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Bruzzese: Politics in workplace needn’t sway your vote

With both the Democratic and Republican conventions looming in the coming weeks, it’s inevitable that discussions around the workplace water cooler may center more on politics.

Cubicle walls may begin to sprout placards supporting McCain or Obama, and lapel pins may even declare the wearer’s political affiliation. Many companies will tolerate such action, and employees will be free to debate the merits of the candidates with no problem.

Still, it’s politics – and that means there are bound to be some bumps in the road, with both companies and employees feeling the jolt.

Under election law, employees cannot be “coerced” into making a political contribution to a candidate or cause, but that doesn’t mean that bosses or companies can’t request such donations, and many workers feel the pressure.

For example, Richard Pimental, a former Huron Consulting Group Inc. executive, recently filed an employment bias complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (www.eeoc.gov). In the complaint, Pimental claims that he felt “pressured” to contribute to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign by Huron’s CEO, and was fired when he refused. The company has denied the charge.

A Harris Interactive poll conducted last year found that more than a quarter of those surveyed believe they don’t fit in with their employer’s culture in terms of politics, while nearly one in four said they were uncomfortable when their managers openly expressed their political views.

On the flip side, some employers are nervous about workers becoming too consumed with national politics while on the job.

Daniel Prywes, a lawyer specializing in labor and employment law with Bryan Cave LLP in Washington, D.C., says that while some states do provide protection to employees wishing to express their political leanings, workers need to understand that as the election process heats up, they do not have First Amendment rights of free speech in the private workplace.

While the Civil Rights Act protects workers from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, there is no federal law that prevents employers from discriminating against nonunionized employees based on political opinions or activities, Prywes says.

“Most employers are not going to care if you’ve got on a campaign button, but you need to be aware that your company believes they pay you to work, not politick,” Prywes says. “Not many employers are going to care about casual conversations regarding the elections, but they’re probably not going to put up with you using company e-mail to send out thousands of messages supporting a candidate. They’re probably not going to let you hang a big sign in the break room supporting a certain a candidate.”

Still, it’s likely that employees will be exposed to politics at work, whether they want it or not. Here are some strategies to cope:

• Keep an open mind. Listening to a co-worker talk about why he or she supports a certain candidate can help you learn more about the person. Even if you disagree, it can help improve communication with a colleague if you show a willingness to listen.

• Agree to disagree. You don’t have to pummel another person into agreeing with you, and you don’t have to completely capitulate to someone else. Just saying that the person has given you a lot to think about shows your respect for another opinion. That can foster a better appreciation among workers for the long run.

• Set the tone. If you’re a manager, you must be careful about expressing your political views. Don’t offer your opinion unless asked, and always let workers know you don’t expect them to agree with you. If you’re an employee, make sure you don’t use an aggressive, sarcastic or patronizing tone when responding to another worker’s political views.

• Remember you vote alone. Keep in mind that no matter how much you might feel pressured by others to vote for a specific candidate, you go into the voting booth alone – and vote for your choice.

Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy…and How to Avoid Them” (www.45things.com). Write to her c/o: Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.

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