What to Do When Touchy Topics Come Up at Work

Teach employees to listen and to remove combativeness from their discussions

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 27, 2021
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arguing co-workers

​Touchy topics in the workplace—politics, racism, religion—can stir up employees and create discord if not handled properly. Some employers, such as Basecamp, a software development company, are banning use of internal social media outlets for such conversations. Others are looking for help teaching employees and managers how to respectfully discuss sensitive topics in the workplace. Between February and March, online learning provider Udemy has seen a 50 percent increase in its courses on difficult conversations, according to Marie Deveaux, an executive leadership coach and Udemy instructor.

"Folks are realizing that they don't have the skills to have these conversations from a place that doesn't create defensive reactions, that doesn't escalate into creating tension in the workplace," she told SHRM Online.

Whether it's mass shootings or a high-profile trial around race, she said, people are grappling with whether these are political issues or human rights issues and how to navigate conversations about them in a work setting. Employers want to know how to respond to what they see in their daily news feed in a way that isn't partisan.

Many are looking for resources on how to move the conversation forward, as opposed to creating tension or strife in the workplace.

[SHRM members-only resource: DE&I Action-to-Change Toolkit]  

Basecamp's approach to keeping touchy topics off internal chat sites was done to maintain an environment "where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work," co-founder David Heinemeir Hansson wrote in a company blog post.

"You shouldn't have to wonder if staying out of [a conversation] means you're complicit, or stepping into it means you're a target," he added. "That is difficult enough outside of work, but almost impossible at work."

Employers have the right to ask employees to limit their communications to work-related matters when using company software, said Rob Wilson, president of Employco USA. Some political discussions, he added, are protected by labor laws, such as those around unionizing and workplace conditions.

However, banning touchy conversations becomes more difficult when they are held in the break room or elsewhere at work, he observed.

"It's harder to create a culture where those types of conversations aren't allowed but you're still fostering free speech and letting employees be individuals," he said.

Udemy has noticed, in the last year especially, that most of these sensitive conversations are occurring virtually or on digital mediums and platforms, according to Deveaux. Body language and tone of voice are all part of communication, but "there are a lot of visible cues around communication that are completely absent in these dialogues that make them even more tenuous," she said. "If you were physically in a room with another person, you could perhaps pick up when the energy shifted and [the other person] became uncomfortable. You might be able to notice when someone becomes angry or distraught. When we're behind computer screens, a lot of those nonverbal cues become muted."

Having hard conversations over digital platforms requires participants to slow down and ask more questions to get the other person's perspective.

In the workplace, people are having the most trouble with town hall events and forums where some employees feel more empowered to speak up, the resulting fallout from the conversation that transpires, and how the company responds. Adding to the problem is that managers may find themselves in a position of moderating conversations they are not prepared to handle.

"We were all taught three things you don't talk about in the workplace: religion, politics and race. Unfortunately, we weren't solving problems," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, SHRM president and chief executive officer, during a virtual summit in October. "We were just avoiding problems. You've got to get your organization ready to have uncomfortable conversations."

You can do that, he added, by putting up "guardrails" to make sure discussions are civil and respectful.

"Oftentimes," Deveaux said, "what happens [is] people approach these [sensitive] conversations from a place of 'I'm right and you're wrong, and I'm going to prove it to you.' And if you start from that place, the only way you can end is with everyone trying to be right and no one being happy.

"We have to remove that from the foundation of these conversations," she said. "There are two parts of a conversation—listening and talking. Preparing to react is not the same as listening."

When an HR professional has to deal with the fallout of a conversation between employees, Deveaux advised being nonjudgmental, being mindful where people are inserting their bias, and elevating the conversation by having the parties set aside specific scenarios and personal anecdotes.

Removing the personal aspect, Deveaux said, frees people to feel more objective and allows them to get to the heart of the conversation.

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