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Workers divided on office politics

By Simon Hooper for CNN

Are you happy discussing your political beliefs with colleagues?
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(CNN) -- Less than a month before polling day, George W. Bush and John Kerry are racing towards the finishing line in one of the most keenly contested and divisive elections in U.S. history.

But amid insatiable media coverage for the contest, daily polls gauging the candidates' progress and with issues such as Iraq and the economy dividing the nation, has politics replaced sports and reality TV as the conversational topic of choice around the office water cooler?

According to new research by staffing firm Ajilon Finance, U.S. office employees are as divided over their willingness to discuss politics as they are over the future occupancy of the Oval Office.

In a poll of 1,027 workers, 49 percent said they would rather keep their political opinions to themselves at work, while 47 percent were ready to engage in partisan discussion.

Women were less likely to venture an opinion, with 55 percent steering clear of political conversations.

In a similar survey last year, recruitment consultants Monster, found that 46 percent of workers preferred not to reveal their political preferences, with another 30 percent adopting a "don't ask, don't tell" position.

At higher levels of management, however, the picture changes, with three-quarters of executives comfortable sharing their political views with colleagues, according to the American Management Association.

Ajilon Finance president Neil Lebovits believes that employees need to tread a fine line when discussing politics at work, describing the issue as "a potential land mine" capable of disturbing office harmony and antagonizing colleagues.

"During Presidential campaigns, politics is a highly sensitive matter, right up there with religion, and whether to talk politics at work is kind of a political decision in and of itself," said Lebovits.

"Although politics and presidential elections are important to the workforce, employees are still wary of discussing these issues at the office. Many worry that political conversations can affect their careers, be offensive and lead to uncomfortable tensions."

Employees who do wish to talk politics should give others a right of reply, and respect their viewpoint or request to discuss politics elsewhere, Lebovits suggests.

They should also focus on the issues, rather than discussing a candidate's personality, traits or family, while any generalizations based on gender, race, religion and income are also likely to cause offence.

Companies can contribute to office harmony by defining the terms on which their employees can engage in, and be protected from, political activities at work.

At Ford Motor Co. in Michigan employees are prohibited from displaying political signs in their offices or using company equipment to create or distribute partisan material or to solicit for political donations.

"We try to provide a working environment that's free of distractions and conflict," Ford spokeswoman Marcy Evans told the Detroit News.

And when it comes to deciding which of the two main presidential candidates would make the best boss, American employees are again split.

While 45 percent thought Kerry would make a better CEO, 41 percent favored President Bush.

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