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Bruzzese: Keep political discussions out of the workplace

| Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

Tea Party. Sarah Palin. President Obama. Congress. Immigration.

These are all words that stir a debate online and off. But legal experts say there's at least one place they shouldn't be discussed: the office.

As the midterm elections approach in November -- and the political arena becomes more heated -- it can be easy for political discussions to spill over into the workplace. But even in a joking manner, bringing up politics at work can have serious repercussions, says Lonnie Giamela, an employment lawyer at Fisher & Phillips LLP.

"For example, maybe you make fun of the way a certain political leader looks," Giamela says. "Some might think it's funny. Some might not. The point is you may be offending someone, and that shouldn't happen at work."

Two years ago, the election season was a long, drawn-out affair with dozens of candidates on the political stage for months on end. As a result, many employers set clear policies about discussing politics in the workplace.

But companies might not have been as vigilant with the upcoming midterm elections, and that can cause some real problems, Giamela says.

"The last election wasn't as partisan as it is now. There is a unique anti-incumbent fervor, and there are explosive, divisive issues," he says. "Employers need to be aware of how that impacts the workplace."

These hot-button issues can reveal big differences among workers about issues "irrelevant" to the job, and airing those varied opinions at work can cause dissension, he says. That's why it might be a good idea for colleagues to simply decide to keep politics out of the cubicles.

"It may be wise for all involved to ask, 'Why risk it?' " he says.

Giamela says companies should issue directions about what's acceptable -- and what is not -- regarding politics in the workplace. For example, employers might tell employees it's OK to offer candidate information on a certain bulletin board or in a break room but discourage political stickers from being displayed in a worker's cubicle.

The issue is especially critical for managers, he says. If an employee believes a manager supports a certain candidate or issue, then the worker might feel pressured to do the same or face retaliation.

A manager should stay out of political conversations and not display a preference at work in any way, Giamela says.

Giamela, who often advises companies on how to handle politics in the workplace, says companies should address several issues now as the midterm elections approach:

1. Parameters for political solicitations. "Employers have to decide if they're going to allow it, prohibit it or allow it only in some ways. I feel that the issue is so volatile it's best that any political discussions take place outside of work," he says. "Employers can't regulate off-hours discussions, so if employees want to discuss politics on their lunch hour, then that's their business."

He says employee solicitation of money for political reasons can be illegal, and workers should never feel "coerced" into contributing for a candidate.

2. Zero tolerance for harassment. Political discussions about immigration, for example, can lead to possibly discriminatory comments toward an ethnic group, he says.

"You need to make sure your workers understand there are protections in the work force, such as for race, religion, sexual orientation and national orientation," he says. "Some states have different protected groups, so employers should make sure employees understand the law."

3. The voting day policy. Some states give workers time to leave work and vote. Employers should inform workers if it applies in their state.

"One of the advantages of issuing a policy is that it helps refresh the rules in the mind of the manager as well," Giamela says. "Then they're better prepared when these issues come up."

Write to Anita Bruzzese c/o: Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, Va. 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.

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