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Politics at Work: 2020 Study on Politics in the Workplace

Politics at Work: 2020 Study on Politics in the Workplace

Like it or not, you probably spend more time with your co-workers than your family.


However, no matter how comfortable you feel around your office mates, some conversations are better left unsaid. Talking about your sex life, your feelingstoward your boss, or your medical conditions are standard non-starters when it comes to keeping things professional and productive. But there’s one more topic you probably shouldn’t bring up as well: politics.


Whether it’s about the 2016 general election, gun control, or some combination of Russia, collusion, and emails, it can be hard not to bring up politics while on the clock, even if the conversations get intense. So who’s willing to cross that line? To find out, we surveyed over 1,000 people about their political discussions at work, which topics tended to produce the most chatter, and the consequences of being open about politics. Want to know how often people lie about their political affiliation? Read on to find out.


Controversial Conversations




There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about politics, but there are several good reasons for not blurring the line between last week's conference call and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Not only can these conversations make your co-workers uncomfortable but also they could put you in conflict with other staff – including your boss. If the debate escalates, your company may even decide to step in and put the kibosh on any civic commentary.


It could be today’s political climate that stands as the biggest (and best) reason not to let these hot-button issues make a scene around the watercooler. Most political experts agree Americans are more divided today by party lines than ever before. So even if you’re only bringing up a particular topic in passing, you could set someone off in a big way.


We found roughly 83 percent of people admitted to having political conversations at work. While nearly 17 percent managed to steer clear of these controversial discussions, it was self-identified Republicans who were slightly more inclined toward discussing politics in the workplace.


Everyone Has an Opinion




The reason so many people break the unwritten rules of polite conversation around the office could be simple: These days, almost everyone has an opinion. And while you may not get completely hot and bothered the moment someone mentions the North American Free Trade Agreement or campaign finances, your ears could perk up when some of these buzzworthy topics make their way to the surface.


Employees said debates about the president came up the most often at work. With controversy surrounding everything from his tweets, tapes, and speeches to closed-door meetings and rallies, it’s no wonder nearly 4 in 5 people said Donald Trump came up in conversation while on the clock. While all press might be good press in some circles, roughly 47 percent of people also said discussions about the president caused the most workplace tension.



Other hot-button issues can get people riled up when they should be thinking about project deadlines or upcoming meetings. Nearly 65 percent of people said gun control had been a topic of discussion at their jobs, followed by racism (58 percent), gender equality (42 percent), and police brutality (almost 42 percent). Whether it’s about a shooting incident like in Parkland, Florida, or instances like the Kent State grad who posed for graduation photos with her cap and rifle, gun control is certainly a topic that’s hard to avoid. Gun control was also the hot-button issue that caused the most tension between co-workers.


Keeping Things Kosher




Political conversations in the workplace may not be uncommon. On average, respondents said these sometimes-sensitive exchanges occurred almost eight days a month – accounting for nearly a third of the days they spent around the office.


Don’t expect to hear the latest scoop about what it’s really like to work inside the White House or whether teachers should be allowed to carry guns in the classroom, though. In most cases, political debates between employees happened in small groups (82 percent) or one-on-one (68 percent), rather than in big group conversations (about 24 percent). Some people may not want to have their political chitchats in person, either. Just under 10 percent of people said they used instant messaging services like Slack to keep their political discourse going, followed by fewer than 7 percent who used email.


Private Opinions




Perhaps one of the most important reasons for checking your political opinions at the office door involves political discrimination. While most states have laws prohibiting companies from firing employees based on their political (or any other kind of) beliefs, that doesn’t mean you won’t be affected when it comes time for that promotion or holiday party.


Less than 17 percent of employees felt compelled to lie about their political views at work, but those feelings of concealment were much more common to Republicans. Roughly half of self-identified Republicans admitted it was better to lie about their views than be honest.


When asked whether they’d lied about how much they supported their party, how they felt about certain politicians, whether they were planning on voting, or how much they knew about a particular issue, Republicans were far more likely to lie to their co-workers than any other political affiliation. In this heated climate, it isn’t uncommon for feelings toward the Trump administration to affect the people who work for the president and the ones who may have voted for him. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in June 2018 because she worked for President Trump, but even just wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat in public could get you called out.


The Impact of Being Political



When it comes to success, company culture matters. Research shows that when employees are happy, they’re more likely to be good at their jobs, have increased productivity, feel more creative, and to encourage their co-workers to do the same. Political conversations can have the opposite effect, and it’s entirely possible to feel depressed from all the back-and-forth between political parties.


More than 1 in 3 people said they felt uncomfortable at work as a result of the political discussions around their office. This was more common among Republicans (nearly 36 percent) than Democrat (almost 30 percent) or Independent voters (close to 35 percent). Republicans were also more likely to feel disrespected by their co-workers over politics as well. Another 1 in 5 people felt they had difficulty working with their co-workers due to their vocalized political beliefs, and nearly 13 percent reported being bullied.


Better Safe Than Sorry


Most people have an opinion about politics. As much as you might want to keep that conversation going with co-workers, though, there’s a reason politics are considered a taboo workplace topic. From discussions of Trump to gun control and virtually everything in between, these headline affairs were responsible for causing serious tension in the workplace.


Even if you think you’ve found like-minded co-workers who don’t mind talking about the midterms or popular ballot measures, there’s a chance some staff won’t entirely agree with your feelings. Whether it’s from fear of retaliation or harassment, unnecessary political conversations can leave people feeling disrespected, uncomfortable, or even bullied.




Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, we ran a survey of 1,011 people about their experiences with discussing politics in the workplace. Respondents had to report discussions about politics taking place in their workplace to qualify.


Our respondents were 48.4 percent women and 51.6 percent men. The average age was 35.9 with a standard deviation of 10.


Respondents were asked to identify their political affiliation. The sample sizes for political affiliations were as follows:


  • Democrats: 454
  • Republicans: 251
  • Independents: 248
  • Libertarians: 36
  • Green Party: 8
  • Other: 14


Respondents who identified as Libertarian, Green, or “Other” were excluded from our visualization of the data due to low sample sizes in those groups.


Parts of this project break down data by political affiliation. For these visualizations, we weighted the data to equalize the sample sizes of the various political affiliations.


Questions about political issues being discussed in the workplace were given to all participants. They first reported what issues had been talked about in their workplace, and then they reported which of the issues discussed caused the most tension in their workplace.


Parts of this project concern people who have lied about their political views at work. People had to first report they personally discussed politics at work, rather than just being present when politics were discussed by others.


When asked how political discussions at work were taking place, respondents were able to select all options that applied to them.


Respondents who reported that they had lied about their political beliefs at work were also asked what specifically they lied about. They were able to check all options that replied to them.


The data we’re presenting are based on self-reporting, which can have a number of issues such as selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration. Therefore, that should be taken into consideration when reviewing the claims presented.


No statistical tests were run on the data, so all claims within this project are based on means. This content is purely exploration and done for entertainment purposes. Future research on this topic should be performed.




Fair Use Statement

Know someone who’s experienced negative consequences from talking politics around the office? Feel free to share this content for any noncommercial reuse. We just ask that you link back to this page so that people can read our full findings. Plus, it gives our contributors credit for their work.

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Bart Turczynski
Editor-in-chief at Zety since 2016. His career advice and commentary has been published by the Financial Times, Hewlett-Packard, CareerBuilder, and Glassdoor, among others. With a strong passion for statistics and a background in psychology, Bart makes sure all the advice published on Zety is data-driven.
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