Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

What Are the Biggest Taboos at Work?

October 5th, 2009 | Bob Rosner

Last week, I was watching George Carlin on HBO. I started thinking about his famous list of the seven things you can’t say on television. So this week I’m going to present the Workplace911 variation on Carlin’s list — a list of five taboo words for today’s workplace. 

The first taboo in today’s workplace is the word “felony.” Corporations don’t like prison records. However, ex-offenders don’t need to worry too much, because this will change for two reasons. First, the dramatic increase of executives who visit the big house. If these guys keep getting arrested, every head honcho is going to have a rap sheet, and they have to work somewhere.

OK, Martha Stewart hasn’t gone out and hired a bunch of her former prison bunk mates to work at her company. But she has been speaking out about ex-offenders as potential contributors to society. And over time this will have an impact. That leads to the second reason why some of the sting may come out of the word felony at work. Though there are 44 million Gen-Xers in the workforce, they are greatly outnumbered by the 76 million baby boomers who will start planning for retirement in the next couple of decades. We’ll have to run our economy while millions of workers worry more about weekends and Winnebagos than their work. Something’s got to give, and the modern workforce is going to have to get creative to find new workers. I predict that with more than two million incarcerated in the U.S. and a dwindling supply of workers, ex-offenders will become more common around the office.

The second taboo at work is not a word but an acronym: “TMI” — too much information. This can apply to all manner of information, but of particular note is the often uncomfortable revealing of personal medical situations. People don’t want to hear about your medical challenges, your itchy rash, your surgery or your prostate, etc. Yes, the practice of avoiding running your mouth and disclosing TMI rules at work today.  Find a therapist, a mate or a relative who really cares about the medical details of your life. But don’t share it with your coworkers, because hearing about those things makes them uneasy and can make work an uncomfortable place to be.

The third taboo at work revolves around the word “relationships.” Don’t go there. People don’t want to hear about your marital or relationship problems. Through the years I can’t believe how many people have shared intimate information about their relationships with me. Call me a prude, but I think pillow talk should be reserved for conversations that actually take place over pillows.

The fourth taboo is the word “why.” As in “Why did you…” “Why do we…” Most corporations don’t take kindly to being asked this simple question. Sure, there are bosses who can handle it. I just think that they are rarer than most people think. Sometimes it’s better to just bite your tongue and forge ahead with an assignment, even if you’re not totally sure about the outcome. People who constantly question the worth of a project or a boss’s decision often get tagged as malcontents. So be careful when you drag out the “W” word.

And finally, the fifth taboo — “bravado.” 

Most of us learn at a very early age that we are never to show weakness or vulnerability at work. Bravado is the way; do what you can and fake what you can’t. I personally believe that the lack of vulnerability weakens organizations because it prevents real connection and real interactions between people.

If I had a magic wand I’d hope that we could all do a much better job of being more vulnerable at work. Sure it’s tough, but isn’t it time that we all brought a bit more humanity to our jobs? And what better way is there to do this than being genuine and vulnerable with the people we work with? So stash that bravado and learn to show a softer side — it will humanize you in the eyes of your coworkers and probably encourage them to do the same.

My five taboo words at work — felony, TMI, relationships, why and bravado. I’d love to hear yours.

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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