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Election Talk

Find ways to allow a healthy mix of politics and productivity.

It's not uncommon for 33-year-old Ronn Torossian, the founder of PR firm 5W Public Relations, to overhear employees talking politics when he walks into his company's cafeteria.

"This is the first time in the workplace that I've ever seen people excited about [an] election," Torossian says of his New York City company.

In fact, Torossian and senior members of his team recently debated how much political talk should be allowed among 5W's 90 employees. They banned companywide e-mails in support of political candidates but decided that off-the-clock break room debates are just fine. Says Torossian, "People have a right to express what they want, within reason."

This is the most riveting election year in decades, and Americans are watching. The result is more political discussions at the office, and employees might not be shy about sharing their views: A January American Management Association survey found that 39 percent of employees are comfortable sharing their political views, 26 percent are somewhat comfortable, and 13 percent are extremely comfortable dishing politics with their co-workers.

When political issues become major headline news, "it's almost inevitable that employees are going to talk about them in the workplace," says Manny Avramidis, senior vice president for global human resources at the American Management Association.

Employers, meanwhile, must note the fine line between freedom of expression and free-flowing political discourse that could turn employees against each other. In a small company, it can be even harder to get away from these conversations. Divisiveness is "the last thing a business wants," says David Casey, an office managing shareholder for employment law firm Littler Mendelson.

Instead of forbidding political talk at work--a policy Avramidis views as unrealistic, anyway--remind employees that it can be distracting and can create hard feelings. Says Casey, "It's not a bad idea for management to say at some point in the political season, 'Let's remember why we're here, and let's remember that our job is to work cooperatively, effectively and productively with our co-workers and to serve our customers.'"

As November nears, Torossian wants his employees more focused on PR than party platforms. "We're coming to work to make our clients more successful," he says. "That's the priority, regardless of how passionate one might be about politics."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the June 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Election Talk.

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