I supervise a tight-knit team of professionals that work hard and play hard. To describe them as intense would be an understatement. They all care about current events and their heated discussions add spice to the workday. Even more important, their commitment to improving the world is core to why they’re willing to work for low salaries in our small nonprofit.
Luckily, they get along well and agree on many things, particularly climate change issues and how much they dislike most politicians. For example, we share similar views concerning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine even though one employee is of Russian descent.
Like other members of the team, I spent last week glued to my television and computer, focused on what’s happening in Israel and the Gaza. We talked about it off and on as we did our other work. I didn’t realize there was a problem until last Wednesday. That’s when one of the team submitted a complaint to our Board Chair and I saying she was being gaslit and was the subject of a hostile work environment.
It wasn’t until I read her complaint that I realized she hadn’t been offering her thoughts in our breakroom discussions. Normally, she’s quite outspoken. It also wasn’t top of mind for me she was Palestinian. When I talked to her, she broke down in tears. She said it was almost impossible for her to hear others saying that people who were distant relatives to her were “getting what they deserved.” I asked her why she hadn’t opened up about any of this, and she said everyone was so passionately angry.
The Chair and I don’t know how to handle this. Should we just shut all discussion down?
I don’t know if you can or should shut all discussion down. What happened on October 7th changed the world and reached into the workplace. The Hamas unleashed brutal horror on babies, children, and other innocents. What they did, with their deliberate strategy to massacre as many civilians as possible, brings back memories of the Holocaust. Your politically active employees will have this top of mind.
As a manager, you need to protect your employees from discussions that create a hostile or discriminatory work environment. Start by listening to what your employee feels were gaslighting statements. If her coworkers directed hostile, threatening comments toward her or members of her race or ethnic origin, that needs to stop.
Next, ask her what she wants to see happen. My guess—she doesn’t want you to tell her colleagues, “Don’t talk about the Israeli/Hamas conflict around her. If you do, your employees will quickly hush their animated discussions when she approaches, making her feel ostracized. Instead, she likely wants her coworkers to stop conflating Hamas with Palestinians, and to have compassion for Palestinian as well as Israeli innocents. Besides the thousands of Israelis that have been killed, wounded, or taken hostage, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been killed or forced to flee their homes. There is misery all around.
You and your Board Chair might pull your full team into a short meeting reminding everyone of the need to show respect for all people and views even in heated discussions. You can also set limits for the length and volume of discussions you will and won’t allow in the workplace and on work time.
If you find this article useful, you might also find the strategies outlined in
https://workplacecoachblog.com/2023/05/political-discussions-in-the-workplace/ ; https://workplacecoachblog.com/2019/07/how-to-deal-with-political-discussions-in-the-workplace/; https://workplacecoachblog.com/2016/03/politics-a-demotion-and-a-bosss-bad-habit/ valuable.
If you find the idea of leading/facilitating a workplace discussion on respect challenging, you’ll find useful strategies in Navigating Conflict, https://amzn.to/3rCKoWj
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