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Hot-button issue: Discussing politics at work

Image: Carl Paladino
Republican New York State gubernatorial hopeful Carl Paladino marches in this year’s Columbus Day Parade in New York. Paladino’s reported anti-gay comments are likely stirring strong debate.Stephen Chernin / AP

Talk around the water cooler these days is probably about witches, whores and Speedos thanks to the election season.

A senatorial candidate in Delaware, who’s against masturbation, is touting that she’s not a witch in her political ads. The aide of a candidate for governor in California called his opponent a whore. And the New York governor’s race has one contender publicly expressing his fear of homosexuals in skimpy swimming trunks.

Such emotionally charged political discourse often ends up in a workplace debate, labor experts said, and that’s not always a good thing. It can lead to trouble for employees who have few if any free-speech rights at work, and for employers trying to maintain harassment-free, litigation-free workplaces.

“You can't say whatever you want and expect not to be fired,” said Donna Ballman, an employment attorney in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who represents employees and has seen a growing number of them disciplined lately for expressing their political opinions. “There is no First Amendment in corporate America.”

Managers are also worried appropriate conduct at work may be suffering, maintained Elise Bloom, co-chair of the labor and employment law department at Proskauer, a law firm in New York.

“We are hearing a lot more questions tied to how much people can talk about politics,” she said about the firm’s corporate clients’ inquiries.

To make matters worse employees are not only engaging in political conversations with co-workers face to face, they’re also increasingly using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, or blogs, e-mail and instant messaging, to get their opinions out this political season.

For example, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York Carl Paladino’s comments last week about gays and Speedos became one of the top trending topics on Twitter, and that was during work hours. That meant thousands of people — probably from their offices and factories, and maybe even on a work computer — were tweeting about where they stood on Paladino’s comments.

There were lots of homophobia jokes, and vulgar remarks I can’t repeat here. And most of tweets had tweeters’ photos and names attached, making it possible for managers to find if they wanted to. Even if a comment is seemingly innocuous, who’s to say how your boss and coworkers (not to mention customers and clients of the company you work for) will interpret it.

The First Amendment says Congress can’t pass laws curtailing speech, but taking political sides or appearing to take sides can be hazardous to your employment, even if you’re not doing it during work time.

Last month, a New Jersey transit worker Derek Fenton was fired two days after he burned pages from a Quran outside the site of a proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, even though he was off the clock. The transit agency said he violated its code of ethics and “his trust as a state employee.”

And in August Bryan Glover, an assistant coach for a middle school near Nashville, Tenn., said he was fired from his job for distributing via email a country music song he wrote disparaging President Obama. Unfortunately, parents of students were on his email list and his song offended some.

“The coach called me and said parents were upset that I was being politically incorrect and the song had racial overtones,” Glover told Fox News Radio. “An hour and a half later I was told I was being terminated.”

Glover has maintained in press reports that he lost his job because of the song’s conservative lyrics and the fact that he was a staunch Republican (Glover and the school where he worked, Grassland Middle School, could not be reached for comment).

One of the major misconceptions among workers is that they have free speech rights on the job or off the clock, Ballman stressed. “You can be terminated for any of your private behavior. What you write on a blog or say on Twitter.”

Few if any states have laws protecting employee free speech who work for private employers, but government employees tend to have more First Amendment rights said Risa Lieberwitz, professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University’s ILR School. But, she added, “The scope of those rights has been severely limited by a series of Supreme Court cases.”

Only unions, she continued, give workers the best protections because typically union contracts require that workers can only be fired or suffer any adverse job action for “just cause.”

If the political chatter is not polarizing or angry, it should be allowed for the sake of workplace functionality, suggested Bruce Barry, professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University and the author of “Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace.”

“Workers are adults. Everyone is going to talk about last night’s ball game or last night’s gubernatorial debate,” he said. “Too many employers get too nervous about it too quickly,” he said.

About one quarter of employers have written policies and 10 percent have unwritten policies regarding their employees’ political activities, according to a poll done in 2008 by the Society of Human Resource Management. Among those, 5 percent have disciplined employees for not following the rules.

Clearly, political discussions can be pretty dicey undertakings for employees and managers because it can be hard for people to control their emotions, maintained Joseph Grenny, co-author of “Crucial Conversation: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.”

He surveyed more than 600 people and found that when discussing politics “only 28 percent feel they can control their own temper and only 23 percent believe they can handle it if the other person gets upset.”

In most cases, according to Grenny’s research, employees shy away from such talk:

  • Seventy-seven percent of people avoid discussing politics, and one in ten even report that they stay away from political banter at all costs.
  • Nearly half of respondents have had bad experiences in the past when sharing their political views—and rather than risk a verbal battle, they stay silent.

Given that passions can run high when it comes to political speech, some career and labor law experts suggest employees try to keep their opinions on the down low at work, and suggested that employers should discourage too much passionate politicking.

“One person’s opinion is often considered another employee's hate speech,” said Chris D’Angelo, a New York employment attorney who does harassment training for employers.

Suppressing your passionate opinions may seem tough right about now given this political season’s hyperbolic rhetoric. But is this election year any different, or has the expansion of the way we communicate thanks to the Internet making it look worse?

“Candidates say things on the campaign trial that they would never say in a work environment,” said Philip Edward Jones, assistant professor, department of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.

“Whether the campaign discourse has been getting more or less offensive over time is tricky to tell. How do you measure offensiveness?” he said.

Still, today’s political brawls pale in comparison to those of previous generations, Jones noted. In the bitter political campaign of 1800, Thomas Jefferson's camp “accused President Adams of having a ‘hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.’ In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson ‘a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.’”

Can you imagine the talk around the water well pump back then?