Is election time your favorite time of year? As a public employee, probably not. Every two to four years, various political affiliations ramp up their efforts to try to convince you that their ideas and programs are significantly different and better than their opponent. Seasoned professionals have generally grown accustomed to this and know which “land mines” to avoid. Serving in a public position makes your role in the political process all the more challenging…and potentially career affecting.
Seasoned professionals have weathered the storm before, but what advice can be offered to young professionals? Young professionals are new to the field, possibly in the middle of their first election cycle, and used to living in a world of endless information and constant access via social media. Which conversations should they recuse themselves from, and what types of things should they not share? These questions were recently posted on the Facebook page, “Mentoring Professional Recreators.” From that Facebook thread, and the insightful feedback shared by other professionals*, I have developed a few basic rules for young professionals (or any professional for that matter) to go by to avoid finding themselves with one less friend and, potentially, one less paycheck.
Political activism is a hallmark of citizenship. As private citizens, the desire to support candidates who believe in the same ideals in which we hold value is paramount, even a responsibility. We are all human. We have causes that we care deeply about. As a government employee, the reality of having an elected official as a “boss” or a “boss’s boss” creates a unique work environment. Personal activism must be balanced by realism.
Do Not Publicly Endorse Any Candidate or Party Locally
Why? Let’s say that a longtime friend is a rising candidate for a prominent local position, like for mayor. As a friend, you do your part and put their signs in your front yard. You even wear “Vote for _____” shirts on casual Friday. Then, the election comes…and your friend does not win. The reality is, that whoever wins the election, you will be working for them. Publicly supporting a candidate who does not win, can (and most likely will) lead to tension. Where does that leave you? With significantly less support from city hall at best — potentially out of a job at worst. Publicly, remain apolitical! Do not place the yard sign, do not wear the T-shirt, avoid watercooler talk and do not engage in any political activity on social media. However, you can still be an advocate for issues that affect parks and recreation without damaging yourself. What if a tax increase will mean extra dollars dedicated to park improvements? Then, there’s nothing wrong with being for that increase. Just keep in mind the context in which you are speaking or acting.
Be Very Careful on Social Media
It is very easy to put yourself in a potentially career-damaging situation on social media. All it takes is a retweet on Twitter, a Facebook share or even “liking” something on Facebook (which shows up in your friend’s timeline). A common mentality is that our social media is our personal space where we can share our personal thoughts on our personal time. “I will share what I want and it’s not my fault if others get offended!” Sound familiar? If that isn’t you, it is certainly someone you know. If that is your initial reaction, then maybe you should consider creating multiple accounts — one for yourself and visible to anyone, and another that doesn’t list any personal information. On the separate account, you can share and retweet away (within all legal context, obviously #lawyerjargon). Use the ease of social media to your advantage without harming yourself personally or professionally. Finally, and most importantly, as a government employee, you are held to a higher standard than many others. Your employer may even have social media policies that govern the manner in which you are able to address government-related issues online. Fully understanding the reality of your professional work environment and any legal restrictions that may be placed on you is critical to navigating social media during an election cycle.
Recuse to Diffuse
If a casual conversation suddenly turns into a political debate, politely recuse yourself so that you can diffuse the situation before it escalates. There’s nothing wrong with simply stating that you’d prefer to avoid that type of discussion and remain neutral. Are your friends not buying it? Just act like you’re getting an important call and abruptly step away — I’ve personally found that method particularly effective. Be aware, be smart and understand that, as a government employee, there are simply some things you cannot do. Remember — “recuse to diffuse” if you find yourself in a political conversation.
*Special thanks to Deidre Flores McCarty (Kyle, TX), Christian Moore (Weimar, TX), Tom O’Rourke (Charleston, SC), Tiffany Johnson (Washington, DC), Candi Rawlins (Franklin, TN), Mark Alan Young (Louisville, KY), Roslyn Johnson (Columbia, MD), Cindi Baker Wight (Rutland, VT), and Brian Sanders (Aiden, SC) for their comments on the above-referenced Facebook thread.
Gerry Logan, Jr., CPRE, is the Special Events Supervisor for the city of College Station, Texas, Parks and Recreation Department.