Mum's the word for talking politics at work

Political chatter can get you fired, especially when it creates hostile work environments.
by Paula Burkes Published: September 17, 2012
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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.”


by Paula Burkes
Reporter
A 1981 journalism graduate of Oklahoma State University, Paula Burkes has more than 30 years experience writing and editing award-winning material for newspapers and healthcare, educational and telecommunications institutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma...
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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.

SOURCES: CareerBuilder, the Alexandria, Va.-based

Society for Human Resource Management and Facebook

Illustration by Chris Schoelen, The Oklahoman

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

Partner with Goodwin Procter in Boston

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