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Polarizing Conversations in the Workplace

Take a proactive approach to addressing controversial issues that might disrupt a delicate balance

A group of business people are having a discussion in a meeting.

​Workplace conversations on controversial issues and other polarizing topics—vaccinations, politics, religion, social media, the economy—can create burdens for organizational leadership and HR professionals. In maintaining a harmonious workplace in organizations large or small, leaders strive to keep civil conversations about controversial topics from becoming emotional disagreements that can cause disruption. Proactively addressing any issues raised by such discussions is the best approach—these may not be easy topics to deal with, but action is necessary to ensure workplace civility.

  • Implement effective communication and training. Ensure that your organization has effective workplace communication strategies. Train the entire workforce on all policies and procedures that might apply to polarizing conversations. Having an open-door policy for employees to make comments or express concerns is a must, and it builds trust. 
  • Address any workplace complaints. The tone of workplace conversations can escalate quickly, especially when polarizing topics are being discussed. This can potentially lead to employees filing complaints against one another. Organizational leaders and HR professionals have an obligation to investigate and address any complaints or issues brought to our attention to ensure that a civil workplace is maintained. Close the loop with trust-building action. 
  • Be mindful of conversations outside of the workplace. Social media, e-mails, text messages and other technologies have enabled conversations to take place outside of core work hours. As they spill over into the workplace, these additional forms of communication must also be addressed proactively. Ensure that everyone in the workforce is trained on any policies and procedures relating to communication tools that are used outside of the workplace but may have an impact on the organization. 
  • Don't forget about protected and concerted activity. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) presents another balance to be maintained when communicating and addressing workplace issues. We cannot forget that NLRA protections preserve employees' right to engage in concerted activities in verbal, written and other forms of communication, and employers cannot attempt to restrict these activities. All of your organization's policies and procedures should be in legal compliance with any local, state and federal legislation. 

SHRM-certified HR professionals have the knowledge, skills and abilities to proactively address polarizing discussions in the workplace. It is our responsibility to ensure that proactive communication, effective training and legal compliance are in balance to create and maintain a great workplace culture. Find the strategies and solutions that work for your organization. Communication is a two-way street, so model the behavior you expect. 

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting LLC in Elmira, N.Y., and co-owner of Labor Love LLC, is an HR consultant, an assistant professor at Elmira College, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and in human resources & industrial relations, and a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.


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