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Ducking the office’s political crossfire

By Mary Ellen Slayter
The Washington Post

You plucked all the Kerry-Edwards buttons off your backpack. You left that Bush-Cheney “thunder stick” you proudly hauled off from the convention where it belongs — at home.

So why can’t everyone else at the office show the same courtesy?

In a recent column, I suggested a few guidelines for balancing work and politics and invited readers to share their tales of colleagues whose politicking crossed the line.

Most people want to keep politics in the office minimal, it appears. At best, it can be distracting; at worst, it’s divisive. An unscientific poll by Monster.com last year found that most of those who responded (46 percent) believed it’s best to just listen to political discussions at work and keep their mouths shut; 30 percent said they favored a “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance; only 22 percent supported unrestrained partisan chitchat.

One museum worker wrote in a recent e-mail that her problems with office politicking have always been with bosses, not co-workers. “I had an executive director who said at a staff meeting, ‘There are no Republicans here,’ and in another case I was presented with a petition I did not support on the second day of work, by the director,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At her most recent job, staff meetings frequently included “snide remarks” about Republicans, she said. It made her uncomfortable. “Yet I felt if I had objected to it, I would have been accused of bias — so all I could do was suffer in silence.”

Questionable behavior stretches across the political divide. Another woman, an editor for an association magazine in the District of Columbia, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said her boss, a Republican, makes “pointedly degrading” comments about Democrats. “It has passed the point of being humorous,” she said.

What’s the best defense to deal with this sort of behavior?

First, don’t take the bait. Politely ignore the chronic campaigner. If someone is pressing you on a particularly sensitive issue, such as abortion, calmly tell them you are not comfortable discussing the topic. Walk away if necessary. It might seem rude, but it’s better than losing your temper.

If that doesn’t work, take it to human resources, if possible. Ideally, your employer will have a written policy outlining the organization’s expectations about political activities at work. If not, suggest one be developed. Even for private-sector employers, which don’t have the clear-cut legal restrictions that government offices do, failing to develop and disseminate clear rules invites trouble.

However, if you’re the lone Democrat in a sea of Cheneyites, you may have to accept that you’re a bad fit for that particular workplace. Some industries have definite political leanings. One way to uncover a prevailing political sentiment in an organization before you take a job is to investigate political contributions by the company’s owners and executives. PoliticalMoneyLine allows you to search its database of campaign contributions by employer and occupation (at www.politicalmoneyline.com, click on “Employer/Occupation Lookup” under Donors). Don’t make assumptions about what you find, but the information is a fine starting point for questions about workplace culture.