In 2016, Talking Politics Can Make Things Uncomfortable At Work | KERA News

In 2016, Talking Politics Can Make Things Uncomfortable At Work

Jun 20, 2016
Originally published on June 22, 2016 8:16 am

Michael Lopreste imagines it would be easier if he had the sort of job that allowed him to simply walk away from a co-worker's political diatribe. But as sales manager of a high-end furniture chain, he often can't afford to.

"Being in sales, we're kind of this captive audience," Lopreste says. "You know, you want to make the client feel at ease, you want to make them feel important, you want to be able to have a good rapport with them. And a lot of times that manifests itself by being able to mirror back what they're saying, or perfecting the nod and smile."

This election season, with polarizing candidates in both major parties, some workers and employers say the old etiquette rule about not discussing religion and politics has fallen by the wayside. Political vitriol is spilling over more than ever into the workplace — making it a potentially hostile environment.

On Sunday, the Society for Human Resource Management released a survey showing 26 percent of employers say there is greater political volatility in the office compared with previous election cycles. Only 5 percent say there's less tension — but some of those reporting less discussion say it's likely because people are trying harder to avoid it. (The remainder of the employers reported no change in tension, hostility or arguments because of politics.)

Lopreste, a Democrat, says customers supporting Donald Trump have pressed him into conversations decrying minimum wage hikes. Lopreste says he feigns agreement until he can't take it anymore, telling them, " 'You know, let me go check in the back for that,' " he says, "which, 9 times out of 10, is code for: 'I am done talking with you right now — and I need a minute to myself.' "

Lopreste grew up liking a good political debate. His parents are Republicans and he studied political science in college. But, he says, the tenor has changed.

"I feel like we've lost tact, and we've lost the ability to approach things delicately or to be able to read the room."

Employers are worried about that, too.

Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia employment lawyer, says this campaign season is heavy on anger.

"Some of that anger isn't solely in dinner conversations or political rallies, but it comes into the workplaces," he says.

For employers, however, regulating political discussion is a tricky balance. Segal says discussion of minimum wage, equal pay, paid leave — things that affect working conditions — might be protected by federal labor laws. On the other hand, careless comments about race, gender or religion could also lead to harassment or discrimination claims.

Susan Schoenfeld, a senior legal editor at Business and Legal Resources, a publication for employers, urges employers to be very vigilant about what their employees are doing or saying at the office.

"It only takes one person to have that inflammatory discussion to alienate someone or cause a hostile work environment or potential harassment claim," she says.

Schoenfeld says the law gives private employers wide latitude for regulating political speech during work hours.

"Employees at private companies do not have a constitutional right to free speech or expression at work," she says, so using company time for political activity, wearing campaign T-shirts or posting posters in workspace is not protected under the First Amendment.

Yet, according to SHRM, only about a quarter of employers have a written policy regulating political activity at work. And having one won't necessarily resolve problems.

Drew Robertson, a music teacher at a boys school in Rochester, N.Y., protested with others after the senior class sold "Make Our School Great Again" T-shirts, riffing off Trump's slogan.

"The other faculty members and myself were incredibly offended that the senior class decided to not only insinuate that all the previous classes at our school were not great, but that we wanted to ally ourselves with the views of Donald Trump as a school," Robertson says.

Robertson, who says he will vote libertarian this November, says it's the first year he can recall that politics became a disciplinary issue in his classroom.

"This year is the first year that I've experienced students openly making anti-Latino jokes in orchestra class," he says. "I actually had a student say he wanted to build a wall around a cellist, because it would keep him quiet."

Yet not everyone finds this year's campaigns are cause for strife.

Katie Toole Duncan, a writing tutor at Tallahassee Community College, says most of her colleagues support Bernie Sanders.

"I am a registered Republican — for now," she says.

"For now," because Duncan isn't planning to vote with her party this year. She says she will "hold her nose" and vote for Hillary Clinton, and says in an odd way, talking politics has fostered camaraderie with her co-workers.

"I even joked with some of them that maybe the one good thing about Trump is that a Democrat and I can have a political discussion that we agree on."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, we have had our our share of divisive political conversations here in the United States of late. I'm not sure if you've experienced this yourself, but some are complaining that political anger is creeping into the workplace, sometimes creating hostile work environments. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: It would be easier, Michael Lopreste imagines, if he worked in a place where he could simply walk away from political diatribes. But as sales manager of a high-end furniture chain, he often can't afford to.

MICHAEL LOPRESTE: Being in sales, we're kind of this captive audience. You know, you want to make the client feel at ease. You want to make them feel important. You want to be able to have a good rapport with them. And a lot of times, that manifests itself by being able to mirror back what they're saying or perfecting the nod and smile.

NOGUCHI: Customers supporting Donald Trump have pressed him into conversations decrying minimum-wage hikes. Lopreste, a Democrat, feigns agreement until he can't stand it anymore.

LOPRESTE: You know, let me go check in the back for that, which, 9 times out of 10, is code for, I am done talking with you right now, and I need a minute to myself.

NOGUCHI: Lopreste says his parents are Republicans, and he studied political science in college. So ordinarily, he likes debate, but the tenor has changed.

LOPRESTE: I feel like we've lost tact, and we've lost the ability to approach things delicately or to be able to read the room.

NOGUCHI: Employers are worried about that, too. This week, the Society for Human Resource Management released a survey showing 26 percent of employers say there's greater political volatility in the office compared to previous election cycles. Five percent say there's less tension, but possibly because people are trying harder to avoid it. Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia employment lawyer, says this campaign season is heavy on anger.

JONATHAN SEGAL: Some of that anger isn't solely in dinner conversations or political rallies, but it comes into the workplaces.

NOGUCHI: For employers, however, regulating political discussion is a tricky balance. Segal says discussion of minimum wage, equal pay, paid leave - things that affect working conditions - might be protected by federal labor laws. On the other hand, careless comments about race, gender or religion could also lead to harassment or discrimination claims. Susan Schoenfeld is senior legal editor at Business and Legal Resources, a publication for employers. She urges employers to be very vigilant.

SUSAN SCHOENFELD: It only takes one person to have that inflammatory discussion to alienate someone or cause a hostile work environment, a potential harassment claim.

NOGUCHI: She says the law gives private employers a wide latitude for regulating political speech during work hours.

SCHOENFELD: Employees of private companies do not have a constitutional right to free speech or expression at work.

NOGUCHI: Yet, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, only about a quarter of employers have a written policy regulating political activity at work. And having one won't necessarily resolve problems. Drew Robertson is a music teacher at a boys school in Rochester, N.Y. He and others protested after the senior class sold make-our-school-great-again T-shirts, riffing off Donald Trump's slogan.

DREW ROBERTSON: The other faculty members and myself were incredibly offended that the senior class decided to not only insinuate that all the previous classes at our school were not great, but that we wanted to ally ourselves with the views of Donald Trump as a school.

NOGUCHI: Robertson, who says he will vote Libertarian this November, says politics even color his classroom.

ROBERTSON: This year is the first year that I've experienced students openly making anti-Latino jokes in orchestra class. I actually had a student say he wanted to build a wall around a cellist because it would keep him quiet.

NOGUCHI: Not everyone finds this year's campaigns are cause for strife. Katie Toole Duncan, a writing tutor at Tallahassee Community College, says most of her colleagues support Bernie Sanders.

KATIE DUNCAN: I am a registered Republican for now.

NOGUCHI: For now because Duncan isn't planning to vote with her party this year. She says she will hold her nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. She says, in an odd way, talking politics has helped build camaraderie with her coworkers.

DUNCAN: I even joked with some of them that maybe the one good thing about Trump is that, you know, a Democrat and I can have a political discussion that we agree on.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.