Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
At this year’s Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) annual conference, there was a conversation about HR being able to “change the temperature” of the work environment. SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. called it the difference between being a thermometer and a thermostat. Thermometers read the temperature. Thermostats change the temperature.
I was reminded of this conversation about thermometers and thermostats while I was reading Alexander Alonso’s latest book, “Talking Taboo: Making the Most of Polarizing Discussions at Work”. Alex is the chief knowledge officer at SHRM. In his role, he leads all research activities including the development of the SHRM competency model and credentials. I spoke with Alex last year about low empathy workplaces.
I asked Alex if he would chat with me again about “Talking Taboo” and thankfully he said yes. I believe trying to maneuver through conversations about politics, sex, race, and religion is becoming an issue for organizations and individuals. Knowing a good way to respond is something that individuals need to think about. And it’s possible that HR professionals will need to get involved.
Alex, thank you so much for being here. Some people might say if we stick to the advice of “Don’t talk about sex, religion, or politics at work.” then we don’t need to worry about “Talking Taboo”. I’d love for you to share why you decided to write this book.
[Alonso] I decided to write this book after a conversation I witnessed amongst my own team. Two of my team members were discussing the defund the police movement, but they were doing so in such an artful manner. Their interaction highlighted a component of civil discourse that I had rarely seen and only experienced in my Cuban upbringing – the fact that we all share a common objective at some point. This exchange started my thought process to what else might call for this in the workplace.
I’m going to play contrarian here. I could see people saying, “I do not have the time or the energy to wear a striped shirt and break up employee arguments about the last election or the current political scene.” Why are having these conversations important for HR from a business standpoint?
[Alonso] These conversations are essential for HR for a couple of reasons.
- Many workers are already experiencing this. Our research shows that 92% of workers have witnessed or been a part of taboo topics.
- Not only is taboo talk already happening, but without a firm hand to steer the conversation, it can also divide teams. Our workplace culture report announced that 42% of respondents witnessed insensitive or inconsiderate treatment in the past year.
Managers need to recognize this and know how to step in and manage these situations instead of simply telling people not to engage in these topics.
“Talking Taboo” introduces the Me + We + WO + RK framework. I understand that we can’t cover everything here – people should buy the book – but tell us a little bit about the framework and its purpose.
[Alonso] The Me + We + WO + RK framework is important because it’s a tool for managers to script discussions and structure. It enables parties to have room to speak while also not allowing them to hurt others in the process. This framework allows parties to mitigate problems as they occur and as a debrief method for individuals to learn in the future.
One of the conversations I’m hearing more often is a “hopelessness”. Meaning that the polarization appears to be so vast, that there’s no way to a resolution. Are there topics or situations where “no resolution” is an option? If so, how do people still work together knowing there’s a deep divide?
[Alonso] From my experience, there shouldn’t be any situations where issues can’t be resolved if a company’s culture supports its employees.
“Talking Taboo” shows that it is important to be respectful, acknowledge the reality that the divide exists, and respect each other for those opinions. Employees need to see their colleagues as people, not simply as adversaries of a particular point of view. In Chapter 5 (Politics in Broadcast and Social Media), one example is given resolving a heated disruption; in this instance, HR focused on behavior rather than the subject of the disagreement.
Behavior is the key element since discussing these topics can disrupt everyone’s ability to work. HR can recommend that certain divisive topics be limited or discouraged from conversation in these instances.
Last question. I can see some HR pros wanting to read “Talking Taboo”, share the framework, and encourage conversations. Are there any suggested prerequisites? For example, should HR pros think about designing interventions to address these topics versus just allowing for organic conversations? And on an individual level, should people heighten their awareness of empathy, change management, etc. before engaging in conversations?
[Alonso] I don’t believe there are any prerequisites to reading this book. This book can benefit anyone: from individual employees trying to be more mindful of their behavior to people managers and HR professionals who may need to step in during a heated exchange.
While conversations will undoubtedly spring up, it may help HR departments have an action plan of what behaviors to look for and creative ways to foster empathy in the workplace.
A huge thanks to Alex for sharing his knowledge and experience with us. You can find “Talking Taboo” in the SHRM bookstore or on Amazon along with his other book “The Price of Pettiness”.
There are plenty of headlines talking about how divided individuals are on topics related to politics, sex, religion, and race. And just as a personal observation, people seem to want to discuss these topics. So, we can’t simply ignore it. From an individual perspective, it might make some sense to think about how you want to engage. And from an HR perspective, it makes a lot of sense to prepare for facilitating those discussions in the workplace.
Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) logo used with permission.23