Addressing Controversial Issues in the Workplace

When the Cadillac Barbie IN Pride Parade made its way through downtown Indianapolis, spectators saw clear messages of support from many of Indy's corporate citizens. Some companies were highly visible sponsors of the event. But all of them, if they handled this show of support correctly, informed their employees of their plans well in advance of the day of the parade.

Of course, this isn't the first time we've seen companies speak out on key issues. Certainly, a number of area employers spoke out on Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, making their support or opposition publicly known. At other times, companies have taken public positions on issues such as gay marriage, education standards, mass transit, and even global geopolitics.

The firms' positions might seem straightforward and logical, and their involvement might be relatively minimal (sometimes it's nothing more than adding a signature to a group letter), but, if they do it right, their approach to getting involved in such issues is well-planned and transparent to their employees. Otherwise, they run the risk of increasing their standing among peers but losing their standing among their own people.

How do companies manage this balance? By following a few simple steps that will ensure that when your firm can take a position you can win the support—or at least respect—of your own team. Here are nine ways to address controversial issues in the workplace:

1.  Tell employees first. If your company has decided to take a position on a hot issue, tell employees before going public. They should never learn about your company's position from the media.

2.  Explain your position and rationale. When you inform your employees, explain why you've adopted this position and why you feel the need to go public. Say something along the lines of, "We believe this policy will hurt the community's and company's long-term opportunities, and we believe that making our position known could help remedy a negative situation."

3.  Explain your process. Employees want to know how you decided to take this position. Did the CEO make an executive decision? (Not a good answer.) Did the board take a vote? Did the leadership team come to a consensus? Whatever your process, explain it briefly, with a comment like, "At this week's meeting, the board of directors decided...," or, "he leadership team has decided..."

4.  Encourage respectful disagreement. While the firm's position might seem like a no-brainer to your leaders, assume some people in your organization will disagree. Encourage employees to respond respectfully to leadership with their concerns, and reply politely, thanking them and reiterating the firm's rationale.

5.  Discourage arguments. Expect employees to disagree with each other, but encourage them to be respectful. Use language such as, "We know not all of you will agree with this position or with each other, but we ask that you be respectful and not squelch differing opinions or let this become divisive."

6.  Equip employees to respond. Include simple talking points that will help your people respond if someone outside the company says, "Hey, I saw that your company came out against XYZ. What's that about?"

7.  Consider rules. Some workplaces have clear rules about posting political or controversial signs or posters in the workplace, but many do not. Consider whether you want to have guidelines so you have a foundation on which to stand if you decide to ask an employee to remove a controversial poster, stop sending out emails about issues, or something similar. Don't prevent free speech, but do prevent problems.

8.  Consider creating forums. If your employees seem inclined to discuss a controversial issue, consider bringing in speakers with differing viewpoints as part of a forum for discussion. Make it clear that this is an opportunity to have a respectful and thoughtful debate, not a place to engage in wars of words.

9.  Follow up as needed. After your firm takes a position, let employees know of any impact or developments that would affect the organization or your people. If the position has an effect (positive or negative) on such things as sales, stock price, etc., be candid about that impact. Also inform your employees about any further involvement the firm has in conjunction with that issue.

Usually, taking a public position on an important topic can serve as a rallying point for employers and employees; however, sometimes it can create problems. By taking a careful and measured approach to making public pronouncements, firms who feel a public stance is important can win the respect of both their peers and their people—even if those stakeholders disagree with the position taken.

Bryan Brenner is founder and chief executive officer of FirstPerson.

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