According to In These Times magazine, 45,000 mailers were sent to employees of Georgia Pacific, warning them of the consequences they could face for voting for a particular candidate in the upcoming presidential election.
Although it might seem like an extreme case, the manufacturing company isn't the only employer that reportedly sent out pointers to staff regarding how to vote on November 6.
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Extreme case or not, it can be hard in any workplace to stay mum about politics. Remnants of the campaigns bleed into our day-to-day life; sound bites from the trail become Twitter trends and Internet memes. The candidates appear as guests on the late-night talk shows and in caricature on Saturday Night Live. Trying to discuss last night's television programs with colleagues at the water cooler can quickly escalate into a heated political debate, and tempting as it may be to relay your opinions, human resources experts suggest staying away from the subject altogether while on the clock.
"I am personally not sure that there are any political topics that can safely be discussed in the workplace," says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant, company owner, and the writer of About.com's Human Resources section (humanresources.about.com). "And I think that this year is significantly more important than any other year in the history of politics. The American public is currently very divided on the future of this country, and political issues this year are such hot potatoes that they do not belong at work."
"The country is very divided right now, and people have hold of very strong opinions," reiterates Beth N. Carvin, CEO of Nobscot Corporation, a human resources technology company.
Here are four reasons why employees should never, ever discuss politics at work, plus a few pointers on how to avoid turning a pleasant company culture into a partisan one:
1. It's your private business. Many polling places still use curtains to partition voters' boxes. It's not a bad idea to shroud your political opinions the same way while in the office. Think of your political affiliations the same way you should your love life—as a personal matter, not a professional one.
2. It stifles productivity. Too much extraneous chatter about any subject could dampen productivity, especially if the subject is politics. "The topics discussed at work need to increase productivity or nurture relationships," Heathfield says. "The problem [with talking politics at work] is that people don't just express their opinion. They proselytize and try to bring people over to their point of view."
3. It creates bias. You might start to make assumptions and harbor resentment for co-workers if you know too much about their political leanings, and this could lead to a less-than-harmonious working relationship. "People who previously worked very well together may all of a sudden feel quite differently about their teammates," Carvin says.
4. It makes workers feel isolated or bullied. Being the only Republican in a cubicle farm of Democrats (or vice versa) needn't be awkward, as long as you steer clear of the "p" word. Too much partisan talk can be a slippery slope, particularly since opinions on some political platforms—like same-sex marriage, for instance—could be indirectly related to a protected class. Voicing a strong opinion one way or another could lead to employees feeling discriminated against.
Andrew Moskowitz is a partner in the employment and labor department at the New Jersey-based law firm Pashman Stein. He says: "You have to make sure these discussions don't run afoul. If someone states that a candidate is too old to be in office, for instance, it could be age discrimination. In general, [political discussion in the office] is a minefield for employers."
What to Do?
Now that you know the reasons not to discuss politics at work, how do you stop it from happening?