After years of strict and conservative workplace cultures, the dawn of humane, loose and friendly atmospheres has finally come. Instead of suits and ironed white shirts a lot of employers let their employees wear comfortable jeans and even Metallica T-shirts, use informal language and enjoy similar perks. However, the emerging popularity of relaxed company culture does not mean that some topics, considered to be taboos, are suddenly up for open discussion.
What you should not talk about at work
According to common regulation, an employer cannot ask about private issues, such as political attitude, sexual orientation, religion, the employee’s plan regarding maternity, and so on. Basically, anything that could lead to any form of discrimination, which is prohibited by law.
The EU legislation took some major actions to prevent these topics to circulate. For instance, the Race Directive (2000/43/EC) and the Framework Directive (2000/78/EC) were developed to frame anti-discrimination under the Amsterdam Treaty in 2000. All EU Member States were required to implement through appropriate laws and regulations the Race Directive by 19 July 2003 and the Framework Directive by 2 December 2003. The Race Directive protects from discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin, while the Framework Directive provides protection from discrimination in a much broader sense, as it protects people identified by religion or belief, sexual orientation, disability and age.
Topics covered by anti-discrimination legislation are taboos at every aspect of employment relationship – from recruitment, working conditions such as monthly salary, working time, working place, benefits, access and content of company learning and development, career promotions, access to company information, processes, participation at company events, engagement at trade unions and, finally, terminations of employees.
Naturally, these restrictions were implemented to ensure workplace equality and security, to protect employees from harm on human honour, prejudice, injustice, intolerance and further offenses.
What you should be talking about at work
If you experience any harm targeted at you, which is otherwise prohibited by company policy, you are encouraged to speak up and let the person in charge know about what is happening. Therefore, in fact, you can talk about taboos, and preferably openly, but go for the proper audience. For instance, if you know about an ongoing bullying in your company, you should discuss it with the department manager, HR worker, company lawyer without any delay, to protect the victim immediately. You should not go after the offender and try to solve things by yourself. Commonly, labour laws obligate the employer to inform the employees about what to do when they experience discrimination, mobbing, molesting, bullying or even sexual harassment. They are also in charge of all the procedures to prevent these cases.
Generally, if there is a formal process set, like a committee for solving topics stated in discrimination legislation, then the impacted employee should follow the formal process. If not, the employee should contact the official authority in the company.
Kitchen talks and gossips about real, current cases usually result in the issue not treated properly, or since they are murmured among four walls the management or HR do not learn about them. That poses a real threat for the victim and the employees, as the offender is free to continue with the delinquent behaviour even towards others. On the other hand, these relaxed discussions can be very helpful when the issues are discussed generally, without any real offense happening in the background, as they raise awareness about bullying, discrimination and violating company policy among employees while e.g. taking a break. So, in a nutshell: general talks about discrimination where no one is being harmed – and the discussion has more of an educational nature – are beneficial and encouraged until a real issue happens. In that case, run to an official authority who can take care of it and solve the problem.
Be careful of your tone
When you are expressing your opinion and how you feel about things, make sure you hit a positive tone and your words have a positive impact. Keep negativity for the right person and do not share, for example, your dissatisfaction related to work among colleagues when you can discuss it directly with your manager, who can solve the problem. Negative complaints and attitude can influence and turn the mindset even of those employees who had no previous bad experiences at work, and when unsolved issues are growing and spreading, they blow up like a bubble gum and are difficult to solve after a time.
Regarding denigration and criticizing, the basic rule of human decency (not only at work, but also in everyday life) is not to speak about a third person without their presence. Do not talk bad about people behind their back. It violates the anti-discrimination policy of most workplaces and can quickly put the spotlight on you as an offender.
The consequences of bad-mouthing
In case of discrimination or offenses between employee and employer (or among employees) there is a special vice-versa burden of proof valid specifically for anti-discrimination legislation, where the offender is obliged to prove that he did not discriminated the other and did not breach the Equal Treatment Principle. This unique burden of proof is applicable only in cases of discrimination. Other ways of proving are achieved by collecting descriptions of the processes, explanations, interrogating witnesses and collecting evidence. After proving the delinquency of the offender, they either receive a Breach of discipline in written reminder or Serious Breach of discipline in written form followed with the termination of employment contract. The consequences for the victim are not formally determined, but the person could suffer from psychological problems or feel ashamed. In that case, the employer should help him to cope with the negative feelings in such a difficult period. If the offended employee requests financial compensation, usually they need to sue the offender officially via state institutions.
There might be cases when someone else is falsely accusing you of offending, harassing or discriminating someone. In that case, you can ask for the list of specific actions you were accused of. Then you can work with the manager and HR department to provide open explanations of how these actions arose. You should deliver the proves if possible – email communications, ask witnesses for help, ask IT for help in case of chat communication or when emails have been deleted, ask for camera recordings from public areas like hallways, elevators if they are relevant to the case, and so on. The person, who falsely accused you, should face the consequences for their actions.
Don’t be shy to ask someone in the kitchen about their day, about the framed picture of the dog on their desk, compliment the colour of their tie or ask silly questions like what flavour of cupcake they would be.
Easy topics and common conversations
Besides the difficult subjects, there are a lot of easy topics you are free to talk about. For instance, you are encouraged to interact with your colleagues and make a stronger bond with them through harmless, kind communication. Don’t be shy to ask someone in the kitchen about their day, about the framed picture of the dog on their desk, compliment the colour of their tie or ask silly questions like what flavour of cupcake they would be. The friendlier the atmosphere is among employees, the smaller is the probability that there would be a case of discrimination or other offenses.
Sometimes, you might get into a situation where a person does not mean to straightforward harm you, but you do not like the tone they use, the words they chose or the things they say to you. In these situations, calmly express your dislike and kindly ask the person to stop. Similarly, if you feel like someone is trying to explore topics you feel uncomfortable about, tell them you do not wish to talk about it. No one should be forced to speak about things that makes them uneasy. Do not forget though that your words can be harmful to someone else. Be considerate and sensible, apologize if you feel the other person was offended and try to come to good terms with them.
To sum it up, you are free to talk about anything that does not violate company policy, cause harm on human honour, offends someone else or makes them uncomfortable. On the other hand, it is mostly encouraged to speak to the right person when you experience these issues. Before speaking about general topics, think about whether you would mind if someone else approached you with the same subject. If you find something offensive, chances are others see it that way too. It is that simple – now go and make some friends while making a cup of coffee.