Any topic that preys on emotions, faith or morality is a fire-starter around the water cooler. “The Patriots are cheaters!” “The Tar Heels finally got caught.” “What is up with that Supreme Court decision?” “Trump is right!”
Polarization from our politics or religions is one thing. Workplace conflict caused by hardheaded emotional opinions is quite another.
There is nothing wrong with an opinion shared among respectful co-workers. Opinions are part of life and work. Progress and clarity come from opinions shared openly and appropriately. Problems are solved when opinions are aired in the right way.
No workplace can or should be free of opinions. That includes properly expressed political, religious and sports team views. Policies or handbooks prohibiting such are largely futile or counter-productive.
Most unproductive opinions are the “my way or the highway” kind. Conflict flows from the dogmatic or preachy style of the speaker. Well beyond a normal opinion is the overly confident pronouncement. It shuts off debate and sends opposition underground. Business issues that could be solved and opinions that could be harmonized have no chance.
Worse yet, when the pronouncement involves an emotional, faith-based or moral topic, the seeds of workplace conflict are sowed. Unfortunately, the seeds may take a long time to germinate, showing up only after several more conflicts, a termination or a perceived mistreatment.
The aggressively outspoken evangelist who promotes an employee from her church but rejects an employee of another faith creates Exhibit A for the disappointed employee’s lawsuit. The decision may be unrelated to faith, but these suits are about the intent of the actor. Intent is usually proven through statements and behaviors. Emotional declarations make good evidence.
The other significant source of opinion conflict is an off-base or offensive statement. Sometimes, it is so offensive it requires an employer response. Maybe it was an honestly held belief. Maybe the speaker was never coercive or directive. Maybe the comment or action can be read two ways. The confederate flag stuck on workbenches in the shop might be an example.
Out-of-bounds opinions that offend reasonable people can become the employer’s problem. Even if no one in management made or endorsed the opinion, the failure to take action or clearly reject the opinion can become an issue. Situations vary, but it would be a bad idea to ignore truly offensive and repeated statements by employees just because they were not made by management.
Employers may not like the role of hall monitor, but when the hallway banter shoves people into unwanted emotional lockers, it is time for the principal to come out of her office. Failure to act can be raised in a future claim to show tolerance and acceptance of similar behavior.
We are rounding the corner on another long season of politics, pomposity and pronouncements by candidates and their supporters. Opinions that allow for respectful disagreement should be expected in any workplace. Opinions that carry a verbal stick or seriously offend reasonable people are harmful and may require action.
Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.