The average worker in the United States puts in 34.4 hours at the office each week. And for several countries, that number is even higher.

With so much of our lives spent around our coworkers, it’s inevitable that we build familiarity, if not outright friendships, with these people. However, while these relationships can help ease the burden of your average work day, becoming overly familiar in the workplace can open the door to several issuesfrom as small as hurt feelings to as large as company-ending lawsuits.

In the moment, a casual conversation between two long-time coworkers may seem innocent, or at worst a tad risqu€_å©, but those exchanged words can have long-ranging impact not only to the employees involved, but also anyone who hears them and your business as a whole.

What Subjects Should Be Avoided?

1. Religion

Most people take few things more seriously than their personal religious beliefs, and when those beliefs are trivialized or criticized in the workplace, it can irreparably change how an employee feels about their job, their coworkers, and their company. Even worse, if these comments originate from a manager or someone in a position of authority, they’re likely to be mentioned in a future discrimination lawsuit.

2. Politics

In case you’ve been in a coma for the past year, politics can be polarizing. Unless your organization is a political party or action committee, these types of discussions should probably be held outside of work hours.

Of course, if recent or pending litigation will affect your organization or how you do business, these issues should obviously be discussed. But your safest optionif your company wants to avoid an ongoing debate among its staffis to discuss these subjects as objectively as possible.

3. Sex

Over the course of 2016, the U.S. Equal employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received over 6,700 claims of sexual harassment, resulting in roughly $40.7 million in direct settlements. And a number of these incidents were due to inappropriate workplace conversations about sex.

While it’s natural for your employees to discuss their personal relationships with “friends from work,” there’s a clear line between mentioning a significant other and describing the more intimate details of a relationship. Similarly, conversations about more graphic forms of entertainmentsuch as certain bestselling novelsshould probably be avoided while on the clock.

4. Medical conditions

Employee medical information is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), so any discussions regarding a staff member’s health or ability should only be discussed with the employee and their managerand only if the conversation is job-related and based on the position’s specific requirements.

State or local laws may further regulate health conversations, so prepare thoroughly before beginning discussions of this type.

5. Retirement plans

In 2016, 22.8 percent of all discrimination claims reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were age-based. And according to research conducted by the AARP, 64 percent of workers aged 55 or older claim to have experienced age discrimination while on the job.

While older employees can readily volunteer their thoughts about future retirement, managers should steer clear of initiating discussions surrounding this topic. Any perceived pressure to retire on the part of the employeewhether intended or otherwisecould potentially result in an unpleasant age discrimination suit.

How Can Your Business Respond?

Admittedly, these conversations are happening every day in workplaces across every industry. Your business needs to be proactive in communicating to front-line staff and managers what is and is not appropriate for the workplace.

Establish corporate policy that not only clearly defines appropriate behavior but also outlines the consequences of violating these rules. Ongoing training can further equip managers and employees to recognize these problem conversations before they start and steer the discussion to a less volatile topic.

To learn more about how we can help your business create a healthier and more welcoming environment for all of your employees, request a demo of our harassment and discrimination prevention courses today.

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