Navigating Through Controversial Topics in the WorkPlace

Michele Warg
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Everyone wants to work in a calm, stress-free environment, but not all workplaces deliver. Few things cause discord in an office setting like the discussion of a controversial topic. When tempers flare and conversations become heated, everyone in the office is usually uncomfortable, and human resources issues often arise. Find out which topics to avoid, and learn how to navigate controversial topics in the workplace.

1. Know the Off-Limit Topics

Whether you're close with your co-workers or not, there are certain controversial topics you should avoid discussing in the workplace, as others within earshot may be offended by the conversation. Always keep your political opinions to yourself, and the same goes for discussion of religious view and affiliations. Your health issues are best kept for discussion with your doctor or in private. Never discuss your relationship problems or sexual encounters in the office.

2. Review Your Workplace Rules

If you're not sure about your workplace's policy on discussing controversial topics, check the work rules for your organization. It's always a good idea to avoid these topics altogether, as many companies discipline employees who engage in certain controversial conversations. If you're not sure of whether the topic is okay to discuss, err on the side of caution.

3. Maintain Professionalism

When conversing with other employees, try to keep an open mind. Don't become judgmental, as this can lead to heated arguments or hurt feelings. If a discussion is detracting from your work, it's best to avoid it.

4. Talk Less

If a co-worker engages with you in a discussion and you're in disagreement, try to keep the peace. Spend less time talking and more time listening to understand the other person's viewpoints. If you still don't agree, provide a noncommittal response, such as "That's very interesting."

5. Confront the Offender

When conversations reach a level that make you uncomfortable, you have the right to address it. Talk to the co-worker in a private place, and be clear about why their behavior offends you. Keep the discussion calm, respectful and civil.

6. Document Everything

After you've made your feelings clear to the offending co-worker, document everything if the behavior continues. Jot down the time, location and conversation details. Make note of any witnesses who may have overhead the conversation.

7. Go to Human Resources

Sometimes, offensive behavior reaches the point when it needs to be addressed by management. Take your documentation to HR, and explain your concerns. It helps to point out how the behavior reflects negatively on the organization.

There's a time and a place for everything, but the workplace is not the appropriate location for controversial topics that make other uncomfortable. Learn which topics you should avoid in the office, and find out how to navigate controversial topics when they do arise.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at


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