Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

What Are the Biggest Taboos at Work?

January 11th, 2010 | Bob Rosner

Image: Bob RosnerI was flipping around the channel and came across George Carlin’s last comedy special 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 a work 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.

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. Of course I left layoff off the list. Just too painful to go there right now. I’d love to hear your suggestions.

About the Author: 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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