Business

Keeping lid on political talk at work isn't easy

FRESNO -- Insurance company owner Michael Der Manouel Jr. isn't shy about offering his political opinion, even at work.

Der Manouel, a well-known Republican activist in Fresno County, said his employees sometimes ask his opinion on various political issues.

And he has no problem sharing. He even gives them a tip sheet he calls "Junior's unofficial ballot suggestions."

"They want to know about different initiatives and candidates, and I give them that information," said Der Manouel, president of Der Manouel Insurance Group in Fresno. "But I don't ask them how they vote. I would never do that."

Der Manouel said he doesn't worry about going overboard talking politics in his office. But legal and ethics experts say discussing politics in the workplace can be a minefield, leading to potential conflicts or, worse, pressure to conform to a boss's political views.

According to a recent survey by Vault.com, a career information Web site, 35 percent of bosses openly shared their political views with employees and 9 percent of workers felt compelled to conform to their bosses' views.

The national survey collected responses from 727 employees from various industries across the United States.

Mary Segraves, area vice president of Adecco, a staffing company in Modesto, said that politics and religion are two topics that should be avoided in the workplace.

"Some people are so adamant about their political feelings that it can become a heated debate," Segraves said. "It is better to steer clear of it. Everyone has a different level of intensity. Some people are so into it that if they are talking to someone who doesn't see their views, it makes a very uncomfortable workplace."

Supervisors and business owners must be especially careful about what they say.

"The most important thing for any employer, especially the small-business person, is not to impose your political beliefs on your employees," said Doug Noll, co-author of the book "Sex, Politics & Religion at the Office." "Just because you own the business does not mean you can dictate what they believe."

But keeping a lid on political discussions at work isn't easy.

A 2008 study by the American Management Association found that 39 percent of the hundreds of executives surveyed did not have a written policy prohibiting the distribution or posting of political material.

The same study found that 35 percent of employees felt relatively uncomfortable discussing their political views with co-workers, and 38 percent said they feel the same way about sharing their political views with their supervisors.

Employment lawyer Richard Gray of Sacramento said it's best to steer clear of political discussions in the workplace.

"Our advice to supervisors is: Don't even go there," said Gray, managing shareholder of the law firm Littler Mendelson. "It's like telling sexual jokes or sending inappropriate e-mails. You are playing with fire, and you run the risk of someone being offended."

Gray said the law allows companies to write policies restricting the solicitation and distribution of nonwork-related activities in the office, including political campaigning. The caveat, he said, is that the policy has to be consistently and uniformly enforced.

Employers without formal policies say they allow political discussion as long as it's casual, the conversation doesn't get heated and people respect their co-workers' opinions.

Ideally, that is the way it should work, Noll said.

"If you don't create an environment where people can talk about these issues in a healthy and respectful way, then you will have problems," he said. "Employers need to have a discussion about what is appropriate and what people are comfortable with."

Ethics expert Bruce Weinstein said politics becomes a hot-button issue because those beliefs run much deeper than a person's preference for music, food or movies, for example.

A person's taste in food or music is subjective, Weinstein said.

There is no right or wrong answer. "But if someone holds a different political opinion than you, you think they are an idiot."

And he said knowing a co-worker's political leanings could cause problems: "You may not want to work with them anymore. It has the potential to create friction where none existed before."

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