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updated: 11/18/2011 3:14 PM

How to cool down hot workplace political discussions

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The good news is that the election is still a year away. That's the bad news, too. There may be plenty of time to sort the candidates and the issues, but there also is plenty of time for what often are passionate discussions, debates and arguments.

For small businesses, the quandary is how to let employees discuss the issues without letting those discussions disrupt either the workplace atmosphere or the work flow.

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How to handle political discussions at work already "is a real issue," says Leslie Day, director of HR consulting at Precision Human Resources LLC, part of Precision Payroll, Oakbrook Terrace. Although the right of free speech doesn't necessarily carry into the workplace -- employers generally have a right to set workplace parameters -- prohibiting political discussions is unrealistic, Day says.

"We're in the political season. People have strong feelings," agrees Mark Richards, an adjunct professor in the HR graduate program at the Elgin campus of Webster University, Webster Grove, MO. Yet, Richards continues, "Very few small companies have specific policies governing political activity in the workplace."

Those policies, Richards says, likely should include a ban on using company resources -- smart phones and your laptop, for example -- to proselytize on behalf of a candidate or political view. Wearing a "Vote for Joe" button when calling on customers and prospects may not be a good idea either.

"The workplace needs to be neutral," says Karen Codere, a Rosemont-based senior human resources specialist at Insperity Inc., a Houston company that provides HR-related support to smaller businesses.

Besides, she adds, "Employees need to stay focused on what they're there to do -- what we pay them for. Employees shouldn't bring the campaign to work."

There are different approaches to keeping the workplace politically neutral. Codere suggests a "well-crafted policy on political discussion" that lays out company ground rules. Such discussion rules normally are part of a business' code of conduct policy, she says.

"Employers have the right to set rules within the workplace," Codere says. "Most employees are pretty pleased to have a policy (that sets parameters). You can't disrupt business operations."

Day is less enamored of written policies, preferring instead that the business owner approach an employee who may go overboard in the political discussion arena for a one-on-one discussion about what is -- and isn't -- allowed.

"If an employee wants to share information or ask a co-worker's opinion on an issue or a candidate, that's OK," Day says. "When employees are interacting in a positive way, that's OK."

On the other hand, if an employee tries to dominate the discussion or impose an opinion, then, Day says, it's time for the boss to step in with a private one-on-one conversation about respecting others and their opinions.

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at JKendall@121MarketingResources.com.

2011 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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