Addressing the elephant (or donkey) in the room

Politics and identity at work

Given the impending midterm elections, I have politics on my mind. Over the past few years, politics has gone from something happening in the background of day-to-day life to this thing that shakes us awake in the morning and surprises us mid-day. It is the dominating overtone of media, culture, and conversation.

And yet – politics is largely off-limits in our workplaces.


Bringing your politics to work?

As I think about bringing your whole self to work, it does seem like politics is a holdout. What I’ve noticed about politics at work – there tends to be an underlying ‘assumed baseline view’ that is shaped by the people who work at and lead the company. And limited acknowledgment or dialogue between the assumed baseline and those holding a dissenting view.

When I was a contractor supporting the Department of Defense, there were certain expectations of beliefs. When my own viewpoint ran counter to that norm, I kept it to myself – believing that I would not spark a meaningful and productive dialogue. And also worrying that as a contractor, what I said could hurt the reputation of my employer.


Political are a hidden part of identity

Political views are part of our identity, and although they can’t be seen they can certainly create a feeling of otherness. If you feel excluded because your beliefs run counter to the norm – is that different from being the lone woman in a meeting or being an ‘only’ on a team?

We all carry some form of political belief or lack of belief. Those differences go unseen, and largely unsaid at work. If we want to build inclusive cultures and companies, do we need to address the elephant (or donkey) in the room?


Make a difference where you can

As leaders, there are steps we can take while walking the fine line.

  • Encourage your team to vote – make it easy to do. That might mean Tuesday is a light meeting day, or you offer extra flexibility before/after work, or during the lunch hour. Make it known that you are supportive, ask your team what they need to be able to hit the polls.
  • Don’t make assumptions about people’s beliefs – political views are as deeply held as other aspects of identity. Don’t make comments that exclude the other side – these can be damaging and create a negative environment.
  • If you do discuss something politically-charged – be authentic and make it about you. Don’t project your views onto others, don’t disparage the views of others. Take a cue from my friend Oz Parvaiz – he writes elegantly about immigration through the lens of his own experience.


Do what you can. Don’t tolerate hate. Lead with humanity.

And most importantly – vote on Tuesday!  

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