You’ve heard that rule about never discussing politics at work? That’s so last election. These days, you would think that political talk was a job requirement. A survey at the start of the primary season by Office Team, a staffing agency based in Menlo Park, Calif., found that 67 percent of the 522 workers polled thought it was just fine to discuss politics in the office. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some silent types out there. Joni Daniels is one. A business consultant and meeting organizer in Manhattan, she has lots of opinions, but she keeps her political ones to herself.
“People are talking about politics everywhere,” she wrote by e-mail, “and I find it interesting to see how Republicans assume I’m like/agree with them and Democrats assume I’m like/agree with them. Since no one actually asks, I listen, nod, ask questions and my clients feel validated and respected.” Rachel Kempster used to feel that way, too — at least in the old days, which ended for her a few weeks ago. During the primaries, she says, she was “irked” by all the political chatter at DK Publishing in Manhattan, where she is a book publicist. “I’ve always believed that political talk doesn’t belong in the office,” she said.
But then Sarah Palin was named Mr. McCain’s running mate, and, oh, to listen to Ms. Kempster now. “I put an Obama poster on my office door,” she said. “Co-workers are sending around anti-Palin Web sites and I’m not bothered by it. Everyone around me is wearing their politics on their sleeve.”
Is all this political talk in the office a boon for the democratic process or a tyranny of the vocal over the taciturn? Depends, sometimes literally, where you sit. An administrative assistant in Fort Wayne, Ind., described in an e-mail message that where she sits is way too close to a loud Republican. “I lean left of center,” she wrote, adding that she tends to keep her views to herself. But the Republican, who is second in command at the office, sends mass e-mailings to the entire staff “slamming Obama, Clinton and Biden, and started distributing McCain yard signs out of his office last week,” she wrote.
And here is the real problem (and the reason she has asked to remain anonymous): “My immediate supervisor and this guy have been pals for years and are very close friends so I am keeping my mouth shut. I can’t simply find another job — it took me five years to find this one.”
The situation is just as uncomfortable at Elaine McIntyre’s department, which consists of 12 people in a nonprofit with 170 employees. During a recent meeting at a workplace that Ms. McIntyre described as “laid back,” one employee “lightly asserted that he thought all Republicans should die, claiming he disagreed with all their policies.” That led a co-worker to storm out. Confrontations and apologies followed, and everyone has been a little more subdued, she said. Crossing the line between healthy debate and rancor is deceptively easy in the workplace. Ken Vrana found himself stepping into the muck recently, not by shouting insults, but by simply chatting with a contractor who he assumed shared his views.
Mr. Vrana is the chief executive of the 1 in 8 Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Raleigh, N.C., that promotes early breast cancer detection. He describes himself as “a very political animal,” one who has worked for two presidents and whose involvement with Democrats goes back to Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He has always been free with his political views, he said, but “every once in a while I get surprised.” During a conversation with an artist the foundation had hired to create “an illustration of a very sexy, 50’s style pinup girl” for an upcoming project, he assumed that the artist shared his views.
“At one point,” he said, “I happened to mention my opinion of Sarah Palin and it went over like a lead balloon. Turns out she’s a big Palin fan.” He said he doesn’t think the incident “affected our working relationship in a negative way, but it did throw me.”
So, if the old way (say nothing political) is outdated, and the new way (say anything) may be offensive, what are the rules?
A few are legal, experts say. An employer may not pressure his employers to support, donate to or work for a particular candidate. Freedom of speech does not apply to a slogan-spouting worker whose boss asks him to avoid office political talk — as long as he is asking the same of other employees.
The rest is common sense. Jamie and Maren Showkeir, consultants specializing in workplace culture, and the authors of the book “Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment,” have some tips on what to avoid when engaging in political conversation in the office: don’t assume your co-workers share your political views and opinions; don’t abuse your power or position, avoid making politics personal; discuss rather than debate; and try to find common ground.
When political talk at work goes well, it can be everything conversation is supposed to be — an exchange of ideas that can result in illuminating moments for both parties. Anthony Commisso, who runs a formalwear shop in Latham, N.Y., had such an exchange with his newest employee, who is still a college student. Mr. Commisso said he tended to keep his opinions to himself in front of his customers, but his new employee was less reticent, and started sharing her political thoughts with a prospective bride and groom who were in the store to rent a tuxedo.
“Obama was too inexperienced and McCain had been around for so long he’ll know how to get it done,” Mr. Commisso recalled her saying.
Instead of lecturing her on keeping quiet in front of the customers, he joined the conversation. He reminded the young woman that while the man who had the job before her was, at 49, more experienced, and she was barely into her 20s, he “didn’t last a year” in the position, and here she was, practically running the shop. They have discussed — but not argued about — politics many times since then.
That is how it should be done, quietly and politely. So go off and play nicely. And remember to vote, or you don’t get to come into work on Nov. 5 and complain about who won.
October 1, 2008 the New York Times