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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
/articleid/3710265/1/pictures/1831698">Photo - Business owner Brenda Jones Barwick attended the recent Republican National Convention as an alternate Oklahoma delegate. PHOTO PROVIDED <strong></strong>
Business owner Brenda Jones Barwick attended the recent Republican National Convention as an alternate Oklahoma delegate. PHOTO PROVIDED

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.”

by Paula Burkes
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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