Most organisations appreciate the need and benefits of workplace diversity, and have achieved at least some success in creating a diverse team. Counter to that, many organisations underestimate the significant and continuous focus needed in this work to continuously evolve as people, society and organisations evolve. Bringing increased diversity brings together different views and beliefs, opinions, and political affiliations – and that can bring an increased level of conflict. Unlocking the opportunities of a diverse workforce is only achieved when you foster a culture of inclusivity, understanding, and growth. In today’s environment of cancel culture*, there is a risk of creating unsafe spaces to voice our views on sensitive topics – even if those views or questions come from a place of seeking to genuinely understand those around us. This can have the unintended effect of closing down discussions when we should be sharing ideas to foster a better understanding of each other’s views. Effectively supporting and managing sensitive discussions is crucial to promote this type of sharing. Creating a safe and constructive environment that encourages open dialogue while respecting the sensitivities and diversity of employees, will help you in unlocking the opportunities of a diverse a workforce.
To navigate sensitive discussions, we recommend the following:
1. Foster a Culture of Respect and Inclusion
Start by prioritising the cultivation of a respectful and inclusive workplace culture. This begins with leadership setting an example by treating every employee and each other with dignity and acknowledging the value of their opinions. Emphasising the importance of diversity and demonstrating zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment creates a foundation of trust.
Regular diversity and inclusion training can help employees understand and appreciate different perspectives, facilitating more empathic and open discussions. Encouraging employees to share their unique experiences and backgrounds can enhance mutual understanding and empathy. Hosting seminars or inviting a guest speaker can also facilitate informed discussions on more challenging subjects.
With these baselines in place, you will be more able to support an environment where everyone’s views can be heard and respected.
2. Establish Clear Guidelines and Boundaries
While fostering open dialogue, it is essential to establish clear guidelines and boundaries for discussions. These guidelines should outline the acceptable language and behaviours, in the workplace. They should make it clear that personal attacks, offensive language, or any form of discrimination are never acceptable. Leaders and managers play a crucial role in modelling this behaviour and setting the tone of respectful interactions.
Open-door policies alongside anonymous (especially third party) reporting mechanisms can provide employees with the means to voice concerns, report any instances where boundaries have been crossed, or even seek advice on the best way to ask questions to improve understanding.
3. Provide Safe Spaces for Dialogue
Creating safe spaces for dialogue is vital to supporting sensitive discussions. Establishing forums or platforms where employees can freely express their opinions and concerns without fear of judgment or reprisal is crucial. This could be in the form of team meetings, town halls, or even dedicated digital platforms for discussion.
Moderators or facilitators should be trained to manage discussions effectively, ensuring that all voices are heard, and that the conversation remains respectful and focused. They should promote active listening, encourage empathy, and moderate any potential conflicts or misunderstandings.
When assigning moderators, be mindful of the Cultural Load often carried by employees with a particular diversity characteristic. For example, the invisible workload employers knowingly or unknowingly place on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees to provide Indigenous knowledge, education and support in an organisation is often expected without checking whether the individual wants to play this additional role, or if they are keen to help, without any formally agreed reduction or alteration to their usual expected workload. As well as the time involved in providing this kind of support, there is an emotional toll if someone is asked to defend or explain their culture to others repeatedly. This invisible workload should be acknowledged and considered when assigning other work. It is important to check-in with these employees, even when they are keen to play this role, to make sure they have the support to debrief and share their own experience of the additional role.
4. Encourage Active Listening and Empathy
Active listening and empathy play pivotal roles in supporting sensitive or political discussions. Employees should be encouraged to listen attentively to others’ perspectives and experiences, seeking to understand rather than simply respond.
Workshops or training can better explain this expectation of an openness to learning, and to equip employees with the skills necessary to appreciate diverse viewpoints and foster meaningful connections. Encouraging individuals to put themselves in others’ shoes helps cultivate a culture of understanding, even in the face of disagreement. Exercises where people are asked to walk in someone else’s shoes, and argue the opposite to their actual position on an issue, can be a powerful way to help them understand an alternate view.
A key principle in empathy is appreciating that it is not what is said, or even intended, but rather what is ‘heard’ that is most important. As we listen, appreciating that we hear every message through the lens of our own lived experience and understanding to date, one important lesson is this self-awareness. Listening for the speaker’s intent and context is equally important.
5. Facilitate Constructive Dialogue and Mediation
When particularly difficult topics or discussions become heated, or reach an impasse, it is essential to pause, and facilitate constructive dialogue and mediation. Educating employees in how to resolve conflict constructively, will build confidence that they can manage their own conflicts effectively.
Where necessary, managers or designated mediators can step in to de-escalate conflicts, reframe the discussion, and guide participants towards a resolution.
These mediators should remain neutral, ensuring that no single viewpoint dominates the conversation. They can ask open-ended questions, encourage respectful responses, and identify common ground to bridge gaps between differing perspectives. Their role can be to build respect for the alternate views, or even the way difficult or uncomfortable issues are heard through the lens of different lived experiences.
Sensitive or politically divided topics are part of any complex society and the world today. They’re also part of how we grow together. Supporting sensitive or political divisive discussions in the workplace is one way to unlock the benefits of diversity. It requires a multifaceted approach that prioritises respect, inclusivity, and empathy. By fostering a culture of open dialogue, establishing clear guidelines, providing safe spaces, encouraging active listening, and facilitating conflict resolution and constructive mediation, organisations can create an environment where employees feel heard and valued. Such an environment not only promotes understanding and personal growth but also enhances teamwork, innovation, and the overall well-being of the workforce.
*cancel culture is the removal of support for individuals and their work due to an opinion or action of their part deemed objectionable to the parties “calling” them out. – Britanicca