A message popped into my mailbox the other day with the interesting title, “Why entertainers shouldn’t get involved in politics.” It pointed to a Drudge Report article that takes yet another dig at Barbra Streisand’s highly publicized (and often bungled) antiwar commentary.

This simple mail, from a mailing list for TechRepublic employees and alums, spawned a 40-message-plus thread about the United States’s current conflict with Iraq. Replies often included fairly impassioned opinions and occasionally featured words such as “idiot” and “fool.”

Please understand, much of the traffic on this mailing list is devoted to good-natured yet acerbic ribbing about sports rivalries and the irresolvable OSS/Microsoft conflict, so I’m certain no one is bearing a grudge over these comments. But it did get me to thinking about how volatile and unpredictable political discussions in the workplace can be, and the challenges they can create for managers as they try to build positive team dynamics.

What’s the real risk?
The bottom line is that your employees are going to discuss politics at work from time to time; the temptation is just too great to resist, particularly at times like these with approaching elections and looming military conflicts. And that’s not necessarily a problem. After all, “Republican” and “Democrat” don’t fall under HR’s protected category guidelines; political discussions can get pretty hot with no legal complications, so long as the debate stays purely on “political” topics.

Unfortunately, politics is an imprecise science, and it’s often a short jump from parliamentary procedures to cultural sensitivity issues. The current crises in the Middle East obviously are charged with cultural, ethnic, and religious emotion—depending on the demographic makeup of your workforce, what started as a reasonable conversation may result in claims of hostility or harassment.

From a team-building perspective, the risks run deeper than potential liability. I once spent several hours researching the issue of cultural and racial “integration” vs. “assimilation” in my hometown of Louisville, KY, just to clarify my opinion to an employee with whom I had discussed the topic. I wasn’t worried that I had harassed or otherwise mishandled the situation in a formal HR sense; those particular protected category definitions weren’t in play. I was just afraid I had left the wrong impressions, particularly since I managed this person and that dynamic always magnifies misunderstandings and misconceptions.

So, my hard-learned personal policy on discussing politics with employees is to just avoid it; abstinence is clearly the path fraught with the least pitfalls here. On the other hand, I have to admit to snarling at Bob Artner, my pal and the CNET vice president who runs TechRepublic, countless times over even the most trivial political issues.

Like I said, your employees are going to discuss politics, and these discussions will get a little animated from time to time. I think the key to handling such conflicts is to avoid the temptation to write a sweeping policy, and instead build a work culture that respects diverse opinions and can absorb disputes, regardless of the topic, as natural parts of the process.

No sweeping policy needed
Some businesses have tried to create policies that discourage political discussions at work, often with fairly ridiculous outcomes. A well-publicized case happened last year when a Florida company’s policy forbade employees from displaying the American flag on the national day of mourning after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. After a ton of flack, the Florida company not only reversed its position but ended up providing small flags and other patriotic paraphernalia to employees.

The ultimate shortcoming of what, I have to assume, are well-intended policies is fairly obvious. According to an article at CFO.com, the Florida company’s policy banned “statements or actions, or political or religious discussions, and anything else that could be divisive or mean different things to different people.”

I’m trying to think of any idea, belief, or opinion that doesn’t fall under that final umbrella, and I honestly can’t. Human communication is imperfect, so unless you want to dictate that your employees speak exclusively in mathematical equations, you better get used to managing a little conflict now and again.

Susan M. Heathfield, the lead HR consultant for humanresources.about.com, cited policies that try to eliminate any risk of conflict between employees on her list of 20 mistakes companies make that alienate employees. I have to agree with Heathfield’s summation that most of these efforts have somewhat admirable motives behind them, but just try to be too broad in their efforts to manage employees’ right to expression.

So, what should you do?
Companies are never completely helpless in managing risk, and there are a few specific, tactical rules you can implement to stop politics from overtaking your daily routine. I’d certainly make it clear that employees can’t use company property, such as e-mail or the public bulletin board, to promote specific candidates or referendums in the coming election. I’d also keep an eye out for invitations to rallies or other events that promote political causes.

Outside of such simple use of company property guidelines, I’d just take a hands-off approach and trust your company’s general harassment policies and staff education programs—along with your own team-building skills—to do their work. After all, harassment against protected categories is the same under the law, regardless of whether it was spurred by a debate over an open Senate seat or this week’s Monday Night Football match up.

Ultimately, the e-mail exchange spurred by the note on Ms. Streisand died down, everyone is still friendly, and the discussion today is about a laptop auction. Overmanaging any risk that the political discussion posed would have made the manager and company look like tyrants, and nobody likes tyrants. Well, almost nobody.