Frowning on Politics at Work

The Sun; September 29, 2004

by Stacey Hirsh

When workers at Columbia-based Essex Corp. display cards or photos of presidential candidates in their offices, the company’s chief executive gently reminds them that they’re inviting controversy.

Although there is no written policy about talking politics in the office, the practice is discouraged.

“Particularly in this election, people are so polarized that [they] … really can’t have a civil discussion about it,” said Len Moodispaw, president and chief executive of the telecommunications company, who has witnessed heated discussions outside his office and in social settings. “They tend to get really red-faced and arm-waving.”

With the race between President Bush and Senator John Kerry so contentious this year, many companies are urging their employees to stay away from political discussions around the water cooler. After the disputed 2000 presidential election, the country seems to have grown even more divided.

The presidential debated are to begin tomorrow night, but some companies feel that inviting this season’s political debate into the workplace could be disruptive. Colleagues could be offended, customers might get upset, and workers could lose their jobs.

“In terms of election, my impression is that right now most companies are saying ‘no political talk at work,’ and the reason they’re doing this is because it tends to be disruptive,” said Gary Chaison, industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

At the International School of Protocol in Hunt Valley, co-director Carol Haislip has been working closely for years with a colleague whose political views are starkly different from hers. So the two—one a Republican and the other a Democrat—have agreed to disagree and to avoid such discussions.

“We know that it could get heated because we both feel very strongly about our views, so we just don’t bring it up in conversation, “ Haislip said. “There’s more than enough to talk about without bringing that up.”

The Society for Human Resource Management’s information center fields about two dozen calls a month from executives who say their employees have started talking about the election. Some have been loud and disruptive about their differences of opinion, said Deborah Keary, director of the information center.

“We respond by telling them most employers have an anti-solicitation policy already in place: you can’t sell stuff in the workplace, and you can’t sell your candidate, either,” Keary said.

Although the election inquiries account for a small fraction of the calls received, Keary doesn’t recall other elections creating as much division in the workplace. “We’re noticing a polarization here that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Keary said. “It seems worse this time. I don’t know why.”

Workers should be careful about disclosing their views, even in workplace settings were political discussions are embraced, some experts say. Employees who disagree with the political leanings of their bosses could lose out on plum assignments, said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., and international outplacement company in Chicago.

More important, other experts say, is making sure customers are not offended.
Amid the tools and cans of paints filling the shelves at Schnieder’s Hardware store in North Baltimore hangs a big, white sign from 2000 with the late owner Paul Pratt’s predictions for that year: 30 inches of snow, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as the next governor and George W. Bush as president.

Not all of Pratt’s predictions came true, but the sign was a conversation piece for customers at the store. During this year’s presidential campaign, however, Pratt’s son Jeff, who own the store, steers clear of political conversations unless a customer brings it up first.

“I would never, ever start a conversation involving that,” Jeff Pratt said.

“If we like Bush or Kerry, we’re not going to put a sign out in front of the store because it’s bad for business,” said his son, Chris Pratt, 20.

At private companies, workers often can be fired for their political views, said Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University Law School. In every state but Montana, private employers can fire workers at any time, for any reason, unless it violates civil right of substantial public policy, Craver said.

However, labor agreements generally give employees additional job protection.
There are other exceptions. A few counties in Maryland—including Prince George’s, Howard and Harford—have laws that prohibit discrimination based on political opinion, said Robert Kellner, chairman of the labor and employment group at the Baltimore law firm Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander LLC.

In Frederick, a designer for Octavo Designs was fired after he heckled President Bush during a political rally in West Virginia, according to published reports. The worker was said to have offended a client who provided the tickets to Octavo. Telephone calls to Octavo were not returned.

Whether political discussions are discouraged at work can vary depending on the culture of the organization. Some top company executives donate money, rides on corporate jets and other services to the candidates of their choice. And some of the country’s largest unions publicly endorse candidates.

The law limits the political activities of federal and state employees. The Hatch Act of 1939, amended in 1993, forbids some federal employees from organizing political rallies or meeting, and others are not allowed to wear political buttons at work.

Some workplaces take the opposite approach.

At Patagonia Inc., a Ventura, California-based outdoor clothing and gear company, talking politics is encouraged among the 250 workers at its headquarters.

The company, whose managers are known for being active environmentalists, is running a campaign encouraging people to consider environmental issues when they vote, though it does not back any candidate in particular. Patagonia encourages its workers to be activists, whatever their cause.

“We have bumper stickers for opposing candidates in our parking lot, and people respect other employees’ point of view and don’t take people to task on that,” said Eve Bould, director of communications for Patagonia.

Although there typically isn’t much friction at Patagonia, Bould acknowledges that the company is unusual in its open culture. Experts agree that many companies are choosing this election to err of the side of caution, keeping politics—and, they hope, controversy—out of the office.

“It’s a personal issue, and people do get heated about it, and you run the risk of offending somebody or having somebody get upset or somebody taking it personally,” Haislip said. “and that’s why politics, along with religion and sex, are things people should not talk about in the office.”