Workers and workplace experts warn it’s risky to express opinions with office wear. Here’s how to feel out what’s appropriate.
“The Rules” is a Moneyish series where we define the rules around sticky money topics like giving an allowance, who pays on a date, combining finances with your partner, and more.
Beware of wearing your partisanship on your sleeve.
While these politically-charged times have spurred many people to action, such as supporting movements like Me Too, marching against gun violence or coming out for or against the Trump administration, you should think twice before being woke at work.
“I have been really, really tempted to wear a t-shirt in support of all the marches and walkouts against gun violence, but I live in a gun-friendly state, and I know that would upset a lot of people,” Stripe Demarest, 48, who works for a New Hampshire medical school, told Moneyish. “There are so many people who will immediately jump to a conclusion about you based on what you believe, and I don’t need that assumption being made about me by someone that I want to collaborate with.”
But Brooklyn event design and production company Tinsel Experiential Design (which has a core team of 10, mostly female) fully supports political expression. “We have a shared drawer of stickers that team members have placed on boxes, crates, notebooks. The most popular ones read: ‘Love Trumps Hate,’ ‘Trust Women,’ and — unapologetically — ‘F–k Trump,’” partner and chief marketing officer Erica Taylor Haskins told Moneyish. “I can’t imagine working in an environment where I either felt compelled to keep my politics quiet, or — perhaps worse — had to defend my beliefs against a majority with a totally different value system.”
Emily Jones, an operations manager for the Colorado-based ONNO t-shirt company, told Moneyish she also works in a small office of progressively-minded people, so she feels free to wear what she wants — with some exceptions.
“As a personal rule, I won’t wear anything mocking or threatening, or with strong language. For example, today I am wearing my ‘Cats Against Catcalls’ t-shirt, but I probably won’t be wearing my ‘This Pussy Grabs Back’ pin to work,” Jones, 35, told Moneyish. “And in a larger office with a more mixed crowd, I definitely would tone it down.”
You could offend your colleagues – or even lose your job. The American Bar Association warns that your First Amendment right to free speech only protects you from state or government action — not a private employer. So unless you’re working at a government-run agency (which most of us are not; the private sector employs about 85% of the U.S. labor force) you can indeed be canned at your employer’s discretion for getting on the soap box, especially if you are seen as making coworkers or clients offended or uncomfortable.
And getting political around the watercooler does upset many employees. A 2017 American Psychological Association (APA) study found that more than a quarter (26%) of full-time and part-time workers said they felt “tense or stressed out” as a result of political discussions at work, which hurt productivity. Worse, more than one in five workers (24%) said they were avoiding some colleagues because of their political views.
So wearing an “I’m With Her” sticker or “Make America Great Again” cap strikes a nerve. “The political tensions are about more than who won or lost an election,” wrote Dr. David W. Ballard, director of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence behind the survey. “People across the political spectrum have strong feelings about very personal issues that directly affect their lives, including equality, civil liberties, the role of government, social justice and economic security.”
That’s the reasoning behind the judge in Bill Cosby’s retrial banning any paraphernalia like #MeToo pins that could sway the jurors or or against the comedian, who has been accused of sexual assault. Page Six noted that Cosby’s 2017 hung-jury trial was riddled with buttons, T-shirts and a marching band outside that could have influenced the jurors.
But many employees feel more justified than ever in expressing themselves through their office wear. Many are more righteous about their stances on issues than ever before. Pew reports that partisan animosity peaked during the 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And there’s an evolutionary drive to prove you’re a member of a particular tribe. “Humans are extraordinarily social, because we’re more likely to survive and reproduce when we’re in a group,” Dr. Gregg Murray, associate professor of political science at Augusta University, told Moneyish. “So wearing a sticker or a pin is a way to say to like-minded folk that, ‘I’m a good group member. I am one of you.’”
And as workers are becoming tapped into work 24/7 thanks to text and email, the line between personal and professional has become blurred. “It’s hard to separate personal time from professional time — especially thanks to Facebook, which has made it OK for everyone now to be a critic, and for everyone to share their views,” Cara Siletto, author of “Staying Power: Why Your Employees Leave & How to Keep Them Longer,” told Moneyish.
Siletto specializes in bridging the workplace culture gap between Millennial employees and Gen Xers and Boomers. “The older workforce was trained to separate their ‘personal’ personality, attire and relationships from the ‘professional’ as soon as they walked in that office door. But the younger workforce feels like you’re hiring the whole person, including their opinions,” she said. “I encourage people to be themselves at work … just know that people are watching you.”
So before you wear a “Black Lives Matter” pin or “The Future is Female” shirt to work, company culture experts suggest asking yourself these questions.
What does your office dress code say? The rules vary in every company, so ask your boss or your human resources department to spell out what’s inappropriate. “The conforming aspect shouldn’t be seen as a negative,” Aliza Licht, a marketing executive and author of “Leave Your Mark” told Moneyish. “Your company has a mission. You are being paid to deliver on that mission, so that is not necessarily the forum to express your views. If you want to walk in the Women’s March on your own time, great. But the workplace is where work needs to be done.”
Are your coworkers – and, more importantly, your supervisors – wearing politically-charged items? Take cues from your colleagues. Even if there are no rules barring tees with political slogans on them, don’t sport one if no one else in the office is dressing that way, because you could draw negative attention to yourself. “Don’t ever be the first one to test the waters,” said Siletto, who got chided for wearing capris to a conservative office once. “The true litmus test is seeing if anyone else is dressing this way.”
Has your workplace openly supported a cause? Yelp showed its support for transgender rights last year by introducing a feature to help users find gender neutral bathrooms. Airbnb offered to house refugees not initially allowed under Trump’s proposed travel ban for free. These workplaces would likely be more open to employees wearing gear supporting transgender and refugee rights than others. “If your company is making a statement in support or against certain things, then you can feel more free to express yourself,” said Licht.
What kind of industry and office do you work in? Large corporations and conservative industries, such as the legal and health care professions, are going to have stricter dress codes to avoid offending customers compared to a tech startup with a small staff that isn’t coming face-to-face with customers. “Someone working in the IT department at Citibank is in a very different situation than someone on the sales team meeting with clients,” said Licht.
Did you hesitate before putting it on? “If you look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Should I wear this?’ then take it off,” said Siletto. “If you’re asking yourself whether this is appropriate to wear to work, someone more conservative than you is definitely going to think it is not.”
© 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved