Workforce.com

Drama Discussions a Drag for Workers and a Bother for Bosses

Of the nearly 300 corporate executives, managers and employees who took a recent survey, nearly 40 percent said sex and relationships were the most taboo workplace topic.

December 4, 2012

Too much information might be the norm for reality TV, but employees and their managers say they are no fans of the drama drummed up by discussions of sex, romance and office intrigues in the workplace.

A survey by Seattle-based leadership development and training company Fierce Inc. found that reality TV aside, sex and relationships are what people least want to talk about at work.

Of the nearly 300 corporate executives, managers and employees who took the survey this fall, nearly 40 percent said sex and relationships were the most taboo workplace topic.

While they may seem all ears, nearly 15 percent of respondents say they're least interested in hearing about either office gossip or co-workers' compensation.

Religion and politics also are topics best taken off the table. Of the survey respondents, 13 percent say they're least interested in hearing about religion and 9 percent don't want to hear their co-workers' political views.

At the same time, 80 percent of respondents don't want their conversations policed.

So what's a manager to do?

Kim Bohr, senior vice president of client development at Fierce, urges leaders to "create an environment and culture where employees can be honest and open in discussing these things," and allow employees to agree to disagree.

Pamela Garber, a licensed mental health counselor inNew Yorkwho counsels many clients with workplace issues, says sometimes it's the type of discussion, rather than the topic of discussion, that's the real issue. "Often, it's not the actual topic, but the intensity and emotion in the delivery."

Charles Purdy, senior editor at Monster.com and author of "Urban Etiquette: Marvelous Manners for the Modern Metropolis," says it's normal for employees to have friends in the workplace, but it's important that they confine personal discussions to breaks and locations outside the office environment. Sharing too many intimate details could be offensive to others, or even actionable.

Some subjects—such as sharing intimate sexual details or major marriage problems—should be off-limits, Purdy says.

He doesn't see anything wrong with discussing religion or politics, but managers need to make sure the conversations don't devolve into name calling or denigrating those who have different views. He compares it to proper etiquette at a family meal. "It's not rude to discuss politics at the dinner table. It's rude to have angry arguments at the dinner table."

Banning certain topics is bound to fail, Bohr says, and employees will discuss hot-button issues, whether it's formally allowed or not.

She recommends training for employees so they can skillfully talk about topics that might otherwise raise red flags. "Discussing personal issues like religion really can enrich relationships with co-workers and build trust."

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.