In August 2019, Google issued a new set of community guidelines that banned political discussions at work.
The new policy states, “While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not. Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics. Avoid conversations that are disruptive to the workplace or otherwise violate Google’s workplace policies.”
Talking about politics isn’t the only conversation you should avoid at work. There are plenty of types of work conversations that could cost you your job, so you’ll want to learn how to avoid them if they come up.
Last updated: Nov. 1, 2019
Talking Openly About Wanting To Quit
Even if you’re among co-workers you trust, it’s a bad idea to talk openly about wanting to quit your job, said Dana Case, director of operations at MyCorporation.
“No matter how close you may be with your co-workers or even if you said it out of frustration, it’s best not to discuss something this sensitive in mixed company,” she said. “News of this nature travels quickly through an office grapevine. Before you know it, your manager might find out and will have questions for you.”
“The best approach is to avoid discussing this topic altogether with co-workers,” Case said. “It’s a personal matter that should be kept to yourself and a conversation to have with management when, and if, the time is suitable for it.”
In general, it’s best to avoid any topic that could make your colleagues uncomfortable and raise a flag with human resources. Because religion is such a sensitive topic, it’s one you should not discuss at work.
“You may need to talk to HR or a supervisor if you need accommodation for your religious beliefs, such as time off for religious holidays or a place to pray during the workday,” said Paula Brantner, an employment attorney and principal at PB Work Solutions. “But when it comes to your co-workers, no one wants to be proselytized to at work since you’re compelled to be there, and it’s harder to politely decline.”
“Although religious discrimination is illegal, you also need to be focused on your job while at work, so don’t spend time engaged in religious conversations,” she said. “And don’t engage in discrimination against or harass other workers in violation of federal, state, and/or local law because they don’t share the same beliefs or have individual characteristics that you don’t agree with.”
Discussing Your Home Life or Marital Issues
Leave any issues you have with your home life at home, said Baron Christopher Hanson, lead consultant and owner of RedBaronUSA.
“News about your home life or any litigious matters you or a spouse may be facing can spread … or reveal weaknesses that competitors and foes in any workplace may use against you,” he said.
Airing Out Workplace Secrets
“Any workplace secrets — marketing plans, financial strategies or legal disputes — that your company is dealing with should never be discussed in public where details may be overheard, recorded or distributed digitally in nanoseconds,” said Hanson.
“In today’s modern world, communication comes at us seemingly from every direction — other people, our computers and especially our smartphones. Private texts and conversations can be seen or heard over our shoulders like never before, even on the train home from work when you think no one is really listening or seeing what you type.”
Discussing Health Issues
As with your home life, discussions about your health don’t belong in the office. Talking openly about a medical issue should not cost you your job, but it can make co-workers feel uneasy.
Telling your co-workers that you had a routine dental appointment isn’t necessarily an issue. Still, you might want to hold off on discussing serious medical problems, Annette Harris, president and founder of personal branding agency ShowUp!, told HuffPost.
“Similar to marital problems, people often just don’t know how to react or respond in a work environment,” she said.
Gossiping About Other Co-Workers
You probably won’t like every person you work with, but you should definitely keep those thoughts to yourself, said business coach Stacy Caprio.
“Don’t discuss other people in the office negatively,” she said. “This paints a worse picture of you than the people you’re talking about and can hurt your own reputation and friendships in the office.”
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Badmouthing Your Employer
When you’re frustrated by the way your employer is doing things, your first inclination might be to vent about it to whatever sympathetic ear is available, but this isn’t a good idea.
“If you have concerns about the company, its business strategy, leadership or your boss, it is best to express your concerns to the right person or people who can have these issues addressed instead of ranting and gossiping to your colleagues about it,” said Rhys Williams, managing director at Sigma Recruitment. “Badmouthing your employer really sets a precedent for a toxic and demoralizing workplace.”
Talking About Getting Drunk
Although drinking is not illegal (as long as you are 21), talking about routinely getting drunk can raise a red flag to current or prospective employers.
“I’ll never forget an interview conversation I once overheard during which the candidate jokingly said that she likes to go get drunk with clients at lunchtime,” Jenny Foss, founder and CEO of JobJenny.com, wrote on TheMuse. “I don’t know with certainty what happened from there, but the look on the person across the table’s face suggested that this may well have been the last conversation.”
Depending on what you say and how you say it, talking about sex can be considered harassment.
“Unless you’re employed as a sex worker whose job it is to talk about sex, don’t do it at work,” said Brantner. “Even something you consider innocuous and inoffensive could be considered unwanted by another person. It’s not relevant to work, so talk about it on your own time, far away from the workplace.”
Badmouthing Your Last Job
If you talk badly about your last employer, your current employer could feel like you might do the same thing to them.
“Even if someone had a truly horrifying experience in their previous industry or job, they should still be able to talk about their past employers in a positive way,” Jason Carney, human resources director for WorkSmart Systems, told HuffPost. By ranting about how much you hated your previous job, you might give the impression that you don’t take responsibility for your actions and can’t find the lessons in challenging circumstances.
Talking Openly About Illegal Activities
When you get comfortable with your co-workers, you might start talking about things you’ve done or are currently doing that are illegal. It might be something as small as placing sports bets — which is illegal in many places — to experimenting with drugs.
Sharing this information can put your co-workers in an uncomfortable position, or it could just put them off. It might seem like a no-brainer, but your best bet is to keep these details to yourself.
Telling Crude Jokes
Joking about sex, politics, religion or any other hot-button topic should be avoided. Even when you are “just kidding,” your co-workers might feel like you are crossing the line.
“‘Blue’ jokes are not appropriate for the workplace,” wrote former Forbes contributor Liz Ryan. “Corny ‘dad jokes’ are perfect for work.”
Talking About Your Career Aspirations When They're Outside Your Current Industry
Ellen Mullarkey, vice president of business development at Messina Group Staffing, said you should avoid talking about your career aspirations at work, especially if those aspirations lay outside of your current industry.
“Throughout my career, I’ve known a number of folks who were starting their own businesses outside of work, and were planning to quit at some point,” she said. “While I applaud anyone for pursuing their dreams, you never want to give your coworkers the impression that you’re more focused on your other job. If your numbers start to drop and your performance comes into question, that’s the first thing people are going to point to.”
Sharing How Much You Make
Discussing your salary might not cause you to get fired, but it could ruffle some feathers.
“People shouldn’t talk about how much they earn with their co-workers,” said Raj Vardhman, co-founder of GoRemotely.net. “Imagine how bad your co-workers would feel if they found out they’re paid less than you, or how you would you feel to know you’re paid less than your co-workers for the same job. These situations can create a hazardous work environment where team spirit dies, and resentment of co-workers is palpable.”
Lying About Your Skill Set
You might be tempted to inflate your skills or experience when being interviewed for a job or being considered for a promotion. But if you lie about what you’re capable of doing and aren’t able to do what you have promised, you might end up losing your job.
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How To Avoid These Conversations
You might not bring these topics up yourself, but what happens if a co-worker approaches you to talk about a taboo subject? GOBankingRates asked the experts how to stay out of the fray without ruining your relationships with your colleagues.
Verbally Shut Down the Conversation
If you find yourself caught in an off-limits conversation, remember that you can take steps to shut it down.
“Blurting out modern euphemisms such as ‘TMI,’ ‘Let’s not go there,’ or ‘Yeah, we’re done here,’ are helpful colloquialisms that verbally shut down such conversations,” said Hanson.
Recommend They Speak To Someone Else
If a co-worker is airing workplace grievances, Williams said to suggest they speak to someone who could actually address the issue.
“If a colleague starts speaking ill of the company or boss, instead of chipping in and fueling the fire, simply say something like, ‘I see how that might be a problem for you, but I am not well-placed to deal with it. Why don’t you express your concerns with your manager or the boss as they would be best placed to address this issue,'” he said.
Change the Subject
When a troubling conversation starts to brew, you can also try to redirect it.
“If a political topic comes up in the office, I recommend changing the topic to more neutral grounds,” said Vardhman.
Suggest Keeping the Discussion Outside of Work
If a co-worker wants to discuss their career goals outside of their current job, suggest they save their conversation for outside of the workplace, said Mullarkey.
“Outside of work, I love hearing about what my co-workers’ lives are like,” she said. “But if they started talking about starting their own company or the career they actually wanted, I’d just say, ‘Not now. We should talk about this outside of work.'”
Openly Express Your Discomfort
If something a co-worker says makes you feel uncomfortable, be upfront about it. Say something like, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this right now. Can we talk about something else?”
Don’t feel obligated to participate in a conversation; remember that you have a choice in whether or not to engage.
“Just because someone else decides to overshare or ‘go there’ does not mean you must respond or partake,” said Hanson. “Turning and walking away is the best way to remove oneself from the water cooler overshare session.”
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About the Author
Gabrielle joined GOBankingRates in 2017 and brings with her a decade of experience in the journalism industry. Before joining the team, she was a staff writer-reporter for People Magazine and People.com. Her work has also appeared on E! Online, Us Weekly, Patch, Sweety High and Discover Los Angeles, and she has been featured on “Good Morning America” as a celebrity news expert.