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  • 13, October 2016

Politics, Religion and Social Issues: 3 Ways to Tackle Sensitive Conversations in the Workplace

2016 has been a year plagued with social issues. From the 2016 presidential campaign and civil rights protests to federally-mandated gender laws and religiously-charged moral debates, this year has no doubt been the subject of conversation. And because these social issues affect each and every one of us in some way, most people have an opinion and are likely happy to state it. But when it comes to these conversations in the work place, things can get tricky.

Because of changing technologies and workplace habits--like checking Facebook at work and work emails at home--an employee’s home and work life become intertwined. So it’s no surprise then, that as workplace habits change, so do traditional rules about avoiding politics and religion at work have gone out the window.

Thanks to social media and 24-hour news cycles, employees are constantly exposed to controversial topics in public dialogue, which understandably bubble over to the watercooler at work. Which leads for the potential of these seemingly innocuous conversations morphing into something much more heated and controversial.

So, how can a manager find the delicate balance of allowing free speech in the workplace while ensuring there are no instances that may turn ugly or offensive? And how can employees be proactive in avoiding potentially heated conversations? Check out these three suggestions on dealing with and avoiding sensitive topics in the workplace:

1. Set the right tone:

It should go without saying that your office is not a stage for political debates, and most people respect this idea and will typically keep opinions to themselves. But with the increasing oversaturation that employees face from news outlets apps and social media timelines, there is bound to be an instance where hot topics are discussed in the workplace.

To ensure coworkers understand where to draw the line, make sure to set the right tone in the first place. As a manager, your position should be to allow employees to engage in a friendly conversation, but when things begin to get heated, shut them down quickly. Keep the mindset of a referee; allow the situation to happen, but as soon as the boundaries are crossed, let those involved know and warn of consequences if it happens again.

As an employee, it is better to stay away from these conversations inside the workplace all together. But, if you do find yourself in a conversation about politics, religion or sensitive social issues, be cognizant of the tone of the conversation. If things seem like they are getting heated, step away politely and agree to disagree.

2. Establish a culture of trust and respect:

Boundaries about these topics should not only be guided by authority, but they should also be guided by respect. Make sure your employees are well versed on what constitutes harassment in the workplace.  Many companies publish free harassment training due to state laws that require training bi annually. By requiring these types of trainings, your employees will likely be able to make better judgments about what can be discussed and what would be left to personal conversations outside of the office.

As an employee, it’s hard to establish boundaries with coworkers, especially if you’re very close to them. In order to create a culture of respect with your coworkers, it is best to avoid connecting on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter while you’re working together. This way, conversations that may be started on social media about politics or other sensitive topics won’t spill over into your daily work life.

3. Have a policy in place for special circumstances:

Unfortunately, there may be instances where things can get out of hand, regardless of how hard you try to ensure employees are educated on what is and is not appropriate to verbalize. In these instances, your company should establish a policy with human resources on how to handle the situation. Work with your HR team to outline a policy and make sure it is strictly enforced during occasions when discussions involving sensitive issues get out of hand.

If you’re an employee on the receiving end of this type of harassment, be sure to speak up to your manager and address the issue quickly. Nipping these problematic tensions in the bud will only help you establish better relationships with your peers and coworkers.

Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable is a delicate balance of authority, discretion and respect. As sensitive conversations are further perpetuated in the workplace, thanks to blurred lines between work and personal lives, it is no doubt that companies will experience some tension in the office. But, by using our tips above and your personal discretion, employees can feel confident in their relationships in the workplace, regardless of their opinions. 

  • Published by Kerry Higley
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