David Fernandez tolerated the sounds of Rush Limbaugh emanating from his boss's radio. He even liked to defend the National Public Radio broadcasts playing on his own radio.
But this back-and-forth -- what he once considered interesting conversation -- turned hostile this summer when, he said, his boss accused him of being "sad and unstable" when Fernandez argued his support for presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
And when the boss's mother began blanketing the office with e-mails arguing for the reelection of President Bush, Fernandez tried sending out some of his own -- but was ordered to stop.
So it was then, in early July, that Fernandez decided he was getting out. "This place is crazy," he said. He packed up his desk at the graphic design firm in San Marcos, Tex., and moved to California, where he enrolled in the Art Institute of California at San Diego. His former employer declined to comment on the situation.
The Iraq war, the movie "Fahrenheit 9/11," harsh political ads and a general tension about terrorist attacks seem to have left the country's voters in unbudging support of their own candidate. Those staunch beliefs are difficult to shed when it comes time to merge with co-workers in the cubicle, and there is little room for interpretation this year.
"Relative to other elections, there is a very small undecided vote right now," said Richard A. Chaifetz, head of ComPsych Corp., a Chicago employee assistance management company. People's views this election season are "aggressive, adamant and can lead to tension and animosity in the workplace." In fact, he noted several instances among his clients' employees recently when the political discussion led to screaming and, in one case, pushing.
And while Deborah Keary, information center director at the Society for Human Resource Management, said her organization hasn't had a spike in calls from companies seeking guidance, it makes sense that the workplace has absorbed some of the increasingly partisan atmosphere seen in Congress and in daily American life.
An example: On Aug. 18, a Frederick company fired Glenn Hiller, an employee who heckled Bush at a rally in West Virginia. Apparently, making his views known at a Republican rally the day before was not a wise career move if he wanted to stick with his graphics firm, a client of which had provided the ticket to the invitation-only gathering.
And then there is Ono Ekeh, who worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the District and, on the side, moderated a "Catholics for Kerry" Web site.
When a conservative Catholic group brought this to the attention of his employer, saying Kerry's positions were not in keeping with Catholic beliefs, Ekeh was fired, he said. The organization told him he was being let go for using a work computer to make political postings during work hours.
The conference declined through a spokesman to comment.
Most illustrations of the situation are subtler. A co-worker once invited to coffee is left behind in his cubicle after sending an anti-Bush e-mail to people he assumed shared his views. An e-vite to a Kerry fundraiser raises blood pressure among colleagues who are invited but support Bush. New poll numbers result in morning bash sessions in the cafeteria. It has become so that workers have a hard time not abhorring colleagues in the same way they abhor the candidate their colleagues support.
"People are losing the ability to disagree without being disagreeable," said Peter Handal, chief executive of Dale Carnegie Training, which advises clients how to keep the heated discussions cool. "With 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' people say, 'What, you went to that? How could you?' "
"We hear a lot about red and blue states. But if it were that simple, everyone in a red state would agree, and everyone in a blue state would agree," said Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney in Philadelphia. "But there are many Kerry supporters in red states, and many Bush supporters in blue states. They not only share states, they share workplaces.
"There's always, around election time, strong feelings. And with strong feelings, sometimes disagreements."
Which is why some companies have tried to squelch potential problems by enforcing codes of conduct. Several have called Segal to ask what, if any, restrictions they could put on employees who want to talk politics.
"A private employer can probably impose restrictions on political speech in the workplace," Segal said. "But I don't think it's practical or enforceable, and it would result in many employees feeling fairly stifled."
Keeping a strong political stance quiet, especially among co-workers with whom many hours are shared, is incredibly difficult, particularly in such an acrimonious election year. Some employees fear if they speak out, other co-workers will unleash on them, and working together will become nearly impossible. There is little way to avoid a difference of opinions in the workplace, no matter which way a state swings.
But employees are finding they need to make life at work more palatable, despite a wide disagreement on presidential candidates.
In a town like Washington, presidential politics in the workplace can wreak greater havoc than in other areas of the country. That's because some bosses rely on a Bush reelection to keep their jobs.
"As government employees, you're supposed to follow the rules. You're really discouraged from showing any political affiliation in the workplace," said E. Harold Corbin, who works for a government department in the District.
He admits it is hard not to judge co-workers who do not share his political view, which he requested not be published. "I'm like anyone else. I tend to want to put people in a box."
Most large companies don't dictate what can be said among employees, particularly during election season. Abbott Laboratories, Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., J.M. Smucker Co., Avaya Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp., Merrill Lynch & Co., Sallie Mae (now called SLM Corp.) and others said they don't have any rules to halt intraoffice politics talk or cubicle decoration for a particular candidate.
But some firms do have guidelines in place to deal with tense situations.
Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac, for instance, recently sent a notice to employees confirming their right to take part in the political process but cautioning them to do it on their own time.
"Because Freddie Mac, as a company, is prohibited from participating directly in elections, it's important that employees conduct all personal political activity on their own time and without using company resources," the notice says. The rules are "not intended to impair in any way the ability of an employee to engage in lawful personal political activities."
Consulting firm BearingPoint Inc. does not have specific rules in place regarding political discussions. But a company spokesman said the organization expects employees to adhere to clients' rules and wishes, which might mean keeping quiet even when they want to spread the word about their candidate.
"The workplace is a place that's supposed to focus on work," said Chaifetz of ComPsych. "It's an environment where people are paid to do a job." Talking politics at work "can be a significant deterrent and [create a] negative impact in their ability to their job."
What deterrent, says America Online. There's no "political police here," said AOL spokesman Nicholas J. Graham. In fact, the company encourages political discussion.
"This is a political year; we're right in the middle of convention season. So it's natural that our employees would be debating things of a political nature here at work," he said.
The company recently had a cubicle-decorating contest, and there was a fair share of spaces decked in Kerry or Bush posters, bumper stickers and other political paraphernalia.
"People know how to act," Graham said. "This is just a very political year. People are charged up, fired up, excited about it."
Not so Ekeh, formerly of the Catholic bishops group.
"I was a little surprised [about being fired] because I had been a vocal supporter of Kerry," Ekeh said.
He displayed Kerry bumper stickers and said he was not shy about his support for the candidate. In fact, he said, co-workers often came to his desk to tease him good-naturedly during the primary season. When he volunteered at the local Kerry campaign office, he did not tell anyone where he worked. "I never wanted to [imply] I was there on behalf of the bishops."