Stretching the Boundaries: How an HR Roundtable Tackled Delicate Issues in the Workplace

Illustration by Dreamstime

One of the great things about the monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati is that we use the forum to STRETCH the boundaries at times — and October’s meeting was one of those times. The topic for the month was “Religion, Politics and Freedom of Speech at Work.”

There was an incredible buzz at the Roundtable and a curious sense of wondering what would happen and would we really delve into the world of delicate topics. The answer is OF COURSE WE DID !!

To get the conversation going, the small groups tackled the following questions:

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  1. Why are we afraid of these subjects in the workplace?
  2. What can we do about this WITHOUT making policies?
  3. What forum(s) can we provide for safe dialogue?

It was great to walk around to hear the groups really go after these questions. There was some anxiety, but an amazing amount of frank conversations as well. Here’s what they shared:

Why are we afraid of these subjects?

  • Fear of retribution. Quite a sobering way to start a HR Roundtable, but incredibly true !! Retribution is alive and well in organizations. If people don’t toe the line, they are made out to be “examples” or “performance problems.” So, is it a better practice for HR to ask people to be quiet or to bottle up these discussions? If that is your approach, that’s sad and cowardly.
  • Fear of alienation. People want to belong. This is something that should be a corporate “truth.” The idea of standing outside the norm is petrifying for the majority of your employees. So, many of the topics they’d like to discuss openly don’t happen because they don’t want to be outside the herd. “Belonging” is good, but not because of ignorance. Conformity (for conformity’s sake) is overrated !!
  • Fear of having to write a policy !! We’ll cover this in the next section, but writing a policy is HR’s go to place. Instead of having dialogues, or trying to address the few (and it usually is the few that tip the scale), we get the pen out and write a sweeping policy forbidding things. And, at the same time we have the Best Company to Work for contest. Ironic isn’t it?
  • We don’t want to be judged. This is similar to the “wanting to belong” point above, but it has more of a consequence to it. Being judged is what people do. It happens every day because everyone has opinions of others and filters that drive our thoughts, actions and agendas. We need to quit fooling ourselves because everyone has filters. Everyone. The question is – how do you recognize your filters and do you address them or accept them? If people took more time to reflect on how they treat others — truly treat others — you’d see your filters come to the surface.
  • Fear that productivity will be hurt. This is classic Theory X thinking !! The thought that if the employees touch upon these subjects, they won’t be working and therefore are hurting productivity is something that too many companies willingly adopt. As HR pros, we should be talking about believing in our people and thwart the ideas that people are only out to tear down or not work on things. If we truly think that we will stop people from thinking thoughts or expressing opinions, then we are sadly mistaken.
  • The Boss said not to !! Again, lovely Theory X !! If anyone has children, you know how effective the “don’t touch the stove” conversation goes. Trying to suppress things will only result in something blowing up later in a much more difficult way that will be even harder to address.
  • Fear of adverse impact, potential loss of business, or being sued. Yea !!! Isn’t it fun to be in HR? These are a reality in our everyday work lives. They aren’t pretty. The tough thing is that they can swallow or hinder effective HR and employee relations because these are fears that can paralyze people. No editorial comments here except that HR would do better to have candid conversations with other HR pros on how they do/don’t address ways to allay these fears. We could learn so much from each other on this!
  • Fear of the unknown. This is honestly the root of this whole topic. Since things are unknown, we make assumptions and people tend to think the worst more often than thinking the best. This approach leads to conflict avoidance and a myriad of other icky things. Ignorance isn’t a valid excuse for anything, ever. Learning about a subject doesn’t mean that you are “all in” and a proponent of things, it just means that something is no longer unknown.

What can we do WITHOUT policies?

  • Build trust. People in today’s workplaces have seen trust eroded more often than built. Wouldn’t it be great to turn that tide? If HR can be more confident in who they are as humans, then they can model what building trust means. Work through situations, don’t freak out and run to the policy manual!
  • Education. Take time to teach people about subjects that are restricted in your company. It may not be the BIG subjects like religion, gender issues, politics. Again, don’t assume the extreme. Too often there are cultural issues within an organization that have become “sacred cows” that HR could dissect and address which would go a long way in establishing a more open and inviting culture for the future.
  • Communication (in context). Too often HR will run to have a “day” in celebration of differences in our employees. That can be successful, but it also can show incredible ignorance. The reason is that we don’t take time to learn about what we don’t know. We just rely on our filters and stereotypes to try and show how “connected” we are as an HR effort. Learn first and then develop what is needed within the context of your situation, and then move forward, evaluate, reconfigure and move forward again.
  • Be comfortable in your own skin. It amazes me that when companies, conferences, and HR professionals discuss these topics it’s always about someone else and never about themselves as individuals. If more people would learn to be confident in who they are as people, we would see amazing things happen in our organizations. Honestly, you’d never hear any more HR hate talk. It would go away!
  • Be consistent. This should be a “truth” in every HR organization on the planet. If we truly were consistent in addressing behavior, we would rarely have issues that overwhelm us. We strive so hard to be “fair” when that is truly defined by the other party claiming things aren’t fair. If you are consistent, ethical, and timely in addressing or discussing topics and situations, you will be more “fair” than you’ve ever been before.
  • Make it safe. This goes back to good old Abraham Maslow. People want to know that there is safety and security in the workplace. By truly having these types of environments, you’ll have more open dialogue as well as an acknowledgement that all people have differences and similarities that are strengths. You won’t keep trying to do HR by putting out fires. It’s a great place to be!

What forums can we provide?

  • Give people direction to cause them to act. This seems obvious, but we often come up with programs and events when all that may be needed is direction. Don’t try to over think this. People like direction and expect it. The clearer we are, the less chance for ambiguity. If there’s ambiguity, people will make things up because they are looking for that clarity.
  • Set ground rules. All companies fall into the trap of “assumed culture.” You know people should just “get it.” This is a myth that needs to be destroyed. Setting expectations up front on how we treat each others, what is in/out of bounds, etc. is good. Make sure that when you do this you aren’t unconsciously discriminating and/or trying to rewrite laws. Use laws as parameters to know how to be compliant. Don’t use them to forbid and inhibit. They work pretty well on their own!
  • Address behavior in a timely manner. Another obvious thing for HR and companies, but it often is a struggle because of our fear of conflict and the unknown. This takes effort. However, if you are consistent in this, you will avoid more problems both in the short-term and long-term
  • Allow expression. This is tough for us. We’re automatically jumping to the extreme in what we think people will do and that they’ll take advantage and abuse this. That’s honestly not true. Every company has norms. Define what’s cool and what isn’t and then let people express themselves. As an aside, I have a lava lamp, toys, and music that plays 24/7 from my iPod along with a sword that hangs on my wall next to my poster of William Shakespeare. The music ranges from punk rock to contemporary Christian to jazz to everything Steely Dan has every recorded! No one is offended. It’s not something that’s FORCED on people. It’s allowed in our culture just as the person whose desk is spotless and has little to no personal expression. This works.
  • Create an environment of learning. Instead of focusing on the next “fun” event to improve employee morale, look at how you can teach people through all of your efforts in HR. It can be during a formal training, a one-on-one conversation with Executives or front line staff, or during something that truly is meant to be fun. There are always chances to teach people. Don’t miss them. “Teachable moments” are wonderful !!

So, we made it through the October Roundtable. No one was hurt, maimed, or sued during this session. In fact, there were laughs, gasps and deep discussion in a safe environment. The hope is that this carries on into the workplace from now on !!

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.



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