Talking politics at work

Some experts warn that strong opinions can offend co-workers, bosses and customers

October 20, 2012|By Lorraine Mirabella and Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Keeping your opinions to yourself at work might not be easy in today's supercharged political climate.

With the general election just weeks away, political discussions naturally come up in offices, on campuses and at job sites throughout the Baltimore area.

But seemingly harmless banter about the latest debate or a candidate's misstep quickly can turn ugly, some workplace experts warn. Strong opinions on candidates and issues can become a source of conflict and tension, experts say, potentially offending colleagues, bosses, even customers.

Politics and the workplace collided dramatically in recent weeks, including the suspension of a Gallaudet University official who signed a Maryland referendum petition and reports of employers elsewhere encouraging workers to vote for specific candidates.

Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette consultant, has this advice for people at work: Don't get sucked in.

"Asking political questions can hurt your rapport with people," said Pachter of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Pachter & Associates. "It can really affect your opinion of someone, if I think you believe what I believe and I find out you don't. Why do you want to risk that? It has no influence on how you do your job, so why bring politics into it? You want to connect with these people, and political discussions can be an area of disconnect."

Pachter advises against asking — or answering — questions such as: Who are you going to vote for? Who do you think won the debate? How can you possibly vote for him or her?

"Political conversation is getting more and more polarized all the time, and clearly the election ramps that up … but it's the path we're on," said Howard J. Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Silver Spring-based Cook Ross Inc., a corporate consulting and diversity training firm. "Parties are so polarized and people are so identified with that party, it's much more dangerous and threatening to have these conversations. If you are in a predominantly Democratic environment and you're a Republican, you might suppress your point of view and vice versa. There's more danger associated with those differences than there ever was before."

That danger can lead to slights, such as being left out of the office lunch clique, to more serious consequences — like getting fired.

Private-sector employees may not realize that protections against discriminatory firings or disciplinary actions based on race, gender and religion don't extend to political expression or activity in the workplace, said Thomas A. Cox Jr., labor and employment attorney with Epstein Becker Green in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. In most states, including Maryland, employees work at the will of the employer.

Political chatter may seem harmless, but "the difficulty or challenge for employers is that political issues stir up these intense emotions" on topics such as abortion, religion and national origin, Cox said.

No private policies

"The bottom line is these types of discussions may lead to allegations of bullying and create a hostile work environment," Cox said. "The expression of political views creates an environment for some employees that they might consider to be uncomfortable or in some cases hostile. … Employers have to avoid the creation of a hostile work environment."

Employers typically have no specific policies covering political discussions, but situations that escalate could be covered under bullying or harassment policies. The challenge for employers and employees alike, experts say, is to create an environment where workers can comfortably express themselves but don't feel threatened by others' views.

Businesses without specific rules on political discussions still say they want employees to keep things from getting heated.

Landover-based Giant Food, the Baltimore area's biggest supermarket chain, has no specific policy prohibiting workers from discussing political issues, but "we do obviously expect our associates to conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times," said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for the grocer.

A handful of Baltimore-area employers said political discussions routinely crop up, with no ramifications.

Politics is not a verboten topic at The Hatcher Group, a Bethesda-based communications firm with offices in Baltimore and Annapolis, said President Ed Hatcher. It comes up a lot, especially near a presidential election, he said.

The firm works with foundations and nonprofits to "advance social change," focusing on poverty and the environment, so it attracts people with similar views on — say — environmental protection and helping low-income residents.

"We have a progressive and politically like-minded staff, and so, yes, there is lots of politics talk, but it certainly hasn't caused us any problems," Hatcher said. "More high-fives or mutual hand-wringing. And there's certainly no policies that we needed to restrict it because of conflict."

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