Be cautious when talking politics in the workplace

With or without office policy, respect the boundaries

tstillwell@newsobserver.com April 29, 2012 

TIM LEE — tlee@newsobserver.com

With a primary and a statewide referendum less than two weeks out, and a national election looming, Triangle employees have more to talk about than just work these days.

Though some workplaces have specific policies on talking politics while on the clock, many rely on the boundaries of professionalism. Given the contentious nature of politics and the diversity of the labor force, the goal of most employers is keeping the workplace comfortable for everyone.

“In our agency, we have people from across the political spectrum – people who are very conservative and people who are anarchists,” said Ken Eudy, CEO of the Raleigh public relations and advertising firm Capstrat.

Capstrat doesn’t have a written policy on talking politics but applies similar principles that guide conversations about religion, science or values, he said. This keeps most employees mindful of what they say.

“We encourage political discussion and debate as long as the rules of professionalism and mutual respect apply. We haven’t had to separate anybody,” Eudy joked.

Because they’re responsible for the workplace atmosphere, employers must ensure political discourse doesn’t go too far, said Rick McAtee, a managing partner of the Jackson Lewis office in Cary. The firm deals with workplace law issues on the behalf of companies.

What usually starts out as a conversation about candidates or issues often devolves into discussions on the characteristics associated with them, like race or religion, McAtee said.

“Some pretty harsh things can be said,” McAtee said. “The best approach to that is to be proactive, to distribute policies ahead of time, to have policies that are consistently enforced.”

Regulating discussion

UNC Health Care prevents its employees from using email, computers or other company property for political activity during work hours, said UNC Hospitals spokeswoman Stephanie Crayton. Additionally, employees cannot manage a political campaign or run for a political office while on the job.

And though the policy does not specifically prohibit political discussion, employees are encouraged to leave such talks to their personal time, Crayton said.

Ernest Wilder, who works in the N.C. court system, said he knows the political orientations of most of his colleagues. When they do discuss politics at work, it’s often done in a joking manner.

“We’ll take shots at each other,” he said. “But no debating on the clock – never.”

Still, Wilder said talking about politics at work almost feels taboo, and he usually tries to avoid it. “At work, we’re here to do a job. But when it’s an election year, you’re getting bombarded.”

Sarah Lytvinenko, co-owner of artisanal jean-maker Raleigh Denim Workshop, said her employees usually steer clear of talking about politics altogether so as not to alienate each other or their clients.

“You’re never sure where the other person stands,” she said. “It’s not an automatic connect. You have to be aware to not take such a strong stance.”

Sometimes political preferences manifest themselves in the forms of buttons or stickers. In the past, employees at Rex Healthcare, which is owned by UNC Health Care, have worn political pins, but those typically aren’t permitted, said spokesman Alan Wolf.

And last election season, a physician expressed his political views at a nurses’ station, making some of his co-workers visibly uncomfortable. After a manager reported the incident, the physician was asked not to share his political beliefs on the job, Wolf said.

He added that Rex’s policies are aimed at avoiding conflicts that might disrupt patient care or upset patients who are already dealing with stressful situations.

“At the workplace, it’s a common misunderstanding among workers that they have an unfettered First Amendment right to say what they want,” McAtee said. “That’s not necessarily true.”

Private employers in North Carolina can stop employees from leading political discussions at work and can even take legal action against someone based on his or her political beliefs.

“The practical issue is can you really, and do you really want to?” McAtee said. “I don’t recommend it.”

Discretion is key

Many employers are hesitant to explicitly regulate political discussion, preferring to intervene only when necessary, said Bruce Clarke, CEO of human resource management firm CAI in Raleigh. Clarke writes a column for The News & Observer on workplace behavior.

In an area known for its college basketball rivalries, Clarke said employees should give politics only as much attention at work as they would appropriately give their favorite team.

“If you simply have something on your desk, a picture with your favorite candidate or a bumper sticker on your filing cabinet, I don’t think people really care,” he said. “Take it too much further though, get closer and closer to an election, and you’re ramping up possibilities for conflict.”

Employees aren’t the only ones affected by political discourse in the workplace. A company’s customers can also get involved.

Sarah Honer, owner of Spira Pilates Studio in Carrboro, doesn’t have any employees, but she does have a sign in her window campaigning against the controversial amendment to the state constitution, which would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.

In Carrboro, she said, it’s common to see liberally minded signs posted in the windows, and many of her customers appreciated her publicity.

“I actually had a lot of customers requesting signs, so I kind of became a little bit of a distribution place,” she said.

Still, the action is a departure from her usual stance on politics in the workplace.

“I usually try to remain politically neutral in my business,” Honer said. “I don’t want to create an atmosphere where people wouldn’t feel welcome if they aren’t thinking like I am.”

Stilwell: 919-828-4649

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