Whom are you voting for?
As the current presidential campaign heats up, workers should avoid asking or answering the question, workplace etiquette and legal experts say. Such political chatter, they say, could adversely affect professional relationships — and even get you fired.
Workplace author and etiquette coach Barbara Pachter warns that queries such as “How can you possibly vote for [blank]?” or “Don't you think his stance on [blank] is outrageous?” can come across as put-downs or fightin' words.
“Discussions can quickly become ugly,” Pachter said.
A heated argument that nearly came to fisticuffs resulted in the recent firing of two workers at a large energy company represented by the New York law firm Proskauer. After their fight, over Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's comments that “legitimate” rape victims are unlikely to get pregnant, their alarmed employer asked Proskauer attorneys whether he could fire the employees.
His firm's counsel not only told the employer he had the right to fire the disruptive employees, but also recommended it, said Nigel Telman, a Chicago-based partner. A female co-worker who overheard their loud argument could sue for sex discrimination, if she felt a supervisor who agreed with Akin was hostile to women, he said.
Though government employers have broad protections on their political speech under the First Amendment, private employers have broad latitude over what is verbally expressed, put in emails or on social media, especially during work hours, Telman said.
“Employers can fire for any reason (including political beliefs) and no reason at all, as long as it's not an illegal reason,” he said.
Just last month Vante Inc. medical supply manufacturer in Tucson, Ariz., reportedly fired its chief financial officer after he posted a YouTube video of himself berating a Chick-fil-A employee for the company's opposition to gay marriage. And last year, a Chicago Outback Steakhouse in Pennsylvania fired a waitress after she wore a bright yellow Tea Party bracelet, about which several customers complained.
Union workers and employees in California and other states have greater protections regarding political speech, Telman said. Under the National Labor Relations Act, an employer can't prevent employees from having discussions related to union activity, so if union employees vehemently discuss health care reform, for example, their speech likely would be protected, he said.
California, Colorado, New York and North Dakota have statutes that protect employees' off-duty political activity, while employers in Louisiana, California, Connecticut and South Carolina can't restrict workers from political activities, even when they are at work.
Telman recommends companies have written policies, discouraging political talk during paid time.
“Employers would be smart to get in front of it (the escalating political season) and manage it properly,” he said. “You can't ignore it.”
But labor attorneys in Boston and Oklahoma City disagree with the need for written policies.
“Policies don't solve problems; you have to have enforcement, and that would be nearly impossible to apply consistently,” said Bradford J. Smith, a partner with Goodwin Procter in Boston. “The reality is employees spend more time with their co-workers than any people in their lives, and they're going to talk about things that are important to them, including politics.”
However, it's essential for firms to have written and well-communicated nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies, Smith said.
“Employers have to be careful to guard against hostile work environments when it comes to protected categories like gender, race or religion,” he said. “But guess what? Being a Democrat or Republican isn't a protected category.”
McAfee and Taft's Nathan Whatley agrees that policies regarding political chatter are unnecessary, but advises employers who adopt them to clearly spell out what's prohibited and the consequences.
“Without clear policies, you leave the door open for conjecture that a termination is for an illegal reason,” Whatley said, “including racial discrimination, retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim or participating in an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) investigation.”
As a Bethany city councilman, who recently ran a primary campaign from his office for the state house seat won by incumbent Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, independent insurance agent Curtis Moore said talking politics at work is unavoidable.
“I don't say anything unless someone brings it up,” he said. But about half of the visitors to his office do, he said. “Most are older and are seriously concerned about the future of health care,” he said.
Moore admits that his twenty-something office manager “leaves the room a lot, or sticks her fingers in her ears. She's tired of hearing politics,” he said.
His political leanings don't get in the way of his productivity, said Moore, who acknowledged his politics have cost him business only twice in 20 years.
Two potential customers promptly left, after they spied the bust of Ronald Reagan in his office, he said.
An alternate Oklahoma delegate to the recent Republican National Convention, Brenda Jones Barwick of Jones PR admits it's easy to get caught up in the exuberance of the presidential campaign. But in the office, she encourages her 10 employees — including two strong Obama supporters — to keep their conversations focused on their clients and not on politics, she said. Employees don't hang campaign posters or wear political buttons, except “I Voted Today” stickers, she said.
Barwick said several of her firm's long-standing clients are lifelong Democrats, including American Bank Systems Chairman James Bruce.
“We have a friendly banter and mutual respect for each other's viewpoints,” she said. “He's still giving me a hard time about Clint Eastwood's empty chair address.”
Barwick said she encourages everyone, including her staff, to be active in politics and to vote.
“It breaks my heart when I hear someone didn't vote,” Barwick said. “I think it disappoints our country's founding fathers and insults every soldier from the American Revolution to current conflicts.”
Did you know?
• About 36 percent of workers say they discuss politics at work. Of those, 23 percent say they've had a heated discussion or fight with a co-worker, boss or higher-up.
• During the last presidential election, an estimated 25 percent of employers had written policies regarding political activities; 10 percent had unwritten policies; and 5 percent had disciplined employees for noncompliance.
• The Romney-Ryan ticket is winning the new “Likes” race on Facebook postconventions. Collectively, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan added a total of 2.6 million likes since the start of the conventions, compared with a total of 453,000 likes added to the Facebook pages of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden combined. The Obama-Biden campaign added a total of 1.1 million likes during the summer of 2008 and added an additional 1.7 million likes between the 2008 Democratic convention and the inauguration in January 2009.
• The most mentioned moment on Facebook recently was President Barack Obama's Democratic National Convention (DNC) speech; for users over age 45, President Bill Clinton's speech (No. 3 overall) topped the list and, for those 13 to 17, it was MTV's Video Music Awards (No. 5 overall). The DNC ranked No. 2; Republic National Convention (RNC), No. 4; NFL Kickoff, No. 6; Clint Eastwood's RNC speech, No. 7; Hurricane Isaac, No. 8; First lady Michelle Obama's DNC speech, No. 9; and Mitt Romney's RNC speech, No. 10.
Policies don't solve problems; you have to have enforcement, and that would be nearly impossible to apply consistently. The reality is employees spend more time with their co-workers than any people in their lives, and they're going to talk about things that are important to them, including politics.”
Bradford J. Smith