Political talk at work is a potential minefield

While discussions at work about the presidential election may seem inevitable, human resources experts warn supervisors that discussing political preferences can kill the bottom line.

A survey last year by Harris Interactive showed that about one-fourth of all employees say their top managers make it clear to their subordinates which political candidates they prefer. At the same time, 20 percent of employees surveyed are not comfortable telling their bosses the same information.

"They don't realize the damage they're doing to themselves," said consultant Frank Kenna, president of North Haven, CN-based Marlin Co., which commissioned the survey, in Human Resources Executive magazine. Here's what the worker is thinking, he says: "My boss supports Joe Blow, I hate the guy, I hate my boss."

Supervisors not only risk alienating employees who don't share their beliefs, but also take the chance that fear may leak into other areas of business, hurting productivity.

"When you start imposing your personal, individual beliefs on other people, you are starting to limit people's ability to express themselves. You're limiting critical thinking," said consultant Doug Noll, co-author of Sex, Politics & Religion at the Office.

David Romp, recruiting manager of Clark, Schaefer, Hackett & Co., CPAs, which has five offices in Ohio, said on the firm's Web site that it is critically important for employees never to discuss politics with clients, or even within a client's earshot.

"Customers have been known to walk out of a business rather than put money in the pocket of someone they feel doesn't agree with their political beliefs," he wrote. He also added that CPA firms should prohibit the use of company resources to promote employees' political beliefs.

Dixie McCurley, a CPA at a firm in Atlanta, told Tara Weiss of Fortune magazine that she learned to keep her mouth shut after a colleague was slammed by other co-workers for saying she volunteered for Hillary Clinton. "Most people at my office are southern and Republican. They shut her down. That's why I don't say anything about politics; I'm a Democrat and I don't want to be vilified like that."

Workplace experts say the key to understanding is not necessarily by imposing new policies, but by holding open discussions so supervisors and employees can understand all the implications of discussing politics in the workplace.

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