Creating a Safe Space at Work for Discussing Social Justice Topics

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There’s a lot going on in the world at the moment, which means there’s a lot we need to talk about. It seems as though every day there is another incident that raises issues related to the socio-economic imbalances in our society, systemic racism, or the political decisions that shape our lives. These deserve considerate thought and productive debate.

Yet, we are so often told that there are places where it is inappropriate to talk about social justice topics, no matter how vital they are to our experiences. Perhaps the most common of these is the workplace. There is an expectation that employees and employers alike should keep their thoughts on potentially divisive topics to themselves, rather than risk rocking the boat. Yet to perpetuate this is to deny the opportunity for vital debate, and growth for everyone involved.

Let’s take a look at why businesses should be making greater efforts to support healthy social justice discourse. Where can both companies and their workers focus their efforts?

Why Discussion is Positive

So, why make a space at all? If discussions about social justice have the potential to cause friction in the workplace, isn’t it just better to avoid that? Well, no — maintaining silence on important issues tends to prevent us from addressing them in a meaningful way.

One of the reasons that sexual harassment in the workplace has taken such an insidious hold is the historic culture of silence that protects perpetrators and oppresses those who have been harassed. Part of the reason the #MeToo movement is so powerful is that women have been empowered to make their voices heard.

For business owners, it’s also not a good idea to discourage discussion on the prevalent issues of the times we’re living in. Employees from marginalized groups who don’t feel as though they can express themselves on important social justice issues will naturally consider discouragement as an act of continued oppression.

This oppression does not provide employees with any incentive for loyalty, nor does it encourage them to apply their talents in ways that lead to innovation. Employers who smother an open dialogue on social justice issues may find that it leads only to resentment.

Workers also have a responsibility not only to the power of their own voices, but to those around them who have perspectives on social justice topics. Not to mention that having the confidence to speak up in the workplace tends to strengthen an employee’s influence in the company. Discussion is contagious, and taking a positive attitude toward discourse helps to create the kind of healthy culture that makes workplaces intellectually and socially stimulating places in which to work.

Actions as an Employer

The constitutional right to free speech doesn’t necessarily extend to private workplaces. However, businesses have an ethical duty to encourage a social justice dialogue, and can benefit from it with strong and empowered employees. That said, it is also important to keep discussions constructive.

Employers have to acknowledge that there is a line to be drawn when debate negatively disrupts productivity and relationships. So, what elements should employers be putting in place to support a safe space for discussions?

  • Clear Policies

Employees and leadership alike benefit from clarity when it comes to behavioral expectations. Make it clear in official documentation — including employee handbooks and contracts — that the business supports the free exchange of ideas. Formalize the commitment that all workers are able to discuss issues and voice concerns without fear of reprisal.

However, it is also vital to confirm the line at which debate becomes unhealthy, and potentially prevents the business from being a safe space for customers and colleagues alike. Reinforce that behavior that constitutes discrimination of protected groups does not fall under the category of healthy discussion, and will not be tolerated.

These guidelines should also fall within the range of open discussion, and employees should be invited to contest them if they feel they are lacking.

  • Diverse Workforce

A healthy environment for social justice discussions begins at a cultural level. This is much more difficult if your business has a monocultural workforce. Sectors that already have a strong culture of diversity tend to encourage spaces where employees are not just able to discuss social issues, but contribute to solutions.

The beauty industry is a great example of how the growth of diversity has encouraged the contribution of different cultural perspectives that have highlighted issues, and led to continued vigilance and improvements. As an employer, one of the best actions you can take is to discover a broader range of employees.

Actions as an Employee

Workers should not need permission from their employers to discuss issues that are important to their lives. If debates don’t have negative effects on their ability to do their jobs and are not corrosive to company integrity, there’s really no reason not to broach topics that matter. However, this isn’t always a concept shared by employers, so employees should contribute to creating spaces where these discussions can be undertaken safely.

This could include:

  • Influence Inclusivity

The actions we take in the course of our duties can help provide a more supportive environment for open discussions about social justice topics. Learn more about the lives and needs of colleagues and customers who come from differing demographic groups and backgrounds than you. Seek to include them and their ideas in various aspects of your work, and encourage their input on projects. This helps to create a culture that supports differing perspectives and is conducive to more open discussions.

  • Vigilance on Toxicity

One of the barriers to healthy and productive social justice discussion is a toxic workplace. If your boss is not receptive to improvements that you feel need to be made regarding cultural issues, or is outright abusive or disrespectful, it’s important to respond calmly and methodically.

Analyze the situation to understand the extent of the problems, and if there is no resolution through discussion you should set strict and healthy boundaries while you document occasions of toxicity. Then formally address these with human resources (HR). Approach the matter as an action to make the business a safer and positive space for all employees.


Social justice is key to creating a more inclusive and positive society; this means that healthy discussion should be encouraged. Employers and employees alike must work together to ensure that the spaces they work in are conducive to constructive dialogue. This should include policies that put workplaces in a better position to facilitate these discussions, and efforts from everyone involved to improve the environment overall.

Beau Peters is a freelance writer based out of Portland, OR. He has a particular interest in covering workers' rights, social justice, and workplace issues and solutions. Read other articles by Beau.