What Not To Talk About at Work

I should start an advice column. But in the meantime, here’s another question that might be useful to answer. A young woman recently asked me what topics she should avoid talking about at work.

Of course, there are the basics that are good to avoid whether at a dinner party, your family holiday gathering or work -- politics and religion. Here are a few more.

What not to talk about:

·      Bodies. As I’ve mentioned before, when we talk about our bodies or the bodies of other women we play into cultural stereotypes that how we look has any bearing on how we do our job. Don’t talk about being on a diet, what you eat, what other people should eat, whether someone has gained or lost weight. Your conversation about your enthusiasm for Pilates may be seen as a commentary on weight by someone who is not physically fit. A woman once came for a job interview with me, and when she saw a plate that had meat and cheese she became enraged and told me at great length that she was a vegetarian, opposed to hunting, and couldn’t consume any food that had been in contact with dead flesh. There is nothing wrong with any of those beliefs, but a job interview was not the venue for sharing a harsh critique of anyone who didn’t share those beliefs. She could simply have refused the food, or even said she was a vegetarian, without the lecture.

·      Being tired. Like Ani Defranco says “nobody got enough sleep.” No one wants to hear that you are tired or hung-over. The same goes for being sick.

·      How much work you have. If you have too much work, talk to your manager about prioritizing, but don’t complain. Workplace martyrs are a plague, don’t be one.

·      Relationship problems. Just don’t. Your dating adventures, your latest fling, your husband’s video game habit – not pertinent.

·      Other people. This is the hardest, since gossip is a social glue for many. Don’t talk negatively about anyone anywhere at work. Vent to your family and friends outside of the office, but watch your mouth at work. A good rule of thumb is not to say anything about anyone that you wouldn’t say if they were right there. Don’t think that because you are a manager you have license to talk trash about the people you manage. A real management discussion should be brief, specific, and have action items. If it lasts longer than seven minutes, you’re most likely gossiping under the guise of managing.

Areas to watch.

·      Your children and family. My children were young in the 90s and I was working with people who had spouses and nannies – I had neither. I chose to be quiet about needing to leave the office to catch a soccer game or take a kid to the dentist. I was working in sales at the time, and often out of the office, so I was able to get away with it. A last minute business trip was a terror – trying to arrange overnight childcare was really hard, but I never refused a trip if I could help it. I made a decision not to talk too much about my family obligations, for fear it would be a liability. I hope it’s different now, but I don’t think it is. If you work for someone who has a spouse at home, or a nanny, or has no children, realize that talking about your parental duties should be done judiciously. The same applies if you have a sick parent or other family member who needs your care. Take care of your family, avail yourself of leave or paid time off, but realize many corporations are ruthless in their assessment of any family obligations, especially for women. A man will be lauded for being a good father, a woman risks being discounted as not really having her head in the game. If you are fortunate enough to have a boss or company culture that is more accommodating, count yourself lucky and value that as much as your salary or other benefits. They are few and far between.

Things you can talk about at work that you’ve been told you can’t.

·      Money. While every employer tells you not to talk about salary or compensation, I think you can. If you trust someone, you can ask about how much you should be making, what the standard is for your level and experience at that company. Part of the reason women are paid less than men is that women don’t know what they should be paid, and they only way to find out is to know what other people get paid. Be careful, but you can talk about this. It only helps the companies we work for to keep this silence, not us.

·      Sexual harassment. If you are being sexually harassed, talk to HR, or management. But where appropriate you can talk to other women about men that are unsafe at work. Again, be cautious, only talk about what you know from your own experience or observation, but giving a young co-worker a heads up that she shouldn’t work late with a senior male manager because he’s known to harass women is right and appropriate. People talk about a “whisper network.” I prefer a “shout network.” When I know for certain that particular men create a hostile work environment for women, I am under no obligation to protect them by keeping that secret from someone who is considering working for or hiring that person.

·      Racism. That same rule applies for racist or other discriminatory comments – you should, especially if you are white, say something. Don’t laugh at offensive jokes. Don’t participate. Call it out. If you’re in leadership, don’t tolerate this kind of behavior, speak up immediately and address it with the person who said the awful thing as well as their manager and HR. This should be a zero tolerance zone, and we as white people are the ones who need to speak up.


Sometimes you’ll make real friends at work. I met my best friend at an agency almost 20 years ago. Then these rules don’t apply. But for most of my career I’ve recognized that real friendship in the cutthroat world of corporate culture is the exception rather than the rule, and I’ve been cautious about trusting or confiding in people I work with until they have established beyond a doubt that they are worthy of that trust. It has served me well.

Time Swagger

The "Angry" Woman At Work - Conflict Tool Kit