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Mind Your Own Business: Is it smart to talk politics at work?

Is it smart to talk politics with your coworkers?

According to a recent survey by Menlo Park, Calif.-based Accountemps staffing firm, employees are split on the issue.

Forty-four percent of respondents feel talking politics at work keeps them informed, but 56 percent believe such discussions could get heated and offend others. Female workers are particularly wary, with 66 percent of the latter group being women.

Among younger workers, the divide is even closer, according to the survey, with 52 percent of those ages 18 to 34  favorable to talking politics in the workplace, compared with 48 percent unfavorable.

Peggy Klaus, a Berkeley, Calif.-based workplace communications expert and author of “The Hard Truth about Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner,” said workers should avoid sharing their political opinions, especially around clients and bosses.

Klaus -- whose clients have included JP Morgan Chase, The National Football League, Gap Inc., Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, MetLife, Mattel, Chevron and Oracle -- suggests having a goody bag of retorts ranging  from, “I never talk politics in the office or at parties” to “There are three things I keep to myself: my weight, sex life and political affiliations.”

If people persist in their politicking , circumspect coworkers might say, “My mother always told me mixing politics and friendship was a recipe for disaster,” “Why stress our relationship talking politics?  Besides, we've got better things to talk about,” or “I think politics are best left to the politicians,” and quickly change the topic, she said.

Though government employers have broad protections on their political speech under the First Amendment, private employers have broad latitude over what is verbally expressed, put in emails or on social media, especially during work hours, employment law attorneys point out in this 2012 Oklahoman article.

Employers can fire workers for any reason, including political beliefs, and no reason at all, as long as it's not an illegal reason.

Employers have to be careful to guard against hostile work environments when it comes to protected categories like gender, race or religion, against which political discussions involving immigration, abortion and other issues can easily bump up, said Nathan Whatley, who practices labor and employment law with McAfee & Taft. It’s essential for firms to have written and well-communicated nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies, he said.

Meanwhile, Carey Sue Vega, Oklahoma City etiquette expert and principal of the firm Expeditions in Etiquette, cautions people that “liking” a political candidate’s Facebook page is the new tech version of the political yard sign.

“Posting a link to a political website or story on Facebook or Twitter can be so easy and doesn’t seem blatantly offensive, until a friend, coworker or associate with a very different opinion jumps in and makes a knee-jerk comment on your post,” Vega said. “Then the string of comments can get ugly fast,” she said.

As of the fourth quarter of 2015, Facebook had 1.59 billion users, up from 1 billion during the 2012 presidential election, 100 million in 2008 and only 150,000 in 2004.

"During the political season, try to remember, your friends’ views are just as important to them, as your views are to you,” Vega said. “Sometimes, we just have to agree to disagree," she said, "and be respectful in the process.”

Mind Your Own Business @ work and @ home.

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Paula Burkes

Paula Burkes has nearly 40 years' experience writing and editing award-winning material, including since early 2001 with the business desk of The Oklahoman. After earning a journalism degree from Oklahoma State University in 1981, Paula wrote for... Read more ›