hot-button social issues

How to Discuss Hot-Button Social Issues in the Workplace

Only a generation ago, many employers skirted hot-button social issues. Their reasoning? Keep matters related to touchy subjects like politics and widespread social justice concerns at home. (Or at least the parking garage.)

While this tactic may have kept offices quieter then, workers now tend to be far more vocal. Thanks to real-time access to social media and global news while in the office, they freely share their thoughts on all topics, including the toughest ones of all. Discrimination. Race. Equality. Ageism. It’s all fair game. And each can lead to a conversation that starts simmering below the surface, affecting a company’s cultural fabric.

As an HR leader, you want to help your company deal successfully with difficult conversations. You also want to foster an environment where employees can talk about challenging topics with frankness and compassion. But where do you start? How do you encourage healthy dialogue that doesn’t cause some team members to shut down—or get heated up?

The answer is to take a multi-pronged approach, leaning into techniques that have worked for other people in your position.

Use Data to Support Future Programming

As leaders, if you want to know how your workers feel about racial and social injustice (R&SI), go to the source. Pathways at Work, a mental and behavioral health services provider,  surveyed their employees. They found that 96% were at least moderately concerned about R&SI issues.

How concerned is your workforce? Knowing this valuable information can help a company move forward with developing a comprehensive program designed to alleviate employees’ mental stress regarding R&SI, producing positive, measurable results.

One of the keys to your success is using your HR team’s data-driven process. Instead of working on a gut instinct, collect statistical evidence before proceeding. This objective process can help create the right solutions to meet your goals of a less stressed workforce.

You can’t assume to know how your employees feel about any hot-button matter. That’s why you must go to them and gauge their collective mindset. Otherwise, you might forge ahead with training or talks that aren’t relevant to your coworkers or have a false sense of urgency.

Thoughtfully Bring in Outside Assistance

Many people have set themselves up as consultants for companies that want to tackle complex topics. Before hiring anyone to lead dialogues or give lectures, get familiar with their abilities and techniques. Remember: Some teachers connect best with middle schoolers and others with college students. Consultants are no different. The consultant perfect for the company down the street won’t necessarily work for yours. Plus, some consultants have thin resumes.

If you decide you want an objective third party to lead tough conversations, do some digging. Ideally, you want to find consultants with a wealth of knowledge in the field, as well as mediation skills. Remember: The consultant will talk about serious issues that could lead to heated debates, outbursts, or emotional breakdowns. Although debate can be productive, your consultant needs to understand how to handle participants’ reactions.

A capable consultant will provide a proposal before moving forward. That proposal will give you a more robust understanding of the consultant’s capabilities, expertise, expected timelines, and objectives. You should also check out references, just as you would for a new hire. In fact, you can use your natural recruitment acumen and aspects of your in-house hiring process to pick the right outsider to help your insiders feel supported and respected.

Develop Policies and Statements Around Hot-Button Social Issues

During the summer of 2020, protests broke out across America in support of social justice for people of color. Some brands said nothing in response. Others, including large corporations like McDonald’s, made their positions undeniably clear. They stood out among other businesses that showed support; however, their response did not hold to a specific call to action. According to a letter from CEO Chris Kempczinski, the company would hold town hall meetings to hear from employees. Although including staff in suggestions for inclusion is a step in the right direction, did they really enough for such a big corporation? From one of the world’s largest employers, and one of the biggest hot-button social issues of our generation, is that a big enough call to action?

Your role in opening your office to hot-button issues can’t be a “one and done” project. In other words, you have to be willing to make changes depending on the outcomes. For instance, what if you discover through workshops that a high percentage of team members feel unsafe? You must accept the obligation to take action and reduce the tension in your teams.

Of course, you’ll need support from your organization’s upper levels of leadership to establish updated protocols that stick. Without executive support, hot-button policies tend to become “in name only” documents – employees can perceive them as shallow and unenforceable. Work hard to find champions at the top of the corporate ladder. That way, you’ll have a better chance of forming a work culture that’s beneficial for all, not just a few.

Dealing with complex social issues can be tough for any group. Exhibit patience as you navigate your workers toward a place where everyone feels appreciated. Fixing broken systems and outdated behaviors doesn’t happen within a few weeks – or even months. But in time and with attention, you’ll shape a work team unafraid to look hot-button topics in the eye.