If 2017 was a controversial year, 2018 promises to be positively explosive. Developments are accelerating in a variety of hot-button areas, from politics to race and religion. It’s only natural some of these arguments may spill into the workplace and threaten office etiquette, as employees vent their frustrations on social media or in the canteen. How can business owners maintain decorum and keep employees focused on the job?
This is more than simply an office etiquette issue. Employees can create legal risks when making inappropriate statements in the workplace. Workplace harassment laws punish not only unwanted sexual advances, but also the persecution of protected groups on grounds such as religion and race. Too many off-colour comments interpreted as harassment may also tempt employees to categorize the office as a hostile or poisonous work environment, potentially dragging employers into legal conflicts.
Way back in 2013, Canada’s WorkSafeBC introduced new requirements for employers to prevent bullying, including the development of a policy statement and procedures for reporting incidents. These are great guidelines to follow, even today. Here are some other best practices for preserving office etiquette at your business:
1. Explain what constitutes workplace bullying
Discussions that step over the line into name-calling or aggressive behaviour (including tampering with others’ work) are a no-no. In some cases, long-term repetition may inch your office toward a harassment claim, so it’s important to make these rules clear to employees.
Workplace bullying examples range from the banal to the bizarre. One teacher found her principal micromanaging all of her work and critizing her in front of colleagues. A worker in a care home for the aged was forced to wash a naked dead body, having never seen a dead person before, while colleagues stood around and jeered and laughed.
Perhaps the most overt form of workplace oppression is when it spills over into sexual harrassment and assault. The #metoo hashtag has focused the lens on a form of harrassment that many victims felt too unsupported and ashamed to report, and which happens inside and outside the workplace.
2. Govern social media usage
Policies outlining appropriate use of social media are generally good practice. A presentation from Canadian legal firm Miller Thomson advises employers to create a policy for social media use that describes what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Social media creates an added complication, because it represents a written record that can be legally problematic for employees and employers alike.
If employees are going to discuss controversial topics, it makes sense they do so on internal social media platforms only, because it reduces the risk of customers or suppliers seeing these discussions. But there’s another reason to impose policies on social media discussion: It may also be a time suck, or a portal for gossip. If a heated argument starts on Yammer, Slack, or Facebook, it can transform into a black hole for productivity, as employees check back regularly and continue to participate.
At least some employees wait until their first day before they make their social media mistakes. One hapless pizza store employee complained about her job on Twitter the day before she started. Her boss saw it, and told her not to bother showing up.
3. Insist on civil arguments
Whether in or out of the workplace, arguments happen—but there are right and wrong ways to tackle them. A Dallas prosecutor was fired from her job for a drunken tirade against an Uber driver—which he recorded. Her boss dismissed her for behavior “contrary to this office’s core principle of integrity,” which illustrates the need for decorum, courtesy, and respect wherever you happen to be.
Managers should encourage employees to take discussions of controversial topics outside the workplace and focus on the job at hand instead. But if discussions crop up regardless, managers can enforce office etiquette through a respectful discussion policy that requires employees to allow for differing points of view, avoid making comments attacking particular individuals or groups, and treat each other kindly.
4. Hold workshops
Who here’s seen The Office? For anyone in a management position, watching what goes down there is pretty cringeworthy. From sexual harrassment and assault to extremely innappropriate displays and dialogue, it made for amusing TV for some—but a true office nightmare if it ever happens in real life.
Respectful communication is an acquired skill many adults never learn. A nonviolent communication or similar conflict-resolution workshop (similar to those held by The Center for Nonviolent Communication in the United States) can help employees not only avoid getting involved in heated arguments, but can also make them more effective individuals in the workplace. At the very least, you can train mid-level managers in these skills to mediate employee conflicts when they get out of hand.
5. Structure the debate
Are employees simply determined to debate a particular issue? As an enlightened employer, you should consider structuring the debate by holding lunch-and-learn sessions or after-hours forums, where you bring in expert speakers to discuss the topic.
In a complex, diverse society, the difficult issues won’t go away. Employers will find themselves dealing with them—and with their employees’ reactions to them—on a regular basis. Rather than viewing this as a problem, business owners should interpret it as a chance to shine, showing their employees the way toward a respectful, inquiring, and tolerant culture. Just remember: Tell them to keep it off Facebook.