Workplace No-No’s That Really Are Doesn’t-Matter’s

2010 May 12
by Grace Boyle

I find it ironic, after reading US News and World Reports, “40 Topics You Can’t Discuss at Work,” where they list No-No’s such as:  Your blog URL, Your adorable pets, and Your last, or next, vacation, as part of the topics you can’t (key word here) discuss at work – I was left perplexed and confused.

Preface: We all have different work environments, different rules, co-workers, rules of engagement, procedures and ways of interacting. I work at a startup, which is completely different than my friend’s Fortune 500 company – understood, but let’s dive a little deeper into what this means, collectively as work is often where we spend (for better or worse) most of our weekly hours.

Discussing your blog URL – what are we in the stone ages? There are 30 million active blogs, in the United States alone – so having one is not only professional, beneficial and where it’s said, your ideas are your resume, but also natural. I can’t imagine working in a place where people didn’t care who I was, didn’t ask how my vacation to see my family was, or if I mention that my dog is at the vet that it’s considered inappropriate.

What sort of rigid, apprehensive culture are we cultivating?

Culture and people are what make a company. The product, the service is all comes with it, but without rowers, captains and ship-hands, the boat will not move.

I’m sick of hearing these “rules” that you should or shouldn’t do. It’s so blanketed and where the blur of work/life is obvious, let the individual company and culture decide. Hindering doesn’t allow creativity or growth – inversely, I believe it stunts. Are we going to focus on disallowing talking about your vacation or how your children are doing when at work versus the good work you produce, the way your employees and company care about you and in the end, what results you produce?

I polled a group of friends, from around the country and these were the responses:

Occupation: Web Designer | Company Employees: 800

I think it depends on who you’re talking to. With my co-workers, I’ve spoken with them about 90% of the topics. With my boss, maybe about 10%. I think it’s important to maintain a sense of boundaries with your boss…on the same token, I like feeling comfortable enough to joke around and delve into my personal life, but not to a degree where it costs me my integrity as an employee.

Occupation: Registered Operating Room Nurse | Company Employees: City Hospital

As you grow closer to some colleagues, a lot of these topics will come up. I feel like it’s all very dependent on who you’re talking to and where (e. g. lunch room, operating room, off hours with colleagues).

Occupation: Operations at University | Company Employees: 18 people (direct in department)

I work somewhere where gossip happens. And about everything. I’ve easily been in conversations with co-workers about half of these items. Does it bother me? Sometimes. And I go home and feel a little uncomfortable or awkward that I let myself get so deep in the conversation. Other times, as long as I trust the person, it makes me feel a better connection to my colleagues. Because, and to reiterate one of the primary arguments of this article, these are the people you spend the most time with, so friendships, as well as life – happens.

I remember we used to have someone who worked here who always talked about how much he hated it here, how he wanted to quit, and how much he disrespected his authority. Which was quite jarring, considering no one else felt the same way. His negative attitude was not only toxic but viral. Once he started with a negative streak, it would suck others in like a vortex, folks who normally have never had anything to complain about, and then suddenly he had his validation. It was terribly difficult to manage and created a divide among colleagues.

Occupation: High School Teacher | Company Employees: 30-50 High School

I work at a high school and most of what it’s like there is exactly what it’s like under normal social circumstances. If you know the person well enough, or you are their friend, you can discuss whatever you feel comfortable discussing without any negative repercussions. If the person is not your friend, you don’t discuss your penis size. Plain and simple.

The responses range, but an overall point was that each person has discussed many of these topics and inevitably becomes close with co-workers. I too, have discussed about 80-90% of the topics on the “No-No” list with co-workers, all of which, I consider close friends. I wouldn’t blurt out personal information to just everyone I work with, it’s situational. I find no issue with becoming close with co-workers and if you trust them, then it’s another relationship, another friendship, just different circumstance.

What do you think? Where do you draw the line? Do you think the list is extreme?

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  • http://www.justatitch.com Amy — Just A Titch

    I’m a middle school teacher, and I think the list is super stringent. I am careful about what I blog about, since thanks to Google, many of my students are aware that I have a blog. I have some co-workers who are more like best friends, whom I share many things with. Other people are simply professional colleagues with whom I choose to be more formal. I think that being careful at work is fine and so is being appropriate, but I think that human connections make any workplace better. Being too locked up keeps us from creating those.

  • http://speaksoftlyandcarryaredpen.wordpress.com Mehnaz

    Interesting list. I agree with some of these of course. Nobody needs to know about the side-effects of viagra. But I do think that as you get closer to some of your work colleagues, things like your vacation will come up. And while I don't advocate discussing everything under the sun with work folks, if you do have work friends, some of these things eventually come up, and there's nothing wrong with it.
    Just know whom you speak to about some of these things (ie. managers).

  • http://ashalah.com Ashalah

    Loved this. I hate that we're “not supposed” to do certain things at a job. Sure, I can understand maybe with the boss not sharing a lot of personal information to keep that level of professionalism but in my experience at past jobs, professionalism and camaraderie have gone hand in hand. My last job was about as open as you could get, at least with 98% of my coworkers. (Not including my boss and his mistress) We were also very close (again, with the exception of that 2%) so we knew everything about everyone's lives. We talked politics (we even had a formal debate between our office and the other office, dems vs republicans!), controversial news topics, what was going on in our lives…you name it, we probably talked about it. Nothing was off limits. Including our mutual hatred for the job. Sure, sometimes we got caught up in the negativity that would sometimes swirl around once someone got started on their venting but I knew that if I was having a rough day, like the time that mistress pushed me over the edge of my tolerance and I wound up upstairs crying to my coworkers, that they would support me, that they would have my back and brighten my day.

    I loved being in that kind of atmosphere where we could support each other and also work extremely well as a team (which we did). I don't think I would have lasted in that toxic of an environment for as long as I had if it hadn't been for my coworkers. Not only did I see them at work, but I saw them after work and on weekends as well and today they are still some of my closest friends. (went to Paris with one, met one in New Orleans and another is coming up in June to visit!)

    I hope to find the same camaraderie in my next job but know that it won't always be like that. I got extremely lucky, especially working with a group of all young women, that we got along so well. I'm going to miss that in whatever office I land in, but I hope that whatever office I do end up in, it's a healthy environment and is not filtered with all these “rules.”

  • http://ashalah.com Ashalah

    Loved this. I hate that we're “not supposed” to do certain things at a job. Sure, I can understand maybe with the boss not sharing a lot of personal information to keep that level of professionalism but in my experience at past jobs, professionalism and camaraderie have gone hand in hand. My last job was about as open as you could get, at least with 98% of my coworkers. (Not including my boss and his mistress) We were also very close (again, with the exception of that 2%) so we knew everything about everyone's lives. We talked politics (we even had a formal debate between our office and the other office, dems vs republicans!), controversial news topics, what was going on in our lives…you name it, we probably talked about it. Nothing was off limits. Including our mutual hatred for the job. Sure, sometimes we got caught up in the negativity that would sometimes swirl around once someone got started on their venting but I knew that if I was having a rough day, like the time that mistress pushed me over the edge of my tolerance and I wound up upstairs crying to my coworkers, that they would support me, that they would have my back and brighten my day.

    I loved being in that kind of atmosphere where we could support each other and also work extremely well as a team (which we did). I don't think I would have lasted in that toxic of an environment for as long as I had if it hadn't been for my coworkers. Not only did I see them at work, but I saw them after work and on weekends as well and today they are still some of my closest friends. (went to Paris with one, met one in New Orleans and another is coming up in June to visit!)

    I hope to find the same camaraderie in my next job but know that it won't always be like that. I got extremely lucky, especially working with a group of all young women, that we got along so well. I'm going to miss that in whatever office I land in, but I hope that whatever office I do end up in, it's a healthy environment and is not filtered with all these “rules.”

  • http://www.queenbsays.blogspot.com Betsy

    I not only have met many of my close friends through work, I also met my husband at work. You develop a social relationship with people you work around naturally. And if you don't then people think you are cold, rude, stuck up, anti-social, or just plain weird. I'm not saying you cross lines that make you or other people uncomfortable, I mean I wouldn't do that with people I DON'T work with. But you help people you like, you buy from people you like, and your want to work with people you like. So, you have to make people like you if you want to get ahead.

  • http://doniree.com/ doniree

    Totally agree! Could be because I work WITH you and love being in a place where people do care about your blog, your pets, your relationships and your life outside of the office. I also whole-heartedly agree that a happy crew (to use your boat analogy) is a productive crew, and I'm absolutely more motivated to do well and succeed when I know my team is rooting for me not only as an employee and a colleague, but as a person and a professional.

  • http://ryanstephensmarketing.com/blog/ ryanstephens

    As someone who certainly pushes the limits of what you can/should say in the workplace…(I love to joke with my Democratic friends that George W was the best president ever), there are some of these even I'd never breach (#27 perhaps!?), but I definitely agree with the overall sentiment of your post.

    Also, I've found what you discuss with your superiors and what you discuss with your co-workers, cube mates, etc. to be on two totally different levels. As you've alluded to the list is entirely too rigid. There's some people you'll never really discuss anything but work with and others will become your golfing/happy hour buddies where you might hit 90% of the list.

  • http://www.bflofutsal.com/ryanknapp/ Ryan Knapp

    I can see the point of her article. Talking about great things that you have is awesome, but it sucks for people that don't have it, regardless if they want to feel jealous or not.

    Hearing people talk about grand vacations and where they are traveling to next is great, and I love to feel happy for my friends. But it sucks when you supposedly have it awesome and you run your own business but can't afford to pay rent or do anything.

    For some at work, it becomes a popularity contest. I realize probably where you work isn't like that, but at many places, it is.

    I agree with Ryan's point. Some things you can talk about, but instead of talking about yourself, maybe you should ask how your co-worker's day is going, and just keep the conversation about him or her.

  • http://herestothegoldendays.blogspot.com Jennifer

    This is interesting because the type of impersonal work-environment that article portrays is not the same one we often see in our own lives or in pop-culture. If you try, you do develop relationships within your workplace. To say that you can't is ridiculous, to me. Not everyone you work with has to be your best friend, but where would we be without the iconic, gossiping desk clerks/secretaries and the water-cooler chats?

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Mehnaz It is interesting – I feel like the list was almost humorous and pushing the limit (like Viagra, does anyone talk about their side-effects of Viagra?) I don't know. You're right about the context of managers/bosses versus peers/coworkers.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Ashalah I know, now that I'm in an environment when I'm close with coworkers it's hard imagining a life where co workers don't care about you or you aren't close with them. How can you spend SO much time with people and not even mention basic things like your life outside of work, etc. We're not robots, so that's why I think that list is BULLSHIT :)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Betsy I love hearing your story, especially because you met your husband at work. There we go! You also bring up a good point about being a friendly, social person. We are human beings who discuss life outside of work, even at work, because it makes us real and relatable.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Doni Hehe, yes! The lines blur so much but it doesn't mean we're not productive, it just makes everything much more enjoyable!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Ryan You're right in saying that co-workers turn into friends, where you leave work and do things outside of work and then the friendship rules ensue.

    Really, Ryan, you don't talk about #27? 😉

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Ryan You bring up a good point (that I didn't look into from the way I read it) –> to not bring up the great things you have, that others may not. I just took it as talking about you personally (which could be what you have, what you don't have, what you want, etc.)

    I haven't felt the “popularity contest,” bit at any place I have worked but I really appreciate you bringing that up because it can be very prevalent. In general, although this list is about what you might be saying, I took it as a two-way flow. You would assume, you talk about something and the co worker listens, then talks about their story.

    Thanks for the insight, Ryan!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Jennifer Good points with bringing up pop-culture, it's what we see everyday. But still, is is pop-culture real life?

    We forget that work IS real life, and when we leave work real life DOESN'T begin, it's all the same it's just different pieces and different sources of intimacy. Great points Jennifer :)

  • http://www.bflofutsal.com/ryanknapp/ Ryan Knapp

    It's not even about not talking about what you have or your vacation, but it's more about the one-up conversations we all have that go like this.

    “Yeah, I just went away this weekend with my wife, we just went to Toronto, pretty close, nice and cheap.”

    “Oh yeah? We went to Spain on a 10 day cruise through the entire country, stayed at the best hotels”

    The person who responds with the one-up isn't responding to be mean, but they are just making the conversation about them.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Ryan A one-upper? That sounds like a distinct (definitely annoying/rude) personality trait that I'm all too familiar with. So that US News list aside, that personality trait exists personally, professionally, within families and with strangers and I dislike it, so much.

    The person wasn't really listening to you, didn't care to ask how Toronto was and Spain has nothing to do with Toronto so they should have saved that story for a more contextually relevant conversation. And you're right, its about them and I think, very unattractive.

  • http://www.breakingmedia.com/ jonah

    That list is ridiculous. Surely the key question is whether you're bringing up the topic because it's relevant to a conversation you're having, you know, with a consenting adult, or whether you're foisting your views on someone. If I lean over your cubicle wall to announce my political leanings apropos of nothing, you'd have grounds for considering me a little rude (or, more importantly, a little odd). However if we're sitting in, say, the cafeteria chatting about the upcoming election and you mention your predilection for a former Alaskan Governor named Sarah Palin, I think I'm allowed to share my political views (and remove your foodstuffs until you come to your senses.)

    I don't think I'd want to work somewhere where you can't talk about any of those things (penis size is especially important, obviously), that's kind of inhumane. But you can see why it might be worth raising as a topic in this era of oversharing. I do think some people probably need to re-learn the difference between monologue and dialogue.

  • andreavlewis

    If a co-worker started talking about his penis size to me that definitely goes beyond workplace no-no's and boarders on harassment.

    If we all followed that list, we'd only talk about work stuff and maybe Lost if we're lucky. But, more than anything I think comfort and environment plays an important roles in determining which topics you talk about with your co-workers and bosses.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Jonah Agreed, context is important…so is social awareness of those around you and your surroundings.

    Aren't we all entitled to free speech, expressing our views and opinions? With that being said, boundaries and lines are enforced for different (often valid) reasons. I find that instilling fear of expressing yourself, maybe talking about you or something in your personal life (god forbid!) shouldn't be chastised in the work place but you're right, the approach is important.

    This topic is undoubtedly interesting and relevant which is reasonably why the list/article was published in the first place. Also, I love this closing line you wrote: “I do think some people probably need to re-learn the difference between monologue and dialogue.”

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Andrea Oh yes, well taken out of context (a coworker you weren't close with, male–>to female) would definitely be inappropriate. It can be simplified to believing that comfort and your environment help you decide what you talk about, also the level of closeness that may or may not come from your coworkers. Thanks, Andrea!

  • http://twitter.com/dmbosstone Patrick Pho

    This list appears very antiquated for me- a classic example of how Generation X and Y are coming together and struggling to learn how to co-exist.

    My new job is in a place where I am surrounded by tons of people my age and in a very young, hip company we talk about all these things- however I wouldn't be surprised to see how professionalism will play out when it comes to getting the raise or promotion down the line.

  • http://www.opheliaswebb.com Elisa Doucette

    As you mentioned, I think chatting with co-workers about personal stuff depends A LOT on the business. Fortunately while working in “Corporate America” I've always been careful to make sure that I was still working with a small (at most 7 people) team that thrived on it's closeness. When I worked at the start-up agency, well, there were 4 of us within 1000 ft of each other. We couldn't keep stuff from each other if we tried!

    Sharing each other's lives like this only strengthened our working relationship, which in turn makes us a more cohesive team. We meet every morning in my boss' office for the first 15 minutes to drink coffee and chat about the day/night before. It's like taking the “online” relationships you build “offline.” You need to work at culturing the relationships and learning about people to excel in anything.

    Plus, if I'm gonna spend 40 hours a week with the same people, I'd like to talk about more than premiums and marketing ROI. :)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Patrick Antiquated indeed. I would even say that is a list a Boomer might have written because work place etiquette then was also different, where now it has really evolved. I agree that work brings in many emotions, competition, feelings, friendships, etc. so it's a hard balance. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Elisa Your story is great and even from working in “Corporate America” it doesn't change that you're still friends with coworkers, close with them and love the comradeship that is created. I completely agree about the 40+ hours a week, you GOTTA talk about other things or else we would all go crazy. The social aspect can be fulfilling and a nice balance :)

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