Talking Politics In The Workplace? Better to Mind Your Business

Our goal as executives is to build a like-minded culture in pursuit of the organization’s goals. That’s where our influence should stop.

While in graduate school I worked in an upscale men’s store. The store had two master tailors from Eastern Europe, both in their mid-70s, Aaron and Isaac—they had been there for many years. The tailor shop was very small, maybe 12 feet by 20 feet, cluttered with sewing machines, ironing boards plenty of garments and a steam press. One day. Aaron and Isaac stopped talking to each other. For months, they coexisted in that small space, never saying a word to each other and for months, all of us who worked there tried to broker a ‘peace.’

Years later, as president of a manufacturing company I was looking for a way to improve the work experience for employees. The plant was arranged by work center and our employees usually ate at their work benches. My idea: convert an underutilized space into a break/lunch area. It worked like a charm! Folks got to interact outside of their work area—including Bennie and Alex, a German immigrant. Turns out, both fought in WWII. As they got to know each other they discovered that Bennie’s outfit had captured Alex’s in the war and they stopped speaking. No one could broker a peace.

Sound familiar? In all of our social experiences, we inevitably will find two or more individuals who discover they can’t agree on something and then, instead of changing subjects or mixing back into the crowd, they persist in trying to convince the other that their views are without merit. My point: Folks don’t need our help to find reasons to disagree.

Which brings me to discussing politics in the workplace.

Our goal as executives is to build a like-minded culture in pursuit of the organization’s goals. That’s where our influence should stop. Maybe they do exist, but it’s hard to imagine an enterprise having politically like-minded employees. More likely, there is a spectrum of interests and priorities ranging from healthcare to national security to entitlement programs and more. Tempting – because of our leadership roles, some will seek our viewpoints. Risky – if we give them we add to the polarization that comes with the political season.

When asked I’m likely to respond with “you know, I’ve some catching up to do, I haven’t really been tuned in,” or “Right now I’m trying to be a good listener” or, “I’m still processing” and, if asked about a specific candidate I try to say something respectful but neutral. As in the cases of Aaron and Isaac and Bennie and Alex, folks don’t need any help from us in finding reasons to disagree. Our job, regardless of the subject matter, is to prevent internal disruption by preserving mutual respect and support.

If you’re in an executive position, communication about economic policies and their influence on the enterprise is essential. But when it comes to political issues and candidates, my advice is to keep silent, or at least stay generic. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but no one should feel compelled to adopt ours. It’s best for the business that we mind our own business.

As for Aaron and Isaac, they made their peace, and we never did find out what issue had splintered them. Bennie and Alex never spoke again.

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.