NEW YORK – Dan Stewart walked into the room just in time to hear one of his employees say that one presidential candidate should be in jail, and a second staffer respond that another was the worst since Hitler.
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"I said, 'Whoa, wait a minute,'" says Stewart, CEO of Happy Grasshopper, an email marketing company. "It wasn't angry, but I could see that it could get there."
The contentiousness of this presidential campaign is spilling into some workplaces. And even when there's no rancor, more time is being spent on election chatter. Employment lawyers and human resources providers say they're getting more calls seeking advice, and suggest bosses tread carefully. Rather than try to control what people are saying, owners should focus on whether the work is getting done in an atmosphere that isn't hostile.
Stewart called a meeting of the 30 people at his Tampa, Florida-based company and asked if they liked their collegial culture. They all agreed that they did. The boss told them that heated discussions about the election could be a threat to that.
"Everyone agreed not to focus on it during work hours," Stewart says.
Employment attorney Nannina Angioni usually gets calls from clients during election campaigns, "but not at this level." As Election Day nears, owners are seeing more anger. Some say the level of acrimony is affecting employees' ability to work together. Many want to ban political talk altogether.
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But prohibiting political conversations could land an employer in legal hot water, says Angioni, a partner with the Century City, California-based firm Kaedian LLP.
If a company bans election talk but says it's OK for staffers to discuss sports or other topics, some employees could feel discriminated against; that ban could be grounds for an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. Moreover, if the issues under discussion have any connection to the workplace, such as the minimum wage or health care law, the conversation is protected by the National Labor Relations Act. And some state laws may give even more protection to political talk.
On the other hand, business owners must guard against conversations that breed antagonism.
"Employees are not allowed to engage in conduct that negatively affects their co-workers' work environment," Angioni says. A hostile work environment can be grounds for a harassment lawsuit.
If there's too much talking — about any topic — owners should remind staffers that work needs to come first, human resources consultants say. If the conversations hurt productivity, bosses have a performance issue to deal with — as they would if the talk were about TV or anything else.
"Enforce the fact that you're running a business. Political discussions at break time are fine as long as they're respectful," says Laura Kerekes, who heads the team of consultants at ThinkHR of Pleasanton, California.
But make sure employees know they shouldn't get into political discourse with customers, Kerekes says. If a customer is offended by a staffer's political beliefs, the company could lose that person's business.
Over the course of the campaign, there's been a slight increase in political conversations at Dukas Linden Public Relations, and a couple of instances when employees have had quiet disagreements. CEO Richard Dukas took a proactive approach, bringing up the election at a staff meeting in the spring.
"I said to them, 'Obviously we're not going to be able to ignore this campaign, but I would ask that everyone try to tone down the partisanship and rhetoric,'" Dukas says.
He isn't looking to shut down political discussions. "You can't help but talk about it. It's ubiquitous," says Dukas, whose company is based in New York.
For some companies, election talk can be part of the job. At Live Wire Media Relations, part of staffers' work is to train and coach clients who appear on TV or in videos. There's a lot of conversation about how the candidates are coming across on TV and what they're doing wrong, says Chryssa Zizos, CEO of the Arlington, Virginia-based company.
And political conversations that remain friendly "can be just as much of a morale-builder as that baseball game or football game," says Bethany Holliday, human resources director for The Cornerstone Insurance Group, a company that provides HR services.
For Zizos' staff of 10, the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a bonding event.
"We had a golf outing the week before, but people didn't come in after that talking like they did after the debate," she says.
Follow Joyce Rosenberg at www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg . Her work can be found here: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joyce-m-rosenberg