The Separation of Work and State

With only three weeks to go before the November election, political campaigning by both politicians and their supporters has reached fever pitch. Hardly a day goes by where Americans are not being bombarded by news stories, television ads, campaign signs or election-themed chatter. A friend of mine was explaining that political activism was so pervasive at his office that people were decorating their cubicles with t-shirts, signs, buttons and other regalia from their preferred presidential candidate.

While no stranger to political water cooler talks, even with, or maybe especially with, those who disagree with me, I wonder: Is it appropriate to openly discuss politics at work?

This is a question some school administrators are currently grappling with. According to a recent New York Times blog,

“In Illinois, the state university ethics office stated in its newsletter that faculty are barred not only from wearing campaign buttons in the classroom, but also from placing political bumper stickers on their cars and attending political rallies on campus.”

I personally think the ban on bumper stickers is a little extreme. The real issue here is whether a teacher expressing a political affiliation in the classroom affects students’ behavior and output, much in the same way an employee might be inclined to voice support for a particular candidate to score points with their boss regardless of the employee’s true preference.

As author Stanley Fish points out,

“You don’t have to be taking up a collection for a candidate in order to make a pitch for him. A campaign button will do just fine, and the student who sees it day after day will wonder if it might be prudent to slant an essay in a certain direction.

And as for Cary Nelson’s point (which others also make) that if students can wear campaign buttons, why can’t teachers too, the answer is obvious: if I look out and see Heather and Kevin turning themselves into advertisements for a candidate, my behavior doesn’t alter at all; but if they look up and see me announcing where I stand, they might well alter their behavior in ways of which they are not even aware.”

Does a ban on expressing political affiliation at work violate our first amendment rights to express ourselves freely? Do the personal beliefs of others have an effect on our behavior? Where do we draw the line between personal expression and professional conduct? Is there a line? Should there be one?

As it gets closer to the election and I discover the political preference of friends, co-workers and family, I can’t help but notice that, whether we want it to or not, political preference says a lot about a person and their beliefs. Liberals are generally viewed as idealistic, socialistic, tree-hugging hippies. Conservatives are often seen as wealthy, anti-government and older.

Whether you agree with or conform to these stereotypes, your political preferences will most likely pigeonhole you into one of these groups and others will form opinions about you based on where you fit. To me, this is the danger in expressing personal beliefs in the workplace. It can take the focus from your professional accomplishments and redirect it on your personal life, no matter how brilliant you are at your job. That’s reason enough for me to consider keeping my campaign buttons at home.

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5 responses »

  1. You are right, if you express your political opinions, your chances of disappointing someone higher up on the food chain are better than 50/50. It is wise to keep them to yourself. Even more important, all company officials should avoid even looking like they support one party or candidate over the others lest it appear that they are biased against employees who do not. Voting and politics, just like religion, have no real place in the work place… unless you are working for a political action committee or campaign et al.

  2. Pingback: The Separation of Work and State

  3. I don’t really get this. My family reunion is coming up and one of my relatives requested that we not discuss politics or religion. I think that politics, religion – what we believe in and have faith in is extremely important. It informs our work and personal lives, and to say that we shouldn’t discuss them anywhere is dangerous.

  4. People can really get fired up about politics. That’s probably due, in large part, to all of the mudslinging candidates do during the campaign process to drive a wedge between themselves and their competitors. So, when you bring up politics at work, there’s a good chance the person you’re speaking with is either going to completely agree or completely disagree (without much chance for discussion) with you.

    Instead of bringing it up at work, leave talk about politics to the people who really like to hear themselves talk a whole lot about a whole little—the politicians.

  5. Politics and religion are usually issues you can only discuss with people you trust. In most cases because of the competitive nature of the business atmosphere in America it’s not usually a good idea that you talk to people that you work with about politics or religion. If your opinion isn’t something you’re worried about being misconstrued and indirectly applied to your professional aptitude then by all means go ahead and share your opinion but it’s this reader’s advice to let sleeping dogs lie. Abstaining from non productive conversation will only help your professional profile instead of compromising it in an attempt to win a religion or politics based debate.

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