Back to top Back to top
  • close


Tackling Workplace Divisiveness: Approaching Conflict Amid Global Unrest

December 5, 2023

Co-author: Natasha Savoline

Tensions are high, polarity is growing and the temperature of societal conflict is rising. From the pandemic and disputes about vaccinations to #MeToo, BlackLivesMatter and political disputes, we have a lot to disagree about. These and other global events have exacerbated societal discord. 

Most recently, emotions and divisiveness over the conflict in the Middle East have contributed to an increase in an already alarming rate of incidents of Antisemitism and Islamophobia. Toronto Police reported a 130% increase in hate-related calls in the weeks after news broke of the Middle East conflict, a trend that has continued. Canadian Jewish and Muslim community groups have voiced concerns with the rise in hate-based speech and behaviour as their communities are targeted by verbal abuse, vandalism and hate propaganda and crimes.

Safety is a basic human need. Yet many have been left feeling physically and psychologically unsafe. It affects mental health, productivity, and our ability to fully participate in daily activities. And it’s seeping into our workplaces. 

Divisiveness is impacting our workplaces

The tension and divisiveness we’re experiencing as a society is reflected in all areas of our lives. The workplace is no exception. Polarizing and divisive issues aren’t left at the door and inevitably employees talk about these issues at work, increasing the risk of disagreements and hostility between coworkers and, in turn, psychologically unsafe work environments.

It’s not realistic to prohibit these conversations. Or expect they won’t happen. So instead, let’s encourage and foster a culture where employees can discuss these topics couched in respect, acceptance of different perspectives, and inclusion.  

It starts with meeting each other with compassion. 

Fostering empathetic and effective communication

Here are some ways we can navigate divisive conversations:

  1. Have empathy: Be empathetic to others’ experiences and views, even if you don’t agree with them or can’t understand them. Seek to understand where the person is coming from.
  2. Accept the right to a different perspective: We each have different perspectives influenced by our lived experiences, culture, religion, and more. The person on the other side of the issue may be just as “right” as you are based on their unique perspectives.
  3. Seek common ground: Encourage employees to find commonalities or agree on shared goals, even if opinions differ. Look for what you can agree on, even if it’s that to agree not to agree.
  4. Use “I” statements: Use “I” statements, sharing personal experiences and beliefs, and avoid “you” statements, which inevitably feel accusatory.
  5. Avoid judgments: Avoid moral judgments. Suggesting someone’s opinion is unethical, immoral, or irrational equates to a personal attack.
  6. Know when to step away: Disengage if a discussion is becoming heated, unproductive, or disrespectful.
  7. Be self-aware: Be mindful and considerate of yours and others’ emotions and needs underlying the difference in views.
  8. Maintain respect: No matter the intensity of our views or emotions, respect must underscore all our workplace interactions.
  9. Consider those around you: Workplace conversations affect more than just those doing the talking. Consider how your conversations may impact others in the workplace and could make them feel unwelcome.
  10. Don’t try to change someone’s mind: If you’re talking to try to change someone’s mind, research tells us it’s a losing battle. And it diminishes the other person’s right to their own views. Respect that we each have a right to our own perspectives.
  11. Personal accountability: We can’t control others, but we can always control our own words, actions and choices. We don’t have to match others’ poor choices with our own. Be accountable and take responsibility for your own behaviour.
  12. Be the change: You don’t have to have be a leader in title to act like a leader in the organization. Lead the way for others by modelling ideal behaviour. 
  13. Not all conversations belong in the workplace: Be mindful that some conversations are not suited to a discussion with coworkers. Issues that are likely to make others feel diminished, demeaned or physically or psychologically unsafe, aren’t suitable for the workplace.

Organizational strategies for divisive conversations

Organizations can help foster an environment where conversations about polarizing issues are productive rather than divisive.

  1. Respond to hate: There is a difference between a respectful exchange of different perspectives and discrimination or hate. The latter cannot be tolerated. When dialogue is hateful, offensive or makes someone feel unwelcome, take immediate steps to stop and address it.
  2. Prevent escalation: Recognize the complexity of issues and potential for high emotions. Be proactive in addressing divisive issues to prevent them becoming a source of workplace hostility.
  3. Respect and inclusion: Take necessary steps to maintain and cultivate a respectful and inclusive workplace.
  4. Educate employees about laws and policies: Educate employees about their rights and obligations under applicable human rights and harassment legislation and relevant organizational standards of behaviour and policies.
  5. Fill employees’ toolboxes: Give employees strategies like those above so they can have conversations about divisive issues in a productive and compassionate way.

We can’t fully separate divisive and polarizing issues from our lives at work. But we can take personal and organizational responsibility to ensure we engage about these issues in a way that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion and allows belonging, acceptance and psychologically safety to thrive. 

Join us on December 6th at 12:00 noon EST for Module 3 of the Inclusive Workplace Series: How and When to Discuss Divisive Issues in the Workplace