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E-Mail Brings Politics to Workplace

January 25, 2001 

Like many Americans, pediatrician Kenneth Rafal got caught up in the presidential election drama.

So, when he got an e-mail petition last month calling for an end to the Florida recount, he forwarded it to many of the 245 employees at the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based medical practice group he leads.

"A few people did express some concerns about me sending political stuff over our work e-mail. But I felt so strongly about this particular situation, that I felt it was worthwhile," Rafal said in an telephone interview. "Politics belong everywhere if you live in a democratic society."

Politics used to be a delicate topic around the water cooler. As Election 2000 showed, electronic mail has changed all that.

For the past several months, many office workers have lived in blizzard of e-mailed jokes, poems and dancing images of candidates and chads sent to them by friends, colleagues and, in some instances, by the boss himself.

Some employees welcomed the chance to talk about the real-world issues in the workplace, and hope it will continue. But not everyone's convinced the discourse is a good idea.

"It's fine to talk politics at lunch or on the way to the parking lot, but not at the office. It's robbing the boss of time and it's really distracting," said etiquette doyenne Letitia Baldridge. "It's also a good way to hound and persecute someone whose beliefs you don't share and that doesn't belong at work either."

Still, in an election that inspired everything from Web sites comparing the candidates with chimpanzees to bingo ballots and obscene parodies, the deluge and consequent discussion were hard to avoid – even for even those disinclined to discuss politics at work.

"In general, you tend to try not to touch on political issues in the office. There's a desire to avoid being decisive. But in this election, your opinion on the outcome was so dependent on how you voted, it was hard not to," said Caitlin Baron, a Boston consultant, who traded political e-mails with colleagues she knew shared her views but would never have sent out office-wide messages.

The discussion got so heated at the Austin, Tex.,-based Internet startup where Gary Young works that the office called a moratorium on political e-mail discussion.

"At one point, because thing had gotten a little tense, we decided to lay off on it for a while. It was an informal decision, nothing typed, but we all thought it would make the work environment a little bit better," he said, describing his office as a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

"Most people had laughed at the jokes before the election, but afterward, as it became clear this was headed for litigation, it wasn't so funny."

Although many companies restrict e-mail use or prohibit transmission of material that isn't business-related, most employers hesitate to specifically ban political discussion, said Martin Fogelman, a professor at State University of New York in Albany.

If you're too specific, you can get stuck and be limited in who it applies to," he said. "But you have the right as an employer to determine how your resources are used, and that can apply to political discussion, too."

Legal issues aside, the appropriateness of politics in the workplace may really hinge on the individual environment.

"Each corporate culture is different. You have to learn what is OK and what isn't," said Peter Post, great grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post, although he wouldn't personally tolerate it in his office. "If you misstep, you might get yourself in hot water. You don't want to offend someone, particularly your boss."

Young noted that the political e-mails that flew all over his office and were sent by managers in some cases, might not have been acceptable in other settings.

"I worked at the government previously. Although I would have never used government e-mail or property, we definitely would have discussed some politics," he said. "But I generally think talking about the election this time around was good. The e-mails helped fuel the flames and get people talking."

That sentiment is shared by Rachel Robertson, a Lexington, Ky., stockbroker and staunch Republican. Her mostly conservative office of about 8 employees spent a lot of time discussing the election and the e-mails they got.

"There were times when I did get my feathers ruffled, and I'd get frustrated," said Robertson, who described herself as more conservative than some of her colleagues. "But overall, I think the e-mails were a good thing. They inspired discussion that might not have taken place, and perhaps the humor caught the attention of people who might have been apathetic otherwise."

© 2001 The Associated Press

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