Political Harassment

A friend works for a DC-area medical non-profit, and feels political harassment creates a hostile work environment:

I was filing in the hallway while some managers talked about the VP debate.  One complained about Palin’s wink, and said she would not be a good president.  I chimed in saying I only watched the second half but thought the winking was cute and that I like capable women in leadership.  One said "You can’t vote, right?"  I said I was a green card holder.  "Oh good, we wouldn’t want you to vote."  Shortly after, my peers and managers at the weekly work social were told that I am a supporter of Republicans and that they are glad I cannot vote as I would vote for a stupid, uneducated woman because she is cute and winks. 

Once upon a time most any work harassment was fair game – if you didn’t like it you were supposed to find another job.   Then we made rules against harassing people for a few things, like gender, race or religion.  But apparently harassing people at work for their politics is still fair game.  Compared to the current regime, I can better appreciate either the previous anything-goes regime, or an always-nice regime where no one may be harassed at work for any non-work-related issue.  But what is the point allowing some but not other kinds of non-work-related harassment at work?

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  • Benquo

    Maybe that some forms of harassment have historically been associated with broader power imbalances? This is probably not the case at least with major-party politics, where an adherent of either party has plenty of places to go where their side is in charge.

    By contrast, think of women in the workplace 30 years ago. Not enough partisan safe havens on theirside — where could the women who wanted real careers go if they didn’t want to be harassed?

    Race too — for all the good black-owned business did in black neighborhoods, there was never a black-dominated GE-equivalent to balance out the white-dominated businesses.

    If this is the reason, it’s a pragmatic argument about where society’s resources are best spent on making things fairer, rather than which situations are inherently unfairer to the victims. There’s only so much unfairness we can fight at a time, only so many new taboos we can institute.

  • AYY

    Politics might be different because it’s not based on an innate characteristic. On the other hand, there might be rules in your work place against partisan political harassment. Although whether it’s worth making a fuss is something you need to decide.

    Maybe you could respond by agreeing partially with their point. Like acknowledging that yes she is cute and winks, and then saying she also makes sense.

  • Julian Morrison

    Politics is war. You want to take my stuff, point guns at me and give me orders? Like hell am I going to be tolerant. In a democracy 51% gets to shaft 49%. If you vote against me, you’re my enemy.

    As a category it’s quite different from other types of things described as civil rights (except perhaps religion).

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    Political affiliation is protected under 5 USC 2302 for government employees. Unfortunately your friend is working in the private sector. However, that conversation is still problematic legally for the employer – the ’86 Immigration Act makes it verboten to harass or ask people about their immigration or green card status. One incident alone however is not enough – your friend must journal this incident, and any/all others.

    The charge of a hostile work environment based on any protected category requires that it be “pervasive,” that is, common. However, Virginia is an employment at will state so any harassment charge would be quite an uphill battle. Let’s hope nothing further happens like this.

    “what is the point allowing some but not other kinds of non-work-related harassment at work?”

    In general the anti-discrimination/harassment categories are based on the idea that certain characteristics are innate to people and cannot be changed – thus it is unfair to discriminate based on social prejudices over what people did not choose to be or do. The exception to this may be parental status or pregnancy, both of which are protected in businesses with more than 15 employees. Clearly, political affiliation does not meet this standard.

    However, we can agree that your friend works for jerks who don’t understand that politics is not a fit conversation for polite people in a work environment. In the past, people like this were punished by the denial of social capital.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Politics inherently involves disagreement. If people are going to discuss politics at all it’s inevitably going to make some feel uncomfortable.

  • http://www.selfsimulation.com Terren S.

    Harassment is more pernicious when it’s about traits we don’t choose. In contrast, there’s a certain amount of room for argument and/or criticism when it comes to something like politics (even if the choice involved is illusory). That kind of harassment can tread the line between acceptable and unacceptable criticism, while the forms of harassment that aren’t tolerated today are much clearer about what crosses the line.

    That said, there wasn’t much ambiguity about the harassment in the above example, but that is defined more by its abusiveness of the power-dynamic than its actual content. It’s a majority vs. minority. The fact that it’s about politics means that it’s harder to police for the above reasons.

  • Ian C.

    Maybe because anti-harassment laws are mostly passed by liberals, who don’t consider their politics to be harassment, but education.

    For example what did the person above mean when he called Sarah Palin “uneducated?” He was not referring to her English, math, science etc. scores.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “But apparently harassing people at work for their politics is still fair game.”

    Really?

  • Aaron

    Compared to the current regime, I can better appreciate either the previous anything-goes regime, or a regime where no one may be harassed at work for any non-work-related issue. But what is the point allowing some but not other kinds of non-work-related harassment at work?

    Let’s broaden the question:
    What is the point of punishing some anti-social actions with government penalties, but not others? Surely being a boor should be grounds for jail, or murder should only be punishable by social shunning. Any mixed system is just incoherent and logically inferior to either of these extremes.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unbathed/ Unbathed

    Ian C., do you agree that right-to-work laws are an example of nonliberal-sponsored anti-harassment legislation; and do you disagree that an adult American who cannot name two U.S. Supreme Court decisions or any newspapers or magazines is uneducated?

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    AAY, frelkins, and Terren, many protected categories are apparently matters of choice, such as parental status, religion, and sexual preference.

    Benquo, academia is dominated by Democrats; would that count as a “broader power imbalance” or would you just tell non-Democrat academics to go find a non-academic career?

  • Arthur

    Wow! How sad this is!

    How can this interaction be characterised as ‘harrassment’ and ‘hostile’?

    The complainant (TC) interjects a comment into an overheard conversation (between persons probably senior to TC) re the presentation of a political candidate in a contest wherein TC has no vote. TC’s comments are of a trivial nature.

    Since when is ‘cuteness’ a qualification for elected office. How can ‘winking’ , which is a highly contextual and personal expression, be an appropriate gesture in the formalised ritual of a televised debate? Its use in this medium in this way (directed at the audience) is traditionally a mark of irony or farce. While there is much irony and farce in the current situation, the candidates should be wary of introducing more.

    Other than a talent for self promotion leading to elective office (but not yet re-election, I note), what demonstrable achievements can Ms Palin claim? Those who exploit religious beliefs and prejudices to gain elected office to manage non-religious affairs are practising followership – not leadership.

    It is a fair conclusion to draw an inference between being pro-Palin and pro-Republican. Further, it is fair to suggest that Ms. Palin’s educational achievements fall way below those of her opponents and she may be therefore described as undereducated. Stupidity is a harsh criticism but one that may fairly be used on someone who is a climate change and evolution denier and is preferable to a charge of hypocrisy (which requires a character judgement).

    TC was not being ‘harassed’ but receiving fair comment on her comments. To characterise this as harassment is to stifle free speech, encourage ‘victimhood’ and, worst of all, trivialise the situations of those too many victims of harassment.

    I am truly sad to see this level of timidity on a forum that I have come to admire and value.

  • Jay Thomas

    I agree with Arthur
    If I make political comments as vacuous as those of the complainant, whether at work or in a social context, I should expect to get called on it. Wouldn’t it be far more condescending for people to feign respect where none is deserved? Since the complainant is a Green Card holder I am curious about their cultural background. Many (perhaps most) cultures prize social harmony more than freedom of expression in such situations. What is goodhumored banter to an American is threateningly direct to a Japanese.

  • Benquo

    Robin,

    That’s not been my experience, but you’ve probably experienced a wider cross-section of academia than I have. But assuming you’re right, the same logic justifies tabooing political harassment in academia, though I’m not sure what institution would be the best means for accomplishing that.

  • Claudia

    Arthur, the above described situation does not sound hostile. Perhaps there is more to the situation than posted.

    To ask someone about the residential/voting status might be politically incorrect and not fitting into a work place. Everyone in the conversation is and should be entitled to his/her opinion and preference, whether republican, democrat, libertarian, filing clerk or manager.

    ‘Cuteness’ or “prettiness” is neither qualification nor disqualification for elected office. Capability, education, life experience, etc. are relevant.

    ***However, does political harassment exist and should it be officially regulated?***
    Harassment is offensive behavior and regulation is costly. One democrat in a group of republicans discussing politics at work can often turn to a heated debate, especially shortly before a presidential election. Most likely, the one democrat will feel harassed with the chorus of voices from the republicans. One could say, the democrat should not work in a republican environment because of a once in a while voiced different opinion, even though in general the democrat likes his/her work and likes his co-workers or managers. One could also state that political discussion and questions about a voting/residential status should be illegal. (That would leave the costly enforcement of laws and regulations, though.)

  • Ian C.

    @Unbathed: “do you disagree that an adult American who cannot name two U.S. Supreme Court decisions or any newspapers or magazines is uneducated?”

    Yes I do disagree. You can’t pick one or two facts and say that if a person doesn’t know them they are uneducated, any more than you can pick one or two facts that if a person does know them they’re a genius. You have to look at the person as a whole.

  • Aspiring Vulcan

    That’s quite silly. Politics is a matter of choice, as opposed to race, gender, ethnicity, etc. which you are born with. Having non-harassment laws for things of choice is just stupid.

    Shall we have non-harassment laws for everything for which someone may disagree with you? Hey, let’s make disagreements illegal. Lets go back to the middle ages with the idiotic church telling us what to do. Let’s kill the godless heathens!

  • Claudia

    Religion is a choice (for the most part)

    Agreements/disagreements should of course be legal, otherwise might as well call it ditatorship. More regulation is not what most desire even if often is appears that some call for more.

    Voting/residential status is something private but a person can always deny answering, which most always leads to a conclusion and judgment…but that is life and goes both ways.

  • http://www.cawtech.freeserve.co.uk Alan Crowe

    That seems like an odd way to slice it. The real issue is monopsony. Why are we outlawing any form of discrimination by small businesses when the employee really can get another job? The free market can take care of this case. Not well, but better than court cases. Why are we permitting any form of discrimination by big businesses? The lack of alternatives gives the company un-american powers of coercion. Yes there are reasons for having limited liability laws that permit the formation of large joint stock companies and their rise to great power, but we surely want strong laws to defend us against falling into corporate serfdom.

  • ad

    we made rules against harassing people for a few things, like gender, race or religion.

    That would be because certain lobby groups thought that they, or people or principles they cared about, would benefit from such laws.

    There must be other justifications of course. But those justifications are not the reason.

  • Arthur

    @Claudia

    Thank you for your response – may I add mine?

    I agree that it does not sound hostile but it was the complainant who so characterised it (as per RHanson).
    I agree that everyone is entitled to an opinion and a hearing but joining in implies acceptance of the norms which include rejection and criticism of ones arguments.
    I agree that ‘cuteness’ is neither qualification or dis-qualification for office but it was TC who cited it as a positive attribute.

    TC’s residential status was not inquired of but rather asserted although I accept that this potentially an aggressive assertion (but in the context of TC’s interjection)
    Also pls note that the cited harassment took place at a ‘work social’ and not actually at work, so the complainant is muddying the waters considerably.

    This is not harassment and it is unacceptable to allow someone to characterise as such. Such manipulation has been responsible for a huge diminution in American social life as political correctness and litigousness have flowered.

    Harassment is unacceptable as is allowing people to stifle human interactions by shouting ‘Fire’ every time they lose an argument.

  • John Maxwell

    Harassing someone about gender or race is likely to disturb even those who aren’t part of the target group. Politics, not so much. Religious harassment should probably be allowed.

  • Boris

    John, what you describe may be the state of things now, but certainly wasn’t when the gender/race anti-harassment laws were passed, as I understand. It’s only so shocking now because it’s been taboo for a while.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    “AAY, frelkins, and Terren, many protected categories are apparently matters of choice, such as parental status, religion, and sexual preference.”

    Well Robin I didn’t defend the law, I merely explained its public justification. Yet now the conversation gets interesting, in terms of taxonomy – here we can see how current society feels identity is constructed by category, can’t we? And we can tease apart strands for “innateness,” protections that seem to flow from the Bill of Rights, and also overriding social interest.

    It also offers insight perhaps into what society presently feels is “natural” or “based in nature” and thus “innate” – race is natural, sex is natural, gender is natural, sexual orientation is natural – being pregnant is natural – freedom of conscience is declared natural by the Constitution – etc.

    To the extent that recent genetic work seems to challenge or uphold certain categories of innate, the policy may be beginning to fray at the edges. This perhaps shows how policies are meant to try to signal a society’s sense of fairness.

    To the extent that your work aims at forcing people to realize what it is they really want, as opposed to what they merely say they want, I suppose that this question flies straight to the core of your concern.

  • Samantha

    Is it really “harassment” to simply take conversational potshots at one another over various opinions we may hold? If there is no impact on your job security, promotional chances and so on then exactly where is there any harm? Doesn’t freedom include the freedom to both say what you think and say what you think of what someone else says? Is freedom checked at the door when you are at work?

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    I think a bunch of people are missing the point. What makes the described situation unacceptable is the inferred general hostility from the person’s superiors that was incurred as a result of the one exchange, not any particular manifestation (or non) of that hostility. It’s beside the point of the post to debate whether that hostility was present in this case. I don’t have to agree with Robin’s friend’s comments to think that there was harassment going on there, I just have to think that the superiors’ comments were evidence of a more general hostility that would affect their behavior to him in other ways.

    The hostility itself isn’t unacceptable, of course, (since it’s sometimes unavoidable–you don’t have to like the people you work with,) it’s just communication of that hostility (whether through comments or discrimination).

    IOW, good natured potshots are OK. Ill-natured ones are out of bounds.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    It’s hard for me to separate how much of this scenario I object to as harassment for views, and how much of it I object to because of the irrational nature of the harassment.

    The person didn’t say he/she supported Palin. Just that the winking was cute, and he/she supported strong women in leadership roles. The co-workers were operating under the mind killing assumption that there are only two positions, pro or con; and that a “pro” person will make only positive statements, while a “con” person will make only negative statements.

    Recently, I hosted a party that was attended mainly by non-Republicans, and one Republican. Some of the attendees assumed that everyone their was not Republican, and made very hostile statements – for example, one person suggested using Republicans as suicide bombers. As host, I asked these people not to make such statements. One person now no longer wishes to see me, because he believes I’m a Republican, on the basis of my not having approved of saying that Republicans should be killed.

    So I think the problem is not just harassment, but that politics, and religion, and race, and most of the things we want people to be careful talking about at work, shut peoples’ minds down.

  • http://google.com/ Daniel Reeves

    I’m not sure if people who are defending the Palin critics in this story have exceptional social skills. What the critics said was out of line because they expressed hostility to the person whom holds the dissenting viewpoint. The Palin critics would not have been out of line to express their dislike of the man’s opinion, but they certainly are to be so rude as to say, “we wouldn’t want you to vote,” and furthermore, to instigate trouble by removing the information asymmetry that allowed the green card holding worker to coexist in an office filled with Democrats who otherwise would not care. What I am trying to say is that there are far more professional and courteous ways to disagree with a person than to say something like, “I’m glad you can’t vote” and I hope that the readers of this blog agree. There are other objections to this story, such as the false dichotomy of left-right politics, but I believe what I have covered to be the main point.

  • Hawk

    What if someone is working on a campaign in an office and asks their fellow employees to consider their candidate if they have not chosen a candidate? I also encouraged them to vote regardless. No hostility, plenty of freedom of choice….doesn’t seem to harassment…but I have had an employee file a complaint against me because of my leadership position with our company.

  • Tonivest57

    While I too think Palin is stupid. You shouldn’t be harassed at work. Document everything and then go to the HR dept, or your supervisor. If that doesn’t work, talk to an attorney. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/william.thomsen.90 William Thomsen

    Palin was had the modern version of the KKK lynch mob out to defame her because she was off the plantation. Democrats think they own women, just like they championed slavery and Jim Crow in the past. People who believe the anti Palin BS are dupes of the same kind of mob whose history goes back to before the Civil War.