Last year it was Brexit, now, in 2017 it’s the snap General Election. Era-defining, and unforeseen, political events have been monopolising the UK news cycle. Inevitably, this conversation trickles down to office small talk, but how have employees in Britain and Northern Ireland felt about revealing their political beliefs to colleagues?
Many would argue that talking politics at work should remain a taboo, for fear that it can lead to irreparable rifts within teams. Others would suggest that there’s value in promoting open discourse and a diversity of opinions in the workplace.
To understand how sentiment differs among the UK workforce, we asked 4,000 employees how comfortable they have felt disclosing their political views to colleagues in the run-up to the 2017 election. In doing so, we discovered intriguing differences in attitudes among the working electorate, based on age, gender and political leaning.
72% of UK workers comfortable discussing politics at work
Starting with an overview of the data, we found that, despite the traditional portrayal of Brits as reserved and unwilling to rock the boat, an impressive majority of UK employees have been happy to engage in political debate in the office.
72% of respondents bucked the cultural stereotype, indicating that they weren’t afraid to bring up potentially contentious current affairs at the water cooler.
UK workers more open to discussing politics than those in the US
Perhaps surprisingly, UK workers are more receptive to political debate in the workplace than their stereotypically straight-talking counterparts across the pond.
In early February 2017, we conducted a similar study in the US to understand how the nascent Trump presidency was affecting conversation in the American office.
Despite its position as a nation that so proudly champions freedom of speech, we found that more than one third of US employees were reluctant to discuss their political views with co-workers.
Only 66% of workers stateside indicated that they were comfortable airing their political opinions at work, 6% fewer than in the UK.
Conservative voices dominating the discussion
As the General Election has neared ever closer, party affiliations will have become clearer and the inevitable question “who will you be voting for?” asked repeatedly.
With 78% of Conservative respondents indicating that they are happy to engage in political discourse with co-workers, it’s Tory supporters that have been leading the office discussion.
Comparatively, comfort levels among supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Labour and UKIP, are all closer to the national average – between 71 and 72%.
With comfort levels of 66%, SNP voters have been among the least vocal, perhaps an indication of a difference in cultural attitudes either side of the border. Alternatively, it may be a reflection of Scotland’s dramatic shift from Labour to SNP in 2015, with party allegiance and willingness to argue the official line not as deep-rooted as elsewhere.
Supporters of the Green Party have been the least comfortable discussing politics at work; only 62% of those backing the leadership duo of Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley indicated that they are willing to speak up during an office election debate.
Men and women equally comfortable
On the surface, gender has no significant influence on willingness to disclose political views in the office. Men and women stated that they were equally comfortable, at 73% and 72% respectively. However…
May’s ladies most vocal among women
Whereas men are uniformly comfortable revealing their political views to colleagues, regardless of party affiliation, there is an interesting divide among women: female Conservatives have been notably more at ease than female Labour supporters.
82% of Theresa May’s female backers stated they feel no discomfort discussing politics with colleagues, compared to 68% of Jeremy Corbyn’s female support.
Interestingly, these attitudes are also reflected in our previous US study, which found that, while comfort levels between American men do not differ, female Democrats are significantly happier discussing politics at work than female Republicans.
Though we should be careful not to speculate as to the cause, it is commonly recognised that there is still an imbalance in the way men and women are treated in the workplace. Male opinions tend to be heard over those of their female colleagues, and women whose political beliefs aren’t backed by the majority may be more reluctant to speak out.
Comfort higher among older employees
Our results show that age has a strong influence on comfort level, with older employees far more open to discussing politics at work than their younger co-workers.
Those below the age of 25 have been significantly less willing to reveal their political beliefs ahead of Election Day (65%) compared to the UK average of 72%. By contrast, 45-54 year olds are the most likely to have been outspoken in office debates, with 79% indicating that they feel comfortable.
Potential flashpoint: Young Labour vs. Old Conservative
When we examine the comfort levels of age groups further, we find contrasting attitudes based on political leaning among Millennials (25-34 year olds) and Baby Boomers (55 and older).
Left-leaning Millennials have been the most likely to partake in an office political debate among their generation; 74% of 25-34 year old Labour supporters indicated that were comfortable discussing politics.
However, of all the groups and sub-groups identified in our analysis, Conservative Baby Boomers are by far the most confident voicing their political opinions around colleagues; 86% of those surveyed stated they felt no discomfort.
This split between the age groups is perhaps the most likely flashpoint for heated debates within teams, as two contrasting outlooks based on different generational experiences may go head-to-head in the aftermath of the election.