Don’t Go There: Managing Controversial Topics in the Workplace

By August 22, 2017 Uncategorized

These are unusual times. Every day, media outlets bombard us with controversial news stories and issues that seem to force people to take sides. And they often do, loudly and with strong opinions. Topics like right to life, racial and gender discrimination, healthcare, and LGBT rights – most recently, in the military – are not only divisive but also highly charged.



I don’t have to tell you that the workplace is no sanctuary from controversy. What begins as a mild chit chat prior to a meeting can erupt into a contentious battle in a heartbeat. Before you know it, you have a hostile work environment, with emotions bubbling just under the surface, affecting relationships and productivity. Tense, stressed employees can’t make their best work contributions.

Ignoring the situation or hoping everything will die down soon is not an option for management. In fact, managers are obligated to develop a work environment that’s respectful and safe for all employees. A proactive response is key to tamping down the fires and creating a work culture that’s calm, supportive, and effective. Here are some tips.
Be Prepared
It’s a question of when, not if, a hot topic will come up in conversation. It’s essential to have written company policies on what you won’t tolerate. A written policy that clearly states your organization’s position as well as steps that will be taken in cases on noncompliance not only sets the tone for your workplace, it can also help protect you should a lawsuit arise.
You might get some pushback regarding First Amendment rights. Private companies have a bit more leeway than public companies do as far as limits to speech, but no company should tolerate racial or sexual discrimination of any kind. Managers have both the right and the responsibility to ensure that their workplace is free from any harassment or offensive behavior.
Be Neutral
I can’t overstate the fact that managers must be neutral and fair and avoid taking sides when it comes to addressing controversial issues at work. Maintain the position that some topics are better discussed elsewhere and not in the office. Further, explain to employees that:
  • The workplace should be respectful of everyone.
  • Controversial topics involve personal beliefs and strong opinions, and discussions can quickly intensify into offensive and damaging arguments.
  • Appropriate business conduct is expected of everyone.
While discussion, and even vigorous debate, can be healthy, the workplace is not the setting for such conversations, which can quickly intensify into disrespectful, offensive, and damaging arguments.
Be Proactive
Even with clearly communicated expectations and policies, heated discussions may still arise. Take immediate steps to defuse the situation:
  • Nip it in the bud. A simple “Hey, we’ve crossed a line” should suffice.
  • Talk to each employee who was involved individually.
  • Focus on the unsuitable conduct, not their opinions.
  • Remind them of your organization’s policies and possible consequences that may arise if there’s a next time.
And then keep a close watch.
By far, most people don’t want a tense or hostile environment in their organization. Clear and communicated policies, a neutral stance, and a proactive approach are crucial to creating and fostering a courteous culture in the workplace. Not only is this better for the team, it’s better for business, too.
Providing solutions that bridge the gap is what we do at Mulling Corporation, and conflict resolution is one of the many professional services we offer. When employees value each other’s contributions on the job, everyone can enjoy a positive work environment that encourages them to maximize their potential. For more information, visit our website and And listen to Mulling at Work on NewsTalk 1160 on Mondays at 1 PM, where I discuss workplace issues that are relevant today.




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