With Election Day approaching, Americans appear to be engaged in passionate debates everywhere that they go: from cocktail parties to college campuses, coffee shops to barrooms.
But there is one place where people might want to keep their political opinions to themselves, or at least temper their words, particularly in this bitterly partisan election season.
That is the workplace.
Even a casual exchange of political ideas at work can quickly turn into a major distraction — or much worse — at a time when sensitive topics like gay marriage, abortion and immigration dominate the political conversation.
It is easy to imagine how the simplest question — like, say, who are you voting for? — could lead to a heated disagreement that results in bruised feelings and ends up wasting valuable company time.
But it is not just employees who should be mindful about crossing this very sensitive line. During the course of this election, there have been several reports of employers who have themselves injected politics into the workplace.
In Milwaukee, for example, the owner of a company that manufactures industrial equipment recently sent an e-mail to his employees telling them that they “should understand the personal consequences’’ that they might face if President Obama wins a second term.
Now, the owner was merely referring to tax rates he said would “increase dramatically’’ with Obama’s re-election’ this fall. And the owner also insisted that he respected the rights of his employees to vote as they pleased.
But even so, the e-mail provoked a very strong reaction within the company. Some employees said that they were stunned by the e-mail and one even felt threatened by it, according to news reports.
Now, some people might find my concerns completely un-American, given our nation’s tradition of protecting free expression, particularly political speech. But at the risk of stating the obvious, it is important to note that the workplace is not a forum for the free exchange of ideas. It is a place where business should be conducted in a professional atmosphere free of distractions and disturbances.
To be sure, I am not advocating an outright ban on political discussion at work. That would be ridiculous. And besides, most business codes of conduct generally seek to prevent minor disagreements from getting out of hand, no matter what the subject matter.
But political small-talk is not always as innocuous as it may sometimes seem; thus, be sensitive and tactful about stating your political beliefs — or don’t state them at all.
Shrita D. Sterlin is chief executive and brand officer of Penn Strategies, a firm based in Bethesda that specializes in branding, public relations and marketing.
How does your company handle politics in the workplace — hush-hush or an open forum? Please join the conversation below.
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