Politics in the Workplace
Fenton Speaks about Politics in the Workplace with the Christian Science Monitor
Harshly criticizes George W. Bush
Politics at work: Can cooler heads prevail?
While some workplaces welcome spirited conversations, managers need to
know how to defuse tense situations.
By Stacy A. Teicher | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
When President Bush started gearing up to send troops to Iraq, veteran
Bruce Fenton broke away from his Republican roots - and stopped checking his
political views at the office door.
As founder and president of Atlantic Financial in Westborough, Mass., Mr. Fenton
had long avoided talking politics at work, but he feels liberated now that he's
been speaking his mind. "Whatever side you are on, this is an important election
... and if people really care and they're keeping [their thoughts] bottled up
inside, that's not conducive towards health and happiness," he says.
Whether he's offering up a sophisticated argument or occasionally blurting out
his view that "George Bush is a raving lunatic," Fenton has discovered that "no
one bites your head off." He encourages employees - including his "die-hard
Republican friends" - to take a stand for their opinions, too, and says they all
respect each other more for the debate. The lunch room is frequently abuzz -
lately with people's take on the film "Fahrenheit 9/11" and the security
measures leading up to this week's Democratic National Convention.
But as elections approach and memories of hanging chads resurface, not every
workplace is so harmonious. As a result, managers are sharpening their
strategies for defusing tense conversations or offensive jokes. Political
discussion shouldn't be prohibited in the workplace, experts say, but employers
are wise to assert some control over when and how it happens.
"Come November, this race is going to be over, but the company's going to go on
... and things that are said and done in the heat of the moment at a conference
table ... may have far-reaching impact," says Earl Taylor, national spokesman
for Dale Carnegie Training.
At a recent meeting Mr. Taylor attended in Raleigh, N.C., conversation during a
break turned to the fact that John Kerry would be visiting the state to make
appearances with his running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. "As the
topic took on a little bit of exuberance, [one senior manager] stepped into it
and said, 'You know, I really appreciate the fact that everybody has such an
active interest in the politics of our nation, and there's a time and a place
for it. Today, we're here to focus on....' and he talked about the business
issues." Not everyone at the meeting was a fan of the two Johns, Taylor says,
and the manager "had the balance to bring it to a halt before temperatures
started to rise."
Managers watch their language
Even if tempers aren't flaring, political conversations or e-mails "can move
into other topics that ... could arguably create a hostile work environment,"
says Stephen Paskoff, president of ELI (Employment Learning Innovations) in
Atlanta. One client from Boston recently asked how to handle discussions about
gay marriage. It's not always easy to draw the line between talking politics and
denigrating categories of people, Mr. Paskoff says, but employers should not
tolerate "divisive, negative, stereotypical, or offensive comments."
Co-workers should also be mindful not to cross ethical lines, says Bruce
Weinstein, president of Ethics at Work, a consulting firm in New York.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ" have brought out strong
reactions during water-cooler chats, he says. His advice: Think more about what
kind of language you use, and keep in mind the Golden Rule. "Your first
responsibility at work is to do the job, and disrespectful conversations about
these topics ... violate the employer's right to have the employees focus on
In one small department of a pharmaceutical company in North Carolina's Research
Triangle, antiwar talk turned into a lesson about diversity. Leigh Morgan, a
global project leader, says that she and her colleagues frequently vented their
disagreement with President Bush's foreign policy when they gathered in the
common area of the suite - until the administrative assistant interrupted them
one day to point out that the conversations didn't sit well with her. She had
formerly served in the Air Force and was much more trustful of the decision to
go to war.
"I was really glad that she shared that with us," Ms. Morgan says, "and we had
some conversations about how those of us who were in the majority in terms of
opinion [needed to make] some efforts to not talk in public spaces, so that she
wouldn't feel as uncomfortable."
Some companies actively build grass-roots political enthusiasm among employees
and retirees - usually with the goal of persuading them to lobby for legislation
important to the company's bottom line. A growing number are sponsoring
candidate forums (to which all sides are invited) or voter registration drives,
says Amy Showalter, a consultant in Cincinnati who helps employers set up such
programs. She always urges companies to present both sides of the issue without
bias, because "employees know when they're being manipulated."
Corporate officials often assure employees that their political views won't help
or hurt their careers - and that's especially important when the invitation goes
out for donations to a corporate Political Action Committee, a fundraising
mechanism to support candidates who back the company's issues. But employees
still sometimes feel pressured to give. A recent survey by CFO magazine found
that among those at the vice president level or higher, 24 percent said that not
giving to their corporate PAC could harm their careers.
Most workers stay mum
At the same time, most employees simply don't want to be distracted by the
ideological equivalent of a rubberband war. In a Monster.com survey last year,
30 percent of the 26,000 respondents said the best approach to politics at work
is "don't ask, don't tell." Another 46 percent preferred to listen but keep
their opinions to themselves. Just 22 percent said people should "stand up and
For workers drawn into uncomfortable conversations, experts offer a few
suggestions: Ask questions rather than answer them if you're not sure how your
views will be received. If you feel pressured, find a way to change the subject
or excuse yourself from the room. "Try to keep it focused on the issues, not on
the personalities, because [otherwise] it becomes totally opinionated and ...
lacks the specificity needed for a meaningful conversation," says Taylor of Dale
ForNghi Luu, a consultant who spends months at a time at client sites, politics
are a welcome relief from another strain of conversation he hears all too often:
complaints about work. He often throws out a political topic during lunch, even
though he knows it's risky. "People start sharing their opinions ... [and] this
usually goes well until someone is very vocal and has too strong of an opinion,"
he writes in an e-mail. "Then it takes its toll on the group ... and things get
a little quiet and a new topic is introduced ... to lighten the mood."
Giving her 'two cents'
At Atlantic Financial, workers tack up news articles that support their side of
the latest argument. Overall, there's a good mix of substance and humor, Fenton
says. "I was a huge Dean supporter and I took my share of jokes about the cows
being afraid of getting mad-Howard disease.... You have to laugh at that. But
there are also very serious matters that [the candidates] have brought up," he
He believes his efforts to set a respectful tone have succeeded, because people
who used to keep quiet now feel free to jump in. Take Cali Teceno, a
client-service representative at the company and, at 22, the youngest of the
dozen staff members: "Originally I never used to watch the news, I never kept up
with any type of politics whatsoever," she says. "I [still] wouldn't say I'm
either Republican or Democrat, but I'm definitely more informed about what's
going on in terms of the world.... After about a year and a half, I spoke up and
gave my two cents here and there."
Because some of her colleagues have military backgrounds, she finds the
discussions about war fascinating. The conversation gets tense every once in a
while, she says, but "it's pretty open. I would never say, you know, that I run
and hide underneath the table."
Work & Money
from the July 26, 2004 edition
Christian Science Monitor
Copyright (c) Christian Science Monitor
SCOTT WALLACE - STAFF