by T.K. Maloy, UPI Deputy Business Editor
Subject: Politics can flare at the watercooler
Date: Monday, October 04, 2004 4:34:30 PM EST
WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 (UPI) — With Election Day only four weeks away, the races are heating up to the point where many normally affable colleagues find themselves arguing in the office place and creating a hostile political battleground.
Workplace experts warn, watch out for too much politics at work.
“What we have is a polarized electorate, and this stark contrast in beliefs has spilled over into the workplace. At one point, office debates had cooled somewhat as people had tired of arguing with their coworkers. However, with the start of the presidential debates, people are fired up again to discuss their differences,” said Rich Chaifetz, chief executive officer of Chicago-based ComPsych, a large provider of employee assistance programs.
Chaifetz added, “Often, tolerant companies see diversity of views as enriching. But office debates can also be patently counterproductive, not just in terms of time wasted, but in terms of employee morale. At its worst, differences in political ideology can be used to intimidate workers who are seen as ‘dissenters.’ At its best, finding out that a work friend has completely opposing views from you can put a strain on the work relationship.”
Ashley Kaplan, an employment law attorney with Sunrise, Fla.-based G.Neil Corp, a human resource consulting firm, notes that as election day gets closer and the political races on all levels get hotter, employers must make sure that rules are clear on office political debate. She warns that otherwise, the ramifications can be costly to the company’s bottom line.
“Allowing your employees to engage in political activities at work can lead to a host of problems,” Kaplan said. “Political disagreements can lead to employee dissention and reduced productivity. And, when a manager or executive brings a candidate into the workplace or visibly endorses an issue, employees may feel pressured or in fear of negative job consequences if they do not have similar views.”
She added, “Employers should be aware that numerous federal, state and local laws protect employees from threats, discipline, retaliation and rewards for their political decisions. But these laws were intended to protect employees’ beliefs, not their actions on the job.”
Kaplan advised that by not having a written policy, employers invite political debates to become too heated.
“Employers should implement rules — preferably in the form of a written policy — setting clear limits on political activities at work,” Kaplan said. “Make sure your policy focuses on employee behavior, conduct that interferes with work, and actions that directly affect the company and other employees.”
According to Kaplan, the specific policy provisions should be tailored to fit the applicable workplace laws in your area.
In general, Kaplan advised the following:
Prohibit employees from using company time, materials, property and other resources for political purposes; prohibit employees from distributing political literature, soliciting contributions, collecting signatures, or performing political work on company premises during work hours; prohibit employees from displaying posters, signs, stickers, buttons, hats, clothing and campaign slogans at work; and do not allow employees from using the company’s name or logo in connection with any political activity.
Kaplan added that as with all other workplace policies, employers must enforce their political activities policy consistently at all times.
“When an employer treats employees differently, even if it’s inadvertent, employees may perceive the treatment as discrimination. You don’t want to give the impression that you have a bias against someone’s cause or candidate, or that different standards apply to different people,” Kaplan advised
“Exceptions should not be made for anyone, senior management, even the owner of the business, unless there’s a business justification and it’s documented. The policy must be consistent,” she said.
Don Gabor, author of “Words That Win: What to Say to Get What You Want,” said, “If you’re like lots of people these days, you’re talking politics. But are you persuading your coworkers that your favorite candidate is the best choice or are you simply offending — or even worse — making political enemies?”
He suggested several ways to avoid arguments when talking politics, including: Don’t lose your temper, don’t lose your sense of humor, don’t make personal comments about people or politicians with whom you disagree, don’t be disagreeable when you disagree with someone’s opinion, don’t interrupt when someone is making a point, don’t argue one point to death — whether you are right or wrong, don’t expect to get someone to agree with you just because you think you’re right, don’t continue to talk politics if you or the other person is upset.
For some management experts, talking politics at the office can offer a chance for colleagues to exchange views.
Shelle Rose Charvet, a communications management consultant, and the author of “Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence,” noted that, “In fact, political discussions, if handled properly by co-workers, can be an opportunity to increase respect in the workplace.”
She said, “When someone makes a statement of a political stance, co-workers can respond by saying: ‘Aren’t we lucky to live in a country where we can hold and discuss different points of view? Your comment makes me be grateful for that. My view on this is different from yours. Can I tell you what I think?'”
Susan Solovic, small business expert and the chief executive officer of St. Louis-based SBTV.com (Small Business Television), said that too much debate can poison the waters both at work and with clients.
“From a small business perspective, I don’t believe that too much exchange is healthy,” she said, adding that things said in the heat of the election can have a hangover “long after the election.”
“It’s not real world,” to expect that everything a worker or boss says during an election-time political argument is chalked up to temporary partisan fervor.
And, Solovic noted, not all workers even want to debate.
“We all have a right to political beliefs, we also have a right to keep our mouths shut,” said Solovic of not being drawn into election battles in the workplace.
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