How is your workplace similar to your aunt’s house during a holiday celebration? Both are bad places to talk about politics, religion, or anything that’s liable to get people riled up. Of course, knowing better doesn’t necessarily mean doing better.
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A lot has happened in the past few weeks that make talking about sensitive topics more tempting than ever before. The midterm elections strengthened GOP control over the House and gave Republicans the Senate; the nation saw sweeping protests in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. Add to that the usual challenges of negotiating a holiday season with religious significance for many different beliefs, and you have a potential recipe for conversational disaster around the water cooler.
So how do you handle discussing these subjects at work? As much as possible, you don’t.
As a co-worker and teammate, you can make the workplace a better environment for people of all opinions and beliefs by not bringing up topics that would make other people uncomfortable. It’s an easy test: just ask yourself how you would feel if someone who believed the exact opposite as you do started going on, at length, about how they feel. Then remember that everyone has different boundaries, and that you need to account for the most sensitive souls when you draw the line.
For managers, this offers a special challenge: how to guide people in constructing their conversations, without seeming to take sides yourself or coming off as repressive.
“You may hear employees say they have a First Amendment right to speak their minds — and they may even think that their employers cannot stifle that right,” writes Ingrid Fredeen at Quartz. “But the truth is that for private employers, the First Amendment does not afford employees the right to speak their minds at work — especially when the conversation is heated, controversial, disruptive or offensive. Employers have an obligation and a right to create a workplace that is safe and respectful. And often this means they must take action to put an end to offensive expressions and actions — rules and laws against harassment and bullying are just an example of this.”
In other words, to make things better for everyone, you have a responsibility to keep people from creating a hostile environment, and that often means leaving some topics of conversation firmly in the Outside of Work, Only category.
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