Loren Elliott—AP
By Alexandra Mondalek
June 13, 2016

There have been 133 mass shootings in 2016, the deadliest of which occurred Sunday morning at the Orlando gay nightclub, Pulse. While you ordinarily might shy away from sensitive subjects at work, sometimes a national tragedy — particularly one of this magnitude — supersedes conventional workplace protocol.

And this tragedy includes several controversial subjects: LGBT issues, guns, Muslims, immigration, terrorism. Then there’s politics. President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump have all weighed in on the subject. And as the days go on, there will be more grief, anger — and commentary — to deal with.

But how can you discuss your feelings about Orlando without upsetting coworkers? We talked to a few experts for advice.

It’s OK to acknowledge what happened

Talking about a national tragedy with your coworkers can be healthy and constructive. Alan King, President of Workplace Options, an employee well-being services provider, says acknowledging what happened is the single most important thing you can do.

“The way to approach this is to say that this was a horrible thing that happened,” King says. “Second, recognize that people handle information differently. Assuming that everyone is devastated or everyone feels the same way is the wrong thing to do.”

After you’ve acknowledged what happened, discussing anything else becomes tricky: How do you discuss this tragedy without diving into dangerous waters? The goal is to avoid hostility without sugarcoating.

David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company focused on human behavior, says, “ask yourself what the purpose of having this conversation is. If you want to express sadness for the victims or support, do that. Where the conversation turns risky, though, is when people are looking for a solution to the event.”

Maxfield continues, “Ask yourself, ‘why would I have a conversation about gun control at work?’ If you can’t answer that in such a way that would better your workplace, you shouldn’t be having the conversation.”

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The Workplace Therapist” Brandon Smith, who is also an instructor at Emory University’s Executive MBA program, says you should have a healthy curiosity about others’ backgrounds and religions, but conversations about those issues at work should not become hostile. In particular, keeping tight-lipped about the LGBT community as victims and targets and stereotyping Muslim citizens is most harmful, according to Smith.

“It’s important that we begin to open up discourse about this so there isn’t profiling.”

If you’re emotional about an event, make sure you’re expressing that in a controlled way. In a 2015 report, “Emotional Inequality: Solutions for women in the workplace” co-authored by Maxfield, researchers tested the risks associated with speaking up when strong emotions are involved. The research found that when discussing events in an emotionally charged way, men’s perceived worth drops by $6,547, and women’s perceived worth drops by $15,088.

Lastly, it’s OK to ask people who may be directly impacted by an event how they’re feeling, as long as you do so sensitively, says Maxfield.

“My sense is that people don’t ask for help. Silence is not golden. If you want to show support, you have to initiate it, but you want to be careful about it. To assume that only gay people or Muslims or people from Orlando would be sad about this isn’t accurate,” Maxfield says. “Say you feel terrible about the incident or [about] horrific statements you’re hearing as backlash, and how sad that makes you feel or how inappropriate that is.”

Political discussions at work don’t have to be confrontational

In May, Maxfield and co-researcher Joseph Grenny published a report indicating that it’s never been riskier to talk about politics, especially at the office.

Among the findings: 28% of heated political discussions happen at work, even though 79% of people say they avoid having those conversations with their coworkers. The cost of all of this? Degrading your workplace relationships.

“It’s appalling to see the kind of ugly view we hold of others who simply have a different opinion and outlook on the world than we do. With this kind of tainted perspective, it’s no wonder we come into a politically oriented conversation itching for a fight,” Grenny says.

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While it may be healthy to be exposed to different political beliefs, ultimately, the conversation should be informative, not confrontational. Grenny and Maxfield say that it’s best do the following things when discussing hot-button issues:

  • Look for areas of agreement
  • Avoid personal attacks
  • Focus on facts
  • Try to deescalate the situation if it becomes tense

The last point, deescalating, could be the trickiest. King says it’s your responsibility to make sure the conversation doesn’t get out of hand.

“If you’re having a conversation with someone and it’s becoming heated, you have a responsibility to say ‘I don’t think this is appropriate.'”

Find out if your employer has resources to help you/your coworkers cope

Suppose you don’t feel comfortable discussing an event like Orlando with your coworkers but you’re looking for an outlet: Check with your employer to see if there’s an “employee assistance program,” King says. Employee assistance programs, as defined by the Office of Personnel Management, are “voluntary, confidential programs that help employees (including management) work through various life challenges that may adversely affect job performance, health, and personal well-being to optimize an organization’s success.”

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If your workplace doesn’t have an EAP, find an equivalent through your HR department or ask about alternative counseling services. After you’ve looked for internal resources, there are countless online- and community-based resources like vigils that may help individuals cope with tragedy and trauma, says King.

Steer clear of charged language on social media

While you may be looking for someone to point the finger at in response to something like the Orlando shooting, make sure those fingers aren’t firing off on social media. If you’re Facebook friends with your coworkers or boss, the impact your posts could have may hurt your career prospects.

Smith, The Workplace Therapist, says that even though you’re technically not mouthing off at work, posting politically-charged statements on social media could instigate arguments with coworkers.

“I say, don’t post anything political,” Smith says. “If you’re posting about a tragedy, it should be about the grieving process or how you’re saddened by it or how to help, something that’s constructive and positive in that way. It should not be about your particular political stance.”

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