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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CAREERS / THE PATCHWORK OFFICE : No Hard and Fast Rules on Political Talk at the Office

March 13, 1995|SCOTT SANDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Politics is Rich Gleerup's passion--except when he's at work.

In his free time, the 37-year-old chairman of the South Bay Young Republicans will readily debate the merits of the "contract with America" and smaller government.

But as an assistant project manager at Hughes Aircraft Co.'s Radar Systems Group in El Segundo, his attitude toward politics runs along the lines of "don't ask, don't tell."

"I just don't bring it up at work," Gleerup said. "I'm in a supervisory position and don't want it to be an issue with my workers. I try to follow the old rule of business: Don't bring up politics or religion."

Despite such maxims, talk about politics is an inescapable part of many workers' daily routines. Most of the time, political discourse in the workplace is harmless--a subtle comment here about Newt Gingrich, a snort or snicker there about President Clinton.

"We have a lot of fun with the news around here," said Pamela Lemke, 32, a financial software consultant for SunGard Asset Management Systems in Torrance. "We're always talking about something--whether it's NAFTA or Congress or the elections."

Lemke, who has worked on several campaigns for Republican candidates in Southern California, said she often displays small political signs in her office--right next to an American flag and a U.S. Marine Corps poster.

"I don't bring anything really large or loud, though," Lemke said. "I try not to be obnoxious about it."

Roger Doucet, a 46-year-old Canadian citizen and self-described Libertarian who sits at a nearby cubicle, says he enjoys discussing politics with Lemke, even when they differ on issues.

"It's refreshing," Doucet said. "I wish everybody would be more politically involved. Most people don't even know who's running for office, so when she shows her support for a candidate, I think that's great."

Likewise, Lemke said she respects the views of Doucet and Democratic colleagues.

"I don't want to get into any serious arguments," Lemke said. "It's not worth it to me."

Though knock-down, drag-out political debates in the workplace appear to be rare, some workers privately admit that chitchat around water coolers and coffee urns can strain relationships.

One woman who works for a Downtown Los Angeles accounting firm said her negative comments about an anti-abortion rally caused a rift with a co-worker who, unknown to her, had participated in the protest.

"It really shocked me that he got so angry and felt so adamant about it," she said. "After that, I felt on edge about what I said to him. There's definitely a lot of tension now."

Aside from personal rifts, though, labor lawyers and privacy advocates say complaints of political discrimination or harassment on the job are rare and that even fewer cases have been brought to trial.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for instance, doesn't field complaints of political harassment because there are no federal statutes it can enforce on the subject, said Dorothy Porter, executive director of the agency's Los Angeles office.

"Fortunately, it's one of the abuses we don't see a whole lot of," said Lewis Maltby, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national workplace task force. "I suspect most bosses don't care much about their employees' politics . . . and that the politics involved are not so abhorrent that they would cause serious problems."

Said Lester G. Ostrov, a union lawyer in Los Angeles: "I'm sure it happens, but . . . I was surprised the (state) labor code even addressed the issue."

Under state law, employers are generally not allowed to forbid or control the political affiliations or activities of employees. Coercing workers to engage in or refrain from political expression is also illegal.

Nevertheless, businesses can regulate the actions of employees to preserve decorum in the workplace. Many companies have written or unwritten rules that prevent workers from displaying large signs, political or otherwise, in the office. Partisan fund raising is also frowned upon.

"We encourage our employees to be politically active," said Al Greenstein, a spokesman for Atlantic Richfield Co. "If somebody wears a campaign button or has a small sign on their desk, I don't think that would be a problem. As long as you're not aggressive, proselytizing or raising funds on company time, it's OK."

Still, many people say they prefer to leave politics at the door when they're on the job.

"At work I say live and let live," said Hawthorne Mayor Larry Guidi, 37, who is vice president at the Keihin America shipping company in Carson. Guidi, a Democrat, said he gets enough debate at City Council meetings and with his wife, a Republican.

"Mixing politics and work just creates enemies," he said.

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