{the lessons} On Being Safe for Work

by Rachel on August 22, 2012

Yesterday, I had an epic two-hour long chat with my boss.

My boss and I get along very well. During my initial interview 18 months ago, it was apparent that we really just got each other. We have a lot in common, despite the fact that he’s a white, septuagenarian Christian and I’m, well, not. Every time we talk, I feel like I learn a little bit more about the world, about relationships, and about being a good person, and I really look up to him. A few months ago, knowing that he does pre-marital counseling (along with riding to work on his motorcycle, flying his own plane, and a lot of other awesome things), I asked him if he could recommend a secular or not-uber-religious pre-marital counselor for Eric and me. He said he’d look into it, but we happened to find one in the meantime (first session is tomorrow!). Still, he knows I value his opinion on things of this nature.

Yesterday, he asked me if I had a second (I did), and then said he wanted to share something about relationships that he’d come across during his Bible study the day before. Knowing that neither Eric nor I are Christian, he also knew I’d be interested in hearing it anyway, because I like good advice, and I’m down with hearing Bible passages in certain contexts. After he shared it, we got talking some more, and somehow proceeded to talk for another two hours about relationships, religion, and so much more. It was a very candid conversation, but just what I needed yesterday; Eric and I have begun to start planning our wedding and the discussion about the guest list has been (like it is for a lot of people) really emotional. By the time I left his office, I just felt really good — smarter, more grounded, more positive about everything — and yet when I tried to explain it to another friend, I realized…Gosh, as I’m explaining what we talked about, it sounds kind of kooky and probably inappropriate, if not illegal. And yet I felt totally happy about the conversation.

Later, over dinner, Eric was telling me how his coworkers had been having a conversation near his desk that made him really uncomfortable. He didn’t say anything to them, but he was regretting it. Their conversation was inappropriate for work and calling them out would have been totally warranted. Still, it’s hard to be That Guy at work, even when you know you’d be justified.

Both of these exchanges made me think about how we decide what is an appropriate topic of conversation with coworkers.

My office is so small; with some of our team telecommuting, it’s just a small number of us there most days. Everyone has his own office except for myself and my two coworkers, Jacob and Jesse. Our desks are spread out around the large open area of the office, but we’re close enough to stand up and talk to each other whenever the mood strikes. Beyond that, we IM each other throughout the day with interesting tidbits of information, walk to lunch together nearly every day, and take a walk to the nearby gas station for some fresh air, snacks, and a mental break every afternoon. We spend a lot of time together and in such a small office, it’s hard not to talk about everything; over time, we’ve become really close. Our relationship is very familial. We seek each other’s advice, we share ideas for new projects, we give each other pep talks when we’re feeling bummed creatively, we talk about the really big things in life, we have healthy debates on controversial topics, we preach to each other about controversial topics we all agree on, and we sometimes bicker and have to make up. I feel like my brain grows bigger every day from talking to these two, and I honestly can’t imagine what my life or my worldview would be like at this point without having had these conversations. We’re…friends.

And yet. We’re still coworkers. We aren’t exactly friends. There are still lines that can be crossed and sometimes I worry about that. I don’t want to be the coworker who suddenly makes things uncomfortable, who puts someone else in the position where they are wondering if they should say, “Hey, that’s not cool,” or if they should just skip that step and talk to a superior. I wonder if we’re being foolish, if these conversations are ones that could be used against us if things suddenly went sour. I don’t think any of us has ever said anything that crossed the line, but then again, I’m guessing that’s what everyone thinks until HR comes for them.

I tend to err on the side of “Everyone is going to be offended by me” until I know otherwise. With Jesse and Jacob, I began to get clues that they wouldn’t be, and at some point, we all began dipping a toe into the “this might be an awkward topic” pool. Once we started to see that the water was fine, we got more comfortable just cannon balling in. The same thing happened between Biff and me. Sill, I can’t have the same conversations with all of my other coworkers or bosses, because they wouldn’t be fine in every case, and if we got a new employee, I’d feel like I needed to start the process all over again. For me, figuring out what’s OK to say and what should be avoided has been a slow, careful process.

I recently read the Kindle Single Beware Dangerism!, which argues that if we don’t let kids take risks, they won’t learn to assess situations and actually be able to protect themselves when they need to. It left me wondering if we are doing the same thing at work or even with friends; if we aren’t ever allowed to talk about certain things a frank and open way with people who come from different backgrounds than we do, then it’s harder to learn what crosses the line or understand why exactly it does. I’m not saying that everything is an OK work topic, because it’s definitely not, and I’d never want to subject anyone to a conversation that upset them or hurt them or made them feel trapped. I’m just wondering if we’re missing an opportunity to learn from each other if we aren’t “allowed” to say certain things without the fear making someone feel uncomfortable or getting sued. Still, it’s a fine line to walk when one person’s lunchtime conversation is another person’s hostile work environment.

How do you handle this?

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jenn August 22, 2012 at 9:47 am

ooh, this is a good question. i’m the youngest in my office by 16 years (i’m 22, just for a frame of reference) and i’ve discussed a variety of topics with my boss (who is 59 and the complete opposite of me) AFTER asking vague questions, like “did you hear the news about paul ryan this weekend?” (ok, maybe a poor example, but i did ask this..)
i find that their response allows for me to gauge where the remainder of the conversation is going – if they’re almost curt in their answer, it’s probably a topic i wouldn’t want to get into with them.


2 Rachel August 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Yes, that’s definitely how I started testing the waters at first too…current events are a great jumping-off point!


3 Caity @ Moi Contre La Vie August 22, 2012 at 10:03 am

This is SUCH a great topic. I see both yours & Eric’s sides of this completely.

When I started my first job (just hit 7 years!) I was 22 and it was really really important to me that I be taken seriously so I dressed, behaved & acted in a textbook “corporate-appropriate” manner. And it worked, I was promotted quickly & the partners think highly of me & my professionalism. BUT I will never be the “fun one” at work and it took me years to break through my own boundaries and other people’s initial opinions of me to make close friends at work. Out of a 200 person global company (100+ in SF) I’d say I have 3 real, close friends and everyone else is just a colleague.

That’s the way that I wanted things and I’m glad that I didn’t use my youth or looks as playing cards when I joined the financial industry right out of school, but in a different environment – a more social industry/smaller office/no HR department/less hierarchical internal structure – I probably would have played things very differently.


4 Laura August 22, 2012 at 1:33 pm

This is the approach I’ve taken in my current job too. In my first job, I feel like I was little bit less circumspect (because I was dumb and I was right out of college). My analyst class felt like just the next step post-college, and while I never made any big mistakes, I was definitely a lot closer with my colleagues and shared a lot about my personal life.

When I moved firms, I also brought a MUCH more professional approach. I don’t like to discuss who I’m dating or other weekend things, though I will discuss hobbies and such. I don’t go out with my coworkers as much as I probably should, but that’s in large part because I’m completely burnt out on traveling for work and don’t want to ruin my weekend by not resting up during the week. I know I am not the “fun one” on my team, and up until just a few weeks ago, that really bothered me – it was my old identity and I missed it. But I’ve started realizing that as long as I’m polite to my coworkers, the close buddy-buddy relationships aren’t necessary – and are probably better saved for outside the workplace anyway.

Now, I hear/see analysts at the same stage I was once in, and it drives me batty. I can’t believe I used to do that, and I wish someone would have told me to quit it. (That said, I haven’t gotten up the nerve to say something to them, since they’re my colleague’s direct reports and not mine.) I think the most important skill you can build in business is self-awareness. With some clients, I tell a lot more personal stuff (or at least, personal stuff that doesn’t matter much to me but may seem more intimate); with others, we only discuss NYT/WSJ/sports/weather/etc. I think it’s critical to be able to read the expressions on other people’s faces when you’re speaking, and that’s what I wish these analysts would learn (as I eventually did). You should always copy your superiors, not your peers.


5 Rachel August 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm

“You should always copy your superiors, not your peers.” That is fantastic advice!


6 deva by definition August 22, 2012 at 10:24 am

I have a couple work-friends, who will talk about things that I talk about with regular friends, but we try to keep the conversation lighter – more superficial. If it’s something that could make someone feel uncomfortable, we all keep it to ourselves – that’s what I have non-work friends for. I use the same rules for my blog as I do for at work: is this something I would share with grandma? If no, I keep it to myself. I try to act extremely professional and had a coworker who is a friend tell me that her impressions of me were one way, but after getting to know me she realized that is work me, not real me.

Our guest list making was really emotional. We want a smaller wedding and it was hard to get to that number – my family is big, his is not, so our guest list is a bit unfairly balanced, which has made me cry more than once.


7 Liz @ iheartvegetables August 22, 2012 at 11:01 am

My office is huge, and I think for me, it depends on the co-worker and the audience. I still try to make sure that no topic of conversation would make anyone uncomfortable, but for me, it’s more about making jokes. Some people don’t quite have the same sense of humor. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at judging people’s sense of humor, but I tend to err on the side of caution


8 Rain August 22, 2012 at 11:04 am

I just heard something on talk radio about the Dangerism topic. It’s interesting.
I wonder if the boundaries we put on ourselves or others hinders or helps in certain situations. And it obviously, as you explained above, goes beyond what we let our children say or do, but about what we as adults do in our social or work situations.

I think I always err on the side of I am going to offend someone…just in case. And I think like you I test the waters to see how a person is about things. I think that’s all you can do. I know not everyone gets everyone’s humor or personality so I do think you have to tread lightly.

And one more thing :)

As for whether you say something or not when something at work is inappropriate…well I think I feel like Eric if I don’t…I start to question it a little, and maybe wish I did say something. My co workers are used to me speakign my mind if I think they are going overboard about something inappropriate…and you can guess the things they talk about since they are mostly men!


9 Katrina August 22, 2012 at 11:06 am

I work at a Christian organization, where group devotionals, prayer time, and worship services are part of our weekly schedule. Because of this, my team is VERY candid about our lives, our successes, our struggles, and our faith. I’ve shared deeply personal things with my team so they could pray for me/my family and vice versa. I’ve cried in front of them. I’ve revealed deeply private things. I’ve supported them, and they’ve supported me. Not everyone at my office is this way — but our team is, and I feel that opening up and sharing these things is encouraged, and has truly brought us closer.

That being said, I have worked for several companies where this is NOT the case. Your personal life stays at home, and you don’t share anything about your life outside of the office. Talk about a stark contrast!

At the end of the day, I think it comes down to being a perceptive, intelligent person. After being in a specific professional environment for a while, you’ll just KNOW what’s appropriate and what isn’t. You’ll also be able to gage who is comfortable engaging in these conversations and who isn’t. It’s all about reading people, and knowing what is on/off-limits for your office as well as each of your various co-workers.


10 Aj August 22, 2012 at 11:32 am

This. I’m finally at a job-job where I plan on staying for the majority, if not entirety, of my career. So making good relationships with co-workers is a priority. And let me say, I adore my co-workers! Even though R no longer works here (for now), I think my co-workers are some of the best people I’ve met since moving to LA. That said as a junior in many ways (new to this office, early career level) I am always careful to play it safe and follow others’ leads. But now my supervisor is a good friend and texting me for gossip and outfit decisions and yesterday two co-workers and I went for a run/walk, dished the whole time, discussing everything from ideas for projects at work to how we style our va-jay-jays. I definitely include some of my co-workers among my friends and we spend time outside work together.


11 Lori August 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Wow, what a great question.

I tread pretty carefully. I maintain a acquaintence level relationship with my two big supervisors. I can go out for a beer with them, indulge some chit chat about safe topics, and then that’s it. With my immediate manager, I filter much less but I’m careful as I learned the hard way that she can’t exactly keep her mouth shut.

A co-worker here has quickly become one of my good friends. And with her, it’s the hardest, most awkward situation: We probably talk too loudly and too long and giggle like school girls. And I know – just KNOW – that it bothers some people, but I get swept up by it and expect people to tell us to knock it off.

But they don’t. Hrm.

When the situation is reversed, I do say something. A manager was constantly having an argument with her employee – an employee whose voice carried – and she didn’t shut the dang door. She has a door for a reason, right? And this employee was complaining about her co-workers. So I told her to shut the door. It did not go over well, but I did it. I feel better that I did because after awhile, the manager finally started closing the door.

I know it’s hard, but say something! And if you can’t, be a weasel and tattle. You need to have a good work environment, so if you can’t do it, sic your boss on ’em. That works too.


12 Mary August 22, 2012 at 12:07 pm

oof. I work in the TV industry so things are really chill. Still, I can get pretty offended by things if they offend my Catholic or feminist values. With religion, I really only get offended when the dialogue feels malicious or hateful. General jokes don’t really bother me. I’m probably a lot more sensitive when sexist comments come up at the office, probably because I’m overly sensitive to the correlation between gender and success in the workplace (for instance, if someone says something sexist or remotely sexist, I worry they devalue women and therefore underestimate me as a valuable contributor to the company, and therefore my future chances at getting a promotion are lower because I’m less respected because I’m a female). If someone says something anti-Catholic, it feels less personal and less directly related to my future success at my job, because frankly, not a lot of people even know I’m Catholic, especially if I don’t bring it up when a joke offends me).

Sorry that was really wordy. But I’ll give an example of something small that pissed me off within the last week.

Two coworkers (both men) were talking about prizes we were giving out for a certain show. One of them was younger, my age, so 20s-30s. The other man was late 40s probably. Maybe 50s. It’s hard to tell. It’s maybe relevant to note that they both totally think they’re comedians and dabble in standup…..so they love to ‘funny’ banter back and forth with each other. It’s usually not funny.

In this instance, like many others, they’re not talking to me, but our cubes are super close and they’re talking with each other in voices loud enough to share with the entire area (aka: listen to how funny we are!). “40’s” makes a comment about how the prizes should be given out by someone in a bikini. I immediately start to bristle at the inherent sexism. I am about to make a bitter comment when “40’s” riffs off his own “genius” joke, and swivels around to face me, the only woman in the area. “Maaaaaaaaarrrrrrrry” he says (implying that I would be the one in the bikini). I responded by directly ignoring his insinuation that I would wear a bikini and instead referencing the initial comment about a person in a bikini. Knowing he meant ‘woman in a bikini’, I loudly made a comment along the lines of ‘hmm, I wonder what man we could get to wear a bikini’.

I made sure to deliver in a tone that made it clear the sexism was not appreciated. The younger guy I think was on board with the initial woman/bikini comments but kind of appalled when my name actually came up. The older guy is somewhat creepy, but also kind of sad and generally nice when he’s not being sexist. He also freelances so I knew he’d be gone soon. He also is in a higher up position than me, though not by much and won’t have any influence on whether I get promoted down the road, etc. Also: I could totally do his job better than him. le sigh.


13 Rachel August 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm

OMG, never apologize for being wordy on my blog! I love wordy!!

I’m a lot more sensitive to/aware of sexist comments, or just ones that aren’t woman-friendly, as well; I’m the only woman in my office and I’m just very aware of that fact. Luckily, there have only been a couple comments that have ever given me pause. I typically tend to have all female friends (and relatives actually) and I love this team of men I work with!

Thinking about it now, though, I think that affects how much I’m willing to share. I was self-conscious of talking about “girly” stuff at first — my relationship, my thoughts on beauty stuff, etc. — but one of the awesome things about my coworkers is they can find something interesting about these topics and we can talk about them (and I can geek out over them) just as easily as they talk/geek out about cars/science/gaming. I think I’m just lucky but it’s definitely reassuring to not be made to feel dumb/weak for my interests. Like you, I worried at first that this would devalue me as an employee.


14 Dean Joseph August 22, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Coming from the Army and making the transition to civilian its a challenge. The Army especially while I was in a ALL MALE unit every other word was D__K, @ss, F–K and other colorful “adult” words. Even some of the topics was XXX or gross.
But there are people who you can see where and when to talk about things. Some people have no filter or are just plain inconsiderate. If a topic is not okay I will tell them stop or if I am gonna say something others may find inappropriate I warn with a “disclaimer”.


15 Mel August 22, 2012 at 7:23 pm

I would always err on the side of caution. Here’s my true story, bro. At my last company, there was a co-worker who could be wildly inappropriate at times- making off-color remarks, playing jokes on his colleagues that were not appreciated, etc. He wasn’t being intentionally malicious; he just had no idea how to act professionally. Everyone in the office was around the same age and he thought we were all friends or at least on the same wave length. When his co-workers called him out on his behavior (“No, I don’t like it when you come into my office, close the door and fart in my face”), he wouldn’t take their complaints seriously. So the issue was not only a lack of professionalism but also a lack of respect for others.

He eventually got promoted and became another Michael Scott. Acting inappropriately toward his subordinates but also getting upset when it became clear that they resented his behavior and had little respect for him. But you can’t expect people to treat you with respect when you like to treat the office like your little Fun Zone.

There’s a saying about leading by disposition, not position. If you want to get promoted and have your co-workers believe that you’ve earned the extra $/title, you need to not only work hard but act professionally. You may think you can talk about your boyfriend drama/tell sexist jokes to your co-workers/etc. because hey, we’re all cool, but you can’t always trust your perception. And your co-workers may be biting their tongues the way Eric was.


16 Chelsea A. August 22, 2012 at 10:02 pm

I, too am the only woman in my very small office (I’m a designer for a design-build remodeling firm). I’ve been with them for over three years. At first I was much more cautious, but once I got to know my boss (who is only ten years older than me) and his leadership style I became extremely comfortable. Our environment is not your typical scene: On days when I’m not seeing clients, I roll up in yoga pants and no make-up and that’s perfectly acceptable. I get my work done, clients love me and the company couldn’t function without me so my position is absolutely solid. One of our sub-contractors actually made a comment a few weeks ago about them being “vulgar in front of a lady” (me) and it was sweet, but when I’m at work I’m one of the guys. We drop F-bombs and talk politics and share info about our personal lives and as unprofessional as that is, it works for us. My boss looks at me as a little sister – I’ve heard him phrase it in those exact words – it may not be traditional, but I’ve never been more happy in a working environment. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some topics that just aren’t big-brother/boss compatible, but I’ve got girlfriends for those! ;)


17 Emma August 23, 2012 at 5:48 am

I’m on the opposite side of this! I work for a website run out of a home office, and my only coworker is, well, my boss (plus two interns). I tried to approach it like I would a typical work relationship – that is, by keeping my personal life off the table and mainly discussing work-related topics – and ended up with a lecture about how I need to be “chattier.” Yikes. Honestly, I don’t want my boss to be my buddy, because it makes it way more uncomfortable to discuss salary or vacation days or anything else without underlying guilt/awkwardness (not to mention that when you act like my mom, my knee-jerk reaction is to respond like I would to my mom, so I have to really watch the ‘tude). But then I feel like a jerk for complaining about the fact that my boss is just TOO nice and wants to be my friend. How dare she! Maybe just a bad fit for me personally? I’m sure a lot of people would love to have that kind of a situation, but I would love to not have my performance constantly plotted against my mood.


18 Chase August 23, 2012 at 8:38 am

My personal opinion is that I don’t trust anybody at work. I also don’t trust myself not to say something stupid, so I keep it vanilla. I also work in a very conservative industry, so I’m sure this can vary from industry to industry.


19 RunEatRepeat August 23, 2012 at 1:06 pm

First, I love your boss and want to be him when I grow up. Second, I try to get to know people before stepping on iffy ground. i also try to always be myself when I meet new people so they’re not shocked when I give an opinion or share my life experiences.


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