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Talking politics at the office? Check your emotions at the door

It took blowing a job interview for Sherry Thomas to learn that work and politics don’t mix.

Years ago, the Boca Raton, Fla., woman was a finalist for a client management position at a private jet aircraft company. In the middle of her interview, the company’s owner barged in and began making snide remarks about a political party for which she’d done fundraising. How did he know? She’s included the experience on her resume.

So much for that job.

Today, Thomas works as a personal and corporate etiquette coach and uses the story to illustrate the dangers of bringing your political beliefs with you to a job interview or to the office. “It’s one of the pressure points for people” along with religion and sports, she says. “If you work in an office, putting everything out there isn’t always the wisest decision.”

But with Election Day only weeks away, plenty of people are turning a deaf ear to that advice. For better or worse, the ins and outs of the Obama and Romney campaigns top the list of conversations in the break room and the digital break rooms of Facebook and Twitter.

Thirty-six percent of workers discuss politics openly and 43 percent expect to discuss politics this election year, according to a March 2012 CareerBuilder survey.

In the same survey, 23 percent of workers who’d discussed politics at work reported getting into a heated discussion or fight with a co-worker or boss, and 10 percent said they changed how they viewed a co-worker after learning about the person’s political leanings.

Check Your Emotions at the Door
No matter how passionately you feel about the candidates or the issues, experts say if you’re going to talk politics at the office, you need to check your emotions at the door.

If you don’t, friendly banter can quickly devolve into name calling, says John Challenger, CEO of global outplacement consultant Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. The country has gotten so polarized and opinions are so passionate that discussions can quickly turn negative. “There’s a risk to overall productivity and harmony in the organization, to teamwork and trust,” he said.

If you get into a situation where someone’s trying to win you over to their view on an issue, answer with a sense of objectivity, said Bob Kelleher, a workplace issues expert who previously worked as a Fortune 500-level human resources manager. “Take a position of, ‘That’s fascinating,’ not ‘I don’t agree with that,’” he said.

Talking politics is a good way to get your company pigeonholed as one thing or another, and that’s not what Florida businessman Dustyn Shroff said he wants for his four-year-old concierge services company. “The best way is to remain neutral,” said Shroff, with One Concierge in Boca Raton.

Shroff doesn’t have official guidelines for his staff. But many companies include restrictions on discussions of politics, religion or other potentially combative subjects in their employee handbooks or ethics policies. According to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management during the 2008 election, 25 percent of companies had a written policy covering political activities and 20 percent had unwritten policies, according to a Forbes report.

By contrast, some companies actively encourage political discourse.

“While our official policy is that we are not supposed to discuss divisive topics on company hours, let’s be real, it happens,” said Joel Gross, CEO of Coalition Technologies, a web marketer in Los Angeles and Seattle.

Despite being a mix of Democrats and Republicans, Coalition Technology’s 23 employees respect each other’s views and set aside political differences, Gross said.

Potential for Employee Harassment
Companies that maintain an anything-goes attitude run the risk of having employees feel uncomfortable, left out or harassed if their views don’t line up with those of their coworkers, or worse, their boss.

In extreme cases, employees may feel compelled to support a manager’s political views or make donations to candidates that upper management support in order to keep their jobs.

That appears to have been the case in Massachusetts, where a former public housing agency director is being investigated for forcing workers to help Lieutenant Gov. Timothy Murray win election in 2010. Maintenance workers for the agency testified earlier this month that they made donations to Murray fundraisers at their boss’ insistence, according to Boston.com. State officials also are investigating claims that the ex-agency director made one employee’s life “a living hell” after she failed to attend a 2006 rally for Murray and another candidate he endorsed, according to the report.

As Thomas discovered, bringing up political affiliations when you’re looking for work can be detrimental to your job hunting efforts. While a majority of recruiters didn’t care one way or another when they see job candidates sharing blog posts or tweets that are political in nature, close to one in five say such content was a turn off, according to a 2012 social recruiting survey from recruiting software maker Jobvite.

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