particularly vocal on the subject and has not decided that tact is important in how he expresses his opinion.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob shares his ideas on what to do if you're not connecting with your boss in other ways in "When the boss plays favorites -- and it isn't you" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

While it might be that the employees here have all formed their opinions independently and just happen to agree with him, my guess is that my reaction is a common one: Agreement seems to be expected, and there's more than a hint that agreement is mandatory.

I'm a political independent and used to be pretty much middle of the road: socially fairly liberal; economically mildly conservative. As society polarizes, though, I seem to find myself more and more left of center as a result of not having changed my positions on the issues of the day. I haven't changed, but the center seems to have moved, and here where I work it seems to have moved further.

I don't mind luncheon conversations that start along the lines of, "Isn't it horrible how Obama isn't even a citizen and he's trying to turn America into a socialist nation?" I can deal with these without too much trouble. (Usually I say something like, "I guess we'll have to just agree to disagree. And right now I'm more concerned about the analysis I have to get done by Friday. Can I pick your brain on it?")

I do get concerned about how to handle signs from management that range from strong hints to overt encouragement that I'm supposed to write letters to my senators and congressional representatives or contribute to the politician of their choice.

Any thoughts on what to do next?

- Pushed

Dear Pushed ...

Sounds oppressive. Wise business leaders understand that by expressing strong opinions on subjects unrelated to business direction and operations that they will create an environment in which some employees feel like second-class citizens. That's the case whether the subject is politics or religion (the big two) or, if you live in one of those bizarre workplaces that takes its cue from "Grey's Anatomy," the big three, the third category being (ahem) quasi-reproductive hobbies (I'm trying to dodge your spam filter -- how'd I do?).

I'd say your best alternative is to respond to any and all such hints by answering, "I hope you don't find this offputting: I vote the secret ballot, and for the most part figure that's the best approach when it comes to talking about political matters here in the office, too. Now about those Cubs ..."

If the pressure persists and you're feeling adventurous, you might try something like, "You know, if I didn't know you better I'd almost think you're making political agreement part of my job description. And really, I prefer not to talk politics in the office. There's just no payoff in it."

How you say this is as important as the words themselves. It's easy for stress to enter your voice, making you sound defensive or hostile. Don't let that happen. As is so often the case when dealing with sensitive topics, being relaxed, calm, and confident is the key to success.

Usually, when people complain about office politics they're talking about who's backstabbing whom. All it all, that's probably safer territory than what you're having to deal with.

- Bob

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