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How much would we participate in the electoral process if we still had to declare our political affiliations in an open oral vote in front of our peers, including our workplace colleagues?

Fortunately, we’ve not had to do that in Canada since the widespread introduction of the secret ballot in 1874 (1913 in Prince Edward Island), but it was a fact of early political life in Canada that one risked public scorn, if not physical harm, for being on the other side of the political spectrum from business partners and neighbours. As we head into another tumultuous election cycle, what role is there for political discussions in the modern workplace?

Some would tell you that politics should stay out of the office, period. Unfortunately, that’s not realistic when the boss, or the company’s founder, is an active public contributor or prominent member of a particular party. Even if they don’t overtly share their political views in the office or apply pressure to contribute, awareness of the affiliation can serve to alter behaviours or curb discussion.

Laudably, some companies encourage their staff to participate actively in the election process and the public debate around key issues, while cautioning them to be careful about being perceived as being a spokesperson for the company. This can too easily happen as someone’s workplace can be looked up on social-media feeds such as LinkedIn.

So how do you respond in the coffee room to questions such as “What did you think about the debate last night?” or “What do you think about issue X?”

My advice is to raise the bar by turning the discussion toward the factual basis of the issue, if you choose to engage at all (yes, keeping your views to yourself is an option and should be respected by others).

Ask for evidence

Campaign platforms and promises are based on ideas about how particular issues can be resolved. As with any ideas, some are good and hold promise, and others just aren’t.

As ideas, there is the opportunity to probe respectfully and reasonably about where they come from, and how factually sound they are, rather than dismissing them out of hand because of whom they’ve come from (the person or party). That is the basis of civil discourse and prevents all of us jumping to the overgeneralizations and false labels that turn political discussions into uncomfortable and emotionally charged forms of diatribe versus true discourse.

Those involved don’t have to be experts in the issues. Instead, having a civil discourse about the issue is intended to turn everyone from being divisive along party lines to being equally curious together. Basic critical-thinking questions such as, “What is our basis for saying that?” or “For what problem is that a solution” can help reframe a polarizing campaign issue into a genuine exploration of the issue where no one person or group holds a dominant view. Everyone emerges with a more informed view, whatever they choose to make of it. Far from being applicable only to politics in the workplace, that’s a style of interacting that also warrants more attention in other forms of workplace collaboration.

Be sensitive to who’s listening

We’ve all been told time and again to be careful about using work resources for personal use and it may even be part of your employment agreement. Even if you’re not contravening a workplace policy, sending political missives to a colleague, chatting on the company’s internal social channels about political views or even coffee-room talk can easily be misunderstood or taken out of context. Respect that, as interested as you may be, others might not care to make their views known.

Finally, don’t forget to vote. We might not get to choose our company’s next product, but we do have the unique opportunity and responsibility to elect our country’s next leaders (in secret).

Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, a global executive search and leadership advisory firm.

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