A similar atmosphere exists at Tetrahedron, a private environmental consulting firm at the Inner Harbor, said Daniel Ewald, an environmental scientist known to his colleagues and bosses as a political junkie and activist. His bosses, who are from Bangladesh and also politically active, often want to hear his perspectives on the American political system, and co-workers also seek out his opinions, he said.
"Other people at the firm share the same point of view, and we talk about environmental policy and other differences between liberal and conservatives," he said.
Ewald, a Democrat, added that he got along fine with a former boss at a previous job who was a Republican.
"We never got in yelling matches about politics," he said. "It was always civil. If you don't shove your political opinion down the other person's throat, you should be fine."
But Hatcher said he can understand why some employers might want to put a lid on political discussions.
"It can be so emotional and so easy for hard feelings to develop," he said.
The state has a law
For state employees, the relevant policy is a law — the Maryland Public Ethics Law. Generally speaking, it prohibits the use of state time, materials or property for political purposes, said Joe Smith, executive director for human resources at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. What employees say on their own time, without implying that they're representing their employer, is their own affair, he said.
Members of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees Maryland, a union that represents almost 30,000 state and higher-education employees, "have the ability to talk about whatever they want during lunch and during break times and before and after work, so long as it's not really offensive," said Patrick Moran, director of the Maryland chapter.
Uunionized workers have recourse if they're fired for political speech on breaks or outside work, he said, so long as it did not interfere with their job. That includes comments on Facebook.
"People have the ability to voice their opinion in any way — at least in a unionized environment," he said. "In the nonunion environment, it can play out a little different because employers have total and complete control over everything you do."
George Cassutto, a Brunswick resident who teaches civics to eighth-graders, talks politics all day to his students, he said in an email.
"But I am under strict orders to remain impartial and objective, which is a serious challenge since I am a strong supporter of President Obama," said Cassutto, who is involved in the campaign at a grass-roots level. "To live up to my commitment to let the students make their own decisions, I strive to be an actor half the time. I even talk up the Romney side to a greater degree to keep the kids off my Obama-laden scent. I don't discuss my involvement with the campaign with other staff or teachers unless they want to talk about it with me."
Keep politics to breaks
Rod Easter, president of the Baltimore Building & Construction Trades Council, a coalition of local union construction trades, said he's heard of no problems involving political chatter at unionized construction employers in the area. But that talk — like anything not strictly work-related — should be relegated to breaks, he said.
"In the construction industry, we try to keep people focused on their work because it's a dangerous job," he said. "But at break time and at lunch and before and afterwards, they can talk about whatever they like. And I'm quite sure that politics does come up."
Members have not complained about employers chastising them for their political beliefs, he said.
"This is the United States, and here you have freedom of speech to talk about what you believe in," he said. "As long as being assertive or talking about your beliefs doesn't harm anyone else, that's it — that's the American way."
Regardless of potential pitfalls of engaging in political talk at work, said Ross, the workplace diversity consultant, he believes better working environments come about when controversial subjects on people's minds are talked about, not buried. He works with companies to find ways to smooth relationships among people with different views.
"If we could have healthy conversations, we'd all be better off," he said.
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