When Jeanne Becker received a letter from a client asking for a donation to a political party, she found it amusing -- and awkward. Ms. Becker, a Coral Gables, Fla., publicist, carefully 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 Ms. 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.
Consultant Elena Brouwer, owner of International Etiquette Centre in Hollywood, Fla., says she's already been called into action at one South Florida company where managers were pressuring employees to attend fundraisers.
Ms. Brouwer says it's crucial for management to send the message that campaign donations and attendance at fundraisers are voluntary. But 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 lots of people happy."
Overall, Ms. 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."
Law firms in particular tend to be hotbeds of political clashes during major elections. Manny Garcia-Linares, managing partner of Richman Greer in Miami and West Palm Beach, said his firm has lawyers who support both major political parties. The lawyers have learned to respect each other's views -- and over time, made rules about what's acceptable during election season.
Not allowed: sending out political emails. "If it's not work-related, don't send it out," he said. What is allowed: holding fundraisers at the law firm's offices. "As long as you make it clear there is no obligation for anyone to go."
These days, social media create other venues for problematic scenarios. What happens if your boss or business owner posts regularly on social media about his support of a political party, candidate or issue? Some employees believe such online behavior could cause others to infer they, too, hold that opinion.
Marlon Hill, founding partner of the law firm of delancyhill, admits his Facebook page proudly displays his support for President Barack Obama. "No one should be afraid of politics. This country permits us to have spirit and an individual voice," he said.
But Mr. Hill says he understands co-workers may not agree with his political views and uses caution: "You have to respect individual choices and be mindful of every word you say."
Some employers have proactively made clear how they want their workers to behave during election season. This might include prohibiting workers in customer-facing positions from wearing political buttons or displaying political messages.
At PNC Financial Services, spokesman Fred Solomon says political discussions at work are OK, but employees must get clearance to donate to a candidate, volunteer for a political cause or campaign for a candidate. The bank's policy also addresses what campaign materials workers can post in their workspace. "Banks have different rules than most businesses," Mr. Solomon explains. "They are set by outside regulators."
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.