Handling Controversial Discussions at Work

With the amount of time that American employees spend in their workplaces, it’s difficult to avoid all discussions about what many people consider to be controversial topics: religion, politics, and money.

These subjects are often deeply personal and discussing them can lead to emotional reactions, both good and bad. Finding out that a coworker has opposing political or religious views can also change how an individual views their colleague, potentially leading to tensions in the workplace. Discussions related to money matters can also lead to workplace strain.

Ideally, these personal conversation topics would be reserved for personal time, but that isn’t always the case. How should you handle it if you find yourself in the middle of a conversation about one of these topics at work?

Read Your Employee Handbook

Some workplaces have policies that prohibit discussions about certain topics from taking place. Private companies are allowed to determine what’s appropriate within their walls; this isn’t a violation of your freedom of speech. Before you engage in a discussion or respond to any comments about controversial topics, make sure you aren’t breaking any workplace rules or regulations.

Don’t Engage

It’s easier said than done, especially if a coworker raises a topic that you’re particularly passionate about, but not engaging in the conversation is a foolproof way to avoid problems that can stem from emotionally charged discussions among colleagues.

If you’re pressured to join in a conversation or to share your opinion, simply say something like, “I try to avoid talking about these kinds of things at work.”

Changing the subject back to work is another good strategy for avoiding engagement in the discussion. Try: “I’d rather not discuss that, but did you see the latest email about that project we’ve been working on?”

Maintain Your Professionalism

If you do decide to engage in a conversation about money, religion or politics with your coworkers, make sure to maintain your professionalism. Accept that you’re likely not going to change anyone’s mind throughout the course of the discussion, and avoid getting angry or frustrated. Keep the conversation short, and don’t let it distract you entirely from your work.

Address Issues Directly

An aggressive confrontation in the heat of the moment is never the right way to handle a disagreement with a coworker. But if a colleague says something that makes you upset or uncomfortable in the course of a dialogue about a controversial subject – whether you’re involved in the conversation or simply overhearing it – you can approach them directly and constructively to discuss how you feel.

Again, you’re not likely to change their perspective, but by letting them know how you feel, they can choose to avoid discussing those views at work in the future. If your coworker continues to express views that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe even after you’ve asked them to stop, talk with your human resources department.

Engage in Self-Reflection

If you choose to discuss controversial topics at work, make sure to engage regularly in self-reflection. How often do you discuss these topics? Do your coworkers seem interested in discussing them with you? Make sure to take into account not just their verbal responses, but their body language as well. Remember that it may be difficult for your coworkers to speak up and ask you to stop discussing these topics, and that it’s always best to avoid discussing them in the first place.

While it’s often a very positive thing to develop friendly rapport with your coworkers, this can be accomplished without engaging in controversial discussions.

To learn more about building a healthy and engaged workforce, call Mazzitti & Sullivan EAP today.