Office and Admin

Navigating controversial topics in the workplace

Written by Michael Hoon

Generally speaking, most people know that conversations that dip into politics, religion, or intimate relationships are best to avoid in professional settings. Yet in the current political climate, taboo topics are becoming harder and harder to avoid, causing people to share more opinions and exercise a lot less restraint and privacy in the workplace.

Regardless of who brings hot button issues into the conversation, it’s always best to be prepared to deal with them without putting your foot in your mouth or offending someone. Here are some tips on how to keep it classy (and keep yourself out of trouble) when controversy arises at work.

Always follow the rules.

Your company almost certainly has some policies in place regarding religious or political expression. You might not be allowed to hang up a campaign button or bumper sticker in your cubicle, for instance, or decorate your desk with anything a coworker might deem offensive. Take a quick glance at the employee handbook now and then to make sure you’re coloring between the lines.

Listen, smile, and keep quiet.

It’s easier said than done, but if the conversation around you turns heated, it’s often best to just sit back and take in the opinions of everyone around you. If you do more listening than talking on average, then you have fewer opportunities to say something you’ll regret or that will get you in trouble.

Unless you’re in a situation where a legitimate wrong or injustice is taking place, if you find yourself wanting to say something—and asking yourself “Is this okay to say?”—chances are you should probably hold that thought and keep it to yourself.

Document wrongdoings.

If you have a coworker (or boss!) who’s spewing offensive commentary or bullying you or someone else—or, worse, engaging in hate speech—then you’re going to want to build a case before you do anything or tattle. Have something tangible you can present to HR if that becomes your best option. Frame your concerns in terms of safeguarding the health of the company and culture.

If you’re upset, say something.

Rather than making assumptions or leaping to conclusions about a person’s character, sometimes it’s better to just be up-front and frank with a coworker who has offended you. This doesn’t mean leveling accusations. It means approaching that person respectfully with an olive branch and a chance to talk things through. Don’t accuse—explain. Tell him or her why you’re upset. Having the confidence to do this in the first place is a tricky skill to master, but this can be quite effective in neutralizing an otherwise fraught situation.

Own your mistakes.

If you’re the one making people uncomfortable—even unintentionally—own up to it, take responsibility, apologize, and change your behavior. Otherwise your job might end up on the line. Remember, you’re not the only one in the office whose opinions and feelings matter.

The bottom line

If a conversation arises and you have passionate feelings, by all means, speak up. But if you do, keep your tone and language as professional as possible. Try to diffuse rather than accuse. Ask questions rather than asserting strong statements. Keep an open mind and your emotions at an even keel—it’s possible to be both passionate and polite.

About the author

Michael Hoon