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Ducking Your Office's Political Crossfire

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page K01

You plucked all the Kerry-Edwards buttons off your backpack. You left that Bush-Cheney "thunder stick" you proudly hauled off from the convention where it belongs -- at home.

So why can't everyone else at the office show the same courtesy?


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In a recent column, I suggested a few guidelines for balancing work and politics and invited readers to share their tales of colleagues whose politicking crossed the line.

Most people want to keep politics in the office minimal, it appears. At best, it can be distracting; at worst, it's divisive. An unscientific poll by Monster.com last year found that most of those who responded (46 percent) believed it's best to just listen to political discussions at work and keep their mouths shut; 30 percent said they favored a "don't ask, don't tell" stance; only 22 percent supported unrestrained partisan chitchat.

One museum worker wrote in a recent e-mail that her problems with office politicking have always been with bosses, not co-workers. "I had an executive director who said at a staff meeting, 'There are no Republicans here,' and in another case I was presented with a petition I did not support on the second day of work, by the director," said the Rockville woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At her most recent job, staff meetings frequently included "snide remarks" about Republicans, she said. It made her uncomfortable. "Yet I felt if I had objected to it, I would have been accused of bias -- so all I could do was suffer in silence."

Questionable behavior stretches across the political divide. Another woman, an editor for an association magazine in the District who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said her boss, a Republican, makes "pointedly degrading" comments about Democrats. "It has passed the point of being humorous," she said.

What's the best defense to deal with this sort of behavior?

First, don't take the bait. Politely ignore the chronic campaigner. If someone is pressing you on a particularly sensitive issue, such as abortion, calmly tell them you are not comfortable discussing the topic. Walk away if necessary. It might seem rude, but it's better than losing your temper.

If that doesn't work, take it to human resources, if possible. Ideally, your employer will have a written policy, outlining the organization's expectations about political activities at work. If not, suggest one be developed. Even for private-sector employers, which don't have the clear-cut legal restrictions that government offices do, failing to develop and disseminate clear rules invites trouble.

However, if you're the lone Democrat in a sea of Cheneyites, you may have to accept that you're a bad fit for that particular workplace. Some industries have definite political leanings. One way to uncover a prevailing political sentiment in an organization before you take a job is to investigate political contributions by the company's owners and executives. PoliticalMoneyLine allows you to search its database of campaign contributions by employer and occupation (www.politicalmoneyline.com/cgi-win/indexhtml.exe?MBF=EMP). Don't make assumptions about what you find, but the information is a fine starting point for questions about workplace culture.

The D.C. association editor told me the president of her organization is a Republican fundraiser. Campaign finance records show he donated $2,000 to President Bush's reelection campaign. He has contributed to other GOP candidates and committees as well. Of course, this is his prerogative as a citizen, but it is also worth knowing if you are considering working for him.

Finally, if you are promoted, don't forget how stifling political proselytizing from higher-ups can be. "When I became a supervisor, I made sure I never said anything that gave anyone a clue as to my political leanings," the museum worker said. "Employees should never feel that disagreeing politically with their boss could jeopardize their positions, so I never let mine be known."

Teacher Tales

Are you a teacher or considering becoming one? If you're willing to share your story and advice for a future column about the profession, e-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 2 p.m. Sept. 17 at www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company