Can Gossiping About Joe the Plumber Cost You Your Job?


When the political banter is Will Ferrell as Bush and Tina Fey as Palin on Saturday Night Live, it is funny.

Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Joy Behar's Kool-Aid banter on The View, is must see.

But when it is your coworkers making political conversation, that's a different story.

For employees in the private sector, an “at-will” employment system exists. In other words, an employer can terminate one’s employment at any time. Complete censorship is unlikely in most work arenas, but in most employment contracts, the fine print does not include political affiliation as a means of protection from termination, as it does (in most states) gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.

“Don’t assume free speech exists everywhere,” says Bruce Barry, professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University and author of Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace. “Rights are limited, especially for employees in the private sector.”

For that reason political conversations are best left outside of the office, he says, including those on work-provided devices such as BlackBerrys (Stock Quote: RIMM). “Some employers may try to keep their workers from speaking about politics through emails."

Determining just how political your conversations can be involves interpreting unwritten work rules, experts say.

“With policies regarding [quantity] of vacation days, you can believe the policy manual,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, based in Princeton, N.J. But political discussions in the workplace are different: “There are issues where the official rules are the real rules that are understood (by employers and employees), this isn’t one of them.”


Of course there's always at least one coworker, red or blue, who needs a pulpit. Because politics is a sensitive realm, and highly personal, know that bringing up any subject can easily escalate into a full-fledged shouting fest, which is simply not appropriate for the office.

“Most employers don’t care if you talk about politics, sports, the stock market, etc – virtually every employer knows that those conversations happen,” says Maltby. “But if it becomes a visible problem, they will remember it.”

Office politics don’t always resemble a democracy, and understanding this can give employees an advantage. In fact, an employee should observe the office atmosphere before honing in on the Bush Doctrine or advocating gay rights to fellow employees. “Try to be a good anthropologist,” says Barry. 

In other words, see if the office is an environment open to political discussions. And along with that, if you’re going to slip and reveal your political thoughts, know who you’re speaking to, says Maltby.

“Whenever you bring up politics, realize you’re taking a chance,” he says. “If you’re boss is in favor of the war and you go speaking out against it, it’s likely he’ll hold it against you. He may even fire you.”

If the urge is coming on, “bite your tongue,” says Maltby. “Everyone knows what the explosive subjects are,” says Maltby. His advice: “avoid them.”

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