When Jeanne Becker received a letter from a client asking for a donation to a political party she found it amusing — and awkward. Carefully, Becker, a Coral Gables publicist, responded by using a little humor to let her client know she appreciates his business but doesn’t share his political affiliation. “Fortunately, I was close enough to the client to make a joke.”
With the political conventions kicking off the official election season, plenty of awkward workplace scenarios like Becker’s are beginning to unfold.
Vehement employee opinions, fundraising efforts and campaigning are likely to test business relationships and office harmony. “It’s going to get tricky,” warns employment attorney John Jansonius with Jackson Walker in Dallas.
Just last week, Miami computer distributor Maurizio Prattico says he stepped out of his cubicle and into the middle of an escalating debate among staff about Mitt Romney’s speech. Italian-born and in the midst of his citizenship application, Prattico says he enjoys differing opinions on political issues — even in the workplace.
“Many of us are from other countries and have seen other kind of governments. In America, everything is very open and everyone enjoys that, he said.”
However, Prattico urges employees to show mutual respect and stay focused on work.
Consultant Elena Brouwer, owner of International Etiquette Centre in Hollywood , says she’s already been called into action at one South Florida company where managers were pressuring employees to attend fundraisers. “It was causing stress for staff. The perception was that by saying no to the boss’ request the employee might lose favor.”
Brouwer says it’s crucial for management to send the message that campaign donations and attendance at fundraisers are voluntary. However, she tells employee to consider consequences if they’re put on the spot: “A small donation may be the way to go because, in business, you need to keep lot of people happy.”
Overall, Brouwer says diplomacy works best when workplace conversations evolve into election talk. “Whether it’s a client or a co-worker, if you have a different opinion, agree to disagree. You are not going to convince anyone to change his mind. Heated discussions don’t get anywhere. “
As an executive at a nonprofit, Sallie Byrd doesn’t want to risk offending a donor or volunteer by entering even a casual discussion of politics. Byrd, vice president of development with the Florida Heart Research Institute, says if someone at work asks her opinion on a political topic or who her choice is for president, she simply lets the person know that’s something she wants to keep to herself.
“I don’t go there. I get out as gracefully as can. Getting into political debates can be deadly in the non-profit world.”
Seth Gordon, a former lobbyist, has had practice navigating the awkward scenarios that arise during election season. One of the trickiest, he says, is making the decision on whether ignoring a political appeal could affect your professional image as a team player.
“The first time you’re asked to give money or time, you do have the option of ignoring the request. The second time, you have to make a judgment call.”