Office politics // Bar Code

How to deal with an outspoken colleague whose political opinions are the polar opposite of yours

By Sandra Rosier

On Friday March 16th, 2012

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Dear Sandra,

There’s been a lot of fanfare at my firm around the recent hire of a former politician. He’s notoriously outspoken and has strong views on environmental issues such as Kyoto that go completely against my own beliefs. What does this say about the firm? What does it say about me if I stay?Livid Litigator

 Livid, this controversial hire says nothing about the firm that was not already true to begin with. If the presence of this partner is utterly repugnant to your personal convictions, then you must act in accordance with your conscience. However, you need to be practical and realistic, as your own career could be at stake.

Truly analyze this hire. Some of the decision-makers at your firm might share your dis- gust, yet still consider this man and his contacts an asset to the firm. Others may have resisted the new hire while some may consider his rainmaking abilities the only relevant factor. What about the firm’s clients? Would all of them measure up to your moral barometer?

When I worked at a large U.S. firm, I went out for dinner and a movie one night with two of my favourite colleagues. For reasons that I will never comprehend, we selected a thriller about the death penalty. It turned out to be an indictment of capital punishment.

Things started to go sour at dinner. The politically charged topic opened a Pandora’s box: 9/11, George W. Bush and the First Amendment were flung across the table. Soon, I was engaged in a full-on shouting match with my hard-line Republican co-worker while our fundamentalist Christian colleague sat, practically in tears, between us. I simply assumed that these women shared my left-of-centre variably atheistic Canadian sensibilities. I was so naïve.

We can’t pretend that firms — and the people that work in them — are not political or politically connected. Quite the contrary. The act of hiring that new litigation partner is an overtly political one. I was surprised to discover that the U.S. firm I worked for was a generous contributor to the Republican Party. Former and retired politicians are frequently given jobs at reputable Canadian firms.

The fact is that law firms are composed of all sorts of people and represent a vast spectrum of clients. However, it’s important to distinguish between compromising the integrity of privately held views and yielding to the practical imperatives of a diverse business environment.

Politics make for very precarious ground for a young professional who is trying to develop and build a reputation. This is not wilful blindness, but merely strategic self-preservation. Livid, I can’t tell you to accept the new partner any more than you can dictate to the firm whom to hire or take as a client. This is a fundamental question about what you consider an acceptable moral compromise, but compromise you must if you are to inhabit the real world. It is far safer to keep your politics at home.

Although there will be consequences, you are entirely within your right to refuse to work with this new partner. What those consequences are would indeed be a true measure of what kind of firm you are working for.


Political minefield: Don’t go there

  • Politics, religion and sex are topics that do not make for polite chit-chat at work. Opt instead for chatting about the weather.
  • Don’t assume that your colleagues share your political views, beliefs and value system, otherwise you could unknowingly step in it.
  • Don’t ask colleagues who they voted for. It’s inappropriate and risky.
  • Don’t display political memorabilia, pictures and posters in your office.
  • Do your due diligence on a firm’s political affiliations before you join. If you do get involved with a firm or projects that go completely against your beliefs you may find it hard to sleep at night.

Safely non-political: Go there

  • Participating in environmental and diversity committees are safe and value-added political activities at the office.
  • It’s okay to volunteer for a political party or to get involved in an overtly political cause as long as you are discreet about it at work.
  • Choose a mentor who is outside of your political comfort zone. You may be surprised what you can learn from people who don’t share your beliefs.

Sandra Rosier is a tax advisor in Toronto. Need advice? Email sandra@lawandstyle.ca

Illustration by Bob Hambly