Talking Taboo: Making the Most of Polarizing Discussions at Work

New book introduces practical tools to assess, guide uncomfortable workplace conversations

By The SHRM Certification Team August 18, 2022

​What happens when politics, sex, race, religion and other polarizing topics come up in conversations among co-workers? SHRM Chief Knowledge Officer Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, has some unexpected answers. 

In his new book, Talking Taboo: Making the Most of Polarizing Discussions at Work (SHRM, 2022), Alonso explains why some topics are taboo while others are not and offers practical strategies for assessing and guiding difficult conversations toward safe, productive outcomes. 

A subject matter expert in organizational psychology, Alonso utilizes research findings from SHRM's 2020 Survey of Politics and Polarizing Discussions in the Workplace to examine an increasingly common phenomenon. What had always been standard practice at work—quelling the urge to bring up divisive subjects for discussion—has become more difficult to maintain in recent years. Traumatic events taking place across the world, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and across the country the 2020 election and its aftermath, have been nearly impossible to avoid talking about, presenting executive leadership and HR with unprecedented challenges.

Stifling discussion of controversial topics can do more harm than good, Alonso argued, leading to knowledge silos and anxiety. By allowing the expression of diverse opinions, such conversations can be leveraged to embolden an organization's mission. The book offers real-world examples of how to respect contesting views while maintaining a strong sense of community in the workplace. 

The key, Alonso said, is to equip HR professionals and other leaders with the right information and tools for assessing, mediating, facilitating and guiding these conversations to prevent strong opinions from becoming entrenched and weaponized. To implement the process, Talking Taboo introduces two important original resources, the "Empathy/Polarization Index" and the "Me+We+WO+RK Framework." 

The Empathy/Polarization Index

This workforcewide survey tool enables an organization to gauge how well or how poorly its employees feel about working there. Respondents rate five statements from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree" to produce an overall score: 

  • Belonging—My organization provides all staff with a sense of belonging.
  • Openness—My organization fosters openness to different perspectives.
  • Conflict Management—My organization resolves conflict rather than buries it.
  • Polarization—My organization welcomes individual as well as collective opinions of all kinds and works to prevent people from becoming further polarized from one another.
  • Entrenchment—My organization encourages staff to understand others' perspectives, refrain from making judgments and prevent our opinions (even if polarizing) from becoming entrenched and weaponized.
A higher score indicates that the workforce perceives the organization to be more inclusive and empathetic; a lower score, less so. Low-scoring organizations are likely to have less success at managing polarization in their workplaces. 

The Me+We+WO+RK Framework

This tool for managing conflict is designed to be used at the individual or team level. The parties to a conversation are prompted by a leader to ask themselves four questions: 

  • Me: What did I experience during this conversation?
    Use self-awareness to identify your perceptions of what occurred.
  • We: What did my counterpart experience during this conversation?
    Use empathy to imagine the other person's perspective on what occurred.
  • WO: What were the work outcomes of this conversation?
    Use your powers of observation to recognize the impacts of what occurred on you, your counterpart and the organization.
  • RK: What refined knowledge can arise from these experiences and outcomes?
    Use your deeper understanding of what occurred—gained from answering the first three questions—to guide and temper future conversations in the workplace

The questions are designed to help people think more meaningfully about the motivations and consequences of their interactions; the answers are neither rated nor scored. Rather, the Me+We+WO+RK framework is a jumping-off point for employees and/or colleagues to enhance their empathy and understanding and for the organization to help prevent the same mistakes from happening again. 

SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge 

Another tool for handling difficult conversations safely and productively is the foundational document of SHRM certification, the SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge (SHRM BASK). 

SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP credential-holders likely are already turning to the SHRM BASK for guidance in dealing with taboo topics in the workplace. Several of the HR behavioral competencies described therein stand out as helpful resources, including:

  • Relationship Management (in particular its sub-competency Conflict Management).
  • Communication.
  • Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
  • Leadership & Navigation.
The knowledge domains of the SHRM BASK's technical competency, HR Expertise, are also relevant here. Among the pertinent HR functional areas that leaders and staff can look to when facing these challenges are:

  • Employee Engagement & Retention.
  • Employee & Labor Relations.
  • Risk Management.
  • Corporate Social Responsibility.

Talking Taboo is available from the SHRMStore and all major book retailers. All proceeds will benefit the SHRM Foundation, which is committed to empowering HR as a social force for change. 

Other SHRM resources:
SHRM Announces Program to De-Polarize Workplaces, Offer Businesses Unifying Alternative to Mainstream Diversity Practices, SHRM news release, May 2022
Polarizing Conversations in the Workplace, SHRM Online, January 2022
What to Do When Touchy Topics Come Up at Work, SHRM Online, May 2021
How Much Do You Know About Managing Political Discussions in the Workplace?, SHRM quiz
How Should HR Handle Political Discussions at Work?, HR Magazine, February 2020



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