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Office policy: Keep politics in its place

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Monday, September 01, 2008
OfficePolitics

As the nation enters the boxing ring of presidential campaigning this fall, it’s not unusual for the jabs of political convictions to enter the workplace, too.

Casual political discussions among coworkers can become heated and, in the worst cases, can lead to full-blown turmoil in the workplace. Imagine the conflicting loyalties that can develop if bosses explicitly support a candidate or a political issue that others don’t.

Talking politics “is inappropriate unless you are at campaign headquarters,” says Mindy Lockard, an etiquette consultant based in Eugene. In the proper world of social graces, politics, sex and religion are topics that generally should not be brought up in a business environment, she says.

But that world may be long gone. According to a 2007 survey by Vault, an online career information company, 66% of respondents said their co-workers talk politics, while 46% said they witnessed an argument as a result.

Of course, nobody wants to take away your right to wear a poor-fitting Obama or McCain T-shirt this November. But for supervisors and human resource managers, it may mean carefully pulling the plug on a debate without being perceived as stifling opinion.

And that’s where companies need to be clearer, communication experts say. It’s the undefined gray (not red or blue) area of being too strict or too informal toward friendly political debates that can lead to trouble, says Robert Benjamin, a Portland-based mediation and conflict consultant. “In our culture we have strong feelings on standing on principle,” he says.

After all, Benjamin says, a little debate in the workplace stimulates creativity and competition. But the worst action a business can take is circulating a memo or stuffing a new rule into the employee handbook prohibiting such discussions. “It only pisses people off,” he says, and lets workers avoid taking responsibility for their social skills.

To avoid a political office brawl, Lockard suggests supervisors be more proactive by setting an example and talking with employees individually about proper discussions on the job. “There is no hard and fast rule,” she says. In a dire situation, Benjamin says a business should hire a communication expert.

To her dismay, Lockard says the business environment is becoming too casual. “You have to remember what you are there for,” she says — work,  not politics.  

JASON SHUFFLER


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