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How to keep medical practice peace in a political season

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By — Posted June 11, 2012.

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With presidential campaigns in full swing, how can physician practices make sure political talk doesn’t cause conflict, legal trouble or damaged morale?

“It’s understandable that health care employees, many of whom have diverse, passionate views on recent reform and other issues affecting the industry, would want to talk politics in the workplace,” said Rob Morris, product director of MiracleWorkers.com, a CareerBuilder website for the medical industry. “However, as is the case in any industry, discussion and debate should not be interrupting day-to-day business and productivity.”

Thirty-six percent of workers discuss politics at work, according to a CareerBuilder survey released March 1 of 7,780 employees in a wide variety of private-sector companies. Of this group, 23% said the discussion became heated or turned into a fight. The survey also found that 43% planned to discuss the 2012 presidential election with co-workers.

Those who advise medical practices say all sorts of speech can be prohibited legally, so the problem can be solved, in theory, by banning all political talk. But the advisers say being too limiting is not such a good idea. Politics can wander into uncomfortable conversational territory, but no one likes to feel silenced.

“Employers need to be careful about adopting policies that either unduly restrict their employees’ expression of topics of current interest or ban them completely,” said Robert Small, an attorney and partner with Reger Rizzo & Darnall in Philadelphia.

Medical practices can keep the peace with policies on staff appearance and acceptable activity in the workplace. But physicians and others who manage the practice must be prepared to talk with other doctors and staff members about how to handle political issues when they are brought up by physicians, other employees and patients.

Putting policies in place

Experts who work with medical practices say the key is to develop policies that are flexible enough to work beyond this year’s Election Day. There’s always somebody running for office, and there always will be some issue, such as immigration and health system reform, that is a matter of contention.

These policies should be in writing to avoid the appearance of singling out a particular employee or favoring a political view and must be applied consistently.

Though policies cannot be discriminatory, they can be fairly broad, restricting an array of expression. A dress code policy prohibiting political pins and T-shirts can keep out nonverbal political expressions such as buttons and other candidate clothing items.

“I would ask them to take a button off,” said Susan Curtis, practice administrator with Oregon Neurology, a four-physician group with three offices around Portland. “This is not the place.”

Another issue to consider is whether political signs can be hung at desks. Medical practice consultants suggest restricting such signs if patients can see them. Rules can be looser for areas of the office that are not in their view.

Medical practices may need to consider whether employees will be allowed to forward politically related emails to other staffers. This most likely will fall under policies governing employee use of workplace computers for nonbusiness purposes and be restricted in some way.

Managing discussion

Where medical practices are more likely to get into trouble is if political discussion gets out of hand. For instance, staffers at Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center of Oregon in Portland are encouraged to be aware of the issues of the day but defer when patients bring up such subjects. Practices may alienate patients if politics becomes the focus of care rather medicine.

“We’re a very busy practice,” said Kathy Brown, clinic administrator. “We don’t have a lot of downtime to get off on tangents. If a patient gets involved in the debate, we tell staffers to back off. There are nice ways of doing it.”

Legal experts caution that long-running, heated political discourse, in some situations, could be viewed as creating a hostile discriminatory workplace for people who hold less popular views and could veer into discussions on other controversial topics. Unwanted communication urging support of one candidate over another may be perceived as harassment.

Generally speaking, most workplace policies shy away from prohibiting specific discussion topics. Rather, if such conversations cause problems, they should be handled on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Curtis has broken up arguments among staff members and advised them that political talk be kept to a minimum. She continues to reinforce that staffers avoid topics capable of triggering arguments.

“I suggest that people not get into debates,” Curtis said. “The workplace is not the place to have political discussions.”

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