Keeping your opinions to yourself at work might not be easy in today's supercharged political climate.
With the general election just weeks away, political discussions naturally come up in offices, on campuses and at job sites throughout the Baltimore area.
But seemingly harmless banter about the latest debate or a candidate's misstep quickly can turn ugly, some workplace experts warn. Strong opinions on candidates and issues can become a source of conflict and tension, experts say, potentially offending colleagues, bosses, even customers.
Politics and the workplace collided dramatically in recent weeks, including the suspension of a Gallaudet University official who signed a Maryland referendum petition and reports of employers elsewhere encouraging workers to vote for specific candidates.
Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette consultant, has this advice for people at work: Don't get sucked in.
"Asking political questions can hurt your rapport with people," said Pachter of Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Pachter & Associates. "It can really affect your opinion of someone, if I think you believe what I believe and I find out you don't. Why do you want to risk that? It has no influence on how you do your job, so why bring politics into it? You want to connect with these people, and political discussions can be an area of disconnect."
Pachter advises against asking — or answering — questions such as: Who are you going to vote for? Who do you think won the debate? How can you possibly vote for him or her?
"Political conversation is getting more and more polarized all the time, and clearly the election ramps that up … but it's the path we're on," said Howard J. Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Silver Spring-based Cook Ross Inc., a corporate consulting and diversity training firm. "Parties are so polarized and people are so identified with that party, it's much more dangerous and threatening to have these conversations. If you are in a predominantly Democratic environment and you're a Republican, you might suppress your point of view and vice versa. There's more danger associated with those differences than there ever was before."
That danger can lead to slights, such as being left out of the office lunch clique, to more serious consequences — like getting fired.
Private-sector employees may not realize that protections against discriminatory firings or disciplinary actions based on race, gender and religion don't extend to political expression or activity in the workplace, said Thomas A. Cox Jr., labor and employment attorney with Epstein Becker Green in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. In most states, including Maryland, employees work at the will of the employer.
Political chatter may seem harmless, but "the difficulty or challenge for employers is that political issues stir up these intense emotions" on topics such as abortion, religion and national origin, Cox said.
No private policies
"The bottom line is these types of discussions may lead to allegations of bullying and create a hostile work environment," Cox said. "The expression of political views creates an environment for some employees that they might consider to be uncomfortable or in some cases hostile. … Employers have to avoid the creation of a hostile work environment."
Employers typically have no specific policies covering political discussions, but situations that escalate could be covered under bullying or harassment policies. The challenge for employers and employees alike, experts say, is to create an environment where workers can comfortably express themselves but don't feel threatened by others' views.
Businesses without specific rules on political discussions still say they want employees to keep things from getting heated.
Landover-based Giant Food, the Baltimore area's biggest supermarket chain, has no specific policy prohibiting workers from discussing political issues, but "we do obviously expect our associates to conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times," said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for the grocer.
A handful of Baltimore-area employers said political discussions routinely crop up, with no ramifications.
Politics is not a verboten topic at The Hatcher Group, a Bethesda-based communications firm with offices in Baltimore and Annapolis, said President Ed Hatcher. It comes up a lot, especially near a presidential election, he said.
The firm works with foundations and nonprofits to "advance social change," focusing on poverty and the environment, so it attracts people with similar views on — say — environmental protection and helping low-income residents.
"We have a progressive and politically like-minded staff, and so, yes, there is lots of politics talk, but it certainly hasn't caused us any problems," Hatcher said. "More high-fives or mutual hand-wringing. And there's certainly no policies that we needed to restrict it because of conflict."
A similar atmosphere exists at Tetrahedron, a private environmental consulting firm at the Inner Harbor, said Daniel Ewald, an environmental scientist known to his colleagues and bosses as a political junkie and activist. His bosses, who are from Bangladesh and also politically active, often want to hear his perspectives on the American political system, and co-workers also seek out his opinions, he said.
"Other people at the firm share the same point of view, and we talk about environmental policy and other differences between liberal and conservatives," he said.
Ewald, a Democrat, added that he got along fine with a former boss at a previous job who was a Republican.
"We never got in yelling matches about politics," he said. "It was always civil. If you don't shove your political opinion down the other person's throat, you should be fine."
But Hatcher said he can understand why some employers might want to put a lid on political discussions.
"It can be so emotional and so easy for hard feelings to develop," he said.
The state has a law
For state employees, the relevant policy is a law — the Maryland Public Ethics Law. Generally speaking, it prohibits the use of state time, materials or property for political purposes, said Joe Smith, executive director for human resources at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. What employees say on their own time, without implying that they're representing their employer, is their own affair, he said.
Members of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees Maryland, a union that represents almost 30,000 state and higher-education employees, "have the ability to talk about whatever they want during lunch and during break times and before and after work, so long as it's not really offensive," said Patrick Moran, director of the Maryland chapter.
Uunionized workers have recourse if they're fired for political speech on breaks or outside work, he said, so long as it did not interfere with their job. That includes comments on Facebook.
"People have the ability to voice their opinion in any way — at least in a unionized environment," he said. "In the nonunion environment, it can play out a little different because employers have total and complete control over everything you do."
George Cassutto, a Brunswick resident who teaches civics to eighth-graders, talks politics all day to his students, he said in an email.
"But I am under strict orders to remain impartial and objective, which is a serious challenge since I am a strong supporter of President Obama," said Cassutto, who is involved in the campaign at a grass-roots level. "To live up to my commitment to let the students make their own decisions, I strive to be an actor half the time. I even talk up the Romney side to a greater degree to keep the kids off my Obama-laden scent. I don't discuss my involvement with the campaign with other staff or teachers unless they want to talk about it with me."
Keep politics to breaks
Rod Easter, president of the Baltimore Building & Construction Trades Council, a coalition of local union construction trades, said he's heard of no problems involving political chatter at unionized construction employers in the area. But that talk — like anything not strictly work-related — should be relegated to breaks, he said.
"In the construction industry, we try to keep people focused on their work because it's a dangerous job," he said. "But at break time and at lunch and before and afterwards, they can talk about whatever they like. And I'm quite sure that politics does come up."
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Members have not complained about employers chastising them for their political beliefs, he said.
"This is the United States, and here you have freedom of speech to talk about what you believe in," he said. "As long as being assertive or talking about your beliefs doesn't harm anyone else, that's it — that's the American way."
Regardless of potential pitfalls of engaging in political talk at work, said Ross, the workplace diversity consultant, he believes better working environments come about when controversial subjects on people's minds are talked about, not buried. He works with companies to find ways to smooth relationships among people with different views.
"If we could have healthy conversations, we'd all be better off," he said.