Can you share your political views at work with colleagues or customers? Does your company show its political stance by openly supporting a federal, state or local political organisation? Would you be able to run for office while working part-time or during a sabbatical at your company?

Do you have colleagues who thrust their political views on you and others in the workplace, even though you could not care less and just want to get on with the job? And are you offended by their constant politicking, or threatened by those who passionately believe in a political cause and will not listen to other views?

I’ve thought about the dicey topic of politics at work in the past few weeks, having recently researched a feature on ex-politicians who become company directors after leaving public life. It’s a surprisingly short list, at least in the largest public companies, given the number of ex-politicians.

Many large companies, understandably, do not want to be seen to favour an incumbent government or its opposition. A political donation here or there is one thing: having a former state premier or ex-federal treasurer on your board who yaps about politics in newspaper columns or knifes former colleagues still in politics is quite another.

Complaints from big business about the federal government are mostly aired behind closed doors, or through business lobby groups that represent lots of companies. Elder statesmen of the largest listed-company boards rarely publicly criticise the federal government on policy issues.

I wondered how smaller companies handled this issue of showing political support or opposition to policies - or what they did when they had employees who could not keep their political opinions to themselves, or resist Tweeting them.

I can only imagine how US companies are dealing with this issue given upcoming US elections and a US presidential race that remains on a knife-edge. With the next Australian federal election due by November 2013 at the latest, politicking at work will surely become a bigger issue for local companies in next 12 months.

What’s your view?

  • Does your company forbid employees to espouse their political views at work or with clients?
  • Does it have a policy to stop political commentary at work?
  • Does your company openly favour a political party at federal, state or local level?
  • Is it hard for you to engage in politics outside of work hours and openly support a party?
  • Is some political discussion at work unavoidable – and can it be a good thing?
  • How do you get the right balance between friendly political debate, and going too far?

This blog, from US entrepreneurship magazine Inc, has advice on talking politics at work. I don’t think the issue is quite as simple as Inc portrays, but I still liked its tips.

Consider the issue from the perspective of Australian small and medium-size enterprises. For example, a small technology company has a solid relationship with a state government and plenty of public-sector work. The company's new partner has a deep love of politics from his university days, and openly supports the opposition through his party membership and rising position within it. Right or wrong, it’s not a good look with the incumbent government.

What’s the company to do? The partner’s employment contract probably has general restrictions about political affiliations or bringing the company into disrepute, but you can’t ban free speech in the employee’s personal time, and as Inc reports, trampling on an individual’s political rights may veer into personal issues that lead to discrimination lawsuits against an employer. In some ways, it’s probably easier to control this issue at the partner or manager level than at the firm’s lower levels.

And how do you stop employees using social media in their own time to comment on political issues, under their name rather than the company's? The employer might argue that an employee is damaging the company just through his or her association with a politically charged comment on Twitter or Facebook.

There is no easy answer to the issue. The starting point is identifying the risks if the company is seen to show partisanship to a particular political party. For most small enterprises, the risk is low and others may feel being openly political is their right and no risk at all if done in the right spirit.

Companies that rely heavily on public-sector work obviously must think carefully through the issue and have policies in place for all employees regarding political comment at work and outside it, and political party affiliations.

Strong policies about the use of social media at work – and for engaging in actions outside of work that may damage the company – are just as important. The policy must be communicated clearly, monitored and applied even-handedly to all staff.

Also understand how employees who spout their political views at work can affect other colleagues. Some may prefer to keep their political views private, especially in workplaces that have a natural tendency to lean to one side of politics or the other. In my experience, many of the staff don’t want to talk politics at work and are annoyed by those who do, for they see politics as a personal issue.

I doubt any company can stop employees who are desperate to thrust their political views on colleagues, clients or the broader world. But there must be consequences for those who cannot understand that the workplace is no place for politics (other than the backstabbing office kind).

In a small market such as Australia, where political cycles are becoming shorter and more volatile, the sensible approach for most companies to political issues is to be bi-partisan. Openly supporting the incumbent government might win new work, but what happens when it loses power?