It seems as if politics permeate every area of our lives today, much more so than was the case in the past. You can blame (or credit) that to the sharply divided nature of our current demographics, the 24/7 deluge of "news" propagated by cable TV and online sources, or just a more interested and involved populace. Whatever the reasons, our political ideologies are no longer expressed just in the voting booth, but spill over into our work and social lives. Those of us who work in IT and socialize online are not exceptions.
Once upon a time, it seemed most geeks were pretty apolitical. We were too busy writing code or fiddling with hardware or trying out the latest and greatest programs to notice who was president or what laws Congress was passing. You didn't know whether the guy or girl in the next cubicle (or on the other end of the modem connection) was Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, Independent or none of the above. And more important, you didn't really care.
Today, for better or worse, many folks wear their political labels on their sleeves. Whether they're pro- or anti-abortion, advocates for gun rights or animal rights, in favor of lower taxes or bigger government, they actively attempt to recruit others to their causes. They even choose their friends based on political compatibility. Many folks get very emotional about their political choices. And it's not just individuals, but entire companies that are taking sides.
In the U.S., the political debate tends to get more heated every fourth year, during the presidential race. However, this year's mid-term elections have the major parties out in force, and of course, every year is an election year at some level. Local political battles, while not always partisan, can be just as effective at dividing people into hardened camps.
With campaign ads all over the airways, campaign signs littering the roadways, and campaign "news" taking up so many of the headlines, it's difficult for those in the IT world to remain in a techie bubble and ignore the issues being discussed. But mixing politics with work can be dangerous. If you exercise your right to free political speech on company time, you risk alienating people you have to work with on a daily basis. If the boss knows that you support a party, candidate or issue that he/she hates, will that (consciously or subconsciously) influence your job evaluation and chances for raises or promotions?
Even if you keep mum about your political preferences when you're at the office, political differences can still sour your work relationships if you splatter your political preferences all over your Facebook page or tweet about political issues.
If you work for a large corporation, it's enough of a challenge to navigate the waters of internal politics. But when the company gets involved in national, state and local political races, it can make for some discomfiting situations. Some large technology companies donate money to candidates of all political persuasions. For example, according to OpenSecrets.org, in the past year AT&T has given money to Democrats, Republicans and Independents and the party split for 2010 was pretty even between the two major parties (http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?id=D000000076) .
Microsoft also gives a substantial amount to each party, but in 2008 trended heavily toward the Democratic side (http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?id=D000000115).
In the 2004 elections, many news sources reported that 98% of Google's campaign contributions went to Democrats (http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/technology/2005-02-13-google-give-usat_x.htm).
In fact, when you look at the computer software industry as a whole, the party split was close to even in the 1990s, but has moved further to the left over the years, with about twice as much money going to Democrats as to Republicans in the 2008 elections (http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?ind=C5120).
What do those trends mean for employees? If you work for a company that gives heavily to a particular political party, will you feel pressured to support that party as well - or at least to keep your political views quiet if you don't? Would you be less likely to join in when political issues are discussed around the water cooler or in company online forums? Would you be less likely to do things such as putting a candidate's political sign in your yard or openly working for a candidate or cause in your off-duty time if you knew you were on the opposite side of the fence from the company's upper management?
What about my rights?
Many of today's workers are very concerned about "rights" and it's an important issue. Nobody wants to feel like an indentured servant, and today's work world is much more cognizant of individual rights than in the past. Freedom of speech is a right that's guaranteed to citizens of the U.S. by the first amendment to the Constitution - but many citizens don't really understand what that means.
The Constitution prohibits government from making laws that restrict you from speaking your mind - although there are exceptions that have been found to be constitutionally permitted, as such threats, hate speech and speech that creates a dangerous situation (e.g., yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater). In other words, you have the freedom to express your views without fear of being charged with a crime. That doesn't necessarily mean speaking out won't have other repercussions.
In the U.S., most state laws recognize the "employment at will" doctrine, a legal concept that says an employer can fire an employee for any reason at all or no reason at all - unless there is a statutory exception. Exceptions include termination because of a protected status, such as race or gender, as well as such things as firing an employee for filing a worker's compensation claim or for refusing to break the law. A few states offer more protections. Note that if you work under an employment contract, that contract can specify other terms, such as that you may only be fired for good cause for the duration of the contract. For more about employment at will, see http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/article-30022.html
Legally, then, your employer may have the right to fire you for sounding off about your political causes, whether on or off company time. But even if you're not in danger of losing your job for it, taking a strong political stand can make the working environment uncomfortable - for you, and for those with whom you work. Is it worth it? Some feel so strongly about issues or candidates that they think it is. That's a decision that's ultimately up to each of us as individuals. It's important to remember that if you have the right to express your political views at work, others have the right to express their conflicting views - or to simply avoid you. And that just because you have a right to do something, that doesn't mean it's a wise thing to do. One of the biggest mistakes that people make is to assume that just because you like a person, that person must surely agree with you on political positions that, to you, seem so obviously correct. Many great friendships and working relationships have been spoiled by such assumptions.
What do you think? Is it better to keep your work life and your political views separate? Or are political races so important that it's your duty to risk disapproval and take a stand? Is the IT world more insulated from politics than some other fields? Do public campaign contributions or political stances by your company make you uncomfortable - or proud? Do you ever feel pressured by the company to support (or at least not publicly oppose) a political cause, candidate or issue? Have you ever experienced repercussions at work because of your political views?
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.