How to Navigate Difficult Topics in Professional Settings
Nov 4, 2020


Two women talk on a couch.

Copy by Nilza Santana-Castillo and Rachel Cohen

In the last few months, many professionals have wondered how to navigate current events at work as they reflect upon the stress from the enduring pandemic, socially distant interactions, racial unrest and injustices, and the US presidential election. As professionals, we are more than the technical skills or expertise we bring to our work. Whether you’re a job seeker or an established employee at a company, you bring your life experiences, identity, personality, and values to professional spaces. It’s nearly impossible to fully separate our professional selves from our personal selves – nor should we have to. 

Due to current events, many professionals are trying to navigate a job search or remain productive in the workplace while preoccupied with issues that affect their day to day lives, asking themselves questions like...

  • How do I, or can I talk about issues that are important to me in the workplace? 
  • Is it unprofessional to talk about topics outside of work that are top of mind for me? 
  • Is it okay to indicate where I stand with current issues on public platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter?
  • Do I need to keep quiet about my political or social opinions? 

These are valid questions for emerging and established professionals, so here are a few tips we hope help navigate personal topics in professional spaces.

Avoid assumptions.

Before we make assumptions about who the people we’re professionally interacting with are prior to getting to know them, let’s try to give them the opportunity to teach us who they are, or what they value. Let’s acknowledge we’re all educated differently, consume media and information through various formats and platforms, and are surrounded by different social groups or influences. Therefore, it’s best when engaging with others, in or out of work, to avoid assumptions. 

For example, labels like “liberal” or “democrat” versus a “republican” or “conservative” bring up different stereotypes for how a person may live their life, policies they support, or how they conduct themselves. These labels are loaded, and even people within the same political parties don’t agree on all the same approaches or agendas. 

Get to know your colleagues.

Talking about top of mind issues is difficult if the people you interact with feel like strangers, or if assumptions and stereotypes are perpetuated without any trust or conversation to dissect thoughts or comments. When we get to know others personally we begin to build trust and camaraderie. The more you interact with someone and engage in shared experiences or conversations, the more bonded you may feel. If work doesn’t allow time to talk about personal topics, invite a coworker to do a social activity pre or post-work hours, creating a space to open up and build camaraderie that transcends work tasks or projects. If you’re meeting and engaging other professionals through networking events, consider attending the social portions of these invites, or inviting others to hang out before or after the event. 

It takes time to build relationships, so as a basic guide, be curious about people outside of who they are professionally (but don’t push if they like to separate professional from private). 

A huge point of importance in getting to know others is engaging in active listening! By asking others open-ended questions about who they are, listening to the stories they tell you, and acknowledging important points they shared when they’re done speaking, you will learn more about them while helping them feel validated and heard. A great way to get to know your peers and colleagues in the profession could be to…

Find your people.

Consider joining an affinity group, which is meant to be a space for individuals who share a common interest or goal. In networking, organizations, and companies, affinity groups have become an acceptable and encouraged part of workplace culture. These groups allow professionals to have a space to gather for the purpose of discussion or to form initiatives related to topics they feel passionately about. Examples of common affinity groups or topics include LGBTQ, racial and ethnic identity, sustainability, gender equality, and so many more. 

If your company or professional organization does not have affinity groups, consider becoming a trailblazer and starting one! Here’s How to Start an Affinity Group at Work, According to the People Who Did It. 

If you’re currently job seeking or find yourself questioning if your company allows you to be who you want to be, you may need to...

Consider whether the job is a good fit.

Try to pursue roles at companies that allow or align with your social expression, values, or passions. If the idea of working for a company that has affinity groups excites you, inquire if a company has some established or would be open to the idea of creating groups. When it comes to the question, “Is it okay to indicate where I stand with current issues publicly? Like on my LinkedIn or Twitter?”, the answer is...it is your choice. And as long as you stand by it, and it’s what’s important to you, you’ll still very likely find a company that will hire you.

What we put on the internet or publicly leaves us open to judgment we can’t control, and sometimes misunderstandings we didn’t account for. However, if what you’re putting out deters a company, they probably weren’t a fit for you anyway! If you’re currently employed, take into consideration any policies your company has related to social media and profiles. If you feel limited by these policies, you may want to initiate a discussion with your company or HR. Ultimately, if expressing your values, ideologies, or stances on issues publicly is important to you, you can continue to do so by finding a company that matches you in this regard. 

These tips aren’t exhaustive, but we hope they’re a good starting point for professionals navigating the balance between personal and professional. If you’re asking yourself questions like those mentioned in the introduction, consider saying them out loud, asking them to any mentors, peers, managers, or on a social media platform. Getting the insight of others may help you figure out how to move forward with social topics in professional spaces, while also connecting with others who may be feeling the same way. 

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