Talk Politics in the Office

The election season workplace is a minefield. Bob Dole and Creed Bratton tell you how you can breeze through it.

By Claire Suddath

ILLUSTRATION BY ZOHAR LAZAR

Earlier this month, Westgate Resorts founder David Siegel e-mailed his roughly 3,200 employees to say that if President Barack Obama is reelected, he will “have no choice but to reduce the size of this company.” He has also admitted that in the runup to the 2000 election, he helped employees supporting George W. Bush register to vote while ignoring the Al Gore fans. Siegel may be eccentric (his attempt to build a 90,000-square-foot mansion is the subject of a recent documentary, The Queen of Versailles), but bringing political chatter into the office isn’t unusual. Here’s a handy guide for navigating eight treacherous situations.

SCENE 1

Your boss asks who you’re voting for

He or she blindsides you with the question in the elevator or by the coffee maker.

WHAT TO DO: Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at Harvard, says it’s OK to tell the truth — even if you work for someone as opinionated as Westgate’s Siegel. “But if you feel uncomfortable, just say that’s private information,” he says. Creed Bratton, who plays a squirrelly character by the same name on NBC’s The Office, prefers the bait-and-switch: “I’ll ask where the candidates are from. They’ll say [Hawaii and] Michigan. And then I say, ‘Oh, my friend Tim is from Michigan. I haven’t talked to Tim in years.’ I talk about Tim for a while, then I look very sincerely into their eyes and say, ‘Are those new contacts?’ I tell you about my aunt who got an infection from her contacts, and then I dwell on that for 20 minutes.” At which point your boss has either walked away or fired you.

SCENE 2

Your top client says something crazy and expects you to agree

You’re about to close a seven-figure deal when the top guy lets it slip that he thinks Senator Todd Aiken (R-Mo.) had a pretty good point.

WHAT TO DO: Before you say anything inflammatory, think about what it will accomplish. “If your goal is to retain the ability to work together, the only thing you can do at that point is reply honestly, but with respect for [the client’s] opinion,” says Vanessa Beasley, associate professor of communications studies at Vanderbilt University. “I just tell people that it’s an issue I don’t want to get into with them,” says former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole. “Or that I’m trying to keep my mouth shut.” That’ll make the client feel as if you take his ridiculous opinion seriously — even if you’re secretly thinking of different ways to call him an idiot.

SCENE 3

You encounter a ranting co-worker

You’re trapped in the break room with a colleague who’s mid-tirade about a loaded issue: gay marriage, abortion, or if Homeland has gone off the rails.

WHAT TO DO: According to Dole, it’s best to say something vague. He suggests: “Yes, that’s a very important topic,” without committing to a stance — and then escaping quickly. Bratton likes to pretend that his cell phone just went off. “Shake your leg a little like it’s on vibrate and then say, ‘Oh, it’s my friend Tim! I have to take this.’” Of course, this tactic takes commitment. “You’ve got to make the vibrate believable,” Bratton warns, “and be willing to have a fake conversation with someone named Tim.”

SCENE 4

You accidentally voice your own beliefs

Whoops, you told everyone at the office you think 47 percent of Americans are total moochers.

WHAT TO DO: Let it go. “If it’s an innocuous comment and there’s no conflict of interest with your job, I’d let it roll by and hope it’s ignored,” says Ansolabehere. Bratton disagrees: “Just tell people you’re having an acid flashback.”

SCENE 5

You’re an outnumbered minority

As the only Mormon, black, or homosexual on the sales team, people keep asking for your opinion on a topic.

WHAT TO DO: Beasley recommends turning the question around on them. “As a straight WASP, what do you think?” she suggests. Alternately, you can embrace their ignorance. “As the spokesperson for all gays,” you might say, “yes, we do think that. Also, we took a vote and decided that we all hate Brussels sprouts.”

SCENE 6

A coworker asks you to donate to a campaign you don’t support

He’s gathering signatures — but you don’t want to help.

WHAT TO DO: “I’d tell him I’d be glad to look at it and get back to him,” says Senator Dole. “When he calls, I’m just never in my office.” And if he persists? “After the third call, I say no and then slam down my phone.”

SCENE 7

You work in a swing state

In places such as Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia, working professionals may feel a greater electoral responsibility and have shorter fuses.

WHAT TO DO: Convey magnanimity at all costs. “There’s an old trick in Southern politics that once you know the names of someone’s children, it’s hard to see them as a political roadblock,” says Beasley. “You’ll be more likely to find a shared interest and be able to work together.” So engage in political small talk, but if you do get angry, try using out-of-date invectives. It’s hard to get mad when someone calls you a Millard Fillmore lover.

SCENE 8

You work in politics

You need to stand for something that won’t offend anyone.

WHAT TO DO: Make general statements about “promoting job growth” and “educating our children” while providing as few details as possible. You know, like the real candidates do.

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