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Is It Ok to Protest Ferguson at Work?

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I received a mass email last week encouraging me to join thousands of others in protest of the grand jury decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson. On August 9, Officer Wilson shot and killed 18-year old Michael Brown after an altercation in Ferguson, Missouri. While the details of the altercation have been disputed, the outcry of many groups across the country has been clear.

According to the email, I was to join others around the country in walking out of my workplace at noon (the time Brown was shot) while holding my hands up (the gesture Brown was supposedly making before he was killed).

I didn’t do it.

It’s bad leadership to introduce controversial conversations into your office. Here’s why.

Every workplace is full of people with different views on religion, politics and race. And most people are passionate about what they believe. When conversations about these things take place, it often leads to disagreements and/or someone feeling alienated.

Confident Businessman with TeamWhat are your views on marriage equality? How do you feel about abortion? Is President Obama doing a good job?

Did you feel it?

Ethical leaders understand that there’s a certain level of shock and discomfort that is created when discussing controversial topics. While it can be valuable in social settings, it can have a negative impact on relationships with coworkers (most whom have no choice on who they work with).

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to foster a work environment of respect, inclusion and cooperation. Talking about issues that divide people and makes individuals feel “left out” does the opposite of that.

Though it’s the season of giving, restrain from giving your opinion on issues that might make you or your coworkers uncomfortable. Here are three practical ways to do so:

1. The Study Break

Most of us hate being wrong. Because of this, you may not want to comment on certain issues without having all the facts.

So when someone asks you how you feel about the Bill Cosby allegations, you might respond by saying “I haven’t read all of the reports, so I don’t know enough facts to say whether he’s innocent or guilty. I just hope justice gets served for whichever side is telling the truth.”

2. The Redirect

Unlike the previous example, not knowing about certain current events could be viewed as a negative. In these cases, you may have to comment briefly, then redirect the conversation.

So when someone asks you what you think about President Obama, you might respond by saying “It’s interesting that you ask that. Some people believe presidents use their first term to do things that will get them reelected, but their second term is actually when many of the long-term-impact decisions are made. It will be interesting to see how the policies, made by this administration, impact the country 10-15 years from now.”

3. The Straight Shot

While the two previous examples can often provide temporary relief, they don’t always provide long term solutions that prevent these conversations from arising again in the future.

So when your coworker asks you to join the mass walk out at noon to protest your disapproval of a recent court case, you might respond by saying “Thanks for the invite, but I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really discuss political and religious views at work. When coworkers disagree on these types of issues, it can negatively impact their ability to work well together. So I appreciate the invite, but I don’t feel comfortable participating.”

I’m not saying you have to remain silent on issues that are important to you. There are often ways to donate your time, money or resources to supporting causes that you are passionate about, without making a strong political stance at work.

Yes, you have a right to free speech. But, it’s important to understand that using it at work can be costly to your team and your career.

Always remember, Leadership is a Lifestyle.

— Ryan W. Hirsch
Program Manager, NASBA Center for the Public Trust