Most career experts would advise against talking about politics at work. The thinking is that, at best, you risk being labeled “unprofessional,” and, at worst, things can get ugly — even with coworkers with whom you usually get along. It's why conventional wisdom says to steer clear — politics are just not worth bringing up in a professional setting.
But these aren’t conventional times. Political issues — ranging from police brutality to our country’s response to COVID-19 to racist aggressions in the workplace — are all we’ve been talking about lately, in both private and public. The conversations have been fervent, angry, and often soul-crushing. Rightfully so, because there are no easy answers to the question of what to do with a country that has so many institutions designed to brutalize a group of its own citizens. It’s what’s been on most everybody’s mind, specifically since May 26th, a day after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, when Black Lives Matter protests started appearing in every state across the nation. There’s been a resulting nationwide reexamination of racism in every facet of daily life, and the workplace is no exception. High-profile reckonings with racism have happened in multiple newsrooms and media companies, including Refinery29.
Professor Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, whose research focuses on racial and gender inequalities at work, agrees that we're seeing a departure from the usual conversations people have at work. “There are precedents in having national conversations around race before, but in terms of workplaces explicitly saying that they stand against racism — and to the extent that they are doing so, trying to address their internal practices — I think that's a bit newer,” she says.
Americans overall have found greater moral clarity on BLM since the George Floyd protests. In a survey conducted earlier this month, the Pew Research Center found that about 67% of Americans express at least some support for the movement now. In 2016, according to Pew, only about 40% of Americans showed at least some support for BLM. That was the same year NFL player Colin Kaepernick brought up politics at his place of work, by kneeling during the national anthem, and he was slammed for being both unprofessional and unpatriotic.
There are limits to freedom of expression in the workplace, but that hasn’t stopped people from showing support for BLM at work and receiving support from the public for doing so. Last week, Starbucks banned employees from wearing BLM apparel, but after intense criticism from employees and the public, the company quickly reversed its ban. A Taco Bell manager was allegedly fired last week for wearing a mask that says “Black Lives Matter,” and there was considerable public outcry directed at them, too. A few weeks ago, many Facebook employees publicly denounced their employer’s decision to continue platforming President Trump’s social media posts, including one that supported shooting protestors.
Increasingly, the idea that political beliefs should be siloed from professional lives seems unrealistic. With so many Americans regularly working more than 8 hours a day, maintaining strict boundaries between work and personal lives becomes more difficult — especially now, when so many of us are working from home. What’s more, social media platforms that combine the personal and professional have resulted in even more boundary-blurring, with the views people express on their feeds impacting their careers, sometimes intentionally. With the recent protests in particular, employees across industries have put pressure on employers to take a public stance on BLM.
A Glassdoor study earlier this year showed that 60% of 1,000-plus workers surveyed globally said that it was unacceptable to talk politics at work, but 57% admitted that they have in fact talked politics at work. In the U.S. specifically, younger workers seem to care more about the ideologies of their employers than older generations. In 2018, a LinkedIn study found that 86% of millennials surveyed would consider a lower salary if it meant working for a company whose values aligned with theirs. According to Wingfield, it’s still too early to draw firm conclusions on whether millennials care more about the political ethics of their employers. But, she says, preliminary data does suggest that millennials are different from previous generations on “what they expect from workplaces and their ideas about race, gender, and equality.”
“To borrow a phrase from the women's movement in the ’70s, I think we're revisiting this realization that the personal is political,” says Wingfield, indicating not only the way that personal experiences, traumas, choices arise from political systems, but also the reality that, often, being a minority means your very existence is considered political.
Revisiting the personal as political also means recognizing what a loaded, sometimes pejorative word “political” is. The phrase “political correctness,” for example, is usually deployed by conservatives to indicate their belief that minorities call attention to discrimination insincerely — not because it’s actually painful to be a target of racism, but because they strategically want to shut down dissenting thought. When people call something a “political” issue, it’s often an attempt to dismiss that thing as lofty theory or an intellectual chess match, instead of respecting it as lived experience.
“Political discussions being things that can be abstractly debated in a manner akin to watching a football game isn’t that palatable for workers of color,” Wingfield points out. Being aware of this is one way discussions of inequality can be supported at work instead of being dismissed as inappropriate or unimportant distractions.
If the personal is, in fact, political, sticking to the classic advice of keeping politics out of the workplace becomes impossible. It helps us recognize how much of a company’s culture expresses a partisan stance, which can be hard to see, because status quo ideas are rarely called political. If you bring up systemic racism at work, it’s easy to be accused of discussing politics — but if you say that success is just about hard work and merit, people more easily accept that as an axiom.
You can see this in action when workplaces enact policies that talk about inclusivity without using the word “racism.” Wingfield notes that for many workplaces, the norm has been to champion diversity instead of “explicit affirmative action guidelines,” which tacitly supports the political idea that racism isn’t a problem requiring targeted policies for specific employees of color. “What that often means is a focus on things like diversity of thought or diversity of viewpoints,” Wingfield says, which may just as well create an environment where “All Lives Matter” is a perspective equally valued by leadership as “Black Lives Matter.”
“Organizations can express their appreciation and support for diversity, but then they don't do the actual work of collecting the data to show where workers of color are represented in their company, or the patterns of advancement or lack thereof for workers of color,” Wingfield continues. “Diversity trainings, research shows, often don't produce concrete results.”
Plenty of scholars on this subject agree that workplaces need to stop clinging to colorblindness. “Organizations that are serious about changing patterns of racial inequality need to move beyond diversity and inclusion,” sociologist Victor Ray wrote in the Harvard Business Review last year, “and toward reparations and restitution.”
Then what has research shown does work? “If they create targets, if they set metrics, if they task managers with this responsibility, if they give managers the resources they need to actually do this work — and make it clear that not doing so will have consequences for managers’ own employment — I think that's the way to get concrete change,” says Wingfield. “And I think workers have to be very forceful about pushing for and holding out for those types of material changes more so than sloganeering and statements.”
The BLM protests — as well as the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans — have eroded the illusion that politics don’t have moral urgency at our jobs. It’s time to accept that we’ve always been talking about politics at work. “I think it's incumbent upon organizations to wrestle with what that's going to mean for setting norms in workplaces,” says Wingfield. “A step towards that might be recognizing that political discussions aren't just abstract water cooler conversations — they're discussions that have personal and significant meaning for many workers.”