How To Foster Civil Conversations In The Workplace


Michele Merrell is a technology and telecommunications executive and President of Merrell Consulting Group, a global consulting consortium.

Gone are the days when you could have an innocuous chat around the office Keurig machine. These days, any such conversation is rife with social and political landmines as we wake up each morning in a country that seems increasingly polarized. With that, business and politics can collide unexpectedly. Name a hot topic, whether it’s politics, Covid-19 or even Afghanistan, and it is sure to trigger the kind of conversation that might make the office a less safe and civil place. A simple discussion on mask mandates or vaccines is sometimes politicized in very surprising ways.

And, whether we like it or not, companies are being drawn into politics. It doesn’t matter if your company is a B2B company that doesn’t directly serve customers — there are still employees involved in the company’s operations that may want to understand where the company stands on key societal issues. And a consumer-facing company is more likely to face pressure from consumers to take a stand on key issues or even face possible boycotts.

While companies might have an outward-facing position on some of these topics, they still need to make sure that the office environment remains safe, productive and harassment-free for all employees. The company’s answer to some of these difficult questions does not necessarily always match its employees’ individual answers.

No matter what you think of various political figureheads, a good starting place for difficult conversations would be to reach common ground. The same is true in your office or corporation.

People often spend a lot of time digging trenches to protect their beliefs. Then they spend significant energy fiercely defending these trenches from “the enemy.” So, what can you do to make sure your office space doesn’t support divisiveness? Here are a few suggestions to restore peace and civil discourse to those coffee-pot conversations and some ground rules for the rest of the workday as well.

  • Focus on company values. A core set of values helps inform and construct what the company stands for. Examples of values might include: “We respect people. We win as a team. We promote team member growth and happiness. We embrace diversity. We do what’s right. We stand for inclusion.” Make sure your company values are clear and specific and that you communicate them to employees. They can help the company decide which issues are important and which they may need to weigh in on. As a side note, although many companies do strive to remain nonpartisan, at times it can be almost impossible for a business to make their values known without seeming partisan.
  • As with many things, your mother was right when she said there are three topics you should never discuss in polite company: politics, religion and money. That advice may date back more generations than we can count, but the wisdom is fresh and real in today’s climate. The first two are topics that are — or used to be – personal, and we are naturally inspired to fiercely defend them. They are also topics about which you are unlikely to sway someone’s opinion. As for money, some people have more of it than others, and no good typically comes of casual chit-chat about it. As a manager, you can set the tone by shutting down conversations about any of these three and changing the subject mid-topic. If you do it adeptly and consistently, the expectation will be out there that the conversation needs to move along to other more neutral topics.
  • Practice the simple skill of active listening. Listen and repeat back a portion of what someone says to you. It takes time, but if your employees feel heard, they’re less likely to become strident. In some cases, it doesn’t hurt for the company to acknowledge the issue through an internal communication.
  • Use every opportunity to build bridges between your employees. Remind them of what they have in common and continuously reinforce the company mission and values. Encourage them to take some time each day to talk with their co-workers about something other than polarizing topics. Pets are at the top of the list of safe topics. Even the most ardent supporter of a political party likely has a dog or a cat — and plenty of smartphone photos to share. Kids are another safe topic, as are beautiful gardens, recent vacations and the condition of elderly relatives.
  • Remember not to give into the temptation of sharing your views on any of today’s hot topics yourself. Don’t be that person who gives the daily dump of the latest negative or polarizing media headlines. Let your opinions be one of those great office mysteries, including how you voted or your thoughts on who or which political party is to blame for any of our country’s challenges. Be warm and approachable, but keep those doors closed.

In today’s vastly more complex work environment, companies can successfully navigate increasingly contentious and polarized conversations if they are firm in their approach. In my experience, doing this is a critical part of maintaining a proper and safe workplace — before a narrative has the chance to fully impact your organization.