The Office

the pros and cons of being political in the workplace

It’s Peace Week here at i-D, and ideas of achieving peace are tied up with politics, and politics is everywhere, and we’re always at work. So here's a little guide to being politically active in the workplace.

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24 January 2018, 12:21am

The Office

We all know the situation. You’re sat staring, eyes unfocused, into the bright white void of your computer screen, on a particularly dull Wednesday afternoon, counting down the minutes until you can leave (and go home and stare blankly, eyes unfocused, into the bright white void that is your TV screen). When, all of a sudden, Colin -- we'll call him -- offers his hot take on Germaine Greer's latest comments on feminism. Fucking Colin. Where do you start? What do you do when you want to air your political beliefs in the office?

Well, firstly, one major con is that while you can’t be fired for your religious beliefs. It’s entirely possible to challenge an employer on this, but you’d have to take it to an employment tribunal. Legally it’s currently murky territory. This guy’s views on climate change got him fired but he challenged his employer, resulting in an judge ruling that his position was a philosophical belief. That decision meant protections for those with a similar ethical stance.

Realistically, unless you’ve got some seriously divisive views that you can’t stop spouting, or your activist inclinations mean you’re always leaving work early to chain yourself to a power plant, you probably won’t get fired for talking politics. But it’s best to use some common sense and gauge what the situation is like at your job. Dr Madeleine Wyatt, an occupational psychologist and senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Kent, says the first key to airing your views without it messing up your work life “relates to your understanding of the political context in which you are operating: are other people political in your organisation?”

"Realistically, unless you’ve got some seriously divisive views that you can’t stop spouting, you probably won’t get fired for talking politics. But it’s best to use some common sense and gauge what the situation is like at your job."

There is an obvious major con -- that airing your views could result in other people airing their views, and you might discover they’re in opposition to yours because other people are idiots. This could mean you don’t feel great about that person with the loathsome views, but you’re still going to have to deal with them more than you do your own family, because there’s always rent to pay. You could end up having to stealthily avoid going to make a cuppa in the office kitchen at the same time in case of awkward kettle-sharing. So weigh it up. How do you feel on a scale of one to ten (one = eye roll + scroll on by, ten = little mouth vom) when you come across someone called @Brad_bro tweeting that the gender wage gap is a hoax? If you’re able to have a calm political discussion then great. Maybe that person won’t agree, but if you make solid points they will at the very least respect your ability to stay composed with debating.

“Developing political skill is crucial if you want to avoid your political beliefs negatively impacting your career,” Madeleine says. “Political skill relates to how you understand others and use that knowledge to influence them and has been found to impact a number of workplace outcomes, such as salary, promotions, performance and job satisfaction.” It’s not the easiest thing to cultivate or maintain in a heated moment, but rather than just passive aggressive or outright aggressive interactions, it can actually make talking politics a positive thing. “It involves being socially astute, networking well, knowing how to effectively influence other people, and importantly, being perceived as sincere and genuine when doing so,” says Madeleine. “People who are politically skilled will be able to pick up on who will be interested and most receptive to political debate. It also helps people form allegiances with like-minded individuals across organisations.”

"Aside from just talking politics with colleagues, there are ways to be an activist in the workplace that involves promoting the causes you really care about in a way that could make a tangible difference."

So honing your political skill is not just for trying to climb the career ladder -- let’s face it, it’s dark and sleazy if that’s your sole aim -- but for getting a receptive audience to what is important to you, and potentially getting more support for your causes, rather than just talking to a brick wall. It is, Madeleine says, “vital for anyone considering becoming an activist in the workplace. Research generally shows that activists, such as union representatives, or even those heading support forums for staff, such as gender and ethnicity networks, can be perceived as inconvenient troublemakers and their careers can suffer as a result. Political skill can enable individuals to campaign for their cause more effectively, getting people on-side and developing connections that support their stance.”

Aside from just talking politics with colleagues, there are ways to be an activist in the workplace that involve promoting the causes you really care about in a way that could make a tangible difference, according to the charitable organisation called The Centre for Effective Altruism, which aims to “use the power of our workplaces to maximise our positive impact”. With their goal of tackling extreme poverty, they have put together a workplace activism handbook that has useful information to apply to any cause. The handbook states that: “Businesses have a significant influence on how society views charitable giving, and employees are in a strong position to challenge their companies about perceived ethical issues. Workplace activism and pursuing change from the inside of organisations has huge potential.” It’s got a lot of actually useful tips, including stuff about how to hone political skill in the sense that Dr Madeleine Wyatt described, and gives various resources if you want to get active about getting your company involved in charitable initiatives you believe in.

Being political in the workplace is entirely possible and can bring about positive change: know your stuff, research and -- most crucially -- pick your battles wisely. The key is staying reasonable and balanced. Colin’s views on feminism demand challenging, yes. But there’s a difference between a debate between friends at the pub on a Friday, and debate waged across a desk at 3pm between you and a colleague. It’s 2018 and we all need to do what we can to keep the world woke.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.