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Is politics still the third rail of conversation in the workplace?

  • Kevin Daniels, 34, is a bartender at the Gage.
Kevin Daniels, 34, is a bartender at the Gage. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
March 05, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, RedEye

Election season has a lot in common with the Oscars: It goes on too long, there's plenty of campaigning, and we're sick of the whole thing by the time the winners are announced.

But until November, just try to escape politics. They'll be on TV, in the paper and probably, if you're like many Chicagoans, at work. It's Super Tuesday—the day states including Massachusetts, Georgia, Ohio and Vermont cast their presidential primary ballots—and the presidential election season is running hot and heavy. A CareerBuilder survey from earlier this month found that more than one-third of employees said they discuss politics at work, and that 23 percent reported getting into a "heated discussion or fight" with a co-worker.

RELATED: Let's talk about politics--at work

Some experts say debating politics at the water cooler is always a bad move.

"The wisest option is to avoid it if you can," said Courtney Templin, chief operating officer of Chicago-based JB Training Solutions. "Even conversations that can start off with positive or good intentions can turn heated."

With politics dominating the public arena, though, the topic might be hard to avoid, said Jim Finkelstein, president and CEO of management consulting firm FutureSense.

"There are so many topics that could be raised in the workplace. Where do we draw the line?" he said. Rule politics out as a source of banter and you "basically stifle natural human tendencies."

More important, he said, is figuring out a way to discuss contentious issues without alienating co-workers or clients.

"It's got to be open-ended, it's got to be engaging, otherwise it's inappropriate," he said. "It's a very fine line that one walks."

Jobs vary, and some workers can or have to have political discussions at their workplaces. Second City comedian Steve Waltien, for example, said politics are an integral part of shows.

"We get letters and we occasionally hear a boo. But I don't know what those people expected coming to a comedy theater," he said. "Those people have to be aware of what's in the media and what the targets are going to be."

To get a taste of the many flavors of office politics in the city, RedEye talked with an array of Chicagoans to find out how they talk politics at work—if at all.

Ashley Hooks, 25, Flossmoor

Job: Miss Illinois USA

As a pageant queen who represents an entire state, Hooks says talking politics for her is about finding ways to discuss an issue and its implications without coming across as confrontational.

"Whatever the issues are," she said, "we're kind of prepared to give an answer that lets people know that we know what the issues are and we understand both sides of the argument, but we try to find a common ground with the people that we're talking to."

There's a balancing act, though, for Hooks, who has made education a part of her platform. It's important to her to highlight deficiencies and advocate for positive change.

"We can all come to a common ground in knowing that we want education for children to be the best it can be. Every child deserves a quality education and they should have access to it."

Steve Waltien, 33, Lincoln Park

Job: Comedian at the Second City in Old Town

What on Earth would improv comic incubator The Second City be without biting political humor? Not much, Waltien says.

"We have portions of our day that are specifically devoted to talking about politics. And I think the primary objective is trying to find something funny about it and to make an observation—take the pulse of the country and of the city and address those things that people are thinking and talking about," he said. "It is an official part of the job."

Though jokes might take aim at audience members' beloved (or hated) political figures, Waltien said the joke can be funny, even if you don't agree with the other side politically.

"The hope is that, even if you are a Romney supporter, you can take a laugh at his expense, or if you're an Obama supporter, you can take a laugh at his expense."

J.P. Testwuide, 27, Palatine

Job: Defenseman for the Chicago Wolves pro hockey team

Jocks talk politics in the locker room? Definitely, says Testwuide, who's originally from Colorado.

"Especially with everything that's going on right now, it's definitely a topic that's brought up at least weekly," said Testwuide, whose teammates are all over the map politically. "We have a pretty diverse group of people, which is really interesting."

Debating hones his beliefs, he said.

"I actually find myself getting more educated, because I want to go into the locker room and have my ideas [heard] and to kind of be able to dispute with other guys."

Marisa Ptak, 30, South Loop

Job: Teacher at Rich East High School in Park Forest

Politics become a different game when your job is to stand in front of teenagers every day, Ptak said.

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