Banning Contentious Conversations at Work Alienates Employees. Try This Instead.

Updated on August 26, 2022
How To Make Your Employees Feel Safer in the Workplace

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, companies across the country responded in a variety of ways. Some immediately issued statements, saying they’d pay for travel expenses for employees who may need to cross state lines to receive abortions. Others stayed quiet, unsure as to how to strike the right chord with employees, customers, and vendors who most likely all have varying opinions on the decision. 

And then there was Meta, the parent company of Facebook. In addition to saying it would reimburse travel expenses for “access to out-of-state healthcare and reproductive services,” the company instructed employees to not discuss the recent overturn, citing the need for “strong guardrails around social, political, and sensitive conversations.” It then went further and asked moderators to swiftly remove posts or comments mentioning abortion on its internal communication channels, according to some employees

While the decision was meant to mitigate the chance of creating a combative environment at work, it made an already difficult situation much worse. At a time when high levels of social isolation and burnout run rampant, tamping down meaningful dialogue between employees about topics that matter most to them actually heightens workplace tensions. As Tony Bond, EVP and chief diversity officer for Great Places to Work, puts it: “These conversations lead to a better understanding of the needs of others.”

Part of the need for such dialogue stems from the blurring of personal and professional lines, which have become less clear in recent years and forced organizations to look for ways to minimize burnout. The Great Resignation and State of Discontent have shown that when organizations can support all aspects of an employee, they win over top talent and find success in business.  

More than just coping with burnout, we know employees are most productive and innovative when they’re able to be their authentic selves at work. Creating this feeling of psychological safety means allowing employees to be vulnerable and not penalizing them for it. This is why banning certain conversations stifles an environment from being psychologically safe because it doesn’t provide the transparency and vulnerability that employees crave. Moreover, doing so starts a vicious cycle: “If I can’t talk about this, what else do I need to keep to myself?”   

More importantly, overturning Roe v. Wade has the potential to directly affect the health and welfare of employees. If a team member can’t discuss their physical well-being, they aren’t likely to discuss other issues. A culture of silence and avoidance leads to decreased engagement and decreased participation — something we saw recently with the #MeToo movement. For years, women were expected to remain silent on harassment in the entertainment industry, leading to many females dropping out of the sector entirely. But since #MeToo opened up large, difficult dialogues in 2017, there’s been a 39% increase in the number of women working on top-grossing films.  

Managers often believe they must avoid conflict and controversy to maintain the peace. But in reality, one of the best ways to connect team members is to openly discuss conflicting points of view. Knowing how to handle difficult conversations is one of the marks of an effective leader.  

Creating an opportunity for quality conversations allows all employees to feel heard and valued. It also creates an opportunity to display empathy and understanding. When team members know their co-workers care about all aspects of their well-being — even when it involves something they may not agree with, such as various aspects of reproductive rights — they are more likely to remain engaged and productive, even during times of difficulty.  

It’s important to remember that support doesn’t require agreement; it just requires the willingness to have quality conversations. Leaders can do this by infusing the following best practices into their day-to-day habits:

Provide forums to discuss controversial topics

While organizations may shy away from hot-button conversations, their employees typically don’t — and often spend much of the time they could be working discussing what happened in the ensuing days. You can help employees feel safe and work through the variety of emotions that may crop up by creating spaces to learn, asking questions, and discussing what’s happened. Bring in experts to help lead conversations, provide access to unbiased information, and show the most affected employees empathy and understanding.

Use employee resource groups to foster a feeling of safety 

One of the many roles ERGs serve is to provide a safe place for employees to discuss common experiences and ideally share those experiences with others. While a person’s opinion of abortion is unique to their own values and beliefs, there often are similarities based on certain demographic traits. Using those similarities as a starting point for conversations can help all employees feel valued, respected, and heard.  

Begin by noticing and listening 

Showing support starts with acknowledging the difficulties someone is facing and supporting them in a way that is meaningful to them. Overturning Roe v. Wade has created a lot of emotions in Americans, from fear and disappointment to joy and excitement. Lead with care by tuning in and noticing what’s going on around you and who is affected (including how you are affected), inquiring to fully understand each person’s point of view and needs, and extending relevant offers of support.  

Team members don’t check their personal ideals and realities at the door when they enter work. In fact, the opposite is true: To fully perform, a person has to feel comfortable being their most authentic self. Authenticity starts with transparent, respectful conversations and learning how to respectfully disagree with an opinion without disrespecting the individual. Because banning or ignoring topics that matter to employees will lead to them to ignore the topics that matter most to the organization.  

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Christy Pruitt-Haynes
Global Head of Talent Management at Neuroleadership Institute

Christy Pruitt-Haynes is the Global Head of Talent Management and at the Neuroleadership Institute, a consultancy that helps make organizations more human.