How to handle coworkers who discuss polarizing topics at work

How to handle coworkers who discuss polarizing topics at work

Coworkers sharing their personal views about politics, religion, culture and more are polarizing many workplaces. Whether the topic is about fake or real news, the role of government, or flat earth theories (really?!), opinions on these topics are often inflexible.

Despite that, some people may use misinformation, rhetoric or lies to validate their point of view. And when you have a personal connection to the issue these types of encounters can trigger an emotional reaction. The good news is options exist for how to handle this sign of the times, workplace problem.

How to deal with coworkers who discuss politics

Discussing politics at work is an “accident” waiting to happen.  A 2016 survey by the American Psychological Association discovered that one out of four employees are stressed by political grandstanding at work. If the political pundits in the lunchroom are ruining your appetite, it may be time for an intervention.

  1. Declare a lack of interest when others solicit your opinion

    When others solicit your opinion, declare a lack of interest in politics. “Following politics just isn’t my thing.” Even if you love politics, this declaration gives you cover for not engaging. Don’t substitute lack of interest with a lack of knowledge: “I really don’t know much about politics,” is an invitation for the political “experts” to educate you.

  2. Free yourself

    Don’t be a political hostage. Your coworkers may be unaware that they are controlling the conversation and the TV remote control. Ask them to be diplomatic about watching something other than breaking cable news in the breakroom. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but it’s worth a try before you start eating lunch in the electrical closet (or get management involved).

  3. Seek help

    Use the anonymity of the office suggestion box to request a staff meeting about: cable news being on 24-7 in common areas; and to find out if others are annoyed by the daily political banter and how to manage it. If there isn’t a suggestion box ask your supervisor to share these issues with management. Results will vary—you may not get the politics police to bust up political debates around the water cooler. But you may be able to eat lunch in peace again, if the company addresses how personal politics will not be allowed to diminish employee morale and productivity.

  4. Be informed

    Know your employer’s policies about bullying, harassment, and the use of profanity and sharing inappropriate (racial, sexual, etc.) content. A G-rated campaign t-shirt (a candidate smiling ear-to-ear) is anyone’s to wear on casual Friday. But offensive t-shirts and other political paraphernalia that contain hate speech, profanity or lewd content should be reported, if available, to HR and/or management.

How to approach colleagues that discuss religion/morals

While there is general consensus about right and wrong (murder, robbery, etc.,) there is a lot of gray area when it comes to religious practices. But there is no room in the private or public sector for religious bias or bigotry. Here are a few ways to minimize 5-car pile-ups on these hot button topics.

  1. Pump the breaks

    Be aware that even general comments about religion can spark a debate. And any negative comment about religion in general or a religion in particular can be an opening for others to share their extreme religious views with you or it can be seen as offensive and hurtful.

  2. Be discrete

    Use discretion when sharing details about your religious/spiritual practices or lack thereof. Your willingness to share beyond the basics may seem like an invitation for discussion—favorable or unfavorable. Heads up, if unfavorable comments become harassment report it to a supervisor, HR, or company owner immediately.

  3. Educate

    Respond to a coworker who makes false or stereotyped comments about your religion with facts. Everybody wins when you use ignorance as an opportunity to educate others.

How to deal with coworkers that discuss polarizing cultural norms

It’s easy to be offended or hurt by comments about cultural or social issues that are deeply personal to you. Which is why it’s important to handle these topics with tact, facts, and counting to ten before you clap back!

  1. Proceed with caution

    For example, negative opinions about adopting children from other cultures might hit a nerve when you and your spouse are about to do just that. But if your coworkers don’t know this about you, you’ll have to decide if this is the time to share the news, while also lowering the boom on their offensive commentary. Likewise, with other similar issues. A hearty, defensive response may infer information about your personal doings that you don’t want known.

  2. Push back on crazy talk and conspiracy theories

    While, you’ll likely not change the minds of people who base their opinions on rhetoric, stereotypes, or conspiracy theories, your willingness to respond with facts may keep these coworkers and their crazy talk out of your cube. On the other hand, have a private conversation with someone who may be unaware that their opinions or behavior seem racist, sexist, and/or intolerant of other cultures.

  3. Document egregious incidences

    If a coworker’s opinion or biases are affecting on the job fairness, training, bullying, etc. , document specific examples. Share this documentation with your chain of command and, if available, human resources.

Remember opinions on these hot button topics are often based on misinformed history, stereotypes and/or information created by third parties with something to gain or to lose. Pick your battles. Knowing how to handle your coworkers’ personal opinions on these polarizing topics can minimize their negative affect on you and your workplace.