Debating Politics at the Office: Is It Normal, Pushy or Flat-Out Inappropriate?

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Real estate agent Kristan Malin isn't shy about expressing her political views, especially at the office. The 47-year-old Tea Party supporter leads a team of four employees and among them, she said, conversations about subjects like taxes come up naturally. With her encouragement, one of Malin's employees has joined her at Tea Party rallies.

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"I'm passionate about it," the Florida woman said. "I think it's just good for people to get educated and have that exposure."

With midterm elections inciting political fervor across the country, attitudes like Malin's seem more common.

In Canton, Ohio, a McDonald's franchise distributed handbills to employees urging them to vote for Republican candidates running in the state's governor, Senate and House races. (McDonald's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., condemned the action.)

Deborah Weinstein, and employment lawyer and adjunct professor at Wharton Business School, said that, like it or not, workplaces now are often a venue for airing opinions on candidates and public policy.

It's symptomatic, she said, of the increasingly casual nature of American workplaces.

"People tend to bring everything into work," said Weinstein, who provides workforce consulting services to large companies. "There's less of a line between work and home."

But just because you can debate politics in the office, should you?

Employee-side labor attorney Donna Ballman says no. With the exception of government employees, she said, the law doesn't protect workers from being fired over political speech.

Ballman said she's worked with at least three clients who suspected they were dismissed from their jobs for either supporting or opposing President Obama in the 2008 election.

"People are absolutely shocked that they have no First Amendment rights at work," she said.

It's not only employees who stand to suffer. Weinstein said bosses have called her worried that standoffs over politics are hurting company productivity.

"Even if people are longtime friends, they can get into a real knock-down, drag-out argument at work. It disrupts the office and everybody who sits in that area will get involved with it," she said. "Essentially, these things end when one person says, 'I'm not talking to you any longer,' and because they sit next to each other at work, this is a very difficult situation."

Weinstein advises supervisors to diffuse political tensions by stressing that while everyone has their own ideas, they all have to work together.

"You're not going to get people to agree but you can lower the temperature," she said.

Anurag, an employee at a financial firm, said that when his colleagues talk politics, he listens to them but keeps his left-leaning opinions to himself. Though he hasn't seen such conversations turn heated, he doesn't want to risk starting an argument.

"It's just not worth it," said the 27-year-old New Yorker, who asked that his last name be withheld because he was discussing co-workers. "It's so unrelated to work. Why would you create a stupid argument about something that doesn't affect work?"

But Weinberg said there are times where there's little risk in airing your political preferences. If your views happen to comport with those of the company's "in group," she said, "then it's much less risky to let (your opinions) be known at work and become part of that group."

In Connecticut -- home to one of the country's most high-profile political races -- structural engineer Jason Kilty said he and his co-workers end up discussing political issues just about every day in the company lunchroom.

When Kilty, 30, a fiscal conservative, talks of less taxation and cutting down on government services, he said he's sometimes met with arguments such as "the government's providing services for everybody, you need to shut up and pay taxes."

The exchanges, he added, are friendly ones.

"We get more excited talking about Yankees and Red Sox," he said.

Malin, the Florida Tea Partier, said that, among her employees, there seems to be little disagreement over political issues. But if someone does have a view contradicting her own, she'll respect it, she said.

"Everybody," she said, "has a right to their opinion."

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