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The new office politics

Co-workers gather for a meeting, someone tells a joke about the president, and laughter erupts. Normally, the story would end there.

But at one such meeting recently, the joking turned ugly. "It was very funny in the beginning," said Thomas Zweifel, chief executive of Swiss Consulting Group, who attended the meeting as a consultant.

Then, "they started talking about Bush vs. Kerry and it started to get very heated. It turned serious and divisive," he said. Zweifel is author of Communicate or Die: Getting Results Through Speaking and Listening.

In the tense months leading up to a bitterly divided presidential election, there are few easy jokes or simple political discussions, and conversations at the coffee machine are taking on new weight.

"The issue has clearly increased," Zweifel said. "Whenever I do workshops or coach people, on the breaks it comes up right away. ... There are very strong viewpoints on either side. It's almost like two different cultures are clashing against each other."

Others agree that emotions are running hotter this election season. "When they do discuss (politics), there's a higher level of passion around the conversation," said Theresa Timpson, a human resources manager for 20 years and board member of the Northern California Human Resources Association.

Still, the passionate nature of the debate this year may lead some to keep mum. "Politics are so polarized, it's a real hot button, and I think because of that people are not raising the subject because people react so vehemently one way or the other," said Richard Block, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop.

For companies, the problem is that "these conversations are very divisive," Zweifel said. "They really create antagonism."

"You have people that actually leave the company. ... The opportunity cost becomes very high."

Senior executives likely feel the most political pressure. Company leaders can legally ask executive-level workers for political contributions _ and failing to support a boss' favorite cause may feel like career suicide.

Twenty-four percent of executives said not giving to their company's political action committee would be detrimental to their careers, and another 16 percent were unsure how it would affect them, according to a recent survey by CFO Magazine, despite the fact that such donations are, by law, voluntary.

At many companies, "one is expected ... to make a substantial contribution to the party of the chairman's choice," Gibbons said.

Want to get political at the office? Talk to the human resources department first. While many companies have no specific policy on casual discussions, others strictly forbid partisan displays.

Then there are places like Atlantic Financial, a Westborough, Mass., investment firm with 12 employees. "I encourage talking about politics in the office," said Bruce Fenton, the company's founder.

Fenton avoided political debates at previous jobs, "but I felt strongly about this election," he said. Once he started, "I felt refreshed and realized that no one is out to get you, no one bites your head off, if you talk politics. People respect it."

Are his employees comfortable enough to disagree with him? "I think they know me well enough to know that I would only judge them positively, especially if they were to disagree," Fenton said.

Meanwhile, at least 300 national companies are actively encouraging their workers to get more political through get-out-the-vote drives and registration reminders, according to BIPAC, the Business Industry Political Action Committee, which helps businesses set up information Web sites for workers. Some companies offer candidates' voting records on issues the company considers important.

"It's the first step a company should take that wants to be politically active and effective," said Darrell Shull, vice president of political operations at BIPAC. "Employees think their employer is a credible source of information about candidates, issues and elections."

Other companies have embraced a "no politics at work" position only after they got into hot water. For instance, Diebold, maker of electronic voting machines, no longer allows top executives to make campaign contributions after chief executive Walden O'Dell created a stir by inviting people to a fundraiser for George Bush _ in a letter stating he planned to help "Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year," according to news reports.

Meanwhile, James Cayne, chief executive at Bear Stearns, took co-chief operating officer Warren Spector to task for professing support for John Kerry in a conference call. Cayne, who has raised money for George Bush, wrote a memo to 10,500 employees, noting that Spector's comments don't necessarily reflect the company's position, according to a report by Bloomberg News.

Meanwhile, at Boeing's Rotorcraft Systems, maker of the company's Chinook helicopters, near Philadelphia, company policy bars political activity in the workplace, spokesman Jack Satterfield said.

"We ask our employees to not wear political regalia or badges to work," he said. "We do not typically do campaign events or allow political rallies to be conducted on company premises."

Except, that is, when the White House requests a campaign stop for President Bush, who spoke at the plant Aug. 17. "Everyone in the country should understand that it seems appropriate for the president to come. The first words out of his mouth were "I want to thank you for the great products you produce,' " Satterfield said. The Army uses Chinook helicopters.

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