Talking Politics in the Workplace What do you do when musings, debates, or all out rants about the election surface around the water cooler? Syndicated columnist "Ask Amy" Dickinson talks about how to gracefully handle passionate political discussions spilling over the cubicle walls.
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Talking Politics in the Workplace

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NEAL CONAN, host: Right now, it's time to ask Amy. Every other Thursday, we speak to Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated "Ask Amy" column for the Chicago Tribune. And lately, you may have noticed some tension in the cafeteria or around your water cooler. That co-worker you occasionally have lunch with sends you an invitation to contribute money to a particular campaign.

What, what could make him possibly think you'd vote for that clown, much less send him money? In the middle of an especially intense political season, passionate political arguments are spilling over the cubicle wall and out of the corner office. Well, here's one example from a caller to this program.

Unidentified Woman: About an hour ago, I got an email from our CEO, and, from anyone else, it would have been spam. But it was, basically, an email that characterized anyone that opposed the war or the president as unpatriotic and un-American, and I just didn't know what to do about it. You know, it mystifies me how this could happen.

CONAN: Sound familiar? If your boss, your cube neighbor, or the clique from accounting are a bit too politically boisterous, tell us your story. What happened? How are you dealing with it? Our number 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Amy Dickinson joins us from radio station WAER in Syracuse, New York. Amy, nice to have you on, as always.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON ("Ask Amy," Chicago Tribune): Hey, Neal. Now, I know that, where you work, everyone is so respectful and soft spoken that this never happens.

CONAN: Ha!

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, these problems never crop up.

CONAN: Have you met Ken Rudin?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: I have. But, in lots of workplaces, it's really - it's like fisticuffs over the cubicle wall these days, as people discover that, even though they might both be Democrats, they may both be different flavors Democrat, so it's become a problem at work.

CONAN: And, given the case of, for example, that caller we heard the tape of just a moment ago, what do you do?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, when it's your CEO, you zip it. I mean, you really have no recourse, unfortunately. Those of us who have occasionally received political solicitations, for instance, on company email from colleagues, as I did at one point, just asked the colleague please not to do that. It's different. You know, when you're at home, and you're fighting with your spouse about politics, it can just go on and on.

CONAN: Mm hm.

Ms. DICKINSON: But the difference between at home and in the workplace is that you can actually do something about it at work a lot of the times because there are actual consequences at work to having disputes. For instance, you know, somebody can go to HR and ask for intervention, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is happening.

CONAN: Nevertheless, in this economy, people are more reluctant than ever to make waves.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes, I agree. I actually - I called the headquarters of Wal-Mart today, asking them if they had a policy - you know, I was just kind of calling around to see if big companies had actual written policies about making political statements at work or sending political-oriented emails to one another.

And I was told that they don't have a written policy about it at Wal-Mart, but I was also informed that the third leg of the Wal-Mart stool is respect for one another. You know, I forgot to ask what the first two legs are, but I think one of them has to do with everyday low, low prices.

CONAN: Prices, and I think that little smiley face thing, yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: They also told me that, as at any company, including NPR, I'm sure, one is not to use company email for personal purposes, and I know that everyone adheres to that rule slavishly, so, you know...

CONAN: Absolutely.

Ms. DICKINSON: So, for instance, you know, people never send YouTube videos to one another at work. It just doesn't happen, never.

CONAN: Never, never, not once.

Ms. DICKINSON: But the important thing is to, and as the spokesperson at Wal-Mart told me, the important thing is to remember that colleagues are supposed to respect one another at work, and, if there is a dispute, sometimes you do need to bring a supervisor in.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Our guest, of course, "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson, and we'll begin with Chris, and Chris is calling us from St. Louis in Missouri.

CHRIS (Caller): Yes. I work in a very politically diverse environment, and people enjoy discussing politics and always have. Lately, though, while the Republicans and Democrats get along just as great as they always did, the Hillary versus Obama people, there is palpable tension. People not going to lunch with the other side and grumbling and so forth.

CONAN: Was it worse or better before or after the primary there in Missouri?

CHRIS: I tell you what, it gets worse all the time. Tension just builds and builds and builds, and it kind of seems like a lot of other things are thrown in to the mix. And, like I said, what's interesting though is that you can disagree with the Republicans and be friends and go to lunch, but your fellow Democrats, it's tension. I've never seen anything like it.

CONAN: Wait a couple of months, you can't go to lunch with the Republicans or the Democrats either - but anyway, after the conventions. But Amy Dickinson, I think that's not an unusual problem.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, Chris alluded to something that I'd like to go back to and reflect on. When he said, there are other things involved, and let's say that, when we're discussing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, we're also discussing gender and we're discussing race, even if we don't explicitly.

And one thing that's happening is that, let's say men, for instance, at the office may feel free to criticize Hillary Clinton using language that women have heard, stereotypical language that women object to. She's called aggressive. She's called scrappy, She's called, you know, power mad. You know, all of these pejoratives which women can feel are semi-directed at them.

CONAN: And all the way up to rhymes with witch.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes. Absolutely. And I understand that some people who would never direct such a comment towards their female colleagues, would feel free to, you know, use language like that in describing Hillary Clinton, and it's offensive.

CONAN: Similarly, I think, we had somebody on from North Carolina yesterday looking ahead to the North Carolina primaries, suggesting that people there, say, of course, they have no racial bias themselves, but they all know somebody who does.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right, and go ahead and repeat what that other person has said. Yeah.

CONAN: So similarly, you can get into, well, I think there are all kinds of racial and gender differences at work to begin with. I guess these are exacerbating them.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes, absolutely. And it sounds like this last caller works in a really terrific, interesting environment. I mean, I love the idea of colleagues sort of mixing it up and talking about current events and what's going on and being so engaged in the world.

I mean, that's what's wonderful about having colleagues, is that you can reflect and review what's going on around you. But we have to be really careful and extra sensitive because this current race is dragging on and on, and I think bad feelings can really persist beyond.

CONAN: Let's get Rick on the line, Rick with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

RICK (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RICK: Yeah, I thought you might find it interesting that I work for a major international airline. We spend hours and hours going across the Atlantic or the Pacific, trapped with one other person in a cockpit. And, a lot of times, pilots tend to be ex-military or fairly conservative people, but, at the same time, we're also union members.

So we get a nice kind of play back and forth with each other on those of us that are unionists or tend to take the left view and those people who go back to their military roots and take the right view. And I thought your panelist might like to comment on being trapped with somebody for eight or nine hours at a time, who you may or may not know.

CONAN: And does it work out that the more conservative tend to be in the right seat of the plane?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICK: No.

CONAN: The right seat, of course, the pilot seat in the aircraft. But anyway, Amy Dickinson, go ahead.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, can I just say, as a passenger, as a frequent passenger, probably on your very airline, I like to think that the two pilots trapped up there in that small space are getting along beautifully. I like to think that you're maybe having conversations and resolving your issues because that is a fascinating problem.

RICK: Normally, we can separate out our political views with performing our jobs.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And I have to ask, you know, Rick, if you've even been in this situation like what you do to defuse something, if you feel like it's getting uncomfortable?

RICK: Normally, everyone has a talent to do that. We're very good at being able to compartmentalize our feelings, what may be going on in our life, our political views along with being able to do the job. So that's never a problem, but we do spend, literally, hours at a time with not a lot to do.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. I also hate to think that pilots don't have a lot to do, but I get it. And, you know, where I come from, the phrase, how about them Cubs, is kind of a catch-all conversation changer so you might try that, too.

CONAN: Or did you notice the demon taking the aluminum off the wing there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICK: Exactly.

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much for the call and good flying.

RICK: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with - this is Lisa, Lisa with us from Monterey in California.

LISA (Caller): Hi. This is Lisa, and I'm calling because I had a recent email from somebody in my organization, who isn't my direct supervisor but was somebody that could potentially influence my future job. And this person had sent an email out to other people in the organization from their own personal email.

And it was for all of us to go to a political rally for a local candidate. And many of us felt very uncomfortable and didn't quite know what to do. Should we go to the rally? Should we not go to the rally? We felt as though maybe there was going to be sort of this mental checklist of who showed up to the rally in support of this political candidate or not.

CONAN: Taking attendance, and I assume you'd feel uncomfortable whether you, basically, supported that candidate or not.

LISA: Absolutely. I talked to a number of people, and, you know, there was a group discussion over, should we go or should we not go.

CONAN: And what did you do?

LISA: Well, thankfully, I actually had a prior work engagement that I had to attend, so I didn't go. And I don't know if other people went, but it kind of got swept under the carpet. And, to my knowledge, I don't think anybody approached this person and expressed their desire to not be included on future emails.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, you know, that's a shame, actually, because that is unethical. It really is, and I have to think that that supervisor has a supervisor. And that, if enough people have a problem with it, that person should be educated about what is and what isn't appropriate. I think that's really quite inappropriate.

LISA: Even though it comes from their own personal email account?

Ms. DICKINSON: But it went to your work account, I gather.

LISA: Right.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right.

LISA: Well, that's great to know. Thank you.

CONAN: Lisa, thanks for the call. We're talking with "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson about politics in the workplace. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's talk now with Emma, Emma with us in Boone, North Carolina. Emma, you're on the air.

EMMA (Caller): Hi. I actually have a little bit of a different situation. I work for a political congressional campaign, and before that, I was not working in politics and working doing freelance work with attorneys and doctors. And I have found that many of them, who were really great references before, will not return my phone calls and have sent me out their emails with their political ideas and ideals.

And also, I have found that, inside of the party - we have a primary coming up on the sixth. And, inside of the party, I've seen relationships ruined between people. And, of course, this is inside the game, but it's still at the workplace, still amongst friends, and amongst coworkers, and it just seems more ruined and every day. And we're getting closer to the primary, so I'm sure it's just going to get worse before it gets any better.

CONAN: And I'm going to have to hang up on you Emma because your line is troubling, but thanks very much for the call. And, Amy, do you have any advice for her?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, the thing is, you know, I'm not sure what point she was making when she said that her previous contacts, it sounds like they're avoiding her. So I'm not sure what that's about except that, maybe, like me, they don't really appreciate being hit up or even contacted on behalf of any particular candidate by a former work colleague. I mean, I think it's kind of obnoxious, actually.

CONAN: Let's talk with Sandy. Sandy with us from Nampa in Idaho.

SANDY (Caller): Yes. I live in one of the reddest of the red states, and coming out as a Democrat is something really, really difficult to do. And, at work, I was wearing an Obama button, and I was getting some questions about why I would support him. And I explained the things that I agreed with him about, and I had one person get very upset at me and just say she didn't know how you could ever vote for anybody but a Republican. And it just made me never want to have a conversation again.

Ms. DICKINSON: Now, I have a question for you. Why were you wearing the button to work?

SANDY: Well, I wear the button everywhere, and it's because I support him. And I'm in the kind of a job that you take the coat off and take the coat on, and I just happened to be in the position where I was coming in with my coat. And I think it's my right to be able to support somebody. I'm not going to ask them for money. I'm not asking them to agree with me. I'm just making a statement that...

Ms. DICKINSON: Of course you are, but, you know, when you wear a button, you're also asking for people to talk to you about it. And so my own reaction to your issue is that, if you can't take, you know, the comments you're going to receive and the questions you're going to receive, then you should, like many people, leave your buttons at home.

SANDY: Well then, I guess I'll just have to be tougher skinned.

Ms. DICKINSON: OK.

CONAN: Sandy, thanks very much for the call and good luck with that.

SANDY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Amy, we just have a few seconds left, but you've worked, I know, most of your life in news rooms and places where people throw things and yell at each other all the time. And pretty much now, I think, you work alone. Do you miss it?

Ms. DICKINSON: I do, but I'm very, very sensitive, Neal. I want you to know that, very sensitive. The company I work for, The Chicago Tribune, we actually cannot display any political point of view at all, no buttons, no bumper stickers. We can't even have yard signs at our house, so, you know, that's how seriously they take it.

CONAN: They drive out from Chicago to monitor?

Ms. DICKINSON: To check it out.

CONAN: Yeah. Amy, thanks very much, as always. We'll see you in a couple of weeks.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated "Ask Amy" column for the Chicago Tribune. She joined us from member station WAER in Syracuse, New York. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow is here with Science Friday.

I'm back on Wednesday, when we'll broadcast again from the Newseum, the new museum of news here in Washington, D.C. If you'll be in the D.C. area and you want to join us in the audience on Wednesday, just send an email to tickets@npr.org, and I'll hope to see you there. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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