At a glance
- Some topics have always been taboo at work, but only in recent years have some employers explicitly banned employees from discussing them.
- Debate about what constitutes a taboo or sensitive topic has been freshly stirred up by the controversial overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US.
- Enforcement of bans relies mostly on the fact that employers who own employees’ computers have the right to access all their work emails and instant messages.
When American companies started banning certain topics from being discussed at work a few years ago, it raised questions about how far employers could go in censoring employees. It is one thing to set parameters on workplace behaviour, and another to outright ban the discussion of polarising topics.
The company Meta recently made headlines for banning conversations about reproductive rights on its internal communications platform.
While Meta’s ban came into effect in 2019, it became a matter of public interest this year due to the controversy surrounding the US Supreme Court’s decision on 24 June 2022 to overturn Roe v. Wade , the 1973 ruling that secured the right for people to terminate their pregnancies across the US.
The sticking point, it seems, is that no other topics are banned at Meta. In fact, employees are encouraged to discuss issues such as Black Lives Matter and transgender rights.
Where is the line between censoring opinion and providing a safe and respectful place for sensitive topics to be discussed in the workplace?
There are already many instances where some topics are taboo at work. These are predominantly dictated by a workplace’s responsibility to provide a safe and secure environment for employees. Overt racism, sexism and other discriminatory attitudes are not accepted, and consequences apply for employees who breach workplace policies.
When it comes down to it, discussing sensitive or polarising topics at work is more about providing clear ground rules for employees on how to conduct the conversation, says Jo Alilovic, employment lawyer and director at 3D HR Legal.
“There are four main areas of law that provide obligations, expectations and responsibilities on employers and on employees in respect of discussions that can be had at work,” says Alilovic.
“These are workplace safety, discrimination, bullying and harassment, and workers compensation. Each provides parameters for us to work within to allow respectful discussion,” she says.
“To comply with these areas of law, workplaces are always monitoring and censoring behaviour and discussion at work, because we need to create appropriate and effective workplaces. We can’t just allow those who are more vocal on just about anything to be the ones who dominate conversation and behaviour.
We manage it through having different types of policies in place,” says Alilovic.
Talking the talk
Dr Simon Longstaff AO FCPA, executive director of The Ethics Centre, says the issue is not so much telling people what they can talk about – it is about making sure that a civil discussion can take place.
“I think people are increasingly concerned to ensure that people who go to work can do so in conditions of physical and psychological safety. But, sometimes, that can be taken to an extreme and the normal exchanges of day-to-day life can be shut down to a degree, which is itself abnormal for the way humans typically engage with each other,” he says.
There is an important distinction between saying you can’t talk about a topic and discussing how to talk about difficult topics, Longstaff adds.
“To have a decision like Roe v. Wade [overturned] in the US and not expect people to ask what that means for our society is unlikely for people who are interested in the world around them. These are just general questions of curiosity,” says Longstaff.
“If a workplace says there’s no way to discuss those issues here, that admits a kind of defeat, which shuts down potentially any topic. We should be asking how we have these conversations – not dictating what we should be talking about.”
Rebecca Houghton, leadership expert and founder of BoldHR, agrees there are better ways than implementing a blanket ban on topics of discussion at work because they may be difficult.
“Realistically, people are going to talk about the issue of the day, whether that is abortion, politics, guns, vaccines – the list is endless. You can’t just stop people talking to each other in case it gets out of hand,” she says.
“A good leader or a good workplace communications approach would be to never tell your employees what to think and what to discuss. There should be debate, as long as it’s respectful, stays central to the argument and doesn’t become personal. My golden rule is you can discuss anything, but you can’t force your opinions on others,” Houghton says.
Creating a safe space
Some employers prefer to make it clear contentious topics are not appropriate for workplace discussions.
In April 2021, Basecamp, a US software development company, banned societal and political conversations on the company account. CEO Jason Fried posted the announcement, describing today’s “social and political waters” as “especially choppy” while “sensitivities are at 11”.
Fried further explained that every discussion related to politics, society and advocacy “quickly spins away from pleasant” and suggested “willing co-workers” take the conversation away from the company account, “where the work doesn’t happen”.
That is a crucial point, says Houghton. If someone is willing to talk about a topic in the workplace, that’s fine. Issues tend to arise when a topic is forced on someone.
“Forcing opinions and trying to convert someone to your beliefs is when it becomes bullying behaviour, and that is a key reason that topics become banned. You must give people an exit clause – if somebody says, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not really comfortable talking about that’ then it has to stop,” she says.
“That is one way workplaces can accommodate people who do want to have a discussion and others who don’t.”
Longstaff suggests certain areas of an office could be designated “hot topic” areas, making it clear to employees that, if a certain topic is going to be discussed at work, they have an option not to participate.
“One of the practical things workplaces could do is to say, well, if there are issues that give rise to particular sensitivity, how do we ensure that people can withdraw from it?” he says.
“We need to think about a distinction between being in a place that is safe from offence or trauma or difficulty, and creating places instead that are equally safe for the discussion of the difficult issues. That means, for example, that if there are safe places for discussing challenging questions, they should be places that you can enter or leave as you think best.”
Listen and learn
If an employer declares a ban on certain topics or limits where and when they can be discussed, the question arises: how can this be enforced?
Employers have long been able to monitor employee emails and internal messaging platforms.
Work computers and emails are employer property, so they have the right to check the content at any time. Most businesses have a code of conduct in a contract or an agreed workplace policy about computer usage.
“There are definitely technologies out there that will monitor emails – some of them do it for tone of voice purposes – to measure the happiness or engagement of their employees,” says leadership expert Rebecca Houghton.
“I think being monitored makes people feel nervous. But if the purpose was explicit and people trusted that purpose, such as ensuring respectful, safe conversations, then they might be OK with it.” Even so, Houghton has doubts about these tools and their uptake.
For Dr Simon Longstaff AO FCPA, having to monitor a conversation to make sure no one is being abused or made to feel uncomfortable is the “second or third line of defence”.
“I think monitoring conversation should only be used as a fallback position to help prevent anyone lapsing into a form of conduct or communication that is abusive,” he says.
“The far better defence against that is promoting the conventions around civil disagreement or conversation, where we have respect for the intrinsic dignity of the other person – and not assuming that because a person holds a different view that they’re a lesser or better person,” he says.
If an organisation instead focuses on creating a healthy, values-driven workplace with opportunities for people to contribute and feel valued, they will have more success in managing difficult conversations when they arise, says Jo Alilovic.
“It’s really important for organisations to have strong values and behaviours that are linked to those values – such as respect.”
“If you start telling people ‘You can’t talk about this one thing’, then that will have a long-term effect and will change the way we communicate – and it often takes those things underground, which creates much bigger problems,” she says.