updated 1/9/2008 4:37:12 PM ET 2008-01-09T21:37:12

With the football playoffs well under way and the presidential election campaign becoming more intense, small business owners may find some of their staffers are a little distracted and more inclined to talk than work. A smart boss will tolerate some chatter, recognizing that staffers who feel good in the workplace are likely to be more productive, rather than less.

“I want people to enjoy coming to the office and working. I want them to get things done, and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” said Marty Kotis, CEO of Kotis Properties Inc., a Greensboro, N.C., commercial real estate development firm.

“I’m not a micromanager. I have a goal, they have to do it. If they want to relax along the way, that’s great,” he said.

Staffers who stop working to talk about sports or politics are not much different from those running the office Super Bowl pool or who are doing some Internet shopping or e-mailing. Such activities are all distractions that company owners should accept as part of the workplace, as long as staffers don’t abuse the privilege.

Trying to clamp down on employee conversations can create an atmosphere that’s unpleasant, even oppressive.

“You don’t want to have an inhuman workplace,” said attorney Jonathan Segal of Philadelphia-based Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen LLP.

The camaraderie that comes out of workers sharing a little fun, meanwhile, can go a long way toward their feeling like they’re part of a team. It’s well known that when staffers are happy, they work better.

But let’s say the talk is indeed running on a little too long, and you’re sensing that productivity is being hurt. Raise the issue at a staff meeting, or send e-mails to the employees who aren’t getting their work done, suggests Bob Burbidge, founder of Genesis Consolidated Services Inc., a Burlington, Mass.-based provider of human resources outsourcing.

Don’t use a verbal sledge hammer, however. A firm but friendly reminder that work needs to be the first priority is a better approach.

“You just have to kind of raise the level of awareness a bit, and try to keep it so we can respect each other’s time,” Burbidge said.

And, he said, don’t chew someone out publicly. If you need to tell staffers in person that they’re overdoing the chatter, do it privately to avoid humiliating them and making everyone else feel uncomfortable.

If their productivity continues to suffer, then you’re dealing with a performance and possible discipline issue.

If you really do need staffers to focus on their work and not talk — for example, if they need to constantly be on the phones taking orders or performing customer service — you might want to consider an entirely different tack: Set aside some break time, or time for an company-wide lunch or Friday afternoon party. Let staffers know that’s the time when they can talk away about the Super Bowl, or whatever they’re interested in.

Burbidge says his own company has such gatherings weekly, and they help foster a good work atmosphere.

“We get the work done and then we’ll play,” he said. “It works well and it brings different departments together.”

Sometimes what’s being discussed can inflame staffers’ tempers — politics and religion are just two of the topics that can get an argument going. In that case, a business owner really should ban such talk.

Segal noted that talk in the office about the 2008 presidential election has the potential of creating friction over diversity issues. For example, he said, if an employee made a comment about Sen. Hillary Clinton that another staffer interpreted as sexist, not only could hard feelings ensue, but employees might start feeling that the workplace is a hostile environment. And a hostile environment is often the basis of a sexual harassment suit.

“It’s not alone an adverse action, but it can be evidence of a culture” where women can be marginalized, Segal said.

Burbidge suggests, “if it’s going to cause a problem at work, keep it out of work,” and advises owners to tell staffers in such situations, “you’re irritating people ... keep it to yourself.”

And it doesn’t have to be a political discussion. Kotis said, “If it’s going to lead to hard feelings, I think it’s going to be an inappropriate topic, no matter what it is.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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