# Sunday, May 17, 2009

In this article, I will talk about topics that you should avoid discussing in the workplace.  While it is impossible to ensure that you offend no one, common sense and a little self-control can guide you to avoid saying things that can damage your career.

Generally the highest-risk topics are those that are the most controversial – those that others may find offensive – and that are unrelated to the professional work you are doing.  If you plan to take a controversial stand, it is better to take such a stand on something directly related to your job, because the payoff is much greater. 

This article is not intended to dictate (or even express) a particular moral stand - That may be a subject for another article. Avoiding topics offensive to others is generally in your own best interest because offensive topics can damage your reputation and career.

Even those whose job description includes shocking people, such as comedian Michael Richardson and loudmouth radio host Don Imus, have damaged their careers by making remarks that were viewed as inappropriate by many of their listeners.

When young people first join the workforce, they must deal with many challenges and changes. Among the changes with which young people must deal: a new way to communicate in a professional work environment.  Among college friends, communication is often very relaxed. When chatting with your buddy, you generally don’t need to watch what you say.  But in a professional workplace, miscommunication can be dangerous.  A careless remark can form a bad impression, earn you a reprimand, lose your job or even initiate legal action.

Talking about your personal life at work is fine and can help to build relationships with co-workers.  Family, hobbies, and weekend activities are part of our lives and talking about them help to connect with people.  But be wary of bringing excessive private details of your life to work. 

Three famous personal topics you should avoid at the office are sex, politics and religion.  The reason to avoid these topics is that many people have such strong beliefs on them that they refuse to consider alternative opinions.  They internalize their beliefs on sex, religion and politics to the extent that they perceive an attack on their opinions as an attack on themselves. As a result, conversations often turn into debates, which turn into arguments, which turn into animosity.  It is fine to disagree on any of these topics (people do so all the time), but this discussion should take place after hours, where it is less likely to damage a working relationship.

Off-color jokes definitely fall into the forbidden category and should be avoided at work.  You may think it harmless to tell a racist or sexist joke when surrounded only by white males, but many of us find these things offensive.  A reputation as a narrow-minded bigot is not likely to advance your career. You should avoid any topic that smells of racism, sexism or any type of discrimination.  This can sometimes be difficult.  I’ve worked with managers who would occasionally say something sexist or racist.  This does not’t make it right or acceptable.  The best course is to err on the side of caution and avoid these topics.

Negativity is something else to avoid.  Every office experiences negative events and sometimes those events are caused by management.  The problem is that sometimes talk of these negative events overshadow the positive contributions made by management and others.  An employee with a negative attitude is far less likely to be productive and far less desirable to work with.  Even worse, negativity is contagious – It can spread quickly to others in the office, dragging down morale and destroying productivity among the entire office.  We don’t all need to be cheerleaders for management, but we do need to keep events in perspective and not allow negativity to damage a good working environment. 

Another conversation area I recommend avoiding is gossip.  At some time, nearly all offices fall victim to the spread of gossip.  It is common for people to talk about the personal lives and shortcomings of others.  But unchecked gossip is a poison.  It can damage the reputation of the target of the gossip. But it can also damage the reputation of those spreading the gossip.  Even if you did not start the rumor, you may be perceived as a problem if you help to perpetuate that rumor.  It’s best to remove yourself from these conversations.  If gossip concerns someone’s work, you may need to address it by finding out the truth.  Talking about someone behind their back almost never does any good.

At some point in your career, you are likely to find yourself working with someone who violates the above guidelines and you will need to be prepared to handle these situations.  As stated above, the point of this article is *not* to pass judgment on people for their thoughts and words or to make any morality judgments whatsoever.  My point is that speaking in an insensitive way can be harmful to your career.  If you are a redneck, narrow-minded racist and you like to tell jokes about minorities and sex (did I say that out loud?), I’m not here to tell you that you are wrong (at least not in this forum).  But I am here to tell you that this is an attitude that can get you in a lot of trouble at work.  In most organizations, it is to your own benefit to avoid inappropriate conversations.  In fact, you can harm your career just by participating in or listening to these conversations.  If you allow yourself to continue as part of an inappropriate conversation, others may perceive that you approve of a speaker’s views, whether or not you explicitly say so.

If you find yourself in an inappropriate conversation, my advice is to confront the speaker directly.  Most people will stop immediately when you tell them that you find what they say offensive.  This may be because they are embarrassed or they may wish to avoid confrontation, but my experience is that few people will try to publicly defend offensive behavior. In the long run, it’s usually more effective to confront an offender prior to escalating a situation by bringing it to the attention of management.

I recognize that some of you reading this are not comfortable with direct confrontation. It can take a lot of courage to do this.  But for your own benefit, I recommend that – at a minimum – you remove yourself from these situations so that no one assumes you are a part of or tacitly agreeing with these thoughts.

In this article, I listed some guidelines of topics to avoid in workplace communication.  There are no simple, dogmatic rules about topics that are appropriate for work, but the guidelines above should help you determine your own rules of what you will discuss and what topics will harm your career.