The Politics of Political Harassment: Might It Need A Law Too?

He walked into the lunchroom like he was walking onto a campaign bus; poster of “his” presidential candidate in hand, he marched to the community bulletin board, tacked it up, and announced loudly, “This is the next president of the United States. Anyone who doesn’t think so probably shouldn’t be eating at my tables.” Yep. He was the boss. He quickly laughed and said “Relax, I’m just kidding!” before making his exit but the point had been made. Everyone looked silently at each other before getting back to their soup and turkey wraps.

A new young employee finds herself in benign conversation with a supervisor about the Vice Presidential debate, all very generic and anecdotal, when the supervisor leans in with a paternal arm around her shoulder and says, “Can’t be undecided now, right? Who are you voting for, by the way?” Before new young employee can answer, he quickly responds, “Because everyone here is pretty much for _____________.” He squeezes her shoulder, gives her a wink, and walks off. She gulps and shuffles back to her cubicle.

A group of department heads with varying degrees of seniority are gathered for a human resources seminar. Before long, and before the official meeting starts, the conversation steers to politics and, without subtlety or discretion, five out of the seven begin discussing what “an idiot” the President is; laughing about his name, his “lack of religion,” and his “dubious” birth certificate. The other three? Two are relatively new to the company and the third is departing shortly on maternity leave. Speak up? What do you think?

Recently the CEO of Westgate Resorts, David Siegel, sent out a company-wide email detailing why he was voting for Mitt Romney and what would happen to his employees if they didn’t, Murray Energy’s (coal) COO, Robert Morse made attendance as background extras at a Romney rally mandatory; even more recently (as it to top them…corporate CEOs are so competitive!), Arthur Allen, CEO of ASG Software Solutions, is threatening to fire employees if Obama is reelected.


What a bunch! In case the thought struck you too, here’s the legal definition of another kind of harassment we don’t appreciate:

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. The legal definition of sexual harassment is “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”

Now let’s add in the paragraph about how this harassment affects working conditions:

Affects Working Conditions or Creates a Hostile Work Environment: If you are fired, refused a promotion, demoted, given a poor performance evaluation, or reassigned to a less desirable position because you reject a sexual advance, that almost certainly is sexual harassment. Even if the conduct does not result in economic injury or change of status to your job, it may be sexual harassment if the conduct unreasonably interferes with your work performance or creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” For example, it may be illegal sexual harassment if repeated sexual comments make you so uncomfortable at work that your performance suffers or if you decline professional opportunities because it will put you in contact with the harasser.

Seems pretty clear. Now, just as an exercise, let’s replace all the “sex” words in both paragraphs with words related to “politics”:

Political harassment is a form of civic discrimination. The legal definition of political harassment is “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a political nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”

Affects Working Conditions or Creates a Hostile Work Environment: If you are fired, refused a promotion, demoted, given a poor performance evaluation, or reassigned to a less desirable position because you reject a political suggestion, inference, or demand, that almost certainly is political harassment. Even if the conduct does not result in economic injury or change of status to your job, it may be political harassment if the conduct unreasonably interferes with your work performance or creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” For example, it may be illegal political harassment if repeated political comments make you so uncomfortable at work that your performance suffers or if you decline professional opportunities because it will put you in contact with the harasser.

See how easily all the same verbiage applies to the scenarios detailed above? The intimidation, the presumption of agreement, the implication of negative consequences, etc.? How is political harassment in the workplace any less oppressive, offensive, or objectionable than sexual harassment? For the person being harassed, it likely isn’t.

I was listening to a debate about this exact topic on NPR the other day, an AirTalk segment titled: Talking politics: is it taboo in the workplace? Host Larry Mantle was discussing the parameters in which employees and employers are within – or without – their First Amendment rights in discussing political beliefs in the workplace. It was very illuminating to hear the feedback of his guest, Steve Kaplan, a Labor Employment Lawyer in practice in Los Angeles and former chair of LA County Bar’s labor and employment section. Click the title link above to hear the interview; it’s only 16 minutes long and it’s worth a listen.

As everyone who reads anything I write knows, I love talking politics and I’m happy to do so with any willing, relatively intelligent person with a cogent viewpoint. I figure if I write something that is published in a public forum like FacebookHuffington PostTwitter,  Rock+Paper+Music, or here at AddictingInfo, wherever, and someone actively chooses to engage me based on that public contribution, great; let’s talk turkey. No one has to read what I write, no one has to ponder my points, and no one has to respond (and given the nature of online media, unless you voluntarily join in, I won’t have a clue what you think!). But beyond those mutually chosen online exchanges is the world outside the internet: family gatherings, friend get-togethers, intimate dinner parties, large occasions, etc. And there, in those settings?  Unless I’m invited into a conversation of a political nature that I choose to join, don’t expect to hear me chattering away about who I think should be doing what in what office of the land. As good manners dictates on any topic of substance and potential controversy, I don’t believe I – or anyone – should spout off about personal political beliefs without first ascertaining the listening party’s level of agreement or interest. Cuz lots of the time, THERE ISN’T ANY. They just want to eat dinner, talk about a movie, catch up on the family, or get some work done. Once you launch into politics there’s nowhere to hide. Unless you’re in a group that’s politically in alignment with each other and with you, and everyone agrees, “Hey, let’s talk politics,” the verbal blathering and subsequent imposition of one’s political beliefs is just plain rude, even offensive, depending on the situation. And nothing has the potential to ruin a good gathering more; once it’s starts, it’s all about pushback, lecturing, arguing, debating, pontificating, yelling, and who knows what else, and only after the evening’s been blown all to hell do you realize all anyone wanted to do was eat pizza and discuss Homeland!

And at work? Are you kidding me? Can you think of any environment more fraught with potential peril when it comes to the discussion of politics? You mention liking the First Lady’s latest J. Crew ensemble and your cubicle partner suddenly won’t turn their chair around, their Romney sticker prominently slapped to their computer cover. Or your immediate supervisor, a rabid Liberal, sees your Facebook pics from a Romney rally and before you know it you’re no longer needed on that new project. And, of course, if you work for David Siegel, your participation in a “get out the vote” effort for the DNC will likely result in “your department being downsized.”

It ain’t a slippery slope, it’s a goddamn landslide.

There are right places to discuss politics and wrong ones. Work is a “wrong one.” A job should never be place where you worry about being outed for your political beliefs, nor is it a place where you should be forced to listen to anyone else’s; certainly it’s not a place where you should be browbeaten into political submission in order to maintain your employment. There are enough reasons to sweat your job these days; politics shouldn’t be one of them.

Harassment is harassment is harassment. Like porn, we know it when we see it. And as sexual harassment is illegal, so should political harassment be. Let’s get on that before 2016, could we?

www.lorrainedevonwilke.com