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Should your office be a 'no politics' zone?

  • Story Highlights
  • Huge interest across country in presidential race
  • Experts: Politicking should not be done at the office
  • Expert: Free speech is urban myth; government can't limit, employers can
  • Lawyer: Office like Thanksgiving dinner -- politics could offend
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By Michelle Goodman
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(LifeWire) -- At her previous job, Samantha Smith, was the lone conservative in a 10-person office -- something her more liberal co-workers were happy to tease her about after she shared her views on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and the Iraq war.

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"[One April Fools Day] one of my co-workers sent an e-mail to the entire staff that called me Nancy Reagan and suggested I 'pretend to be a Democrat for the day' because that would be really funny," says Smith, a registered Republican.

Because the Foxboro, Massachusetts resident liked her co-workers and the office was small, Smith says she stayed silent on the matter.

"I didn't want to make waves," says Smith, who's now director of communications at an online gaming company. "But I thought, if we were a bigger company with an HR department, this would have never flown."

Smith, 31, doesn't debate her colleagues' right to politick outside the workplace. "It's fine if people want to talk about it over lunch and beers," she says. "But I don't think it should be done in the office."

San Francisco employment lawyer Shanti Atkins agrees.

"When I get asked what you should share with coworkers or a supervisor, I always say, 'It sounds really conservative, but I wouldn't share beyond what you shared in the interview or what you shared when you met the parents of your spouse,'" says Atkins, president and CEO of ELT, a consultancy that educates employers about ethics and legal compliance.

"Especially during this election: you've got the first African-American presidential candidate, you've got the first female presidential candidate, and you've got the oldest presidential candidate. So you've got really hotly debated issues about race, gender, and age."

Take It to the break room

Forty percent of Americans are following media coverage of the presidential contest "very closely," and 84 percent of them are gabbing about it with family and friends, according to a March Pew Research Center phone survey of 1,000 adults nationwide.

Given how engaged the country is with the current political horse race, why wouldn't we continue the conversation in the cubicle or conference room, touchy topics be damned? Whatever happened to free speech?

"(Free speech is) an urban myth," at least as far as private sector companies are concerned, says employment attorney Kevin Zwetsch, who practices law with Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tampa, Florida. "Only the government is prohibited from restricting free speech."

But it's not your political views you should be worried about so much as disrupting the workday, Zwetsch says.

"Employers don't want you talking, they want you working. They would control that whether it's politics or religion or NASCAR or football."

The key to talking politics at work, he says, is to save it for your coffee break and even then, keep the banter light and friendly.

Think twice before you canvass

There's casually chatting about political candidates, and then there's out-and-out canvassing for votes or donations.

"You should be very reluctant to be actively politicking or campaigning for someone at work," Zwetsch warns. Many organizations have rules against such solicitation.

Daniel Drew, an eighth-grade teacher and political activist, had to steer clear of such activity when he ran for a state legislative seat in 2006 on the Democratic ticket -- and lost -- in what he describes as an ultra-conservative community.

"I was under strict instructions to not talk politics anywhere related to my job," the 29-year-old Lehi, Utah resident says. And although his superiors were otherwise supportive of his political bid, many of his fellow teachers and students' parents were anything but.

"Some parents and teachers told me that I should move to the East Coast or West Coast to be with my own kind," he says. "It was awkward." But he kept his mouth shut and shrugged it off "since people running for office have to take the good and the bad."

Real estate lawyer Ian Wilder, 42, a Green Party activist who served as his state's party co-chair from 2004 to 2006, keeps the peace in his five-person office by avoiding partisan topics altogether.

"It's kind of like the Thanksgiving dinner," the Babylon, New York resident says. "You really don't want to bring up the thing that's going to upset your cousin or your uncle." Video Watch Red and Blue family vacations »

Don't take the bait

But what if you do your best to keep your politics close to the vest, only to be baited or preached to by a co-worker from the other side of the political aisle?

Atkins advises you pull your colleague aside, tell them they're making you uncomfortable, and ask them to stop.

"This tends to address [more than 90 percent] of situations, before they escalate too severely," she says.

If that doesn't do the trick, or you're uncomfortable confronting the person head on, talk to your boss or contact your company's human relations department. If the person in question is your direct supervisor, seek out other superiors.

"If the person is your boss, nothing should stop you from what's known as 'out of channel' reporting -- talking to someone higher up who's not your direct boss, but who can assist," Atkins says.

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In her case, Smith didn't seek redress from her higher-ups. She didn't have to. Instead, a solution came in the form of an unexpected job offer at another company. The new job is great, she says, and there have been no more 'Nancy Reagan' wisecracks.

"I can see that this company is probably going to be a little more by the book when it comes to things like politics at work," Smith says.

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and author of "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube."

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