The right way to talk about things like Ferguson at work

Lebron James, speaking out in his workplace.
Lebron James, speaking out in his workplace.
Image: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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Over the past several months, the tragic shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson has been all over the news. The decision not to indict Officer Wilson sparked a wave of violence, and now a movement of protestors who are speaking out against police brutality. Sadly, Michael Brown’s story is now only part of the conversation on race and police violence, with the deaths of Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others becoming part of the tragic list.

Last week, five players on Saint Louis’s NFL team joined the conversation by emerging on the playing field, their workplace, with their hands held up; their gesture of support for the protestors angered police. Protesters have held actions in cities around the country, including several in New York. Last night the NBA star LeBron James and several of his teammates wore shirts that read “I can’t breathe,” in reference to Eric Garner’s last words, as he was held to the ground in a choke hold by a New York City police officer. And President Obama dedicated a large part of his day last Monday to meetings regarding improving relations between the police and the communities they serve.

When workplace conversations go off the rails

Like any topic, people have many differing points of view on the Ferguson story and each individual case, fueled by their personal opinions and experiences. There are those who speak out in protest against the police, others who decry the protests and attention, and those who support the police and the grand jury decision.

These recent events have sparked intense debate about who is right, and race is at the center of these conversations. And while discussion is healthy and necessary, it can get heated and disrespectful quickly. I’ve overheard, seen, and even been part of conversations that could easily be considered offensive or inappropriate if they occurred in the workplace.

It’s likely that employees will continue to bring these conversations into their workplaces. If they turn heated, they can damage workplace relationships, and give rise to claims of harassment and discrimination.

How to have respectful discussions on controversial topics

In “The Ethics of Talking Politics at Work” an article published in Bloomberg Business Week in 2008, ethics expert Dr. Bruce Weinstein wisely concluded that some topics just aren’t worth discussing at work. His conclusions apply equally well to uncontrolled discussions about racial equality in America.

Yes, in the best of circumstances, discussion with people who hold different points of view can lead to greater understanding of beliefs different from one’s own. Yes, it may be possible for you and your colleagues to have a civil, respectful conversation at work about the politics of abortion, euthanasia, creationism, the existence of God, your sex life, and your salary.

If you are able to have such polite repartee, you are in the minority. For most people, these kinds of discussions too often degenerate into loud arguments and the conclusion that those on the opposing side of the fence are “idiots.” In what sort of business would this kind of behavior promote doing one’s job effectively? As engaging as such conversations might be, to what extent will they enhance the ability to carry out one’s duties and meet the needs of customers and company alike? More to the point, won’t such conversations likely impede the performance of one’s assignments?

Bottom line: the very real and important need for lively, informed, and vigorous debate is best met before and after one goes to work. Everyone in the body politic will be better off if this rule is treated with the respect it deserves.

While I am fully supportive of an open and free dialog on how we can make the system better and what we need to do to bring equality and justice to the people who deserve it, I must agree that the workplace is not the best forum for these conversations.

You may hear employees say they have a First Amendment right to speak their minds—and they may even think that their employers cannot stifle that right. But the truth is that for private employers, the First Amendment does not afford employees the right to speak their minds at work—especially when the conversation is heated, controversial, disruptive or offensive. Employers have an obligation and a right to create a workplace that is safe and respectful. And often this means they must take action to put an end to offensive expressions and actions—rules and laws against harassment and bullying are just an example of this. So if an employee brings up their First Amendment right, managers should politely let them know that at work, the employer has an obligation to ensure that the workplace is free from potentially harassing and threatening conduct.

If employees openly discuss controversial topics during work hours, they should keep in mind these five simple guidelines (which came from the article above):

  • Do no harm
  • Make things better
  • Respect others
  • Be fair
  • Be loving (or as I would say, be caring)

Most employers will want to keep heated discussions to a minimum—which means managers need some tools to help keep the peace at work. First, make sure they understand the difference between protected concerted speech under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (which applies to both unionized and non-unionized workplaces) and conduct that is prohibited by policy and the law (for example, harassment, violence, threats, disruptive behavior not related to terms and conditions of employment).

Managers then need some simple guidance about what they can do when a conversation turns inappropriate. Managers should feel empowered to:

  • Help employees understand why some topics should be discussed away from work. They should stress that they are not picking sides but rather being respectful of all employees and their possibly differing beliefs.
  • Explain that personal beliefs can be controversial and that there are often strong points of view on all sides of an issue.
  • Remind staff that conversations can quickly turn offensive—and the danger of damage to working relationships and team morale.
  • Remind employees about key policies, including your harassment, workplace violence and business conduct policies.
  • Explain that the organization’s goal is to provide all employees with a dignified and respectful workplace.
  • Let employees know that they should discuss heated topics away from work.

If a discussion turns heated and offensive in the workplace, managers need to take quick action to put an end to conversation. They should:

  • Address the behavior professionally
  • Avoid attacking the employees personally or taking sides
  • Talk with each employee separately
  • Focus on behavior rather than opinion, instead pointing out offensive or inappropriate conduct
  • Be clear that employees (who work for private employers) do not have an absolute right to express personal opinions at work
  • Help the employee understand the consequences for repeat conduct

Taking these steps will help organizations ensure that they are demonstrating 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 us.