Today's workplace is sizzling with sensitive topics, from racial bias to gender discrimination to political issues to stigmas associated with disabilities. The fallout is amplified in smaller and entrepreneurial companies. Fast-growing firms may not have regulations in place that define appropriate ways to deal with these subjects. And in smaller companies, there's simply no place to hide.

Emotions cannot be checked at the office door, as the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) documented in its recent study, Easing Racial Tensions at Work. Yet many employees feel they cannot talk about racial issues at work. The CTI report finds that 38% of black, 36% of Asian and 28% of white and Latino employees believe that it is never acceptable at their companies to speak out about experiences of bias based on race. Similarly, a CTI study, Disabilities and Inclusion, found that the vast majority of employees with invisible disabilities, such as migraines, Crohn's disease, or mental health conditions like depression, don't disclose their condition to their teams (83%), their managers (68%) or HR (87%). Not being able to speak about bias can heighten alienation from colleagues and managers, which may interfere with collaboration, cause disengagement and raise quit rates.

How can leaders initiate courageous conversations between them and their employees, and between team members? Here are two examples:

  • Acknowledge there's an issue -- and help people understand different viewpoints.  In response to the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, and the activist movements of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, Boehringer Ingelheim created a "Navigating Through Challenging Times" forum. Senior leaders and employees around the country participated both in-person and virtually in a discussion that sought to foster understanding of difference by creating a safe space for people to learn about perspectives that differed from their own. "There was a lot that was weighing on people but wasn't being discussed," explains Nancy Di Dia, chief Inclusion & Diversity officer at BI. But what first appeared to be a conglomerate of different-minded individuals proved to be a productive cohort of empathetic, curious, and compassionate colleagues. "It was the opposite of an echo chamber," Di Dia recalls. "The value is immeasurable -- of the catharsis of expression, of the feeling that they have a truly safe space to engage on topics that other workplaces treat as taboo. Doing this and succeeding with it really validated our diversity and inclusion practices."
  • Create opportunities for productive conversations. In an atmosphere that enjoins respect and open-mindedness, group discussions can prompt one-on-one dialogues between team leaders and members. Following a meeting hosted by EY's Inclusiveness Advisory Council (IAC), Audit Partner Ibi Krukrubo felt empowered to broach a conversation about race with a Muslim woman on his team. He expected a ten-minute exchange, at most. Instead, they spoke for an hour around the impact of the current environment on someone who is Muslim and about the point of view of an African-American male. "It shows we've achieved a greater level of trust, if she feels she can share with me what she's thinking," says Krukrubo. To ensure spontaneous conversations like these continue, EY expanded its mental health and addiction campaign. Originally intended to help leaders notice signs of mental illness or addictions and help remove stigmas around having these discussions in the workplace, it now features a number of offerings, including signs that may indicate someone is struggling, as well as ways to initiate a dialogue and connects individuals with the necessary resources and tools.

The workplace is one of the few settings where we commonly interact across lines that might otherwise divide us. It's up to leaders to bridge those gaps, to ensure that the workplace is not polarized but productive for everyone.