What happens when you can’t have a political conversation at work?

Political conversation continues at work, between coworkers. If these are conversations that people were having when it was “ok”, they are going to keep having them in “unsanctioned” ways. The politics now just become a little less visible.

What happens when you can’t have a political conversation at work?

By making people feel unsafe discussing anything “political” at work will result in screwing up. All of our work is to build systems and processes that other people have to interact with. Bias, unfairness, and unintended consequences are always built in. If employees cannot object on “political” grounds, you will miss the ways that your system/process/product gets it wrong.

What happens when you can’t have a political conversation at work?

People who have power in your company will continue to voice opinions that they don’t even acknowledge or recognize as politics. Power and privilege is all about a shallow understanding of how your own actions are not apolitical, they are just aligned with existing power.

Politics at work

Politics at work does not mean campaigning or soliciting for campaigns. It does not mean an endless battle royale of cable news level debate among coworkers in a Slack all day long. Politics at work looks like:

  • Are we paying women and men the same for doing the same job?
  • Are our recruiting and hiring practices leading to a non-diverse workforce and missing out on great people who should work here?
  • What problems does our company solve and for whom?
    • How do we solve those problems?
  • How can we make sure our employees are safe at work, but also feel safe when the various things in the world, out of their control makes them so unsafe? This is not because safe workers are productive workers, although they are. This is because we give a fuck.

Workers don’t choose their work any more than their family. Some people have highly desirable skills that lets them choose wherever they work and change on a whim, but most people need their jobs, took the offer at the only job that gave them one, and don’t have the safety to just exit. But employers do choose their employees, and this asymmetry is critical to remember. The power that gives employers is considerable. So employees do limit their speech for fear, and that’s totally understandable. That power also means that employers need to take seriously their responsibility to care for their employees. We chose them, we want them here, we need them, and we have too much power to not bend to care.