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How do I handle sensitive topics at work?

When it comes to the priorities of women’s initiative leaders, creating a positive perception of the women’s initiative ranks #1 on the list. We know, because we asked the leaders who attend our Women’s Initiative Roundtable. When we dig into this, one of the things we often hear is that people perceive the women’s initiative to be a place where everyone goes to complain. What we know, is that this is far from true, and that there are impactful, uplifting, and empowering conversations at every gathering of these initiatives, and we can’t allow those perceptions to keep us from addressing the challenges that individuals are facing at work, even the sensitive ones.

So, how can we address these issues and handle sensitive topics at work?

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First, frame. 

Setting up-front expectations for an open and honest conversation is critical, and setting the expectation of a solution-based discussion is just as crucial. When you start to talk about addressing gender bias—something most women experience on a daily basis—it can be easy to pile on to the challenges and leave feeling frustrated and defeated. We like to give this conversation a process for discussion, called a Problem Tree. This tree allows you to look at an overarching problem and break it down into the “root causes” (or roots) and the symptoms/effects (the leaves). When it comes time to brainstorm solutions, you can work to address the root issues vs. just picking off a few symptoms.

Second, invite others in.

Don’t leave the men out of these conversations! By creating a completely exclusive environment, the men in your organization are left to make assumptions about what is really being said behind closed doors of a women’s initiative event. If you have a meeting focused on addressing gender issues in the organization, inviting everyone from the organization to be a part of it can make a big difference in the perception of the group, as well as driving more progress in the organization. We know that opening up the “safe space” to include others can also be more intimidating, so providing an anonymous survey in advance of the session may be helpful in driving conversation. Remind each person that they play an equal role in creating a more equitable workplace, so they should all be part of having those solution-based discussions.

Third, bring in reinforcements.

If you are the leader of your women’s initiative, you may also be a Human Resources representative, but it is just as likely that you are not. If you anticipate digging into some of the gender bias challenges your group is facing, it may be important to include an HR representative to support you and your co-workers. Given the current climate, it is important that allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct are being addressed properly, so having the appropriately trained staff present may allow you to lead a less guarded conversation. You may also point to that person as a trusted resource for individuals who may be unsure of where to go and who to talk to about challenges they are facing in your organization.

We know that handling sensitive topics at work can be a challenge—simply getting the conversation started feels like a huge hurdle, and once crossed you have to develop productive solutions, address issues, and manage perceptions. However, if you focus on solutions, get buy-in from all, and provide key support, the burden becomes a bit lighter.


If you’re wondering how to get the conversation started at your organization, consider an Uncovering Unconscious Bias Training, or a workshop dedicated to Addressing and Elevating Gender Issues.