Politics At Work: What Crosses The Line?

With just over a week left before what may be another very tight election, many offices are seeing more and more heated conversations about politics. But what are the rules? Employment lawyer John Barr and human resources expert Lynn Taylor talk about the collision of politics and the workplace.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington where, like much of the Northeast, we're feeling the effects as Hurricane Sandy swirls towards shore. More on that later in this program. You can email us your storm story now. The address is talk@npr.org.

Besides the weather, politics dominates a lot of discussions with Election Day a week from tomorrow. Inevitably, many of those conversations happen at work. As usual, unions make their preferences clear to their members; most of them favor President Obama. And this year, some employers are trying to influence or even instruct their employees on how to vote.

Some have gone so far as to say the president's re-election could mean the loss of jobs in their company. What's the conversation about politics where you work? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. That email address again is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Lynn Taylor is an expert on workplace interaction. She wrote an article for Psychology Today titled "Is Election Talk a Minefield For Your At Work?" And she joins us by phone from Palo Alto in California. Nice to have you on the program today.

LYNN TAYLOR: Hi, Neal, thank you very much.

CONAN: And politics at work, is it one of those subjects that really ought to be off-limits?

TAYLOR: Well, it's a very sticky wicket to be talking about politics, especially right now, where there's a razor-thin race. And basically, the workplace is not a place for political campaigning. There's enough conflict resolution issues to be dealt with, why add another layer of that to the workplace?

CONAN: Well as you mention, though, it's a razor-thin race. People are interested.

TAYLOR: Yes, it's going to come up. It's really unavoidable. But how you do it, where you do it and the point at which it gets egregious can get you in a lot of legal hot water. So a lot of employees really have to become empowered and take the bull by the horns, and manage how that happens around them.

They have a lot of opportunity to take control of the scenarios around them.

CONAN: How?

TAYLOR: Well, you know, if they're faced with a boss who really takes this opportunity as a soap-box venue, they can basically bridge into the work at hand. After all, it is called the workplace, and, you know, there are different ways, depending on how egregious the situation is. They can opt for the more neutral stance, or they can - the ideal thing to do is, actually, to bridge to projects that are really paramount to everything else.

So we can talk about that a little bit later. There are really good, specific tips on how to do that.

CONAN: Well, there's also - people can very uncomfortable if it turns out you're the only Democrat in an office of Republicans, or vice versa.

TAYLOR: Absolutely. You know, it's really tough when you have an authority figure in front of you in a situation where unemployment is a little bit high, and you don't want to jeopardize your job. You don't want to confront the boss. I've seen many people in a situation where even outside the office, where you think it's a fairly casual environment, the boss is just using this as an opportunity to go off for an hour, and employees just sit there like a deer in the headlights.

And the boss thinks, well, everybody agrees with me, so I'm just going to continue. But if it gets into an egregious situation, the employee just has to either decide am I going to put up with this day after day, morning, noon and night; or am I going to say something, am I going to just nod.

So there are some tactics they can take, you know, some sort of neutral statements such as that's interesting, oh that's an interesting - we're looking at it. Or they can switch right to the topic at hand, which is, you know, binders, that reminds me, you know, I did deliver a binder project to you the other day. I never got an answer on that. Or speaking of the budget overhaul, did you get my new marketing budget from last week?

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: You're going to have to let the boss vent, clearly, otherwise it's going to be very transparent. But, you know, you have a golden opportunity of face time with the boss, and after all the boss' image and projects are really going to trump everything else, truly. I mean, politics will go under when it comes to the boss' own career.

CONAN: We're talking about politics in the workplace. Our guest is Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant." We want to hear what the conversation is like in your workplace. When does politics come up? What's it like? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Josh(ph) is on the line with us from Jacksonville.

JOSH: Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JOSH: I was just calling, I work for a major telecommunications companies that has said on November 7th, there will be an announcement about rural lines, about our customers in rural areas. And that could very well affect employment if they decide to, say, get rid of those. And (unintelligible) are waiting for the day after Super Tuesday.

CONAN: Well, forgive me, I don't understand how the election one way or the other could play into their decision on rural lines.

JOSH: And I don't either, but that's what they've come out and said. It will be the day after - the announcement - the day after the election. So it must in some form.

CONAN: And did that suggest one way, even subtly, that you might want to vote one way or the other?

JOSH: It's hard to say. I mean, I - with that much little information, it would just be interesting to see what's done either way.

CONAN: Interesting, all right. Good luck.

JOSH: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Joining us now is John Barr, who's a partner in the law firm of Jackson Lewis in Richmond, Virginia, adjunct professor in employment law at the University of Richmond. He joins us on the phone from there. And nice to have you with us today.

JOHN BARR: Neal, thank you very much, it's nice to be here.

CONAN: And I just wonder: Is it legal - that caller didn't make it clear that they were being urged to vote one way or the other, or even to vote at all. But in any case, is it legal for an employer to say, you know, we really think you should go this way or that way?

BARR: Well, it can depend on what state you're in. Under federal law, that there's no law against - and I'm talking just about private employers. It's different for government employees. But for private employers, there's no federal law that says that it's illegal for an employer to discriminate against somebody because of their political beliefs or because of who they're going to vote for.

Under state law, of course, any employer that made a threat or a promise to get somebody to vote some way, like if you don't vote for this person you're fired, or I'll give you a raise if you vote for this person, that's probably a criminal violation.

But there are some states where it's explicitly illegal to take action against employees because of their political beliefs, for example in New York, or California or Connecticut.

CONAN: Yet we have seen examples of, oh, for example, Georgia Pacific, the head of that rather large company sent a notice to its employees, saying that the economy, they expect if President Obama's re-elected, the economy would be worse, and the company would be forced to cut back on jobs and to draw the correct conclusions and, there, vote accordingly.

BARR: And what you have going on here is it's an interesting intersection between the First Amendment right of anybody, and corporations now, you know, that we've had the recent Supreme Court decision, to make political statements...

CONAN: That's the Citizens United decision you're referring to.

BARR: Exactly, I'm sorry, yes, the Citizens United. Where corporations can clearly get into trouble is if they make threats, as I said, threats or promises, or if they say you will be - we will fire you if you don't vote a certain way, or we'll give you a pay raise, or you'll get a promotion if you vote a certain way.

CONAN: And so as you look at the situation legally, obviously unions have been allowed for obviously many years to make it clear that they would prefer their members vote, usually, for the Democrat.

BARR: Well again it's the same sort of thing that's going on that you see with corporations, where unions are allowed to make political statements, to take political stances. There are certain restrictions on money that they can spend, you know, whether or not they can spend members' money on political campaigns.

But they are allowed to make endorsements and to pursue political agendas. Where they would probably get into trouble is if they started firing or kicking people out of the union for having certain political beliefs.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some more callers in on the conversation. Let's go to Qualey(ph), Qualey with us from Baton Rouge.

QUALEY: Hey, good afternoon. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

QUALEY: Well, I would like to chime in and say that where I am, I work at a - I have a friend that works at a facility where they, it's about 80 to 90 percent Hispanic. And the conversation turned on, of course, what the conservative stance is on deportation and the immigration issue as it regards to the liberal position.

And after that conversation, the next day we had a meeting where the boss simply said no more political conversation, and if it happens again, there will be repercussions. So there is a fine line whereas bringing politics into the workplace because some of the Hispanic that could not vote were offended. And some of the Hispanics that just didn't want to be involved with the political process were offended.

So it's a challenging thing to voice your opinion at work and to remain neutral at work. That's just my comment.

CONAN: It's interesting, and just parenthetically, it must be nice to be hearing all about a hurricane hitting somebody else for a change. Lynn Taylor, the boss coming back and saying hey, let's cut all this out, is that an appropriate response?

TAYLOR: Well, the best thing to do is be preventive about all this. I think John would agree that if you have policies in place for any kind of issue that creates confrontation or has to do with race, religion, political affiliation, then you would be able to avoid situations that flare up like this rather than be reactive.

Of course not all companies realize this until an emergency comes up, but having policies in writing can avoid some of these kinds of problems in the first place.

CONAN: And this election of course, race is - obviously plays a factor, sexual politics has been a factor, and as that caller suggested, immigration has been a factor, as well.

TAYLOR: Right, and, you know, you can also apply this to so many other things where there's schools fundraising or other civic pursuits that happen throughout the year that may have nothing to do with politics whatsoever. So companies would be wise to think this through, have a policy.

Now there's going to be some gray area for sure, but certainly this would be a good reminder for companies to act now. You know, there are some issues like social media, for example, where you can't really monitor everything everybody's doing, but people are texting or using other means of social media to spread the word or whatever they're doing, but...

CONAN: They may be using...

TAYLOR: Certainly not a time to stream your cubicle with red or blue or put bumper stickers. I've seen it all, and there's quite a range. But use common sense. You know, even if you're out to lunch, and you're outside the office, then you - and you're a boss, you can really put people in an awkward situation. If you go on a tirade and you don't realize it, it's just not a place to go on your soapbox. People may not tell you that they disagree, but they may feel awkward. They may feel harassed, which could cause legal problems.

CONAN: We're talking about some of the issues that come up when you start talking politics at work, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. And we continue to follow the path of Hurricane Sandy as it closes in on the East Coast with sustained wind speeds still around 90 miles an hour. In New York City, a construction crane partially collapsed in the wind. It's dangling from a high-rise.

Huge waves and high winds are being reported in Rhode Island, New Jersey and other states. Blizzard warnings are out across the Southern Appalachian Mountains. More about the effects of Sandy a bit later. You can send us an email now and tell us what effects you're seeing. The address is talk@npr.org.

Right now we're talking about what happens when work and politics collide when the boss invites you to that political rally, or your cube-mate posts campaign buttons all over your wall. What's the conversation about politics where you work? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are John Barr, a partner at the law firm of Jackson Lewis in Richmond, Virginia; and Lynn Taylor, the author of the book "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant," who wrote a piece for Psychology Today headlined "Is Election Talk a Minefield For You At Work?" And let's see if we can go to - this is a caller named James, and James on the line with us from San Antonio.

JAMES: Yes, hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JAMES: I work for a fellow here in Texas who is reimbursing us for movie tickets to go see the anti-Obama movie, which is out at theaters here, at least in this part of the country. And he's a heavy Republican supporter here in San Antonio, and - but the ironic twist - although he's not telling us how to vote one way or the other. The ironic twist is that he is a GM dealer, GM franchise dealer who is anti-Obama. It just has a funny twist to that. Thank you though.

CONAN: Thanks very much, and I assume he's referring to the Dinesh D'Souza movie that's out. And by putting it that way, John Barr, there would be, I guess, a list of everybody who asks for compensation for their movie ticket, and he would know who went and who didn't.

(LAUGHTER)

BARR: Well, that's true. And something like that probably legally is OK. Just to build on what Lynn had said earlier before the break, I think it's a good idea for employers to avoid the whole topic if they can. You know, work - under the law, the way the courts tend to look at it, is work is really for work. And if you have a conversation at lunch, and it's a pleasant, civil conversation, there's really not a problem.

Where the problem starts to come in is when people start to feel like they're being lectured at, and they really don't have a chance to respond because you're the boss. And that's what can lead people to go make complaints, especially if something bad happens to them at the office place, like they get fired, they get laid off, they don't get the promotion.

The less excuse you have them to get the legal process involved, the happier you're probably going to be as an employer.

CONAN: And Lynn Taylor, of course there's no way for your employer actually to find out how you voted.

TAYLOR: Right. And I agree with John about the fact that some of this is civic and, you know, you can be kind to your fellow office workers at lunch. But, you know, it's interesting, you could be in agreement even with your boss about some things, but then all of a sudden they might say something like, well, yes, that's true, we agree on who to vote for here, but, you know, that's not the reason why you should vote for that person.

And all of a sudden, you think you're in agreement on the candidate, but then they have something they disagree with on about why the candidate is good. And you're suddenly in a no-win, you know, situation with this boss. And so then it spirals down from there.

So you know, you can think you're in a - in good with the boss. You know, sometimes employees just want to look good to the boss so they agree, and then all of a sudden, you know, they're not in good stead. So it's - as John says, it's a sticky wicket, and you know, I like to apply this litmus test to anything that's sensitive in the office, and that is if it doesn't enhance productivity, then it's not worth it.

So everything that you look at, you know, whether people are talking about their private life or talking about their favorite sports team, and it's not outside the confines of lunch or their break, you know, why even do it? Because after all, if you want to advance your career, you should be doing things that just do that.

So that's how I would address this in the situation we just heard about from James.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jankoi, who's with us from Tucson.

JANKOI: Yes, thank you for taking my call. Yes, the second political debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, we were all in our truck in the area - that is, I work for a trucking industry, but we were watching the debate. And all of a sudden I was in the front seat, and the guys in the back started making all kind of arguments between themselves about who's best for the country, who has done what and what - I mean all kind of ideologies, including immigration.

And I had to interject and say to them, hey, please, let us be quiet and listen to the debate just like the people in the debating hall are listening and not making noise under the candidates. I said it's not fair to everyone else who wants to listen to what they all have to say, because if I wouldn't have said it, it was entering into the area where it had become a big confusion, and it would not help any of us who sit in there watching what they've got to say.

I just thought I'd bring up that because I don't think the workplace or even an institution should be a place where people sit down and talk all kinds of ideology. However, you can talk other things, like history or what has happened. But do not go farther into who you think is best for the country and that, because it brings all kinds of conflict.

CONAN: History can get pretty contentious sometimes too, but Jankoi, thanks very much for the phone call.

JANKOI: Thank you.

CONAN: That raises the question, Lynn Taylor. I mean people might think, well, you know, it helps civic engagement if something like a debate, or I guess people are going to be working at night when the returns are coming in next Tuesday night.

TAYLOR: Right, but again, why are we at the workplace? We're there to get a job done. And there's so many ways to just remind people of that. I mean you don't have to just nod like a crash dummy, but you can make some neutral phrases that bring it back to really why we're there and then spend your time at home checking the Internet, checking TV.

You know, you can tell people who approach you things like, you know, I'm just so busy with work, I really haven't had as much time as I'd like to focus on the political scene. Or, you know, that's interesting, really, why do you feel that way? I suppose it's anyone's guess. And then if you're really pushed, just tell you co-workers, you know, I'm really undecided right now, but I can see both sides. By the way, on that project, I know you asked me the other day so-and-so.

So there are very clever ways. And you know, Calvin Coolidge once said no man ever listened himself out of a job. Frank Tiger(ph), be a good listener, your ears will never get you in trouble. Just a couple thoughts.

CONAN: Aaron(ph) emails from Orange Park, Florida: For me it's illegal. As a federal employee we're forbidden under the Hatch Act to discuss politics or endorse any candidate. John Barr, is that right?

BARR: Yeah, that is right. Actually, I worked at the CIA when I first came out of law school, and we were not allowed to engage in any public political organization or make public statements, just like members of the military, I believe, certain members of the Justice Department. You don't want to have, like, Sergeants for Obama or Corporals for Romney or some sort of rally like that going on.

CONAN: Here's an email from Shoshanna(ph) in Oakland: I'm retired now, but I found political discussions with colleagues at work to be very valuable in keeping me informed about an alternative perspective than my own. I live in a very liberal or progressive northern part of California, where all of my personal friends share my political outlook.

During my working life, however, I was in a law enforcement environment, where many folks were far to the right of me, despite being unionized. I learned a great deal about the persuasiveness of the right-wing perspective and always felt I was better informed for it.

Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Ann(ph), Ann with us from Canton, Ohio.

ANNE: Yes, thank you for taking my call. I'm an educator, and I happen to be conservative, but I don't really speak politics at my workplace. But I do feel that a lot of the liberal teachers pass on their liberal ideas, one-sided liberal ideas, to the students, especially on the liberal arts college level.

I have associations with a lot of young college students as well, and they only get one side of the whole political thing, and that's usually the liberal side, I'd say 85 percent is the liberal side. And I think that's really kind of not right because these kids are impressionable. They've got a favorite teacher. They're liable to, you know, take what that favorite teacher says and not been given both sides of the spectrum.

So I feel that's a problem. I really do. I feel that's a concern. I don't think it should be - any politics, unless it's a political science class, should be discussed. And if it is discussed, both sides of the spectrum should be addressed.

CONAN: And do you find this to be partisan political politics, you know, go Democrats, or a more broadly cultural political point of view?

ANNE: It's mostly Democrat. It's definitely Democrat.

CONAN: No, you said that. It's mostly liberal. But do you find it partisan go vote for this candidate today, or a more broadly cultural point of view?

ANNE: More - both today...

CONAN: Both.

ANNE: More...

CONAN: OK.

ANNE: Yes.

CONAN: Are these public employees?

ANNE: Yes, absolutely. But college levels are not. That's a private college, but the schools are public employees.

CONAN: John Barr?

ANNE: They're not state public, but they're city public.

CONAN: John Barr, in that situation, would that be considered a problem for those employees?

BARR: It would actually - in terms of employment law, it would be a matter of the policy of whatever the school district was or if it was - if in college, whatever the college's policies were. You do have a difficulty, as I said, for public employees to discriminate against them because of their political beliefs or to restrict their speech, which is not to say you can't do it, but there's an extra hurdle that employers need to overcome.

So telling teachers what they can say and can't say in the classroom, of course, obviously, you can limit some sorts of speech, but generally that's not an employment issue unless they're violating some policy. And I don't mean to say that you can never have a pleasant civil conversation with people in the workplace. Where employers can get into trouble, at the school level or in the private level, is when they start discriminating against employees because of their political beliefs.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Eric(ph), and Eric's on the line with us from Springfield, Missouri.

ERIC: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ERIC: Yeah. I just wanted to say that I work at a small landscaping company, and as such, we all share a pretty progressive political view. However, we refrain from talking about it while we're out on the job sites because of the potential of offending our potential customers, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And so has this erupted anytime?

ERIC: Actually, yes. I was working at a job in southwestern Missouri and made a comment about the Occupy movement, and the people who were sitting on the front porch actually got pretty offended by it and sparked up a pretty tense, heated discussion there for a minute.

CONAN: And one that might not have been good for business.

ERIC: Yeah, yeah, exactly. We were - you know, we might have gotten more work from those people had that discussion not popped up, had they not been offended by the conversation.

CONAN: And now do you try to keep your conversations a little quieter?

ERIC: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: All right.

ERIC: Try and make sure everybody is not outside.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Eric. Appreciate it.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about politics in the workplace. Our guests are John Barr, a partner at the law firm of Jackson Lewis in Richmond, Virginia. Also with us, Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert, author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Email from Francis(ph) in Sonoma County in California: This is a timely and important subject. It seems political postings on social sites may create an unfortunate landmine for those seeking employment. Recruiters look at social networking to find out information about candidates. The workplace should not be influenced by political persuasion and should be free of any undue influence from those who supervise.

And, Lynn Taylor, you were talking about social media. Well, that's another way it can affect you.

TAYLOR: Right. That's so rampant, and people are tweeting and talking up, in almost a secondary dimension, about all of this. It may not be walking in the hall or being at the water cooler. And so that's another activity going on, and companies can't really be a watchdog in that. So that's another way.

But I wanted to address something that was said earlier about authority figures and teachers and so on in a broader sense. You know, the boss has so much power over the employee. And we commissioned a national study of employees not too long ago which showed that employees spend a whopping 19 hours in a week worrying about what their boss says or does.

So if you apply that to this scenario where a boss is pontificating about their views very fervently, you know, if you're a boss, you've got to be pretty careful. One thing that I notice in the workplace is that people will often put out a feeler question. They'll say, so what do you think about what Obama or what Romney said yesterday? And then that's your opportunity as an employee to know that it's going to go deeper from there, so you can put a stop to it.

And the great thing about managing up is that you can turn things around and empower yourself. You can turn the tide. I don't think most employees realize that they can stand up to that. They'll just sit back and listen. But if you do that, you really can take matters into your own hands and take it to projects and issues that are much more important.

CONAN: You may be on the Obama team or the Romney team, but you're all on the same team at work, the workplace. Yeah.

TAYLOR: Yeah. And if you're on your boss's team, then you get major points. That helps your career.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. This is David(ph), David on the line with us from Glendale, Arizona.

DAVID: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I have a background in HR, and I know that most employers have difficulty influencing their employees in the workplace on work issues. So I think it's a real danger when they try to influence them outside of the workplace because you figure about maybe, right now, half of your employees may be supporting the president. If you take a side against the president, you're not going to influence them.

The other 50 percent, even though they may agree with you, really don't want to be dictated to, you know, on a personal matter, like voting. And so I think it's just a dangerous approach for an employer to take, to try to take a side in an election.

CONAN: And, John Barr, notices like the ones we referred to earlier where if this person is elected, we may have to cut back our workforce because we don't think their policies are going to be friendly to business. That might be seen as a threat, no?

BARR: I guess it could be seen as a threat, but here fore, I think, that employers, just like everybody else, have a very (technical difficulty) interest in being able to express political views. I mean, there are certain things in the workplace that if you say, you're just asking for trouble, if you comment about somebody's gender or their race. If you make a comment about your own political view or what you think is going to happen, you're probably going to be OK.

Where you really run into a risk as an employer, especially in the states we talked about where it's illegal to take into account an employee's political views, where you really run into potential problems is you say something to an employee like, I don't think you should support Mitt Romney or I don't think you should support the president. The next day, you fire that employee maybe for perfectly valid reasons. That employee is going to interpret things differently and may very well sue you saying, oh no, no, no, the real reason you fired me is because I didn't agree with your political beliefs.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. OK.

BARR: Then you're just in a mess.

CONAN: John Barr, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

BARR: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: John Barr of Jackson Lewis in Richmond, Virginia. Lynn Taylor, thank you for joining us.

TAYLOR: Thank you, Neal. My pleasure.

CONAN: Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert, the author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant." Up next, Hurricane Sandy. Email us your storm story: talk@npr.org, or give us a call, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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