It’s funny sometimes how the most obvious things are some of the most ignored things. Yesterday, a co-worker of mine pointed out that another one of our co-workers was a Tea Party supporter. My response was that I had no idea…and in all honesty, I am glad of that. I am not one of those people who consider anyone to be dumb, gullible, bigoted or cruel based on their political leanings. However I also do not shy away from my liberal beliefs (even if I do choose to not bring them up unless really prodded).
There are many articles out there that lay out lists of taboo topics in the workplace; the most common ones are: politics, religion, sex, money, and health. Below are some examples at how easy it is to venture onto these subjects and just how disastrous the outcome can be…
Example: Discussing a political candidate’s statements or policy on a particular issue. Why it is problematic: Politics are very variable and personal. When most people talk politics, they are also contributing a lot of their own opinions and beliefs in with the discourse. The chances that your audience 100% agrees with your sentiments, especially in the workplace, is slim to none. And the more you talk, the worst off it gets usually. Solution: My first line of advice is to avoid talking about politics at work at all costs (even going out of your way to avoid it). My second line of advice is to only engage in it if you truly do not take personal offense to others with differing political ideologies and you are willing to label yourself in the workplace.
Example: Asking how someone is planning to spend a holiday and/or asking about what someone does on their [religious] holiday. Why it is problematic: Today, it is very difficult to blindly assume what people’s religious beliefs are. Even if someone does not “look” religious, they can still come a background that is Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc. Conversely, we also cannot assume that just because a person is _____ (fill in the blank), that they observe a particular holiday. Solution: Understand that there is a fine line between you satisfying your curiosity, and you making someone uncomfortable with your questions. My advice here is to listen more than you contribute….especially if you are not familiar with the holiday or faith. As a Jew, I do not mind answering questions about my “strange” holidays. However I do sort-of mind responses to my explanations that are along the lines of “Oh wow…that’s crazy!” or “Gee, I’m glad that I am not Jewish…I would NEVER be able to sit through that”….etc., etc.
Oh and never, ever proselytize your religion in the workplace. If you are so inclined, invite them to your house of worship…and pursue it on different terms.
Example: Discussing the attractiveness of another fellow employee…or anyone for that matter. Why it is problematic: Even in work environments that are heavily skewed towards one sex or the other, it causes tension to talk about physical, sexual attraction at work. Simple statements like, “Wow, she’s so hot.” can be alienating for a number of reasons…even if the subject is not there. First of all, like politics, the speaker assumes that the audience agrees with them. If they don’t, something is amiss. Never mind the fact that they could be of a different sexual orientation or in a relationship where they are not comfortable voicing or agreeing that someone besides their partner is sexually attractive. And let’s not kid ourselves…such statements do have sexual innuendos. Solution: General, non-sexual compliments are fine. If you need a rule of thumb, don’t offer any compliments that you would not feel comfortable saying to or about your grandmother. Saying “You know…So-And-So always dresses so nice.” or “I love your new haircut”. So basically compliments are fine, pick-up lines are not.
Example: Expressing dissatisfaction with the latest company bonus. Why it is problematic: You may see a $150 bonus as measly…but to your co-worker, it could be 25% over and above what they would receive in a standard paycheck. Even worse, their bonus could have been less, or perhaps they did not receive one at all. So in general it makes you look like an ingrate and it also makes those who make less than you feel inadequate. Solution: Any issue that you have with bonuses should be discussed with your manager. End of story.
Example: Casually talking about your health condition (including pregnancy) and how things are going so well, you’re thrilled, etc., etc. Why it is problematic: What I’ve noticed about health issues is that when things are good, people talk….when things are not, then people are quiet. Seriously. When is the last time you’ve heard office banter about someone who discovered a tumor in their body or someone talking about how they are having difficulties conceiving? Solution: It is best to talk about health issues in private conversations…with co-workers who you know are either not dealing with similar issues, or who have specifically said that they appreciate being your cheerleader.
Nobody wants to walk on eggshells and constantly watch what they say. But we should definitely be sensitive and understanding…and take 2 seconds of extra time to consider how what we say can impact someone else. It does take maturity…since you have to give up the ability to speak without restraint. But in the long run it is worth it in order to maintain a harmonious working environment.