How to discuss difficult topics at work

Kerrie-Anne Chinn, Content & Editorial Manager

Every day, we are confronted with ongoing media coverage of news events as they’re unfolding around the world. 

Unfortunately, amongst the good news stories of cute baby pandas and great sporting wins, many of today’s news stories deal with far more distressing subject matter, with a constant stream of natural disasters and humanitarian crises across our screens. Other events, such as terrorist attacks, bombings or mass shootings, can bring the whole world to a shocked halt in seconds.

When certain news stories or political events become a topic of national or global conversation, it’s likely that employees will bring these conversations into the workplace. This can give rise to discussions on traditionally controversial subject matters involving religion, politics and race – subjects that can be confronting and difficult to navigate in the workplace. 

How do we have respectful discussions at work about these controversial subjects? And what can managers do when talk in the office turns to difficult topics?

The Role of Managers During Difficult Times 

When the world is being rocked by a particularly shocking news story in the media, workplaces can become more nervous and tense, as employees process the events and their emotions towards it. The events are most likely on your employees’ minds, whether they’re talking about them around the water cooler or whether you raise them in discussion or not.

It’s in these difficult times that managers must demonstrate more composure and leadership than ever before, helping staff to stay engaged, focused and motivated while also feeling safe and secure. Just as we can learn how to deal with difficult people, we can learn how to have respectful conversations about controversial subjects or events – discussing difficult topics in the workplace is a skill that can be learned and developed.

Foster a Work Culture of Respect and Compassion

Ingrid Fredeen, specialist in ethics and legal compliance training, says it’s important that organisations make sure they are showing their commitment to a healthy corporate culture and fostering an environment of ethics and respect in the workplace – no matter what’s going on in the world around them.

It’s important to acknowledge what is happening and create a safe space where employees can feel secure and comfortable in discussing the events. Being proactive in this way shows good leadership and respect for the emotional wellbeing of your employees.

As consultant Michelle Kedem says in her article Discussing Difficult Topics of Race and Equity at Work, “when an organization’s leadership fails to acknowledge what its team may be going through after a traumatic event – from terrorism to acts of racial injustice to the wide range of other events impacting people's lives – it misses an opportunity to engage its team and make progress toward real change.”

Many of today’s organisations pride themselves on being committed to diversity, equality and inclusion. Be aware that your staff may need to engage in conversations about complex topics, and help them navigate those discussions in a respectful and compassionate way.

Helping Staff Discuss Difficult Events and Topics

As a manager, you can help open the lines of communication on difficult topics. It’s best to acknowledge the challenging circumstances of the events and these subsequent conversations, before introducing your discussion as a safe space for all employees to share their thoughts and feelings about the topic.

Let staff know that the organisation’s goal is to provide all employees with a dignified and respectful workplace, and that personal beliefs on certain issues or events can often be considered controversial. You might like to take the time to remind employees about HR policies you have in place around code of conduct, harassment and discrimination.

Kedem suggests making these discussions optional, with an “invite everyone; require attendance of no one” approach. Team members will react in different ways and want different levels of support and/or privacy at work. Don’t spring these sensitive discussions on staff – by scheduling them properly, you’ll allow team members the time to consider whether they want to participate, and what they want to say or not say in front in a group setting.

It’s really important for managers and team leaders to step in and address any conversations that have become offensive, aggressive or overly heated, as they can do significant damage to the workplace dynamics and culture. Encourage staff to take time to debrief and cool down after the discussion, instead of returning quickly to their normal tasks. Some team members may prefer to talk in a one-on-one environment after the general group discussion. Keep your door open. Keep your own mental attitude positive.

Learn More About Developing a Respectful Workplace

Remember, in your role as manager, it’s your responsibility to help staff navigate these difficult discussions, while feeling safe and secure in their workplace environment.

There are many online courses and resources available to help team leaders learn more about these topics, such as these modules on how to handle difficult conversations and developing a respectful workplace.

It’s a good idea to develop your own skills in this area before any challenging events or conversations arise, so you’ll feel more confident and better equipped to lead by example.


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