Monday, October 6, 2008

Politics and Money Worries: A Volatile Mixture on the Job

There's no escaping the economic news lately, and most of us go to work every day just trying not to think about our dwindling 401(k) plans or pensions. But even if we're trying to block it out, most of us are carrying an extra level of stress as we try to do a job already demanding more of of us than even a year ago.

Add to that the upcoming presidential election, and we're creating a volatile situation where our workplace can become a boiling point for a lot of pent-up anxieties, says one workplace expert.

Christine Probett, a San Diego State University lecturer and former Goodrich executive, says workers are increasingly anxious, frightened and emotional about the future, and that nervousness with the economy means that clear communications from top brass are critical.

“When people get nervous – as they are now with the economy – it’s really important that companies keep their workers informed about what is going on,” says Christine Porbett. “If they don’t, the rumors will start to fly. People will begin making stuff up.”

I recently interviewed Probett for my Gannett News Service/ column, and she says that she was once told by an employee that the way the employee separated fact from fiction was by asking three different people about a rumor. If it was confirmed by those three people, then the employee accepted it as fact – and that meant she could pass it along to other workers.

“In a company, there are enough rumors going around that you can get 100 people to confirm a rumor as fact,” Probett says. “Just because you heard it doesn’t make it fact, but that’s how it happens.”

She says any during tough economic times, every closed-door meeting can spawn speculation among employees.

“If management has a meeting, they better come out of that meeting and communicate about what was discussed with the people who work there,” Probett says. “Even if all they can say is that they can’t talk about it. It’s better than out-and-out-lying about what was said."

Further, Probett says the upcoming elections also have added another layer of drama to a workplace that is already trying to deal with workers stressed by rising consumer prices, unemployment and unsettling news from Wall Street.

She says that employees must be very careful about what they say regarding elections at work, because they might be setting the stage for what is known as a "hostile work environment".

Specifically, under federal law, a “hostile work environment” means that “unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex, race or other legally protected characteristics unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

“A lot of people are talking about this election, and it brings up a lot of issues,” Probett says. “We’re either going to have an African-American man as president, or a woman as vice president. There’s a lot of energy and emotion tied up in that. Diversity is one of those issues that creates a lot of tension and disagreement in the workplace, because sometimes it’s hard for one person to understand where someone else is coming from.”

That's why it's important that employees clearly understand what they can and cannot say at work regarding the election. If they're not clear, and the company has no set policy, it might be best to keep a low profile regarding political views. According to an American Management Association survey, 35 percent of business people said they are uncomfortable discussing their political views with colleagues.

“I would discourage people from wearing buttons supporting a specific candidate or party, and not allow signage or fundraising while at work,” Probett says.

If you're having problems with someone at work regarding politics, Probett says you should resolve it as you do any conflict.

“Don’t let the issue get bigger. Talk to the person, and tell them what you believe the problem to be. Don’t name call, and make sure you listen when they talk. Once you understand where the other person is coming from, try to come to a resolution. Then, move on. Don’t hold a grudge,” she says.

Are you feeling more stress on the job? How are you handling it?


Anonymous said...

This is a very timely post for me. I've been feeling very angry at what's happening to my 401(K) right now, and watching politicians sling mud at one another doesn't help. This is a good reminder to try and not get sucked into those discussions at work, because it just makes me more stressed. i have enough to worry about right now.

Anonymous said...

Timely post, Anita!

With coming elections and the turmoil associated with the Wall Street melt down, I think people are more predisposed to react emotionally to nearly anything – be it a company rumors or comments on the latest debates.

Certainly the tips in your post are really critical when conflicts do errupt. Still, this is probably a probably a good time to rebouble our efforts and stay positive and focused on what we can control – especially our reactions to what is happening around us.

Frankly, I believe our happiness is in our own hands, and if we make ourselves happy, we stand a better chance of dealing with any negativity that may surround us.


Anita said...

I was hoping you would post today, as I know you're one of those people that "walks the talk" when it comes to an upbeat attitude!
I think you're right...we have to keep that "positive" muscle in shape every day, or it can get lazy. And, the better shape it's in, the better chance we have of weathering tough times.
Now is the time to take steps to make sure we do spend time focusing on the good things in our lives.

Anonymous said...

A friend mentioned that she has noticed people are more on edge everywhere she goes - in parking lots, in Costco...She thinks people are so distracted that they aren't paying as much attention to the day-to-day niceties. If you can't even shop without being mauled in the discount store, the workplace must be a very tough place.

I agree with Walter. The first thing that comes to my mind is the old standby: You can't control how others behave, but you can control your reaction to it. (Sometimes easier said than done!)

Recognizing that everyone is under extra stress and making an effort to do a nice thing may help. I think you wrote a post about a handful of nickels that you move from one pocket to the next when you do something nice?

So, if someone else REALLY wants that parking space, give it to him with a wave and a smile. (With all five fingers :-) ) Offer to help a co-worker with something, or at least don't complain if it's not a big deal. Let that car cut in front of you. Move quickly out of the way if a distracted shopper comes at you with a shopping cart. Take pride in the awareness that you are rising above it all! (And avoid potential bodily harm at the same time!)

Anita said...

Thanks for reminding us about the five nickels post. Start with them in one pocket, and every time you give someone a compliment, move them to the other pocket. By the end of the day, hopefully you will have moved all of them!
You make an excellent point about controlling your own reactions. These are the times when you can really make a difference to someone with a kind word -- or by NOT saying an unkind word! Thanks for reminding us that while it may not always be easy, it is always worthwhile.

Anita said...

Walter and Miriam have been very thoughtful in their responses, and I hope you find that they represent a lot of terrific people out there not only willing to help, but to inspire you. Find more people like them in your life and at work, and it will help a lot.

Anonymous said...

I've definitely been feeling more stress at work because of economic and political woes. The best response I've found so far has been to just focus on keeping a positive attitude at work. It brightens the attitudes of the people I work with and turns work into a fun place to be.

Anita said...

Another upside of your attitude is that it demonstrates leadership capabilities, because you're able to influence others in a positive way. So, not only does it pay off for your personal happiness, but your career may also get a boost from such a strategy!
Thanks for posting.

Anita said...

Another upside of your attitude is that it demonstrates leadership capabilities, because you're able to influence others in a positive way. So, not only does it pay off for your personal happiness, but your career may also get a boost from such a strategy!
Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

No matter how hard you try, worrying isn't going to increase the value of your 401(K).

Usually nothing good is going to come out of a discussion about politics at work unless you work for a politician...then you're probably okay. Although I am curious as to whether we should require an advanced degree as one of the position requirements when running for president.

Anita said...

I'm thinking your first sentence should be posted on a T-shirt somewhere. Words to live by!
As for talking politics at work, I think most people feel they have enough trouble dealing with "office" politics to bring another kind (presidential) into the mix.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Just because you need to be professional doesn’t mean you can’t be patriotic. You can get excited about the election without being specific about a candidate or an issue. At the office, convert your excitement for your candidate into passion for the right to vote. Encourage coworkers to vote, and approach your boss with an idea or two about how to remind your department about Election Day, registering to vote, or key debate dates.

Anita said...

Great idea...there's nothing wrong with encouraging people to vote, and not being judgmental about who they vote for. And offering a ride is always a nice thing to do.
Thanks for suggestion.