Let’s also add the Kardashian’s to the list while we’re at it…
It has always been understood that religion and politics make for uncomfortable and sometimes incendiary topics for water cooler and conference room conversation at work. Wherever workers meet for eating, drinking, or just lounging within the confines of the office building or factory, in many cases broaching these subjects can be a cause for dismissal. Whether these rules are constitutional or not are left to the judiciaries to hash out. At some point, the First Amendment rights end, and infringement rights begin.
These two subjects are hot buttons to company owners because they come from a place of passion for so many individuals. Through the centuries millions have lost their lives due to political and religious fervor. Let’s face it, has anyone heard of deaths due to the argument of whether the Chihuahua is superior to the Irish wolfhound or that Glidden is superior to Behr paint? But start the discussion of Islam vs. Christianity or liberal vs. conservative or Catholic vs. Protestant or Democrats vs. Republican and just observe the vitriol on Facebook and it’s not hard to envision just how much animosity can quickly arise over the differences we all have with one another.
So if you are a passionate person whose life is quite bound up with either politics or religion or both, as is the case with so many of us, should we ever utter a word about our beliefs in the place where we work? And the answer can be “yes” and “no.”
The issue with politics is clear: elections have consequences. Today in many places of the world where democracy reigns unfettered, there are very clearly delineated lines of thought that citizens have regarding government conduct. Big government providing for many or most of the needs people have in their lives vs. smaller government with more emphasis on personal responsibility. More taxes or less? Bigger military or bigger safety net? These are passion producing topics for sure.
And with religion, it is so personal and so intrinsic in nature that for many persons they would gladly lay down their lives for the love of God or Allah or for a particular brand of cultism that meets their needs. It is, in fact, the nature of most religions to state that their own brand is “the truth.” More passion and even finger-pointing can erupt when talking among these conversational forests of trees.
So what are the guidelines for workplace conversations with these subjects?
– First and foremost, one should not discuss these hot button issues with persons you do not know. We will define persons you do not know in a minute. But whether over the phone, internet or in person, keep these conversation topics verboten at work. You may quickly respond that you know people at work pretty well. So let’s define that more clearly. Do you know how they used to build a bridge? They would throw a rope across the chasm to the other side, then use that rope to pull a bigger rope or wire across. You don’t know someone well until you have built a bridge with that person. That means you have spent a lot of time with co-workers getting to really know him/her. You have invested and thrown a lot of “ropes” across the chasm between you and that other person. That means lots of talk about life and good and tough times and about their family. You know someone well after you have thrown a lot of ropes across the valley and built a bridge strong enough to pull a semi-truck filled with the heavy-laden topics of religion or politics across it.
– Secondly, these discussions are never to be held in public. With other people around, there is the opportunity for the discussion to quickly involve more people. With more people, the possibility for more and more bizarre opinions surfacing rises exponentially.
– Don’t ever begin a discussion of one of the subjects in the workplace with anyone until you know yourself. There are many zealots of both religion and politics that are very easily threatened by other beliefs and doubters. How do you handle criticism? How do handle people who tell you that you are wrong? Do you have a humble spirit or are you, truthfully, pretty arrogant? Even if you are the most well-versed representative of your political party in your county, unless you know that you can peacefully, kindly and without denigrating others handle a different viewpoint, keep quiet even in a private setting. It is often true that a zealot with a pet political stance or a religious firebrand who wants to tell everyone around him or her about a special brand of “truth” is often a person who doesn’t know his or her own weaknesses and shortcomings.
– As Americans, we enjoy the 1st amendment of free speech, but with that freedom comes great responsibility. If a company issues a policy of no discussion regarding these topics, just respect it and move on. You might have some legal recourse, but all that tells your fellow employees is that you regard your right to speak more than their right not to listen. And if there is no policy, remember that the guidelines here and handle your conversations as if every word were a drop of nitroglycerine because they are!