How to handle sensitive topics in the workplace

August 3, 2020

The employment environment is an ever-changing one, and employers are always balancing the work they do, and the people that help them do it. As the day-to-day work culture focuses on delivering on the goals of the organization, businesses should ensure an individual’s ability to feel safe, included, and respected by everyone they work with. Respectful conversations can be shared through a variety of verbal and non-verbal communication; however, it can turn quickly if someone references the topic of sexuality, sexual preference, or gender identity. These conversations and interactions may come up naturally at work and employers are faced with how to address the communication without making it more uncomfortable.

We are surrounded by different attitudes and perspectives outside of work, but at work, we can all agree that we want everyone to feel comfortable being in the workplace. Managers and supervisors can look below to understand how to tackle these sensitive topics.

Employees are discussing their dating apps and relationships, and the topic of gay or lesbian dating sites comes up from another employee:

The employer should share that what employees do outside of work is just that, but when it impacts the work environment as it did here – where one person felt excluded for being different, then that’s when the employer needs to address it. If this is a conversation that takes place during a break, or around the water cooler, the employee needs to be aware that these are not appropriate conversations for work and employees need to ensure they are respectful and choose suitable topics for the workplace. The reality is that workers will talk about their past, their relationships, and other aspects of life, but employees and employers should avoid making assumptions and utilize language that is respectful. We should also be aware that if someone does not respond to an inquiry that is personal, it should not be perceived in a negative manner as this employee may not want to share their background in fear of being judged or excluded.

The company wants to update the dress code policy, but is unsure how to be inclusive of all genders:

Some employers provide or expect their employees to wear gender-specific uniforms. Some industries may require everyone to wear closed-toed shoes. Other companies require employees to wear business attire that is appropriate for the office, client-meeting, or networking event. In any case, employees should be allowed to wear what aligns with their gender identity. Avoid including gender stereotypes and ensure that the dress code is enforced fairly and consistently. Looking professional can be defined by a few general characteristics: Bottoms should be free of holes, rips, or frayed edges. Gym attire is not appropriate. Employees should also maintain proper hygiene and a tidy appearance.

A female employee is uncomfortable changing in the locker room due to another employee who identifies as a female being in there at the same time:

If an employee, customer, or visitor voice concerns over sharing facilities with a transgender person the employer may consider the following:

Listen: Ask them what their concerns are. Is it related to privacy or safety? By having an upfront, honest conversation with them this may alleviate the concerns they have.

Refocus: Acknowledge their apprehension while reminding the person that everyone needs to use the locker room and that this is about ensuring access for everyone. The conversation should be refocused to behavior, we all know what appropriate restroom behavior looks like. If everyone is behaving appropriately, there should not be an issue.

Reinforce: Remind the individual of the organization’s core value of respecting all employees, customers, and visitors. Based on our organization’s policy everyone is allowed to utilize the facility that corresponds with their gender identity. Share stories of success from other experiences the organization has had with transgender employees transitioning.

Remind: If there is still a reluctance or concern, remind them of the company’s policy and what options are available to them. Are there restroom facilities in another area of the building they may be able to utilize? If not they can wait to enter the restroom until the transgender individual is finished utilizing the facility.

An employee just told their manager that they are transitioning:

The manager should look to understand the situation and seek to recognize any concerns that the employee may have at this time. Ask the employee if there is anything the employer can do to help, if there are any concerns, and if others are aware. Does the employee want the manager to communicate anything to the team, and if so, what would they like the message to entail? If not, then it is up to the employee to communicate with their team members, if and when they are ready. Let the employee know the organization is there to support them however they can. The manager should keep the employee’s health status private and should direct the employee to reach out to HR to assist them further. HR should also limit conversations regarding the employee’s situation to those who have a need to know. Employees may share details they are comfortable sharing. HR or managers should guide the conversation with a statement of “As with other personal situations employees come to me with, I will keep this information confidential to the extent I am able to. I am here to support you in any way I can.”

Coworkers should understand that when someone “comes out” to them, it is an act of trust. This unique event sets the groundwork to build a stronger foundation for inclusion and support in the workplace. Take the time to talk and be prepared to listen. Coworkers can help the organization reinforce that they will not tolerate even subtle forms of discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

An employee prefers a pronoun that is not obvious:

Pronouns are used in emails, performance reviews, and other daily interactions. If an employee communicates their preferred pronoun, the employer needs to ensure this pronoun is used properly. We all make mistakes, but any malicious intent should not be tolerated. Managers and supervisors should continue to support a message of inclusion. We have seen some employers take an active stance and include this preference in their signature line. This removes the potential to be insensitive and helps the responder not make any assumptions in their response.  

An employee claims a hostile work environment because of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity:

Concerns should be taken seriously. An investigation of the complaint should be initiated immediately. Employees may claim an offensive statement as a joke; yet, jokes are a decent indicator of the culture and what is acceptable to poke fun at. Unfortunately, sometimes these statements are not intended to be funny but serve to communicate an expression of bias against LGBTQ individuals. Similarly, jokes and derogatory comments about any other protected group is indicative of a negative climate and should be addressed at once.