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Politics and work can be volatile mixture

Image: Senator Barack Obama greets supporters gathered for a post-caucus celebration in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama greets supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, last month.  Workers may be tempted to discuss the election on the job, but many employers discourage it.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Robert, a physical therapist from Wilmington, Del., says he doesn’t like to talk about politics at work because sometimes the discussions get “too volatile.” But in the same breath he launches into how interesting the race for the White House is this time around given that an African-American and a woman are running.

“It will be interesting to see what this country is really ready for,” he adds, as he helps a patient stretch an injured leg.

Robert is like most workers out there: They think politics and work don’t mix, but they can’t help but talk about this particular election when they’re in the workplace.

You can’t blame people. The election season started earlier than ever, and it seems like there’s a debate on TV every night. Not to mention the epic scale of the presidential campaign with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a position to possibly make history.

But bringing political speech into the workplace is touchy issue for rank-and-file workers and for managers. No one can stop you from making your political thoughts known at work, but you can be fired, reprimanded or denied a job because of those beliefs.

And too much political passion can hamper what you’re in the workplace to do in the first place, to work.

Nearly 40 percent of companies have written policies prohibiting workers from handing out literature endorsing political parties or candidates, according to a just-released survey by the American Management Association. But what you discuss around the water cooler or on your personal blog is typically not something businesses spell out in employee handbooks.

While state and federal employees, as well as union members, offer some protection when it comes to free speech and work, most employees don’t often have a leg to stand on. Only four states — California, New York, Colorado and North Dakota — have some protections for employees who get involved in politics away from the office or plant, but even those laws are limited, legal experts say.

“The constitution doesn’t apply to private employers,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Work Rights Institute in Princeton, N.J. “You can be fired for political expression off-duty or on-duty.”

During the 2004 election, a woman who worked at an insulation company in Alabama was fired for having a John Kerry bumper sticker on the car she drove to work. Her boss, a supporter of President Bush, ordered her to remove the sticker, and after she objected she was fired.

Fear of losing one's job has had a chilling effect on free speech in the workplace, argues Bruce Barry, a professor at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management and author of “Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace.”

“With a very few exceptions employers have a huge amount of power to regulate employee speech,” he explains. “But I think they should calm down.”

If it interferes with job performance or is disrupting the workplace, he adds, employers have a right and obligation to step in “but my concern is that employers are to quick to make judgments.”

Barry believes employees have begun to self-censor themselves because they fear retaliation by their employers.

Indeed, a recent poll of more than 26,000 people found that when it came to talking about politics with coworkers, 46 percent took a “listen, but keep your opinions to yourself” approach; 30 percent answered “don't ask, don’t tell” and only 22 percent say they wanted to “stand up and be heard.”

Managers seem a bit more open with their political beliefs.

The AMA survey, made up mainly of supervisors and upper level managers, found that 39 percent of those surveyed were comfortable discussing politics with a co-worker and their supervisor, while 35 percent were uncomfortable talking about it with co-workers, and 38 percent weren’t big on talking politics with the boss.

What’s making this particular election even more of a thorny subject for workplace banter, is the race, gender and religious issues that have already been highlighted given the milestone-setting black, female and Mormon candidates.

Employers are nervous because such issues could lead to big problems if discussed inappropriately, says David Barron, a labor attorney with Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall, which represents employers. Because of this fear, he anticipates more companies cracking down on political expression.

“When you start mixing race, gender and religion someone is going to say something stupid,” he says. And that something stupid could lead to charges of harassment or discrimination.

So what’s a politically minded worker to do?

First off, you have to figure out what type of culture you work for. Not every employer is afraid of their own shadow when it comes to political speech.

Take Randstad USA, a staffing agency. The company encourages political discourse, says Eric Buntin, managing director of marketing and operations.  “People are taking a personal interest in the world around that, and that applies to their own work and the team they are working with,” he explains. “It’s about understanding a broader vision.”

The company even polled its workers recently to see if indeed they were talking about politics. The survey found that 62 percent of employees were talking about the election at work, and 96 percent said they cared about this election.

In this type of business environment, workers are probably OK if they discuss their political slant, but if you’re unsure how your managers will take it you need to be a bit of an anthropologist, advises Vanderbilt’s Barry, and “uncover the culture and understand what the limits are.”

Also, legal experts recommend keeping away from saying things that can be deemed as racist or sexist, such as, “this country isn’t ready for a women president.” Managers, in particular, may such opinions to themselves because a female employee could use that comment if she ever feels she has been denied a promotion or fired because of her gender, Buntin notes.

Generally private employers informally permit political discussion in the workplace as long as it doesn’t become disruptive or otherwise interfere with company objectives, says Scott Brink, a labor attorney with Jeffery Mangels in Los Angeles.

But, he admits, there are circumstances where a company may have an interest in the outcome of an election.

For instance, a defense contractor or a union organization may have particular reasons for wanting a certain party in office.

The bottom line is deciding how important it is for you to have political free speech at work and outside of work.

“I’m alarmed that people should be forced to choose between their lives as employees and their lives as citizens,” says Barry. “The health of our democracy depends on people being engaged and talking to others. Work is where people form part of their political and civic selves. Sometimes it’s the only place where they meet people that are different from them.”