You’ve been told that certain conversations are never OK in the workplace — even with your work wife and other close coworkers. But some of the rules surrounding taboo workplace topics were made to be broken. In fact, speaking your truth may even strengthen some of your workplace relationships, reduce your stress and frustrations, and make you a more productive and confident employee. Here’s how to speak up about the following topics — smartly.
Comparing compensation with a coworker was once a faux pas under any circumstances, but career coach Roy Cohen says it doesn’t pay to stay silent about the size of your paycheck: “How else can you know where you stand and your value in the food chain?” Just reserve the conversation for colleagues you have a trusting relationship with and choose words that don’t put the other person on the spot. Cohen suggests a lead-in like, “I was contacted by a recruiter and told I’m grossly underpaid — and now I’m wondering if she’s right.” If the coworker engages in the conversation, you can broach the topic of what you each make and how it stacks up to market value.
2. Pregnancy and Maternity Leave
Your employee benefits handbook probably addresses your company’sformal parental leave policies, and how paid time off is handled for doctor’s appointments and sick kids. But coworkers who have personally experienced these things can be a wealth of information, Cohen says. He suggests privately approaching a few office moms you trust; ask if they’d be willing to speak “off the record” about their maternity leaves, in confidence. If they agree, ask for their opinion on when, how, and with whom to share your pregnancy news, how much extra time off may be available, and whether they were able to negotiate options like working from home or reimbursement for child-care expenses.
3. Sexual Harassment
“Whether you are dealing with an abusive boss or environment, there is power in knowledge,” says Cohen. Plus, you’ll feel less ashamed about an event that may have felt violating when you’re not keeping it a secret. That said, Cohen says this sensitive topic should only be discussed with a person you trust: Approach a mentor or member of the HR department who can advise the best course of action.
4. Overwhelming Job Frustration
Talking about your stress and frustrations with your colleagues may be cathartic for all of you. Better still, it can lead to solutions. “Women are often discouraged from expressing themselves in the workplace when, in fact, they can capitalize on their emotional intelligence,” says Natalie Moore, a holistic psychotherapist who specializes in stress and work issues. To avoid being perceived as a complainer, Moore suggests you take a moment to identify your intention behind any frustration before you share it with your team or boss. Choose terms that are specific and limited to your personal experience only (avoid terms like “we all think”), and always pair it with a possible suggestion for improvement.
Not productive: getting into a shouty dispute with your narrow-minded coworker. Still, Moore argues that because politics have an immense influence on how women are treated in the workplace, there are some topics worth talking about. Think: maternity leave or equal pay. Adhere to common-sense “rules of engagement” and limit the conversation to political events that are relevant to the workplace.
“When two people are having intelligent, productive discourse, both parties are calm and focused,” says Moore. “If you and a colleague are respecting one another’s opinion and discovering creative solutions to problems potentially caused by political issues, this is a win-win. As soon as the tone becomes defensive or aggressive, it’s time to curtail the discussion.”
6. Personal Difficulties
Some topics are always TMI at the office (no one needs to hear about that string of texts from your on-again/off-again hookup). But letting colleagues in on a health diagnosis, a concern you have about your parents or children, or a change in your relationship status that’s making it difficult to focus isn’t necessarily a bad idea. “As much as we like to think we can leave our problems at the door, this is not realistic!” Moore says. “If we are constantly under stress at home, we are more likely to blow up at a coworker or boss.” Limit what you share to the need-to-know information (no gory details) and remember that anything you share could be repeated.