With the political conventions kicking off the official election season, plenty of awkward workplace scenarios are beginning to unfold.
Vehement employee opinions, fundraising efforts and campaigning are likely to test business relationships and office harmony. "It's going to get tricky," warns employment attorney John Jansonius with Jackson Walker in Dallas.
Just last week, Miami computer distributor Maurizio Prattico says he stepped out of his cubicle and into the middle of an escalating debate among staff about Mitt Romney's speech. Italian-born and in the midst of his citizenship application, Prattico says he enjoys differing opinions on political issues — even in the workplace. "Many of us are from other countries and have seen other kind of governments. In America, everything is very open, and everyone enjoys that, he said." But Prattico urges employees to show mutual respect and stay focused on work.
Consultant Elena Brouwer, owner of International Etiquette Centre in Hollywood, says she's already been called into action at one South Florida company where managers were pressuring employees to attend fundraisers. "It was causing stress for staff. The perception was that by saying no to the boss' request, the employee might lose favor."
Brouwer says it's crucial for management to send the message that campaign donations and attendance at fundraisers are voluntary. But she tells employee to consider consequences if they're put on the spot: "A small donation may be the way to go because, in business, you need to keep lot of people happy."
Overall, Brouwer says diplomacy works best when workplace conversations evolve into election talk. "Whether it's a client or a co-worker, if you have a different opinion, agree to disagree. You are not going to convince anyone to change his mind. Heated discussions don't get anywhere."
As an executive at a nonprofit, Sallie Byrd doesn't want to risk offending a donor or volunteer by entering even a casual discussion of politics. Byrd, vice president of development with the Florida Heart Research Institute, says if someone at work asks her opinion on a political topic or who her choice is for president, she simply lets the person know that's something she wants to keep to herself. "I don't go there. I get out as gracefully as can. Getting into political debates can be deadly in the nonprofit world."
Seth Gordon, a former lobbyist, has had practice navigating the awkward scenarios that arise during election season. One of the trickiest, he says, is making the decision on whether ignoring a political appeal could affect your professional image as a team player.
"The first time you're asked to give money or time, you do have the option of ignoring the request. The second time, you have to make a judgment call."
Gordon says use your gut to decide whether your boss or client or business associate is fair-minded. "Sometimes, you can say you don't support who they support and they'll be fine. Sometimes your gut tells you that you can't do that, and if that's the case it's awful, but it happens."
Law firms in particular tend to be hotbeds of political clashes during major elections. Manny Garcia-Linares, managing partner of Richman Greer in Miami and West Palm Beach, said his firm has lawyers who support both major political parties. The lawyers have learned to respect each other's views — and over time, made rules about what's acceptable during election season.
Not allowed: sending out political emails. "If it's not work-related, don't send it out," he said. What is allowed: holding fundraisers at the law firm's offices. "As long as you make it clear there is no obligation for anyone to go."
These days, social media creates another venue for problematic scenarios. I've noticed online posting and comments encouraging people to keep Facebook a place for fun social updates, not election debates. But what happens if your boss or business owner posts regularly on social media about his support of a political party, candidate or issue? Some employees believe such online behavior could cause others to infer they, too, hold that opinion.
Marlon Hill, founding partner of the law firm of delancyhill, admits his Facebook page proudly displays his support for President Barack Obama. "No one should be afraid of politics. This country permits us to have spirit and an individual voice," he said.
But Hill says he understands co-workers may not agree with his political views and uses caution: "You have to respect individual choices and be mindful of every word you say." Hill advises employees who are uncomfortable with their employer's social media postings to speak up. "There are ways for an employee to appropriately raise the issue."
Some employers have proactively made clear how they want their workers to behave during election season. This might include prohibiting workers in customer-facing positions from wearing political buttons or displaying political messages.
At PNC Financial Services, spokesman Fred Solomon says political discussions at work are okay, but employees must get clearance to donate to a candidate, volunteer for a political cause or campaign for a candidate. The bank's policy also addresses what campaign materials workers can post in their workspace. "Banks have different rules than most businesses," Solomon explains. "They are set by outside regulators."
For the most part, employers realize watercooler talk may heat up as the political conventions and national debates are under way, but they remain wary of stifling employee freedom of speech. Still, labor attorney Jansonius says managers should be prepared to avert awkward scenarios and diffuse talk that could be considered overtly offensive. Even more, he urges bosses to use caution when expressing their political views at work.
"Remember, whatever you say could be used against you in a discrimination suit."