Politics is contentious, especially in this presidential race. This is why most people prefer to keep mum about elections at the office. A recent Beyond.com survey of 5,000 job seekers found that 72% thought it was inappropriate to talk about politics at work, and 46% had been made to feel uncomfortable by colleagues' political chats.
"The reality is that most people prefer to avoid conflict, and this is especially true in the workplace where your career success can depend upon your relationship with others," says Joe Weinlick, senior vice president of marketing at Beyond.com
Yet despite the taboo, the office can still exert a huge sway over one aspect of electoral participation. A study released earlier this year found that employees were three times more likely to donate to candidates supported by the CEO than those who weren't. The correlation held when a new CEO with different politics took over, suggesting that it was not just a matter of everyone supporting candidates who were beneficial to the firm; e.g. people at a solar panel company donating to legislators who backed solar panel subsidies.
For all the talk of "authenticity" lately, people tend to separate their work selves from their personal selves. That said, they really do pay attention to what their leaders do—an insight that matters for fields far beyond politics.
People’s "work selves" are very much interested in being part of the team. "Some people believe that supporting a cause—which can include a candidate—that the boss or company supports is good for your career," says Weinlick. If the boss buys tickets to a gala supporting cancer research, so do employees. Likewise, a ticket to a political fundraiser lets people get face time with a manager while seeming to support something the manager cares about.
"In an environment in which people are uncomfortable talking about politics, not everyone is going to be truthful about their opinions," says Weinlick. "The preference is to stay quiet, but sometimes when in Rome…" Fortunately, he notes, "we have a secret ballot. So people can cast their vote without worrying about what colleagues or friends think."
This separation of work self and personal self is most apparent on social media. In the Beyond.com survey, 65% of people said it was OK to post their political opinions on social media, despite the fact that colleagues could certainly find their thoughts there if they wanted. Social media is the outlet that work can’t be for people who aren’t the CEO.
As for the CEO, there is a positive way to view the political correlation. "We have a pulpit as leaders in an organization," says Stewart Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, and the author of Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. "The shadow of the leader is long, and usually much longer than the leader herself thinks." If you care deeply about politics, then yes, this shadow can affect employee political behavior. But it can affect other things as well.
For example, when Friedman took a job as an executive at the Ford Motor Company years ago, he had promised his family that he would be home for breakfast and dinner while he was in Michigan. "That was idiosyncratic among the executive corps, to say the least," he says. It turned out that people were watching and observing. While Friedman was leading a training session in Cologne, Germany, a man came up to him and asked "You’re the guy who gets home for dinner every night, right?"
"The fact that I was regularly doing that had got around to this guy in Cologne," Friedman says. "Your actions are seen and interpreted and made sense of by people you don’t even know." This is not always apparent in day-to-day life, but it turns out people are listening and watching. This can be a good thing, if you use this power wisely.