Leave Politics Out of the Workplace

By Susan Straight
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 4, 2009

The presidential inauguration this month could rekindle the passions that surrounded last year's hotly contested election, requiring managers to restate policies on politics in the workplace.

"I recommend that employers nix political discussion at work. It's not just the inflammatory nature of political disagreements, it's the time that is involved in these discussions, and the distraction they cause, that are inappropriate at work," said Susan Heathfield, who runs a management consulting firm in Michigan.

It's not always easy to keep tension out of the office, especially when an employer has taken a political stand. Craig Pratt, a California human resources consultant, expects an uptick in political fervor. He noted that many previously nonpolitical employers backed candidates or issues in November.

In his state, for instance, some corporations took positions on Proposition 8, the gay-marriage referendum. "That's a pretty sharp departure and one that changes things for the way employees look at political questions because, instead of neutrality, the employer took a position on a controversial issue," he said.

Even if an employer made a public statement of support for McCain or Obama during the election season, it might be best to limit office discussion as the inauguration approaches. Employees may seem comfortable with open expressions of political opinion, but "it wouldn't take very long for that to turn into a potential problem," Pratt said.

Even in environments where employees generally share views respectfully, "the employer risks the probability that one or more employees will not just share ideas, but proselytize their candidate or viewpoint," Heathfield said. "This can result in conflict and hurt feelings, hardly conducive to effective, supportive work relationships."

She said: "People are passionate about their candidates and their causes. This presidential race was particularly tendentious, and people have not gotten over it yet."

And the passions were not limited to issues. Race and gender -- two major concerns in society and the workplace -- played intense roles, too.

"In this election, there's a special situation with regards to issues of race," Pratt said. He said he heard of times during the run-up to the election where heated discussions degenerated into name-calling. "Issues of racial sensitivity are not that far beneath the surface," he said.

So how can people get through the inaugural season without letting political rancor spill into the work environment?

"If the employer becomes aware of political discussion that is disrupting work, the employer needs to deal with it as the employer would deal with any performance issue," Heathfield said. This would include communication to the worker from the manager, or from the human resources department if necessary, to make it clear that the discussion needs to stop because it hurts productivity.

It's also important to provide a channel for people to voice concerns, Pratt said. "The trick is to let people approach things with maturity."

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