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October 1, 2004
Volume 42, No. 3


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Campus employees try to balance politics, civility

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Campus employees try to balance politics, civility

Photo: Doors with political signs
Photo illustration by Tom Jorgensen.

Do you know where your coworkers stand on the upcoming election? Is it because they hang campaign posters in their cubicles? Or wear party pins on their lapels? Or chatter politics at the water cooler?

Or do your morning pleasantries deteriorate into backbiting and name calling that look and sound like an episode of FOX News’ The O’Reilly Factor or MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews?

“I’ve never witnessed people getting into physical altercations over political issues at work. I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely. But people do get intense about strongly held beliefs,” says David Redlawsk, professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Politics can be very contentious. I think most people understand the difference between their workplace and the rest of their lives.

“You’re going to have to work with people you may not agree with.”

Redlawsk and his fellow political science professors talk politics because it’s part of the intellectual nature of their jobs. They encourage wide-ranging debate in their classrooms on just about any topic.

In most offices and departments on campus, though, conversations about politics can make people uncomfortable—often because politics has nothing to do with their jobs.

Teresa Kulper, director of faculty and staff services in Human Resources’ Organizational Effectiveness, teaches conflict management in UI Learning & Development classes.

She says that spirited but respectful discussions are fine, but that people get in trouble when they try to get coworkers to change their minds and could end up compromising working relationships.

“If I’m going to try to get you to see it my way, we could fight and get angry. You’re going to think I don’t like you or that I think you’re a bad coworker,” Kulper says. “We’ll just go around in circles and it doesn’t get us anywhere. It might negatively affect our work down the road.”

She sees it as acceptable to tell people at work which candidate you support. When the talk turns negative and hateful—that’s where she draws the line.

“When you start attacking the candidates personally, it can lead to incivility in the workplace,” she says. “To attack someone is not part of civil discussion. It all comes back to supporting and celebrating different opinions, whether or not they are political in nature.”

Trying to promote and increase civility on campus is part of Office of the Ombuds-person’s mission. Maile Sagen, University ombudsperson, has fielded a few phone calls of concern already, wondering what is considered acceptable and civil in regard to political discussions and paraphernalia on campus. The following are her recommendations:

• Be careful about what you display on your office walls and refrain from displaying anything political that might be construed by the public as the University’s point of view—or it could be removed.

• Do not use campus mail, your office computer, your office phone, or University stationery to campaign or lobby for political candidates or to solicit votes or contributions in any way.

• Don’t argue. If uncomfortable political conversations arise, try to change the subject and, if that doesn’t work, simply say you do not want to discuss it further. Agreeing to disagree is often the best solution.

• Be collegial and do not let the political situation affect your ability to do your job.

“As a university, we care about free speech, and people are free to state their own opinions. At the same time, we want people to be sensitive, and we want to have a respectful workplace,” Sagen says. “If people’s ability to do their jobs is affected, that’s where the ombudsperson’s office will step in.

“Otherwise, if all is going well and people are being respectful and sensitive, we’re not going to get involved.”

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is sending out reminders to its staff this fall, detailing inappropriate behavior and common courtesies related to political discussions.

The guidelines are based, in part, on aspects of the UI Hospitals and Clinics Service Leadership initiative—which asks employees to make an individual commitment to service excellence.

Two important elements of this initiative are the “I CARE” (Integrity, Commitment, Accountability, Respect, and Empathy) Core Values and the 15 House Rules—including “take the time for courtesy and consideration,” “maintain dignity,” “help each other,” and “respect our differences.”

“Our service leadership and working-together principles here at the hospital remind us that we are here to focus on the patient and focus on our jobs. Politics doesn’t play a part in that,” says Diana Lundell, codirector of the hospital’s Joint Office for Marketing and Communications. “Most people are working hard at their jobs while they’re here and saving extracurricular political activities for after work hours.”

It can be tough to leave your political identity at home when you’re a political scientist. Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, teaches classes on constitutional law, politics, and the judicial system. He also advises the student organizations College Republicans and Students for George W. Bush and is an active member of the Republican Party in Johnson County.

His office is covered with campaign memorabilia, and he admits “once you get in my office, you know where I stand.” But overall, he says, he tries to be low key—whether it’s with other faculty or staff, or in the classroom.

“Bottom line is, everyone has to deal with the situation with a good dose of common sense,” he says. “Don’t go overboard. Don’t be nasty.”

by Amy Schoon


Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright the University of Iowa 2003. All rights reserved.


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