Don't Squelch Sensitive Topics. Instead, Learn to Embrace Them.

04/28/2016 05:54 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2017

Controversial social issues don't stay outside the office door. This year, especially, has been a-boil with such volatile topics as the Presidential election, terrorism, religious beliefs, and LGBT rights. Debates on these issues can't help but seep into the work environment and affect our interchange with colleagues and clients.

Companies can't -- nor should they attempt to -- censure an exchange of ideas and views. What they can do, though, is employ strategies to confront sensitive but vital topics in a productive way.

Start a constructive conversation. Company leaders should make it "safe" for employees to have facilitated, organized discussions on societal issues that are likely to impact behaviors inside the office walls. For example, they can host town halls to discuss current events and corporate responses to them, while staying alert for any comments that could be deemed discriminatory. This is probably best done in coordination with the company's compliance team to ensure the conversation is productive and non-discriminatory.

For example, to show support for LGBT colleagues and demonstrate the company's commitment to diverse talent overall, Bank of America created an Ally Program. During its hallmark Ally Week, the company offers a series of one-hour "101 Sessions." -- These sessions act as introductory courses -- on topics ranging from Ally 101 to Bisexuality 101 and Transgender 101. The sessions are hugely popular: More than 10,000 employees overall have participated in the 101 Sessions over the past 18 months.

Provide unconscious bias training. Unconscious biases are prejudices we have but are unaware of. A white paper on the effects of unconscious bias in the workplace notes, "Unconscious biases are a fact of life: Everyone harbors them and takes them into the workplace." The problem, the paper notes, is that such unwitting prejudices can impact our decision-making; skew talent and performance reviews; decide who gets hired, promoted and developed; stymie diversity, recruiting and retention efforts; and undermine an organization's culture.

The challenge for companies is to raise awareness, spark conversation and initiate action to surface and stamp out unconscious bias. Google, for example, developed "Unconscious Bias @ Work," a workshop in which more than 26,000 employees have participated. It aims to teach Googlers not to "trust their gut," but instead bring four steps to bear on every decision: gather fact, create a structure for making decisions, be mindful of subtle cues, and call out bias through a "bias-busting checklist."

Build an inclusive culture. Companies need to create environments where everyone feels welcome to share their ideas and bring their true selves to work. Center for Talent Innovation report, "Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth," finds that 78 percent of our sample of white-collar employees in the U.S. work for companies without two-dimensional diversity in senior leadership - diversity that helps companies unlock the innovative potential of their employees.

Six inclusive behaviors, we find, are highly correlated with a "speak up" culture, an organizational environment where everyone feels free to volunteer opinions, suggest unorthodox approaches, or propose solutions that fly in the face of established practice. These leadership behaviors are: ensuring that everyone speaks up and gets heard; making it safe to risk proposing novel ideas; empowering team members to make decisions; taking advice and implementing feedback; giving actionable feedback; and sharing credit for team success.

It's not easy to create and nurture a company culture which encourages a frank but respectful interchange of ideas and considered -- and considerate -- conversation on sensitive topics. The payoff, however, is priceless: Companies will become talent magnets and rich sources of innovation.