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As political buzz in the office intensifies, workers walking thin line

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) The window in Tom Golden's office has been transformed into a version of the political talk show "Crossfire."

On one half, colleagues have posted pictures and quotes poking fun at President Bush. On the other half, Republicans have their say, including Golden, who pinned up a Christmas card with a picture of Bush and the first lady.

"We probably have as many Democrats as we have Republicans, and we debate a lot in my practice," said Golden, a partner at public accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. "I love talking politics."

This year, the political buzz around the water cooler seems to be more intense, as books, movies and news events put politics front and center.

Communications experts and business coaches caution that in this highly charged political environment, employees should avoid jumping into political conversations at work.

"People take their political beliefs very strongly," said Barbara Pachter, a business coach and corporate trainer in New Jersey. "You may say something that insults a co-worker or your boss."

Part of the reason for possible water cooler hostilities is that there's plenty of fodder. The already intense campaign for president. The war in Iraq. The hoopla surrounding Michael Moore's politically charged movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11." Former President Bill Clinton's biography.


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In Illinois, the release of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jack Ryan's divorce files brought sex and politics out into the open in workplaces that normally are cautious to broach such subjects.

"Politics has been occupying more lunch conversations than usual," said Michael Stiegel, partner at the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich. "I think that it's on everybody's minds these days."

Added Tilden Katz, a media consultant to law firms: "I am surprised at how much more willing people are to talk about politics."

Katz recently attended a lunch meeting with potential clients and was caught off guard when they started talking about Moore's movie and President Bush. Katz is reluctant to talk politics with clients because he doesn't want to risk offending them. But in this instance he felt obligated to join in.

Political differences don't receive as much attention as race, sex and religion from human-resource executives managing the complex milieu of workplaces, said Peter Handal, president and chief executive of Dale Carnegie Training, a global management-training firm in Hauppauge, N.Y. Yet the subject can be as polarizing.

Managers say they are mindful to balance the mood in the workplace. Confrontations could jeopardize morale and productivity.

"The boss has to set the tone," Golden said. "I always make sure that there's nothing offensive that's put up on the window or the walls."

Many companies draw the line at employees soliciting for political funds or passing out political literature at work. Restrictions also are placed on using office e-mail or the Internet for personal use, said Michael Karpeles, an employment lawyer at the Chicago firm of Goldberg Kohn Bell Black Rosenbloom & Moritz.

As for talking politics at lunch or around the water cooler, companies tend to see no harm, as long as its not disruptive or taking up too much time, Karpeles said.

Marsha Serlin, chief executive of United Scrap Metal Inc. in Cicero, Ill., said she thinks one of her responsibilities is to keep her workforce of about 125 informed about politics. She has voter-registration drives at the office and sometimes sends out memos about candidates' views on issues such as job outsourcing and taxes.

"People should have knowledge of who they are putting into office," Serlin said. "We try to keep our workers informed about both local and federal issues."

Still, bosses have to be wary of the line between educating and even appearing to pressure employees to support a particular candidate.

That's not a problem for Chicago attorney Michael Hyman. He and his personal assistant, Rhonda McLarney, sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum, yet they don't take each other seriously when it comes to political debate.

Hyman, a die-hard Democrat, sends her birthday cards featuring Clinton. She returned the favor by giving him a Christmas card from Bush.

"We know each other really well," Hyman said. "We rarely debate, because there's no way I'm going to convince her, and there's no way she's going to convince me."

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