Handling Controversial Conversations in the Workplace

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Managers can’t stop controversial conversations from happening in the workplace, but they can be equipped to help employees handle those conversations fairly and respectfully.


It’s fair to say that the media is consistently dominated with controversial news stories that often force people to stand on one side of the political table or the other. This is evident in the recent debate over Indiana’s Freedom of Religion bill as well as the devastating video released of a white police officer shooting an unarmed African-American man in the back eight times in South Carolina.

So what happens when controversial topics come up in workplace conversations?

We’ve all been in that position. You’re chatting with fellow co-workers on a break and a contentious topic comes up. Before you know it, you’re involved in a discussion that is quickly veering off the road of “workplace appropriate.”


Related: As race-related news stories continue to break, organizations should consider refreshing abusive conduct and diversity training. NAVEX Global’s Race, National Origin & Age Discrimination course teaches the basics of preventing and addressing race, national origin and age discrimination.


 In a recent article written for Quartz titled “The Right Way to Talk about Things Like Ferguson at Work,” NAVEX Global’s Ingrid Fredeen explores the idea of handling conversations around newsworthy issues that often carry strong opinions on both sides of observers’ tables. This is especially true with regard to race as a topic of conversation at work.

There are several steps organizations can take to help employees handle these difficult situations with care, while recognizing the sensitivity of controversial conversations at work. Below is a compendium of links and resources that can help employees, managers and supervisors when these difficult conversations arise.

  • First, curbing inflammatory conversations in the workplace is essential, for many reasons. One reason is that co-workers may record conversations that may potentially lead to a lawsuit.
  • Another is that all managers have a duty to protect their workers from abusive conduct. That means heated political conversations need careful handling. One tactic managers can use to diffuse particularly contentious subjects is to bring in the “third way” point of view, reminding employees that there are many perspectives and nuances in seemingly black and white issues. This article includes some excellent talking points for managers who are handling difficult conversations about race.
  • All that said, ignoring controversial issues at work—particularly an issue like race—is not the answer, or even an option. A Harvard Business Review study published in 2013 showed that acknowledging race in the workplace is important; “colorblindness” is a delusion.
  • When feasible, however, managers should probably err on the side of encouraging co-workers to discuss heated political issues on their own time, rather than at work.
  • In the wake of the news out of South Carolina, Ferguson and other similar race-related media stories, now is a good time for companies to review their disciplinary processes and policies related to abusive conduct, including racist comments. FindLaw offers a helpful checklist for companies working toward that effort.

Discriminatory behavior in the workplace has a big impact on the bottom line, and it’s fairly easy to make a business case for offering diversity and inclusion training to employees. Online training is a key activity to preventing this type of negative behavior at work.

Sensational and controversial news stories aren’t going away. Inevitably, these conversations will continue to occur in the workplace. Preparation and quick action are the best defenses against these discussions escalating to out of control.


What do you have to say? Share your thoughts in the comments below or join a discussion group on Compliance Next.

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