If you grew up in the United States, odds are good that someone taught you the following topics were off limits outside the home: politics, religion, and sex.
American workplaces have long upheld these and other conversational taboos. For example, it used to be that no one would even think of discussing their personal lives (from health problems to romances) at work.
But as times have changed, so too have office dynamics. Controversial topics arise in the workplace today more than ever before, and it’s important to learn how to navigate these conversations with tact and grace. Doing so accomplishes two things: It allows you to maintain your professionalism, and it helps create a work environment in which everyone can feel comfortable. Read on to learn how to navigate potentially awkward conversations like a pro.
Changing workplace dynamics
These days, it’s not uncommon for coworkers to chat about their family, current events, or an upcoming election. In fact, up to 44 percent of American employees have engaged in political discussions at work. Across industries, it’s becoming increasingly common for people to overshare personal information on the job, perhaps because we’ve become accustomed to doing so on social media or because we spend more time at the office and need an outlet to process what’s going on outside of work. Industries that thrive on creativity, collaboration, and innovation—such as tech, advertising, and the startup scene—are especially likely to condone open discussions at work.
No matter the reason for the ongoing disintegration of conversational taboos, the end result is the same: More and more people are likely to encounter controversial topics at work—whether related to politics, religion, family problems, health concerns, office romances, discrimination, or favoritism in the workplace.
There are certainly upsides to all this sharing. Engaging in personal conversations can build empathy and foster strong relationships between coworkers, improve morale, and teach managers what makes their employees tick. Plus, free and open dialogue among citizens is an essential part of democracy.
On the other hand, differences in opinion on sensitive topics such as politics and religion can lead to tension between coworkers—and, if left unchecked, this could get in the way of job performance. Additionally, clients or customers may feel inclined to take their business elsewhere if they overhear employees discussing sensitive topics in the workplace. While it may not be right, employers may discriminate against an employee whom they know to hold opposing political or religious views from their own. Tense workplaces may also motivate employees to seek jobs elsewhere, resulting in high employee turnover.
It’s important to navigate controversial topics in the workplace with diplomacy, even if it is difficult. The good news is that the more you practice handling potentially uncomfortable situations, the more ease you’ll feel whenever these circumstances arise. Commit to enacting the following strategies and you’ll be well on your way to addressing sticky topics and conversations with aplomb.
Abide by workplace rules
While the First Amendment may guarantee you the right to free speech outside the workplace, private companies can still elect to regulate what is and is not acceptable for workplace conversation. Take the time to read your company’s rules regarding what’s allowed when it comes to political expression. For instance, in some workplaces, posting a photo of your favorite presidential candidate on your cubicle wall may be A-OK; in others, it may be grounds for an obligatory visit to HR.
When in doubt, keep it to yourself
If you want to play it safe, don’t initiate or engage in conversations that relate to religion, politics, personal relationships, family problems, or your career aspirations (especially if said aspirations involve claiming your boss’s job or seeking employment at a different company). If you do elect to share personal information, take note of your audience (are you speaking with a coworker you trust? is it possible your boss may overhear?) before deciding how much to share. It may also be helpful to ask yourself whether sharing this piece of information will harm your work relationships in any way. If you’re not sure, it’s probably best to keep mum.
Always (always) be professional
If you do find yourself privy to workplace conversations about controversial topics, your priority should be professionalism at all times. Odds are low that you will change anyone’s religious or political persuasion in the span of a 10-minute conversation, so there’s no sense in getting too heated. Instead, make it a point to remain open-minded and as non-judgmental as possible. Even if you do find cause to judge a coworker’s values, you don’t need to shout about it in the office. It’s also important to note that these conversations shouldn’t be allowed to detract from your or anyone else’s work.
Listen more than you talk
Even when you disagree with a person on a controversial topic, conversation doesn’t have to turn into a face-off. Instead, view it as an opportunity to understand more about your coworker and a point of view that differs from your own. Strive to acknowledge your coworker’s perspective, knowing that expressing understanding is not the same as conceding a point. By treating your coworker with respect and dignity, you’ll help foster a workplace that prioritizes those values. Aim to do more listening than talking and keep your judgments to yourself, and you’ll greatly improve the chances of maintaining office civility. When all else fails, a simple and noncommittal “That’s interesting,” or “We can agree to disagree” will help keep the peace without betraying your own values.
If you’re part of an office romance, keep mum
While office romances are common, they’re also complicated. If you make too much fuss over a budding romance, you’ll open yourself up to the gossip mill and risk fueling concerns about favoritism, which can quickly spiral into resentment or depressed morale. To help maintain a professional atmosphere, it’s best to keep the details of your relationship to yourself.
If a coworker makes you uncomfortable, address it
It can feel uncomfortable to call out a coworker on inappropriate behavior, but directly confronting the issue is better for all parties involved. For starters, it provides your coworker with the opportunity to make things right. (After all, unless someone notifies them, they may be totally unaware they treaded on anyone’s toes.) Additionally, it provides you with an opportunity to improve your working environment and your relationship with the coworker.
Approach this conversation as constructively as possible. Start by proposing you meet in a neutral place such as a coffee shop near the office. This should go without saying, but it’s much better to have this conversation in person than over email, where tone and intent can easily be misconstrued.
When it comes time to have the conversation, focus on communicating how your coworker’s behavior makes you feel, rather than critiquing the person’s opinion or character. Clearly describe the situation and state your desired outcome in respectful and civil terms. For example, if you’re speaking to a person who’s been too pushy about wanting you to explore their faith, you may say, “I appreciate that you care about my spiritual wellbeing, but I’m not in the market for spiritual guidance right now and would prefer not to have these discussions in the workplace.”
If an employer or coworker continues to push uncomfortable conversations on you even after you’ve explicitly stated your boundaries, then it’s a good idea to start documenting the situation. Keep a log that includes the time, location, witnesses, and details of the conversation or inappropriate behavior such as nepotism or PDA.
Once you’ve built up a solid case, your next step is to discuss your concerns with your supervisor or an HR representative. Just remember that the Human Resources department is there to serve the company first and foremost. Tread carefully if you’re leveling accusations against a higher-up in the company. Frame your concerns in terms of the effect on the company’s bottom line (e.g., perhaps frequent in-fighting among coworkers decreases workplace productivity, or nepotism harms the company’s reputation) and be prepared for backlash from upset coworkers or supervisors.
If you’re the one making people uncomfortable, take responsibility
If you notice that controversial topics frequently come up around you, it’s worth recognizing if you instigate these conversations. Keep an eye on people’s responses and body language during sensitive conversations, and back off if you notice anyone feels uncomfortable. Conversational topics should always be consensual and no one should be forced to defend their belief system during their lunch break. If things ever get heated or out of hand, take responsibility for your role and apologize.
By navigating controversial discussions with grace and tact, and prioritizing respectful treatment of your coworkers at all times, you’ll help foster a workplace culture that upholds the dignity of everyone involved.