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11.24.20 – AMEX – Chalmers Brown co-founder and CTO, Due


  • Difficult conversations about race and politics may occur in the workplace, and as a business owner, your responsibility is to ensure an environment free of hostility.
  • Set the tone and the guidelines for discussions that occur in your workplace and take the steps necessary to end fruitless conversations.
  • Understand that how you handle these conversations ultimately reflect you as a leader and your company’s culture.

Given the recent national conversation about race and social justice, it may be hard to avoid such conversations coming up among employees.

Yet, as a business owner, you might feel caught between a rock and a hard place: You may not want to shut down these important discussions, but you also don’t want them to get heated. You even may feel compelled to take a stand yourself. Regardless of your employees’ views, they deserve a constructive, stress-free work environment, and are entitled to one free of hostility.  

To make discussions about race and politics productive, there are a handful of communications tactics you can tap to guide them.

1. Take a step back and collect yourself.

It’s important to step in when work conversations are escalating. But if you’re going to stabilize the situation, you first need to check your demeanor. 

Remember that your employees perceive the workplace through your actions and behaviors. If you’re angry and start shouting, you’re only going to make matters worse, and you risk signaling to them that you don’t value an inclusive culture or welcoming workplace. If you start to feel challenged, take a moment to prepare: Corral your emotions, collect your thoughts and enter the conversation with a cool head.

2. Set and own the tone.

People naturally mirror the behavior of others, especially their leaders. If you speak calmly, there’s a stronger chance your employees will speak calmly. If you go in yelling and pointing fingers, then your team members will take it as license to do the same. Sign up to receive the latest business insightsSubscribeBy providing your e-mail address, you agree to receive the Business Class Daily Edit newsletter from American Express. For more information about how we protect your privacy, please read our Privacy Statement.

In some ways, a company’s culture is an overflow of its leaders’ personalities. If your goal is for workers to engage in respectful, constructive conversations, then it’s on you to set that tone. Do that by practicing what you preach. 

3. End unproductive conversations.

As important as conversations about race and politics are, some of them are simply unproductive. Sometimes, individuals simply want to win an argument or to take out their frustrations on someone else.

If you recognize a discussion is going nowhere worthwhile, end it right then and there. Firmly but calmly state that the conversation is over. Invite one or both employees to take their break to help them move on. Be mindful of how your employees feel and try to conclude the conversation while remaining aware of their emotional states. They deserve to be treated with respect and have their concerns not trivialized, so be clear that your intentions of ending an unproductive conversation are not dismissive their beliefs.

Employees have a right to feel safe at work. If anyone uses unacceptable language or mistreats a coworker, it’s imperative that you discipline them appropriately.

Minimize unproductive discussions by scheduling meetings for only as long as is necessary. If the conversation is going well, you can always stay on the phone longer. If not, you can end the call when the time is up. 

4. Ask to talk in private.

The more people who chime into a debate, the greater the chance that it devolves into confusion or resentment. But if you look closely at these situations, it’s typically just one or two people causing problems. 

When you identify these people, you may be more successful at getting through to them with a private conversation. Publicly rebuking someone is sometimes necessary, but it risks creating resentments on the team. Doing so privately shows respect for the instigator, but it also sends a signal to stop stoking tensions.

5. Discipline intolerable behavior.

Remember, the workplace is bound by legal codes as well as cultural tenets. If you tolerate racist or threatening behavior, your company could wind up in court. 

Employees have a right to feel safe at work. If anyone uses unacceptable language or mistreats a coworker, it’s imperative that you discipline them appropriately. 

If you don’t take action when an employee crosses a line, that person is likely to keep crossing them. And if you try to punish them for it down the road, the individual may argue, “Well, you never cared before.”ADVERTISEMENTProduct SolutionKeep better tabs on cash flow

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Align the seriousness of the offense with your response. Depending on the situation, that might be a written warning, a period of paid or unpaid leave, or, in extreme cases, on-the-spot termination. 

Think through your boundaries ahead of time. That way, you know to take action when someone violates them.

6. Stay consistent.

To maintain a culture of respect, you must be consistent. Only addressing this or that angry conversation is a recipe for disaster. Employees may perceive that you’re playing favorites, or that you’re only paying lip service to your values. 

If you say something every time a discussion on race gets out of hand, you’ll see lasting change. Workers will start to realize that you have standards for these types of discussions. Not only will they begin heeding those standards, but they’ll also feel comfortable holding one another accountable to them.

7. Talk about it during training.

The best way to set ground rules around discussions—on race, as well as on other topics—is to include them in your training. That way, everyone who works for your company knows what the expectations are. 

Take this a step further by looking for characteristics when hunting for talent that signal respect for others’ ideas. By checking the tenor of applicants’ social media content, for instance, you’ll get a sense for whether they communicate in healthy, workplace-appropriate ways. Building a team of thoughtful, polite people is the best way to keep heated debated to a minimum.  

Don’t expect employees to check topics of nationwide discussion at your door. Do expect them, however, to treat everyone with respect, whatever their views. Insist on that, and you’ll build a team everyone wants to be on.

Photo: Getty Images