Ask a Boss: My Co-workers Won’t Stop Talking Politics!

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Photo: Michael Cogliantry/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

TLDR: A small group of intense co-workers from the opposite end of the political spectrum take over the break room from about 10:30 to 1:30 every day, watch political cable news, and are obnoxious about discussing politics. It’s impossible to divert the room from politics. I think they fundamentally don’t understand that it makes the shared room feel hostile to those who are trapped in the space with them. I need to eat often, can’t eat in my office (I work with historic materials), and moving elsewhere on campus for my frequent pregnant-lady food breaks is a serious time-suck. Director is crap, and HR here is worse. Advice on creating a neutral space without having to continually bend over backward for these assholes?

Long form: I work at a small, private college as an archivist. I can’t eat in my office (historic-materials-preservation issue), so I need to go to either the staff room or elsewhere on campus for my frequent pregnant-lady snacks and meals. There is a TV in the break room, and a small group of people whose breaks overlap throughout the day are in the break room consistently, from about 10:30 to 1:30. They are all politically inclined on the opposite side of the spectrum from myself. One of them very aggressively supports a candidate (she has been wearing their pin for nearly a year, and she has put a sticker for the candidate on the mailbox of a colleague who is within a demographic profile that her selected candidate denigrates). Every day, during the time they are in the break room, they put on the cable-news channel that supports their side of the political spectrum.

In my personal life, I am a pretty political person. However, in general, I don’t bring any of that to work. I come here, I do my job, and my politics (along with most of my personality and personal life) don’t enter campus with me.

The people who overtake the break room are the type to rabbit-hole you into an unwinnable, stressful conversation if any dissent or differing opinion is voiced (e.g., you can’t argue with crazy, and you can’t use logic with crazy).

So, here is the thing: I’m feeling a little trapped, and I’m trying to decide what to do. My director is seriously conflict-averse, and in my experience fundamentally incapable of handling anonymous or delicate situations. So, talking to her is out of the question. HR here is also … pretty deplorable. There was a staff member taking naked photos of one of my student workers, and their reaction was to do nothing because “If the student felt uncomfortable, we’d hope she would have spoken to you directly about it.”

Going elsewhere on campus to eat throughout the day is a serious time-suck (and much harder now that the students are back). Going to my office (the go-to for pretty much everyone else) is off the table as well. And diverting the channel, turning off the TV, etc., have all been fruitless (save brief moments of respite). The weather is still nice, and I’ve been going outside often for my lunch. But the extra five to ten minutes of walking from my department to the break room to get my food, traveling down the elevator, walking to an outdoor space, and so on, is starting to add a lot of time to my eating schedule, which I really don’t want to sacrifice while preparing my project to survive without me during my maternity leave.

Headphones have not been successful in the past, and I have tried politely stating that I don’t discuss politics at work. This has led to being asked point blank where I stand on issues or if I agree with something by one of the people in the break room, and any assertions like, “I don’t discuss politics at work” or “I personally disagree with you, but I don’t believe in discussing politics at work; however you are entitled to your own opinion,” have in the past led to being “talked at” until I left the room.

Ooooh, this letter has made me angry.

They want to talk politics in the break room? Fine. (I’d argue they should be thoughtful about the environment they’re creating for others if they’re doing it every single day, but so be it.) They want to put on a politically inclined cable-news channel? Eh, annoying, but again, so be it. But they refuse to let you opt out of political conversations and harass you until you leave the room? Not okay, not by any stretch. Putting a candidate sticker on the mailbox of a colleague who is in a demographic whom that candidate denigrates? Not okay, and overtly hateful, and potentially a legal issue for your company since it veers into harassment.

In a normal office, you’d have some recourse. You could point out that the break room has been taken over by people who are aggressively pushing their politics on others and not accepting “I don’t want to discuss politics” as an answer. But you’ve got a director who’s no help and an HR department that seems negligent to the point of committing malpractice in the incident you described. You could still try approaching HR — who knows? Maybe they’d be responsive to this in a way that would surprise you, and there’s probably no downside to trying, particularly if you use the words “I’m concerned we’re running afoul of hostile workplace laws.” (Note that “hostile workplace” doesn’t just mean “people are being hostile”; as a legal concept, it means that the hostility is based on sex, race, religion, disability, or another protected characteristic. Depending on the remarks you’re hearing, this might or might not qualify.)

In any case, assuming that you’re right that neither your boss nor HR will be any practical help, I think you have a few options:

• Address the issue with this group directly. I hear you that they can’t be reasoned with, but I wonder what would happen if you said, “I cannot eat in my office because of historic-materials-preservation issues. I don’t have time to walk somewhere else to eat. This is my only option. It’s incredibly unpleasant to be forced to discuss a topic I don’t want to discuss while I’m trying to destress. I need you to respect my right not to discuss it. Please stop trying to push me into political talk at work. It’s unwelcome and bordering on hostile.” They may be irked at being deprived of a debate partner, but I think it’s reasonably likely that they’ll stop trying to talk politics with you.

• Wear headphones and be more assertive about it: Say that you’re listening to something for work and cannot talk. If that doesn’t get through, follow it up with “I really need to finish this for work so I’m turning up the volume and won’t be able to respond further.” Or if you want to be more upfront: “I need to decompress while I eat, so I’m listening to headphones because I need the break from talking. Sorry — not negotiable. I’m turning up the volume and won’t be able to hear if you talk to me.”

• Outnumber them. Any chance you can show up with a bunch of colleagues, take over the break room yourselves, and drown out their political talk with sports talk or TV talk or Kardashian talk? They’re winning right now because they outnumber you, so changing the math could help. This may be more work than you want to do though; it’s certainly more work than you should have to do.

• Borrow an office. Do you have a co-worker who regularly leaves her office for a period of time midday and who would let you eat in there for the remaining four weeks until the election, if you explained the situation to her? Or a co-worker with an office who’d be up for having you join her there for snacks and lunch?

But, yeah, your co-workers are jerks. I’m sorry.

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