How to Deal with Political Talk at the Office

How to Deal with Politics at the Office | CorporetteHow do you handle a lot of religious and political talk at the office — particularly if you disagree with it?  Reader S wonders:

Could you do a post about politics at the office? I am a moderate liberal, and my approach has always been to avoid discussing politics at work at all, except when necessary to serve the needs of a client (i.e., analyzing a judge’s leanings or referring a client to a PR/lobbying specialist). I now find myself in a small-ish firm (about 35 attorneys) in a conservative, evangelical region, and political conversations are very common in my office. Some of the partners with offices near mine are constantly making derisive comments about president Obama and his policies, the liberal agenda, the liberal media, etc. Sometimes the critiques venture into gender issues. I find many of the things they say to be pretty offensive. I try to avoid participating in the conversations as much as possible so they don’t ask me what I think, but I can’t help overhearing them. Do you have any advice on how to handle this situation, short of (or until) leaving the firm?

Yeouch.  We’ve talked about election politics at the office many years ago, as well as pressure from coworkers to give to charities at the office (which sometimes veers into the political realm), but we haven’t talked about either in a really long time.  (We’ve also talked about how to handle it when your coworkers are sexist pigs.)

I’m curious to hear what readers say here, but in this particular situation, this sounds like a Fit Issue.  A big time, capital letters, serious fit issue.  It sounds like you don’t agree with or respect their opinions regarding politics or religion, and you feel like your opinions wouldn’t be respected either.  Not only is it unpleasant and awkward at work, but honestly I think your career prospects are also limited, because Fit is a major reason why people get promoted (or don’t).  So: for you, it’s time to move on.

Two questions remain.  The first: how to find a place with a better fit? I’m particularly curious to hear what the readers say.  As a fellow moderate, it’s always seemed far easier to find groups on the far left or the far right rather than to find a moderate group.  You may want to do what I did — focus on a niche that you can get behind 100% and see if you can put up with the people in that niche.  Another option that might be worth considering if you’re already established in a general practice: starting your own practice, where at least you can decide which clients you work with.  Working with a recruiter or headhunter may also give you a better experience, because he or she may know the personality of the firms before you apply.

The second question that remains is:  how to handle the awkwardness while you’re there?  I’ve written before about how to change the topic of conversations, but here (particularly with regard to gender issues), it’s ok to respectfully disagree with people or point out ignorant or untrue assumptions on which their opinions are based.  (A favorite reader tactic from our last discussion: asking them to please explain the joke, because you don’t understand why it’s funny.)  If this were me, for my personal happiness I’d try to stay away from really pushing the issue — I doubt that you will change their opinions — but that said, every conversation is different.  Another option: try to move your office away from the people making the comments and see if the environment is different in another corner of the building or on another floor.

My answers might be different if these comments came from a a small group of people at the office, or if they really veered into sexism or misogyny — and Reader S still may want to consult with a employment lawyer or with HR — but it sounds to me from Reader S’s email that this is an office culture that’s just wrong for her.

Readers, how have you handled it when religious or political talk was common at your office? How do you move on (and how quickly can you move on) once you’ve determined there’s a fit issue?

Pictured: Vote Jesus Christ, originally uploaded to Flickr by Quinn Dombrowski.



  1. Early TJ... Henna? :

    I’m getting tired of what commercial products are doing to my medium-long, dark brown, 5-10% gray hair, and am thinking of doing a home henna treatment/dye in a few days for the first time. Any advice?

    • Cornellian :

      I have light brown/blonde/auburn hair and am in my 20s, but I’ve used lush henna and liked it. You can always just use it for an hour the first time and see how it goes. It sounds like Brun Mama would be a good fit for you.

      • Anonymous :

        Is the Lush henna a pure henna product, or does it have other dyes in it?

        • Cornellian :

          I think if you’re a henna purist it’s probably not the best choice. All four of the colors have cocoa butter and red Parisian henna as the main ingredients, but include other ingredients. I use Caca Rouge (for blondes/light redheads), and it has lemon juice, rosemary, and clovebud oil. It comes in blocks that you melt down in a double boiler (the cocoa butter makes it in to a sort of paste holding henna powder and the other ingredients). I’ve only ever left it in for 20 minutes-2 hours, but it seems like a gentle introduction.


  2. Bless your heart :

    I used to be in a big-city firm where I would routinely get asked to donate to various causes by women attorneys (never men). My gender is not a proxy for my political beliefs and I’d always politely decline.

    I now work somewhere else where the views run the gamut. The asks are usually either “X is a good friend of the firm” and are more local (so city counsel) or state (not US Senate and not president).

    In both cases, I am reminded of what I learned during sorority rush: a good rushee does not discuss money, politics, or religion. And I’ve found that a smile and a nice “I just don’t discuss politics at work” works well.

    If no one else has good rush manners, yes, go somewhere else. And have lots of lunches to better find out what isn’t written down: which places are normal; which are nice; etc.

    • I didn’t think that what I learned in sorority rush would come into much use later in life. This is just one of many.

    • so true! rush skills alone made joining a sorority worth it, to say nothing of my lifelong friends, the fun of living in the house and the alumni connections.

  3. Not sure we can chalk this one up to a fit issue and suggest OP go work elsewhere. It sounds like OP lives in a region where this could be the case no matter where she works. It’s fine to say look for another job, but it might not be worth it for OP to uproot and move cities because of the political banter at her firm. I live somewhere that sounds similar and I definitely couldn’t fix the problem by going and working at the firm across the street (or across town). No helpful advice except trying not to listen when these discussions are going on (if they are talking outside your office, perhaps get up and go get a coffee) so you don’t let it get to you.

    • +1. I also live and work in a major city in The South where it would be hard to find a place to work where many of the execs were not much further to the Right than me. Many hate Obama and are pretty serious about their religion. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable but I just try to keep my head down and stay quiet because otherwise it’s a very good place to work.

    • Completely agree with this comment. I’d have to move to another state to find a fit with my political beliefs. Ignore the banter that doesn’t involve you and redirect the conversation or politely decline to participate in a discussion that someone tries to involve you in.

    • Bless your heart :

      If she lives in the quadrant I’m thinking of, it may be culturally conservative with smatterings of blue-dogs running around (so she either needs to find them or find people who are just better suited). I think that people these days live in bubbles of sorts where everyone they see can be like them (how many of your neighbors or friends have signs up or bumber stickers for candidates you *didn’t * vote for?). So while her area is likely more diverse politically / culturally than her office, her area is definitely more diverse in the manners department even of non-like-minded people.

    • Since sticking up for one’s side verbally can alienate you from the office culture, and cut into your work day, why not just write a check now and then to a group on “your” side. Then go about your business knowing that the money will really help “your” side, but arguing with your co-workers or getting steamed when you overhear their conversations won’t realy help anything.

  4. My husband worked in a place like this, but the tables were turned. He is conservative, and the majority of the partners were rabidly liberal. Partners constantly complaining about Bush. How did he handle it? He put his head down and worked. He also found like minded people in the firm, and they bonded over their shared political beliefs. You can’t run away from a job because someone has different political beliefs that you do – you aren’t always going to be around people who think like you do.

    • I also worked in a company culture that was not friendly to my world view (fill in the protected class here). In some cases, we were vehemently opposed.

      The fun and games included the CEO sending emails telling everyone how to vote. The rest of us would snipe and grumble among ourselves. Outside of work, we did what our consciences dictated, but at work we kept our views as private as possible and just did our jobs.

      I am glad I no longer work there.

      As far as any of what the OP and the rest of us have written about that may or may not be HR/EEOC issues. The laws aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

    • Philanthropy Girl :

      This was my experience in graduate school. My religion and my politics were both mocked by my classmates, and in class lectures. Statements like “people of x religion have no business running non-profits” were commonplace.

      I kept my head down, finished my degree, and kept my mouth shut about politics and religion both, unless in a personal conversation where the other party opened the door for a civilized discussion. It was bearable only because I knew it was short lived – but never have I been more relieved to leave a place.

      I think the OP is in a difficult situation because it sounds like these comments aren’t directed at her, nor are they happening in conversations she is a part of. It sounds like they are down the hall, next door, or at the water cooler. Still a rude gesture on the parts of those individuals who are so loudly discussing their opinions, but it doesn’t sound like they’re being directed at her. My first step would be to approach HR. It’s a long shot, given the culture, but if the problem can be resolved, the OP is saved a move. She still would probably be better off finding either a small company where she fits better with the social/political/religious views, or looking for a large company with enough diversity to ensure she won’t feel like only-the-lonely. Even in my small, highly religious, highly conservative town, I can think of places of employment where either of these scenarios could be met.

      In the meantime, I’m afraid it’s keep your head down and do your job well. My experience with people who are that politically biased is that rational dialog on the topic is useless, and often dangerous and harmful.

      • Approach HR because people are conversing about something you do not agree with? GTFO!!! This kind of thing a) is the reason women have a difficult time in male dominated professions, grow a thick skin, running to HR because you don’t agree with someone is ridiculous. 2) If people DID talk about politics, religion etc. perhaps we could learn where others are coming from and learn to live together instead of barely tolerating each other.

  5. Cornellian :

    This sounds more like a manners/maturity issue than a political one. I’m center left in an office that ranges from a bit left of me to grumpy old sexist racist right-wing men and centers around a sort of Rockefeller republican. I certainly don’t see eye-to-eye with a good 60% of my coworkers, but in the office people certainly play nice enough to avoid ad hominem attacks on Obama or other politicians, especially ones centering on their race or heritage.

    • Diana Barry :

      +1. I like a more reticent office culture when it comes to politics.

    • I’m more liberal than most of my colleagues in my practice group, and we definitely get into it. But we respect and like each other, and so our disagreements are friendly ones. If it’s just pure politics, it’s more about how the conversation happens than what the content is (although if the content is racist/homophobic/otherwise offensive, then it *is* about the content and the strategies are different, I think).

    • Equity's Darling :

      I agree – I live in a province where the overwhelmingly dominant political parties are conservative, whereas I am more liberal, and I’ve worked places that are pretty closely tied to various politicians- and attended functions hosted by my workplace for those politicians even, and it has never been a problem for me.

      The issue here seems to be the offensive comments, to be honest

  6. Wow…this post hit home for me. One of my first post-MBA jobs was in a small office where I was right up with the same outspoken, racist, sexist co-workers and Fox news blaring all day long. It was a trading floor. I learned to keep my head down. And then as soon as I could, I found a new workplace. For me, because it was constant and all-day…I couldn’t escape it. It’s one thing if it’s a small portion of your day–water cooler talk, for instance. For me, it was all ten hours of my workday. I just couldn’t. It was the first time in my life I was quiet. The comments were just way too much. For instance, to recently married coworker, “Hey Paula, when are you gonna bear your husband some children?” etc. It was off the charts. It was all I could do to grit my teeth and make it through the day.

    I agree with Kat that this is a fit issue. And you have to figure out how much of it you can tolerate and still think of your workplace as somewhere you want to get up and head to each morning. Even if this is regional, there are still plenty of places in the South (or wherever) where offensive/strong political views are not voiced at work. The OP should find somewhere else, or just let it slide off. I can tell you that letting it slide is easier said than done.

  7. Meg Murry :

    Do the derisive commenters know that you don’t share their views?If you are in an area where their views are in the majority, they might assume everyone is sympathetic to their views. I’ve found that in some offices, letting people know I did not agree with their perspectives (politely or in a round about way) shut down some of the comments, although in other cases it made them more likely to bring it up because they liked arguing with people on the “wrong” side.

    But ugh, yes, if its only a short part of your day I’d do what I could to minimize/ignore. If its all day everyday, or if you think you would be more likely to be passed over for work/partnership if your true politics were “outed” – its time to find somewhere else.

    • I agree. It’s definitely bad form, but they could just be ignorant about what you really think. I work in a very liberal city, and a few co-workers (and myself) often talk politics. But we are all on the same side, and truly don’t mean to offend. It always catches me by surprise when I meet a conservative. I mean, obviously I know Republicans exist, but sometimes it’s easy to forget they aren’t all on the Hill, that some of them work in my office building, not just in politics.

  8. How timely, I was just thinking about this issue this morning. Two of my coworkers were discussing a recent current event and while I didn’t disagree with their opinion, I was a little shocked to hear them discussing a hot button issue in the workplace.

    I usually just ignore the conversation. If it’s a conversation I’m a part of that starts veering into the political arena, I try to redirect it back to the original topic. If the other person persists, I’ve found that just a very simple, “I don’t talk about politics at work.” does the trick. I think some people are absolutely capable of having a civilized discussion, but I’d just rather not take the chance. My political and religious beliefs just have no business in my work life.

  9. I’m a conservative/libertarian, and recently worked in very small firm where the two older partners liked to discuss politics and were fairly liberal. There was definitely no avoiding these conversations, as they were pretty chatty fellows, particularly once they learned that that was something that I was interested in. But one thing that I managed to do was avoid giving an actual opinion. Instead, I would comment about what I found “interesting.” For example, during the election, I pointed out that it seemed like X candidate was in the lead for the R nomination, but that it seemed to be changing quickly, and Y candidate seems to be trying a different strategy; I’ll be interested to see how it works. In other words, more about how what was being done was playing than whether I personally thought that it was right or wrong.

    But they were definitely not extreme or rude, and only rarely offensive (in the sense of, the reason I would disagree with you opinion is because I find the underlying ideas behind it offensive, not in the sense of name-calling); I imagine that would be different.

    All that said, I live in a very red state, and I’ve definitely seen liberals who just give and take in largely conservative environments in a friendly-combat manner, and everyone seems happy about it. But that might not work in every environment.

  10. I think people in this situation need to not lump political beliefs with jerk behavior, and ask themselves if they take issue with the politics or the attitude and commentary. For example, I think it’s easy to blame sexist attitudes on being “right wing” or “religious” but not every right wing or religious person is sexist. You can be those things, and still be a normal, respectful human being. You can also be harshly critical of Obama (or any president) without nasty, petty commentary.

    So I think the person needs to figure out how much is driven by immaturity and jerk-behavior, and how much of it is just an adult difference of opinions. The latter is going to be much easier to cope with than the former, so even if you are in an area where you are a political or religious minority, there are going to be places that might be political, but still professional.

  11. OttLobbyist :

    As someone who’s job is tied to politics, I try very hard to respect that people aren’t always comfortable getting into political conversations. It isn’t easy, because it is what I am passionate about, and so much of the news reported is about politics. What is an increasing challenge though is how easy it is for general conversation about society,the economy or the news to get political (or religious). What else is there to talk about? But that might just be me. I agree with other posters who have suggested that you indicate fairly clearly that you would prefer not get into the topic, and politely excuse yourself.

  12. An alternative suggestion: fit in by engaging on politics and disagreeing. I had a short-term job in an office full of vocal conservatives, and I’m a politically active liberal Democrat. I initially avoided politics, but people would bring things up with me, and very quickly this became something I needed to address. I was always cheerful and friendly, but I didn’t back down from disagreements. I wound up having great conversations with people, and politics became something we could banter about. I think my co-workers respected me for it.

    Reacting to offensiveness is part of this, too. Sometimes it’s worth saying, “Wow, that’s pretty offensive”; more often, I’ve been able to phrase it as a substantive disagreement. You have something awful to say about some group of people? “No, I’ve never found that to be true.”

  13. Mamiejane :

    At one point in my career, I worked in a small office where the other lawyers had differing political opinions. I consider myself a very liberal Democrat and this was about 15 years ago. On my first day at work, one of the very conservative older male lawyers shook my hand and said: “I bet you’re another liberal Democrat.” I smiled and said “Nothing to worry about; I’m a Socialist.” Luckily, he took it as the joke it was intended and we got along fine. This was before the current wave of Socialist slurs. Sometimes, but not always, you can let people know where you stand with enough humor so they know enough to keep their political banter to a minimum. But if the views at your office are racist or sexist and you are stuck in a sea of Republicans, you need to find some conservatives with more decent views to work for.

  14. Longtime lurker, first-time commenter.
    Actual conversation my husband at a client’s office:
    Client: “Oh, DHusband, you’re a great guy! I can tell you’re a Republican”
    DHusband: “Oh, I don’t choose sides.”
    Client: “Oh, that’s ok, you can be honest, we’re all Republican around here!”


  15. Anonymous :

    Yeah I’m basically in a similar situation. Except the problem is my paralegal. She listens to Christian rock, Rush Limbaugh, votes Republican, complains about Obama, etc. She does a good job with her work; but she’s not light on the commentary. It can get really offensive when anything pertaining to race, gender, and sexuality comes up. Of course, it’s fantastic that I’m a queer woman of color and have to work with her. It’s awful enough with the clients send me sexist or racist comments (nothing worse than listen to a white guy recount his trip to your native country and how ‘primitive’ it was when he went) but it’s even worse when I have to make sure queer clients don’t end up on her phone list in case she says something offensive to them. It’s nerve wracking when a girl I’m dating wants to swing by the office or if we have an immigrant client with very specific immigration concerns (especially since I’m also an immigrant). I mean, it doesn’t get much more offensive than listening to a white woman tell you the possibility of deportation is not a major concern to immigrants at all. I don’t talk politics in the office but I wouldn’t be able to stand working in an ultra-conservative environment because it would be a personal attack on me and my loved ones on too many levels.

    After all, it’s pretty hard not to take a vehement dislike of gay people personally when you are gay yourself.

    • I just wanted to say Anon that I am so sorry you have to go through that and you shouldn’t have to and reading you post makes me very angry. I think you SHOULD take it personally and it is ok to vehemently dislike people who judge you for geography or orientation and on top of all that it’s just plain RUDE. I really really work hard to not make waves and never pull rank (ie since you are an attorney and she’s a paralegal) but I think in your case I would. If you have to change around phone trees and make concessions with clients because of her prejudice – it is a work issue and you should call it out. Management doesn’t like the bottom line being upset.

  16. Silvercurls :

    Sorry I missed this! Lots of useful comments here. I liked IDTS’s post re quietly writing a check to ” ‘your’ side” and the advice from s at 3:45 p.m. to distinguish between expressing an opposing political opinion and expressing a jerky personality. Shout-outs also to Cait at 5:55 p.m. about gaining her colleagues’ respect through her decision to engage in discussions politely but substantively; and to OttLobbyist at 3:58 p.m. on the trouble some of us have about resisting these discussions: “It isn’t easy, because it is what I am passionate about.”

    Although I’m not wired to do this myself–at least not without an enormous dose of self-discipline if not self-dictatorshipping–I admire the skills of those of you who can gracefully turn down an opportunity to lock horns; see Bless Your Heart at 2:06 p.m. and the reply by anon at 4:18 p.m. Like DontBlameTheKids at 3:03 p.m. I “truly don’t mean to offend.” Her comment about encountering representatives of The Other Side was very funny: “It always catches me by surprise when I meet a conservative.” This reminds me of young kids who are surprised to see their kindergarten teacher at the grocery store!

    Despite my own strongly held and strongly expressed opinions, I always hope to finding some shared value with The Other Side–even if it’s just a mutual fondness for something totally removed from politics, like quilting or playing with puppies or drinking cold lemonade in July. If we can find something, anything in common, isn’t that at least the start of seeing The Other Side as equally human? To Anonymous at 2:29 p.m., I think it’s terrible that some people, like your paralegal, can’t see that that gay or straight, of or not of color, US citizens by birth or immigration, everybody including the seemingly Dangerously Different folks (my language, not yours, hopefully not your paralegal’s) just wants to come home from work and sit on the couch with the people they love.

    Goldi at 8:18 p.m. said it best: “If people DID talk about politics, religion etc. perhaps we could learn where others are coming from and learn to live together instead of barely tolerating each other.”

  17. I come from a deep red state, work in a deep blue city, and work at an office that has many employees with advanced degrees on pretty much every point on the spectrum. I’ve learned a few things in this environment, some of which might help Reader S:

    1. People make assumptions about the political climate in which they work. If there is spirited political debate that is all one-sided, feel free (if you have the energy) to engage with them. I have found that people who seem locked into a certain viewpoint may still be willing to listen once they realize that I don’t agree with them. You do want to make sure that you seem respectful, professional, and willing to listen.
    2. If you really don’t enjoy engaging in political debate, pointedly exclude yourself, or follow the excellent sorority-rush type tips above. You could also simply ask people not to have loud conversations that are distracting in the office, because you’re actually trying to get work done. Sometimes political blowhards will take the discussions out of your earshot once they know you’re not interested in engaging or (even better) if they think you find them distracting or tiresome, rather than impressive.
    3. There’s a vast difference between “critiques veering into gender issues” and people saying things that are intended to be offensive or insulting to you (or someone of your gender). Figure out which one this is, and either learn to close your ears, or have a chat with a trusted supervisor (not HR). Much of what seems like malice can be attributed to incompetence, or just plain old unthinking rudeness, but if the discussion is upsetting, there’s nothing wrong with approaching your boss to see if there’s a way to deal with this that allows you to continue being productive and engaged as an employee.

  18. This is one of the most difficult things to deal with especially when you are the office newbie. If I am in this kind of situation, I will find it really hard to meddle in the conversation and raise my viewpoint because I may sound offensive for some people.