How to defuse political debates at work


By Sabine Vollmer

Talk around office water coolers may get out of hand as a charged and divisive campaign season to elect the next US president nears its peak November 8th, a survey by staffing firm Accountemps suggests.

Of the more than 1,000 US workers Accountemps polled, 56% worried that office discussions about politics and the presidential election could get heated and offend others rather than keep everybody informed. Millennials, those age 18 to 34, are most likely to lose productivity because of discussing politics in the workplace.

One-fourth of Millennial workers said their productivity has already suffered, compared with 15% of all respondents. More time spent on conversations that weren’t work-related was to blame the most (68% overall), but particularly amongst Millennials (75%).

Political discussions at work are like music – when it gets loud, they can become disruptive, said Bill Driscoll, an Accountemps district president.

“Politics is kind of an emotional topic that can be polarising. This [election] year it seems to be more potentially inflammatory than usual,” Driscoll said. “Truthfully, the best thing might be to not talk about politics at work. There are a lot of other things to talk about.” But if you do and the discussion gets heated, he said, “you need to know when to walk away.”

To keep a level of professionalism and decorum, Driscoll suggested the following strategies:

  • Consider your audience, and be sensitive to the fact that people have different opinions.
  • Avoid lecturing or debating colleagues with a different political preference.
  • Change the subject when a conversation becomes charged, or ask to keep political debate outside the workplace.
  • Walk away from a debate that’s turning confrontational.
  • Interrupt and redirect the team to the task at hand if you’re the supervisor, or ask a supervisor to do so when necessary.

Sabine Vollmer (svollmer@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.