Politics at Work: Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

In this election year, workers struggle to express feelings on Obama and McCain.

Oct. 2, 2008 — -- If you're anything like me, you check your favorite news site 27 times a day to catch up on the latest campaign trail barbs and gaffes. You schedule your work and social life around the debates. And you talk about the presidential horse race every chance you get -- up to and including public restrooms.

But no matter how many twists and turns the economy and election polls take, there are some people you're better off not talking campaign politics with.

Exhibit A: Your in-laws.

Exhibit B: Your boss.

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While I can't help with the in-laws, I do have some thoughts on talking political turkey at work: Reveal which candidate you're backing to a boss with opposing views, and you risk being penalized on the job by a petty partisan. It's not worth it in my book.

Yet, according to a 2008 survey of U.S. employees conducted by human resources firm Adecco USA, 50 percent of workers openly talk politics on the job. Among Millennials -- the youngest generation of workers -- that number jumps to 61 percent.

But addressing the election in the workplace is sometimes unavoidable, especially if you work in an ultra-casual small office, or your manager is politically, shall we say, exuberant. So, what should you do if you find yourself staring down a political debate with your boss or another colleague? Put that banner down and read on.

Turn the Political Tables

Forty-seven percent of respondents to the Adecco survey said they listened to political banter in the workplace without sharing their own viewpoints.

But how do you stay out of the fray when that manager with the Obama bumper sticker on their car or McCain action figure on their desk is egging you on about your presidential pick?

"When you're in that kind of situation, often it's useful to just ask questions," said Kathleen Reardon, professor of management at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.

Responding with, "So, you've made up your mind?" and "What convinced you of your decision?" can buy you a little time, suggested Reardon, who has authored four books on navigating the workplace, including "It's All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren't Enough."

If the big cheese insists on turning the conversation back to you, plead the fifth and explain that you'd rather keep your politics to yourself, Reardon advised.

Or try a little humor. Saying something like, "Will my answer affect my performance review?" should diffuse the situation in a jiffy.

Agree to Disagree

If the cat's already out of the bag and everyone from your manager to the mail room guy knows which candidate you're backing, you have two choices: You can play along. Or you can smile, nod and zip it.

When it comes to talking election politics with his boss, Ben Karl, a publicist in San Francisco, is a fan of both tactics.

"I'm a huge Obama supporter and my boss is a diehard McCain supporter," Karl said. "My boss is a very smart guy so I really enjoy getting his perspective on the election. Neither of us lets this get in the way of our relationship. We exercise the utmost respect for each other and our opinions."

But even friendly colleagues have their limits.

Karl, who can "get really passionate" about politics, said he avoids letting discussions with his boss get too heated.

"He once told me, 'I can't imagine why anyone in their right mind would vote for Obama,' at which point I just had to turn around and walk away."

As an alternative, there's nothing wrong with telling a colleague or manager that you're uncomfortable with the conversation.

"I think 80 percent of the people will stop there," Reardon said.

Kick It Up the Food Chain

Of course, not all sticky political situations lend themselves to such easy fixes, as Todd Ransom, a marketing professional in Los Angeles, can attest.

"I actually was sitting in a staff meeting in November 2000," Ransom e-mailed me, "when my boss came in, sat down and said, 'I had better not hear that anyone around this table voted for _____ _____.' I sent my resume out that same day and within six weeks had moved to a new position."

But the "take this job and shove it" approach to a boss who's expecting you to tow the party line may not be wisest today, given the current job market.

If your manager's workplace politicking crosses the line, see if their boss or human resources can step in instead, advised Jennifer Sandberg, an employment attorney in the Atlanta office of law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP.

In most states, Sandberg said, it's illegal for an employer in the private sector to insist you vote for a particular candidate.

"A smart manager wouldn't even say something like that jokingly," she said.

Bailout Banter: Off Limits or Fair Game?

Unless you live under a slab of granite, it's become impossible to ignore the banking bailout -- or the fact that it's so painfully intertwined with election politics. But does that mean all talk of the Wall Street bailout is off limits, especially in the presence of the higher ups?

Not at all, Reardon said. As long as you steer clear of party politics and salary specifics, knock yourself out.

"Most people are concerned about their savings and the value of the dollar," she said. "They worry about the immediate and long-term effects of both pro-bailout and anti-bailout outcomes. Expressing these concerns at work isn't likely to alienate others because nearly everyone has the same concerns."

But, she added, "Talking about who is to blame is a different story."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.