Opinion: Don’t Be Afraid of Frank Conversations

One person's 'politically incorrect' can be another person's hate speech

By 
Sarah Alter, President and CEO

Workplace discussions on gender, race, sexual orientation and immigration can range from the uncomfortable to the inappropriate. And when the national conversation around these issues intensifies, so does the risk of problems in the workplace.

One person's "polititcally incorrect" can be another person's hate speech. These discussions can bring out the worst in co-workers—and they have the potential to devolve into inappropriate, even illegal, speech.

Intolerant talk about gender, race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation can divide teams, damage relationships, create a hostile work environment and drive talented employees away.

If addressed forthrightly, however, frank conversations on diversity issues can break down barriers, strengthen teams and send a message about your company’s values.

Courageous conversations can create a corporate culture that attracts the best talent and leverages the proven business benefi ts of diverse work teams.

Three Big Fears

Diversity and inclusion consultant Simma Lieberman, who blogs for NEW and hosts a radio show on race and how to talk about it, has observed three main concerns among people she has worked with:

  • “I’m afraid I may accidentally say something offensive.”
  • “What should I say when someone says something racist, sexist or homophobic?”
  • “How do I stop myself from getting defensive (or stop others from getting defensive)?”

Many of us have had or heard these thoughts. Few of us have the answers.

“When you’re talking to a co-worker and they say something that sounds racist or offensive about a group of people, stop the conversation and take a deep breath,” Lieberman says. “Taking a breath helps you to not respond emotionally. If you want to be heard, you want to sound calm and confident—not aggressive.”

With emotions in check, ask the person why they said what they said. “Just asking this question may make a person question their thought process and rethink their statement,” Lieberman says.

But don’t stop there. “It’s best to take another breath and resist the urge to end the conversation,” she says. “Explain why their words or actions were inappropriate or offensive to you. If their intent is positive, but they are unaware, educate them. Calling names and attacking does nothing. It only makes people defensive.”

The Wrong Thing

Because we all have biases, even the most well-intentioned among us can sometimes make inappropriate or insensitive remarks. I know I’ve done it, with an immediate feeling of “Well, that didn’t come out as I intended.” As important as it is to address others’ unwelcome words, modeling the right behavior when you are the off ender is even more critical in creating an unbiased workplace.

If you’ve offended someone, intentionally or not, it’s important to admit it to yourself and repair the damage. “If you understand why your comment was offensive, biased or inappropriate, apologize, state why you’re apologizing and move on,” Lieberman says.

But saying or doing what’s “right” is not always clear-cut. We’re often encouraged to be “authentic” at work, but what happens if your “authentic self” is off ensive to those around you?

“If you’re not sure if what you said is off ensive, don’t apologize right away,” Lieberman says. “Ask questions to understand why your comments might be offensive, and share your intention and listen to learn.”

It can be difficult to remember in the heat of the moment, but few people in our lives have malicious intentions. With an open mind, the courage to have honest conversations, a little self-reflection and a sincere desire to connect, you can help create a workplace in which everyone thrives.


NEW Voices is a quarterly CSP column that addresses workplace diversity and business issues related to women’s leadership.

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, Retail and Consumer Goods. Learn more at newonline.org.