7 Inappropriate Conversation Topics in the Workplace
Modern work culture is less formal than it used to be, but professionalism in the workplace is still important. Today we will cover some of the most common inappropriate conversation topics at work and explain why they can backfire, or even hurt your career long-term.
You probably spend a lot of time at your workplace – maybe even more time than you spend at home.
When you see your coworkers more than your friends and family, it’s not hard to get comfortable, and maybe even make some close friends at work.
It’s common wisdom that you shouldn’t discuss politics, religion or your sex life in polite company – whether that still applies to our less formal times is up for discussion, though. And while it’s common knowledge now that sexual harassment is most definitely unacceptable, there are other less obvious lines you should stay far away from.
There are some parts of your personal life you shouldn’t share at happy hour – even more so if you’re starting at a new job.
These workplace conversations might not get you sent to Human Resources, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. They can have a negative impact on your relationships with coworkers – and even jeopardise your professional reputation.
Let’s dive into what not to say at work, and why.
1. Conflicts with Coworkers
Like taxes, tensions between coworkers are a fact of life. But the way you handle disagreements is up to you.
It might feel good in the moment to vent about your irritating coworker, but office gossip mostly makes you look unprofessional.
“God, Diane is such a pain in the a**. She’s been blocking my request for weeks and being so passive aggressive in her emails. Look at this latest one!”
People start to wonder if you talk about them behind their back, too. If it gets back to your coworkers (and it will), it can also turn a small disagreement into a big deal.
If you need to vent, call your friends outside of work.
Workplace disputes should be resolved directly with your coworker. If that’s not possible, take your problems to your manager or human resources department in a formal meeting.
Don’t talk about money at work unless you’re mentioning a company sales target. Yeah, it can be fun making light of your spendthrift ways, but money is a sensitive topic that can really rub people the wrong way.
Talking casually about your spending habits can make other coworkers resentful, especially those with heavier financial obligations, whether that’s family, mortgage or student debt.
“I totally blew my budget this month buying that $1200 couch I wanted. It’s so gorgeous, and after Mum and Dad gave me that $300 for my birthday I thought, go on, treat yourself! I don’t even know if I’ll be able to pay rent. Guess I’m eating Mi Goreng for the rest of the week.”
On the other hand, complaining about your budget can get back to your boss or supervisor eventually and make you look irresponsible.
If you’re asking for a raise in the near future, you want it to be because you’re worth it, not because you can’t manage your personal finances.
While it’s in bad taste to flaunt your advantages or comparative financial freedom, we’re not saying you shouldn’t talk about your salary with your workmates. Even though that’s often taboo, it shouldn’t be.
Having discussions about salary with your coworkers, in a private and low-pressure situation, can help to hold workplaces accountable to fair pay practices.
People don’t necessarily want to hear the gory details of your debaucherous weekend, no matter how fun it was for you.
Whatever your preferences are when it comes to your leisure time, in most cases you don’t need to lie about it. Think in terms of translating it into a work-friendly story.
“My weekend was craaaaazy. I went out and got absolutely trashed on Friday and I didn’t get home until Sunday evening. I think I lost my keys! Hahaha! Wild!”
For instance, the comment above could be translated into “I had a really fun weekend! I went out with some friends and had a great time on Friday.” Both use the same basic facts to tell a very different story.
Think about what story you’re sharing with your workmates next time you’re asked about your weekend on Monday morning.
If this is the kind of thing your work bestie and you regularly share, that’s great! Just do it when you’re out to get coffee, away from the office.
4. Health Problems
This can be different if it’s someone you’re close to, but stay away from discussing it in general group settings or with people you don’t know well.
Someone talking at length about their health concerns has to be one of the most boring, self-centred TMIs you can sit through, especially if it’s a favourite topic of theirs.
“My doctor says I have leaky gut, and it’s probably linked to my joint inflammation. I’m so bloated right now! After my last trip to the specialist, my health insurance said…”
I once went on an overseas tour and one of the other travellers – who I had never met before – thought that her food intolerances would be a fun topic to discuss with me at length, and on repeated occasions. They were not. I avoided her for the rest of the trip.
Nobody wants to know about your toes, ear infection, or assortment of allergies. Keep it to yourself at work, unless specifically asked about it, or unless you need to disclose it for work-related reasons or to get time off.
Remember, it’s your business. You don’t want it to affect your perceived competency or eligibility for promotions. It shouldn’t, but sometimes it does happen anyway.
Whether you’re a staunch atheist or devoutly religious, that’s your business. Likewise, other people’s religious beliefs aren’t great small talk fodder.
Australia is a secular and multicultural society. Telling someone about your religion could come across as overbearing, whereas making offhand derogatory comments about faiths can be gravely insulting to someone who overhears.
“I recently converted to Kabbalah for my partner. It’s so much better than the horrible Catholicism I grew up with.”
It’s best to avoid the topic altogether. After all, it’s got nothing to do with work most of the time.
6. Jokes at anyone’s expense
Punching down is on par with gossiping about your coworkers.
Sure, it might feel good at the time, but chances are someone will pass it along or overhear it.
All of a sudden you’ve really hurt someone’s feelings.
Everyone deserves to be respected at work. Imagine if someone did it to you. How would you feel?
“Oh yeah, hanging out with Bruce is about as fun as a poke in the eye with a hot stick. Nah nah, I’m only joking buddy! Don’t get all twisted up about it!”
This is also a really dangerous one. A sarcastic joke could be interpreted the way you didn’t intend, and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of an HR dispute for inappropriate behavior.
Best to stay away altogether.
7. Weight and Physical Appearance
If you’ve recently hit a weight goal and you’re feeling celebratory, that’s great. You should be really proud of your efforts.
Don’t mention it at work, though, and don’t talk about diets around the lunch table.
“Wow, you’ve lost weight and your acne is totally clearing up! You look great.”
Making comments about people’s weight is damaging, not just to the person but also potentially anybody. Nobody needs to hear your opinions on their body.
Saying, “Wow, you’ve lost weight! You look great,” might be intended as a compliment. To the person hearing it, though, it could come across as “You were unacceptably overweight before, and now you are acceptable.”
It’s a value judgement about someone’s worth as a person, based only on their appearance.
Additionally, someone else might overhear that, and it might go on to affect their body image. “That person is smaller than me,” they might think, “does that mean I’m too big?”
This sort of talk tacitly reinforces cultural beauty standards, which are impossibly narrow and lead to lots of physical and psychological problems.
Likewise, don’t talk about your current keto diet is helping you lose belly fat, or how “naughty” your lunch of choice is.
We’re all looking for ways to do well at our jobs and improve our standing in the workplace. But perhaps the best career advice of all tells us what not to do – and what not to say.
It’s tempting to let it all hang out at work, especially in casual workplaces. The old, strict conventions are on the way out, and no new rules have come in to replace them.
You don’t want to be some kind of repressed robot with no personality, right? You want to be real with each other. It’s just about being selective.
You can still be real while leaving out some personal details or avoiding loaded topics which might derail your career and relationships with coworkers.
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