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HR Tips for Handling Controversial Conversations at Work

Posted by Insightlink on 02/18/16


There is no shortage of controversial topics these days — be it political, religious, racial or otherwise. Managers, human resources professionals and business executives alike are often faced with the duty of navigating the sometimes murky waters of facilitating conversations around these topics.

Though it’s important to ensure employees feel valued and comfortable to express their opinions freely, careful, thoughtful intervention on controversial topics is equally important. It’s also key that hard-to-discuss topics are dealt with professionally from an HR standpoint not only to avoid litigation, but also to ensure employee satisfaction, engagement and retention.

As an HR professional, your responsibility is to keep an ear out for controversial conversations among staff in order to intervene and diffuse them before they escalate into potentially volatile situations. And remember, it is an employer’s duty to protect employees from abuse in the workplace...which can stem from controversial conversations. Some sensitive topics and conversations, however, should be kept to a minimum or avoided in the workplace altogether. Here are some tips to help in facilitating controversial conversations in the workplace:  

Dissuade controversy & enforce policies

If potentially controversial conversations are looming in the workplace, immediately encourage employees to discuss these topics on their own time. Share with them that work is neither the time nor the place to engage in heated topics that could potentially deter from the duties at hand. Additionally, it is a good idea to review the employee handbook for policies and disciplinary actions related to abusive conduct and ensure these are clearly communicated.  

Conduct regular training

Training is vital to ensure that all employees are on the same page when it comes to controversial topics of conversation in the workplace. Such training should also make employees aware of the company’s policies and procedures surrounding workplace discrimination.

 Federal and state laws prohibit workplace discrimination, and conducting regular training on this topic is key. Companies and HR professionals should work with knowledgeable consultants who specialize in in-person or online training to educate staff on this topic.

Keep it private & constructive

If the time comes to reprimand an employee for sparking or engaging in an inappropriate conversation at work, it is important to do so privately. Send the employee an email requesting a meeting — and do so sooner rather than later — to discuss the issue.

Be sure not to attack the employee, but rather, present the situation you have overheard or been informed of. Keep the conversation non-aggressive and be sure to take notes during the meeting. Also, it may be beneficial to have two members of HR present, so as not to get into a case of “he said, she said” if the employee becomes disgruntled. Keep the conversation two-way so as to avoid the employee becoming defensive. Review the company policies and repercussions, and ask the employee to sign documentation agreeing that he or she has been informed of and understands the policies.

Though controversial conversations can’t be completely stopped, the best way to handle these types of conversations is to prepare yourself with knowledge ahead of time so controversial conversations can be handled fairly and quickly. It is also important to follow proper legal and ethical practices. When in doubt, consult your company’s legal department or contact.


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Insightlink Communications are experts in employee survey design, data collection and analysis. Since 2001 we've helped companies of all sizes measure and improve their employee satisfaction and engagement.

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