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Double-Check Your Politics at the Office Door

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page K01

When Peggy Kerry addressed a gathering of feminists on behalf of the Democratic presidential nominee at the party's convention in Boston last week, she upset a few people -- namely a Catholic antiabortion group that said Kerry, a federal employee, was out of line in making such a prominent campaign appearance on behalf of her brother, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).

But did she really do anything wrong?


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The State Department says no, and officials there defended the career civil servant's appearance on First Amendment grounds. "As a career employee, she may take an active part" in her brother's campaign, an agency spokesman told Post reporter Al Kamen after the incident.

Here in the capital city, government and politics are a way of life -- and even the life's work -- of many folks. The lines between career and campaign can get blurry, especially for those new to the city. This is never more true than in the middle of an election season.

Political activities by government workers are regulated by law, but not banned. The Hatch Act, passed in 1939 and amended several times, spells out the rules. Employees at some federal agencies, such as the CIA, FBI and the Federal Elections Commission, are under much more stringent guidelines than other rank-and-file workers. For details, visit the U.S. Office of Special Counsel's Web site on the Hatch Act (www.osc.gov/ha_fed.htm).

Private-sector employees aren't restricted by such laws -- or protected by them. Suffice it to say that if the boss doesn't like your politics and you insist on bringing them to work anyway, you can be fired.

Here are a few guidelines to keep you on the right side of this political divide:

Ask first. If you suspect a potential conflict of interest, run your planned activities by a supervisor. Presumably, his greater experience will give him a better understanding of the fine distinctions within your industry. If nothing else, this will at least distribute the blame more broadly should trouble come later. One reason Peggy Kerry was in the clear was that she sought the advice of her superiors at the State Department in February.

Keep it after-hours. Ask your fellow campaigners, agitators and fundraisers to refrain from calling you at the office. If they need to reach you during work hours, have them call your cell phone and leave messages. You can return the calls on your breaks -- preferably off-site. If you're planning a lengthy project, consider using your vacation time. Kerry, for example, took off work for the week she was in Boston campaigning.

Don't use company resources. No, not even after your boss has left. The only way you should be using the office copier to reproduce 1,000 fliers advertising your upcoming campus kegger for Kerry is if you work for the Democratic National Committee. And even then, I suggest you ask first. Keep in mind that your work e-mail account belongs to the company. One of my friends from high school often e-mails me anti-Bush jokes from his work account. He's in the Air Force. I cringe every time.

Leave your employer out of it. That means no leveraging your title at work or the prestige of your employer in your political activities. This can be subtle, and I'm not recommending you lie about what you do for a living. But definitely downplay it, lest anyone think you are speaking on behalf of the company. This also protects you in case your employer's reputation sinks. Just a few years ago, you would have been the cat's pajamas with Texas Republicans if you worked for Enron Corp. Now that association is the equivalent of political scabies.

By definition, democracy requires the participation of average citizens. We shouldn't leave politics up to the professionals, nor should we leave out common sense.

Workplace Campaigning

How are you balancing your political activities with work in this presidential election season? Got an annoying co-worker who won't stop leaving political pamphlets on your desk? E-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company