While it sometimes may not feel like it, there is a whole world happening outside of the four walls of your company. Outside of those walls, events take place that capture the attention of the public and become a natural topic of discussion. Take this week for instance, when civil unrest in Baltimore dominated the news cycle and touched on the undoubtedly sensitive issues of policing, class, and race.
They don’t call these events “water cooler moments” for nothing- your employees no doubt discussed the compelling television images they saw with coworkers in the areas where they congregate. Being realistic, this is not something that any employer will be successful in stopping. However, a failure to manage the time, place, and manner in which those opinions are expressed may give rise to an employee feeling as if they are being harassed, even if the comments are not directed at them. This is especially true when issues that touch upon topics like race are involved. You should take some simple steps to ensure that no employees later allege that they were subjected to a hostile work environment based on the expressed opinion of colleagues.
First, let all your employees know that if they are uncomfortable with the opinions expressed by their colleagues, they can come to management to talk about those feelings. More often than not, an employee who feels aggrieved by such comments can be assuaged simply by talking to a management employee who will listen to the complaints and speak to offending employee(s). If your employee handbook does not set forth a mechanism to report such complaints, you have bigger problems than an employee who is unhappy.
Further, ask your employees to confine conversations that touch on sensitive topics to their work station (if they have an office, even better!) This will allow individuals to still express their opinions and lessen the chance it is overheard by colleagues not receptive to such opinions.
Finally, hold your supervisors and management employees to a higher standard. Most harassment cases premised on a hostile work environment stem from the conduct and words of supervisors, so provide them with training on what and what not to say in the workplace.
While you have no control over the opinions of your employees, you do have some power to manage the ways in which those opinions are expressed through simple training. Like so many other issues in employment law, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure.