How to facilitate civil workplace discussions on divisive issues

October 10, 2023

Conversations about divisive issues can create discord in the workplace and adversely affect organizational culture.The risks of losing a civil workplace are high as issues that evoke strong emotions and polarizing points of view are increasingly present topics at places of employment.We asked employment law attorneys Jim Spencer and Melissa Moodie with Hinkle Law Firm LLC for their advice on how employers can welcome different views on tough topics and facilitate civil workplace discussions among employees.Spencer and Moodie say employers need to ensure they establish parameters and offer training on how employees should approach discussions on controversial and/or contentious topics.Spencer says while freedom of speech protections do not apply to private employers, companies still should tread lightly on implementing policies that restrict what employees can talk about in the workplace.“People are people and there will always be other things they talk about besides business,” he says.He says if, for example, a business institutes a policy against political speech in the workplace, managers and company leaders are going to spend a lot of time and energy deciphering what is considered political and what is not.Spencer and Moodie agree that employees should be encouraged to bring different ideas and perspectives to the table and have these types of conversations among co-workers when appropriate. The issue becomes when those debates interfere with work that needs to be completed.Moodie says it’s up to the leadership of a company to model how differences of opinion can be appreciated and still maintain a civil workplace. She says managers should try to stay as neutral as possible when conversations about controversial issues happen in the workplace and instead try to help people look past their differences and find ways to move forward in productive ways.Companies often have personal conduct policies in place that they can fall back on when setting expectations for employee behavior. Spencer suggests having periodic training sessions on acceptable workplace behavior. Those policies don’t have to be limited to behaviors and can be expanded to include messaging displayed on apparel and/or signage on display.Moodie says company leaders need to ensure they are being consistent with how rules are applied to avoid potential discrimination issues.Additionally, evaluate the culture of your business and apply the image you want to portray publicly, and do so consistently. Moodie says an organization’s culture can be eroded quickly if discussions and actions in the workplace around controversial topics aren’t handled carefully.Spencer says employers also need to be mindful of the National Labor Relations Act and ensure employees are not being retaliated against for making certain requests or addressing concerns about issues in the workplace.Guidance from the Society for Human Resource ManagementEmployers are going to be best served maintaining a civil workplace when they are proactively taking steps to prevent the environment from becoming toxic. Employees are more likely to leave and productivity suffers when a workplace becomes toxic.The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers three keys to maintaining a civil workplace.

  • Facilitate and foster civil discussions – SHRM suggests thinking through what you want to talk about and why along with the desired outcome. Check assumptions and pre-conceived notions at the door. Listen to understand. Remind employees they are working toward a shared goal and should be collectively working toward improving the culture of your organization.
  • Practice conflict-resolution strategies Equip employees with tools and skills to identify and respond to incivility in the workplace. Recognize when an otherwise healthy debate is turning into a negative conflict. Discuss how conflict can affect the workplace. Focus on identifying common ground and less on areas of disagreement.
  • Set the tone with leadership and accountability – Yes, everyone in an organization plays a part in creating a civil and productive work environment, but company leaders need to be the ones setting that tone. Lead by example and hold people accountable for unwanted behavior. Provide coaching and training on how people can be civil and respectful of others.

Learn more: How and why to demonstrate respect in the workplaceAbout us: As the Heartland’s leading employer services company, Syndeo partners with local business owners to help them minimize risk, improve efficiency and maximize profitability allowing them the freedom to focus on growth and fulfilling their mission. Syndeo fulfills its mission by taking on all of the HR responsibilities for our clients’ workforce, including employee relations, benefits, risk management and payroll. Winner of the 2020, 2021 and 2022 Best of HR Services Award through ClearlyRated for providing superior client service. See our ClearlyRated profile here.

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