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How to Deal With Controversial Issues in the Workplace

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These days, the media and social media are filled with controversial topics. From politics to religion to social issues and even celebrity gossip, once-taboo discussions seem to have a prominent place in many people’s lives. For some, these discussions have also moved into the workplace.

For better or for worse, people are far more likely to have controversial issues or overshare information about their personal lives in the workplace. The reasons for this are unclear, but the result is that some people, whether taking part in the conversations or not, is uncomfortable with it.

In a survey from outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, it was revealed that: 94% of respondents said they witnessed political discussions in the workplace; 18.2% of respondents said those discussions happen often. Meanwhile, in a survey of human resources executives: 91% of HR executives participate in political discussions themselves; 63.6% say the interactions are mostly congenial and respectful; 36.4% say the political discussions are passionate, but still respectful.

Navigate these topics with tact and grace

  1. Abide by the workplace rules. Read your company’s rules regarding what’s allowed when it comes to political expression and other controversial topics.
  2. When in doubt, keep it to yourself. Don’t initiate or engage in conversations that relate to: religion, politics, personal relationships, family problems, or your career aspirations. If you share personal information, take note of your audience before deciding how much to share.
  3. Remain professional. Stay as open-minded and as non-judgemental as possible. Don’t let these conversations detract from your or anyone’s else’s work.
  4. Listen more than you talk. View it as an opportunity to understand more about your co-worker and a point of view that differs from your own.
  5. When all else fails, a simple non-committal ‘That’s interesting,’ or ‘We can agree to disagree,’ will help keep the peace.
  6. If you’re part of an office romance, keep mum. To help maintain a professional atmosphere, it’s best to keep the details of your relationship to yourself.
  7. If a co-worker makes your uncomfortable, address it. Meet in person, in a neutral place, and clearly describe the situation and state your desired outcome in respectful and civil terms.

Here’s how to build your case for HR

If you feel an employer or co-worker pushes uncomfortable conversations on you after you’ve stated your boundaries, it’s time to take your case to HR.

  1. Document everything. Document the situation to substantiate your claims. Keep a log of: time, location, witnesses, conversation, or inappropriate behaviour. General complaints will not be as effective as claims with clear documentation.
  2. Frame your concerns with the company in mind. Explain how these conversations negatively affect the company’s bottom line.
  3. Keep it professional. The conversation will be documented by the HR professional.


By dealing with controversial topics with tact and grace, and prioritising respectful treatment of your co-workers at all times, you’ll help create a workplace culture that upholds the dignity of everyone involved.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today. 

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