Confederate Flag Controversy & Fostering Respectful Workplace Conversations

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Best practices for fostering respectful workplace conversations.

Considered a symbol of Southern pride by some and a symbol of racism by others, the Confederate flag has been a source of extreme controversy for at least the past half-century. In the South, the Confederate flag still stands in many locations, including the South Carolina State Capitol (although the South Carolina Senate has recently voted to remove it from the grounds). The recent mass murder in South Carolina—an obvious hate crime against black Americans—sparked a national debate: Is the Confederate flag an important piece of our history or is it a shameful reminder of our racist past?

While senior state politicians began calling for the removal of or actually removing the Confederate flag from state capitol properties, the rest of the country is talking about it: over coffee with friends, at the dinner table with the kids—and, of course, around the water cooler in the workplace.

Just like the multiple police shootings of unarmed black men; the Indiana Freedom of Religion bill and many other newsworthy controversial topics, people have differing opinions. In any setting, these discussions can get heated, to say the least. But in the workplace, that can be especially problematic.


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In my article for The Atlantic’s Quartz, I shared ways employers can help manage employees who are engaging in conversations about newsworthy issues.  Employers need to remember that they have an obligation to foster a work environment that is safe and respectful. It’s the employer’s responsibility to prevent offensive expressions and actions in the workplace. When possible, managers should encourage employees to have controversial discussions on their own time, outside of the workplace, to limit disruption and potential for problems.

When that’s not reasonable, however, offering simple guidance to employees engaging in controversial discussions at work may be helpful. In a 2008 Bloomberg article about talking politics at work, the author encourages employees in heated discussions to:

  • Do no harm
  • Make things better
  • Respect others
  • Be fair
  • Be loving (or as I would say, be caring)

Clearly, ignoring controversial issues surrounding race in the workplace isn’t an option. Staying in front of them, managing them and offering guidance to employees about how to handle them is the answer.

Discriminatory behavior impacts the bottom line, and training employees on race, national origin and age discrimination is a critical element toward preventing this type of negative behavior.

Last month, it was police shooting unarmed black men; this month, it’s the Confederate flag; next month, it will be something else. Controversial issues dominate media headlines in the U.S., and people will be talking about it wherever they are. Be sure your workplace is prepared to handle these heated discussions effectively—and that you’re providing a safe and respectful work environment to your employees.  


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