We have no shortage of news that can spark uncomfortable or even volatile conversations in the workplace. HR leaders and front-line managers want to be prepared to address sensitive topics.
Nearly all employees know the events of late – from the Supreme Court leak on overturning Roe v. Wade and an increasingly volatile war in Ukraine to race and diversity movements and political unrest. It can be difficult for employees to consume all that information and not have feelings they want to express at work.
And that can present difficulties for leaders: How can you help employees talk about sensitive, emotional and controversial topics in healthy productive ways?
“If we can listen to and learn from each other, if we can better understand different experiences and encourage safe forums for speaking up, then we can create a sensitive and mature approach to discussing injustice,” says Nichelle Grant, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Siemens USA, which has the proactive program, Courageous Conversations, to help employees better navigate difficult subjects and times.
“With that we can create a dialogue that strengthens our organizational culture and build a more resilient organization as a whole,” Grant says.
But, taking on difficult or sensitive topics doesn’t always mean you need to hit them head-on. Just giving employees the outlet or opportunity to address them is often enough.
In fact, some of the most well-known corporations in the U.S., such as Netflix, PayPal, Microsoft, Target, Walmart and Apple, remained quiet about the Supreme Court leak. But most of those still took steps to make their organization a safe place for employees to talk about the issues and their feelings.
More importantly, you want to create a safe space and time for employees so they can otherwise stay engaged and productive at their work.
Here are strategies on how you can address sensitive topics in your workplace:
Get proactive now
If you don’t already have a platform for managers and employees to talk through difficult, controversial and sensitive topics, roll out something now. It doesn’t have to be around any specific issue or headline, but that could be the catalyst.
At Siemens, it started with the George Floyd killing. Employees were invited to opt-in to conversations.
“Our goal was to have managers host Courageous Conversations to give employees an opportunity to express their views about justice and personal experiences with racial injustice while giving managers an opportunity to listen to what Siemens employees are saying,” Grant says.
Then managers can take the feedback to HR and others at the C-level to help them design a response to the recent issue, if necessary. This sets the stage for more productive conversations as more concerns arise.
“These conversations, while they begin with a focus on racial justice, expand beyond that during the dialogue to include other potential concerns – gender, LGBTQA+, disabilities, etc.,” Grant says of what’s happening at Siemens. “The importance of inclusion quickly connects to the actions and ideas expressed to see change happen.”
Communicate with care
Most managers aren’t equipped to have difficult conversations with their employees, according to the UKG’s research piece “The Talk: A Tough (and Necessary) Workplace Conversation.” They’re often uncomfortable and untrained.
Sometimes, being the boss gets in the way of showing compassion – mostly because authority is the default in an uncomfortable situation.
“As a manager, your goal of engaging with your staff and providing feedback is not to remind them who the boss is, and it’s not to dismiss their ideas or concerns if they don’t align with yours,” says Minda Harts, Founder and CEO of The Memo, LLC. “Rather, your job is to authentically engage, listen, and enhance their career journey.”
As an HR leader, you’ll want to offer front-line managers resources to improve their Emotional Intelligence and ability to manage difficult conversations. If you don’t have internal training resources on communication strategies, you can find third-party trainers and on-demand events with an online search.
If your organization isn’t prepared to address sensitive topics – after all, as mentioned above, many major players aren’t at this point – you’ll want to at least be prepared to talk about them.
“Smart organizations know that the more employees feel comfortable raising issues, the better the organization will be,” says Kate Bischoff, Employment Law Attorney and Advisor at The Workplace Institute at UKG.
You don’t necessarily have to be prepared to talk about every issue that pops up. You probably can’t do it anyway, as they change with each news cycle. But you can be prepared – and prepare formal and informal leaders – to respond to emotions that come with sensitive topics.
Bischoff suggests these three points:
- Acknowledge difficulties. Managers can build trust and create a safe space for employees when they acknowledge that it’s a sensitive or complex topic. You don’t have – or want – to take a side or express an opinion. Instead, acknowledge how it affects employees. Reflect their feelings. Some phrases that help:
- “I understand that you’re frustrated about …”
- “This is an upsetting situation and you deserved to feel …”
- “I can see how this affects you and makes you feel …”
- Be knowledgeable and resourceful. You don’t need to know everything about the sensitive topic. But you’ll want to equip yourself with some knowledge, anticipating the questions and concerns employees might have. For instance, in the case of the Supreme Court abortion ruling, you’ll want to gather details on how your company might adapt benefits. And, in situations when employees ask questions or raise concerns you aren’t ready to address, admit it. Take notes and tell them, “I don’t know the answer to that right now, but I will find out what I can and follow up with you by the end of the week.”
- Follow up. Do as you said you would, answering questions or giving updates in the time frame you promised. And on a personal level, you don’t want sensitive conversations to be one-and-done. That can make employees feel you don’t really care. Follow up, asking how employees feel and if there’s more you can do to address concerns.
“Tough conversations are necessary and inevitable. We all have to have them within our organizations – both managers and employees,” says Bischoff. “The trick is to slow down, make sure you have the messaging correct, and talk about the situation effectively.”