Politics is a sensitive subject, and all of us have had arguments over the dinner table at one time or another. But in today’s climate our disagreements seem to be getting ever more polarizing and divisive.
In fact, according to one recent study, Americans’ political affiliations today are an even stronger component of their identities than “race, religion or ethnicity.” And in recent years, the number of Americans describing themselves as “moderate” has declined.
Politics can impact the workplace, too. Who would have thought even a few years ago that a post on an internal company message board could make international news? But that’s what happened at Facebook, when an employee criticized the firm for being a “political monoculture that’s intolerant of different views.” And Facebook is not the only tech giant roiled by controversy and debate over politics.
But while Silicon Valley is always a good source of headlines, the emphasis on one area can divert attention away from our vast and diverse nation, which is home to many different industries and many different viewpoints.
20% of Americans want political discussions censored at work
So what about the rest of us? How do we feel about politics in the workplace? Is there too much? Too little? Can holding the “wrong” opinions damage careers?
In fact, it seems that for a sizeable minority of people, there is too much of it. Recently Indeed surveyed 2,000 US employees to gain a deeper understanding of their attitudes to politics in the workplace.
The US is a country with robust free speech traditions, but when it comes to sharing political beliefs at work, 1 in 5 (20%) actually want more censored environments and say politics should not be discussed at work.
“Houston, we have a problem.” Or do we? Let’s take a closer look at our results.
23% of Americans feel political groups are being silenced in the workplace
Of course, the First Amendment protects citizens against only the government’s attempts to impede their free speech, not the private sector. In most states, if you work for a private company, you can legally be fired for political acts or statements. Companies are entitled to place restrictions on the political expressions of employees at work.
That said, while 20% would like to see a prohibition on political discussions, we are not yet at crisis levels: over half (54%) of those surveyed are comfortable with the current amount of sharing of political beliefs at work.
Meanwhile, there is relatively little appetite for more politics at work. Only 10% of our survey respondents say they believe the workplace has become too politically silent and that there’s too much censorship.
As to whether companies are actively preventing or closing down political discussions, many American workplaces apparently remain open places: controversies in Silicon Valley aside, more than two thirds (67%) feel that political groups are not being silenced in the workplace.
However, almost a quarter of respondents (23%) disagreed and felt that groups were being silenced. This, in turn, is close to the percentage that actually wanted more censorship at work.
60% of those who feel silenced identify peers as the source of pressure
Given recent controversies surrounding accusations of censorship, we asked the 23% of respondents who thought certain groups were being silenced at work what they thought the source of silencing was.
A total of 60% reported that the source of silencing was statements or actions from peers, and 40% said that it came from statements or actions from leadership. It appears that peer pressure has a stronger effect than perceived pressure from leadership.
There were differences as well among respondents regarding which groups are being silenced. Of those who believe silencing is taking place, two thirds (66%) feel that the conservative groups are being silenced and about a third (34%) feel that liberal groups are being silenced.
Interestingly, groups outside the traditional US two-party system appeared here as well: 22% of respondents feel socialist groups are being silenced and 17% feel libertarians are being silenced.
Women are less likely than men to feel comfortable sharing political beliefs at work
Although American politics is becoming more polarized, we did find something that unites liberals and conservatives: overall, both groups feel similar levels of comfort when it comes to talking about politics.
When asked how comfortable they feel sharing their political beliefs at work, about half of both liberals (48%) and conservatives (46%) say they feel “mostly comfortable.”
There are significant differences across gender, however, with men feeling more comfortable sharing their political beliefs than women, regardless of whether they identify as conservative or liberal.
Among liberals, 38% of men say they are comfortable sharing their beliefs, compared to 27% of women.
Among conservatives, the numbers are lower: 35% of men say they are comfortable sharing their beliefs, compared to 23% of women.
Do political beliefs impact career growth?
One of the complaints from the Facebook employee who criticized the company for its lack of political diversity was that his career growth was dependent on his staying silent about his political beliefs. Do most employees agree with this?
A narrow majority of employees are not concerned about this: over half (54%) of US employees don’t think that political beliefs have any effect (positive or negative) on employees’ career paths or growth within the company.
However, a quarter (25%) of US employees disagree and believe that political beliefs have a positive or negative effect on employees’ career paths or growth within the company, while 21% are unsure.
The belief that people’s political views will affect their career prospects may lead some people to choose companies they align with politically, potentially leading to even more politically polarized workplaces. Each company will need to answer for itself whether that is a direction it is willing to head in.
Though recent news coverage of politics in the workplace favors dramatic headlines, we have not yet reached a crisis point of polarization at work.
A sizeable minority (20%) may feel uncomfortable enough with political discussion at work, but a majority are accepting of current levels. And while some people feel persecuted for their beliefs, a majority do not.
But the good news is that despite increasing polarization, most Americans are still able to set aside their differences and solve problems together in their places of work.
As mentioned earlier, First Amendment protections guard against government censorship; companies have far more rights to set policies regarding what is and is not acceptable within the workplace (thought they should be aware that some states have passed laws making it illegal to discriminate against employees based on political beliefs).
There’s room for debate about the place of political discussions in the workplace, but one thing is certain: in an ideal situation people should be comfortable being themselves at work while also being respectful and accommodating of their differences with one another.
If we can remember that, we can all create better environments to work together in.