How to participate in politics while maintaining professionalism in the workplace

main.jpgIt’s 2012. Can I get political or do I have to keep it under wraps if I call myself a professional? 

A life of service in nonprofits often means addressing quality of life issues in the places we live and for the people and communities we serve. (Sometimes, it’s animals, trees or water we’re saving.) Even if you aren’t working on issues pertaining to people or for a political advocacy organization per se, the initiatives you support most likely have politics written all over them. As election season rolls around, your first instinct may be to jump right in and wave a flag of support for the issues on the ballot you care about most.

There is nothing wrong with showing your true colors, but how can you do that and still maintain professionalism in the workplace? 

Dive in at an appropriate level. Older organizations may have established rapport around politics. In this situation, it’s easy to identify how comfortable your colleagues are discussing politics. However, most young professionals work in less established workplaces where this isn’t the case. If you want to talk politics in this situation, you are right at the beginning where you need to be.

Level 1: This is voter registration card territory. Keep it fairly neutral until you get the lay of the land. Don’t be forceful; just let people know you have a pile of registration cards for everyone. You can help get people out to the polls and that’s a cool thing. You’d be surprised how many of your colleagues who don’t pre-register (in Minnesota we don’t have to, but it makes things a heck of a lot easier come election day.) Limit issue and candidate banter to after work drinks with your friends, not colleagues.

Level 2: This is an advanced move for those who have been on the job for awhile and who are serious about their organization’s goals. Is there a political issue that may hinder or make your organization’s mission work more difficult? These are issues that are on the table for conversation, if they aren’t already part of your everyday banter. Your boss is probably up on the issues and may already have a plan of advocacy from an organizational standpoint. Yes, there are fine lines to getting involved in political advocacy, but there is a lot a nonprofit can do to show support for issues it cares about without breaking any rules. And, when employees are off the clock, they can do as much as they want. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits has a great list of dos and donts for 501c(3)s wishing to get political. 

Level 3: Most banter at this level is off the clock--or NFW (Not for Work)-- material. However, some work relationships have long-term personal connections that stand the test of time and politics. These are the folks you can debate at dinner with, invite to door knock with you and be bumper sticker buds with! If you have work relationships that are at this level take advantage of the opportunity to support issues during election season together, after work hours and as much as possible. Keep this level out of the general work and social spaces: #nonworkemails, please!

In order to be inclusive, you’ll want to foster a sense of team. Both newbies and those who aren’t involved in your circle should not feel forced to navigate an unspoken workplace norm.

Last but not least, when you are free to talk about politics whether in work or your personal life, make sure you know the issues. Don’t support something by assumption. The last thing you want is to earn workplace cred for being an absentminded, frontline supporter of a candidate or group that turns out to be an absolute crazzleberry.

Do you have any advice on how to participate in politics while maintaining professionalism in the workplace? Or, have you learned from any political missteps at the office? 

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