taboo subjects workplace

Taboo subjects in the workplace and how to navigate them

taboo subjects workplace
In this series of blogs, we want to discuss subjects that are considered taboo in the workplace and explore the implications of this. With some hints and tips thrown in to help HR and Management teams to navigate processes when these topics come up within their own workplace.

With an increase of companies encouraging employees to bring their whole self to work, breaking down taboos is important because if someone doesn’t feel like they can talk about an aspect of their life then talking about other parts will be harder. It’s also important to note that an aspect of someone’s life might be bigger to them than first appears to you, so being open to conversations that may make you uncomfortable is key.

The topics we are looking at covering are:

  • Bereavement
  • Menopause
  • Fertility
  • Politics
  • Diagnosis and Disability
  • Parental rights
  • Motivation and growth in the workplace


We’ve already covered disability in our guide to making your workplace disability friendly, which you can read here.

It is our hope that these articles will empower you to have these difficult discussions in the workplace, which will in turn encourage your employees to bring their whole selves to work.

But how does a topic become taboo and why is it important to tackle these taboos?


A subject becomes taboo because it strays from societal norms

The main argument as to why a subject becomes a taboo is due to it straying from what is seen as the societal norm. Another argument is that a subject becomes a taboo for someone because of their cultural experiences. For example, a subject for a Jewish person may be seen as taboo whereas to an atheist it isn’t.

Trying to navigate these cultural differences between your team can be difficult but understanding where everyone is coming from when they react to certain topics being brought up, is a great way to mitigate tension.

This brings up a great point as to why it’s important to evaluate the role of censorship in the workplace because even if to the majority a topic seems basic and as if it should be easy to talk about openly – it might have underlying cultural implications for members of the workforce.


Consider the cost of deviation

Whilst most of this article will be discussing why it’s important to tackle taboo subjects in the workplace, it needs to be said that there also must be an evaluation of whether topics being openly discussed would have a positive or negative impact on your company overall.

If talking openly about a subject will cause someone to become uncomfortable and feel as if their culture isn’t being respected – then you must explore and decide whether it’s worth tackling the certain taboo.

Or if allowing people to have freedom of speech will end up becoming disrespectful and cause a lot of arguments, management need to make sure that there are procedures in place to lessen the overall impact of these disagreements.

Being able to be open and have these tough conversations is great but if there isn’t going to be a positive effect from something being openly talked about, it’s probably best to leave it as a topic to avoid in conversation at work.


Self esteem

If investing in the people in your company is important to you then tackling these taboo and awkward subjects is a great way to ensure that your company provides the foundations for them to bring their whole selves to work, openly and confidently.

Everyone is vast and to them – every part of their identity is as important to them as the next. So, try not to place any importance on a specific aspect of someone as it may make them feel as if they are one sided and not seen as an interesting and varied person.

When looking at how someone is growing your company, try and incorporate a holistic aspect to your evaluations. Whilst the hard skills learnt during their time with you is inarguably valuable to the company, how they are changing as a person will be just as integral to their growth.

Knowing how to deal with difficult conversations and the chance of taboo subjects being brought up will mean that your employees will feel comfortable in the thought that they can bring their whole selves into work, without anyone feeling uncomfortable. This will in turn improve their self-esteem, happiness, and confidence within the workplace.

Not only will this have an impact on the employee’s wellbeing, but it will also help them to keep motivated and focused because they aren’t worrying as much about how they are perceived or whether they are able to talk about what is bothering them.


hr taboo subjects

Better staff to management relationship

When thinking about taboo topics in the workplace, it can be easy to focus on gossip and peer to peer conversations. Many uncomfortable conversations happen in a private office and on a managerial level. It’s always going to be beneficial to your company if your employees feel comfortable talking to you about something that may be hard for them to open up about.

For a long time, there was this stereotype that managers are power and money hungry. That they all sit in their office with the doors closed and must not be disturbed. This is changing in a positive direction and therefore so is the benefits of these conversations.

If managers embrace this new way of working then their employee to manager relationship will improve, because employees will know that they care about their wellbeing. This will encourage them to come to you with their problems because they will see that they will be listened to.


Improved reputation as a company

Employees will talk about their experiences of working at their company. Whether to their family and friends, on online reviews or to potential new employers.

For the most part you can’t control what they have to say or how it will be received. Every employee will have different experiences of your company and they deserve to be truthful and open about their time with you. However, this can be damaging to your public reputation as a company.

A large part of your employee’s experience will depend on the culture within your workplace and whether they could bring parts of their home lives to work or discuss work issues to those that can do something practical about it.

If they were able to have open and honest conversations without worrying about the repercussions, they will likely have a happier time working in your company and more beneficially to you – they’ll talk about their career happiness to others.


Less stress on staff

When you only see someone in a specific environment, particularly when a task based one, it can be easy to forget that they have a whole life outside of where you interact with them.

Of course, this isn’t true and it’s important to keep this in mind. Especially when the stress comes from tension in their home life because they might not get much chance to discuss these outside of work.

It goes without saying that a stressful situation or not being able to discuss something big can have a negative impact on a person’s wellbeing.


hr taboo subjects

Promotes inclusivity and diversity

Your workforce is diverse and includes people from different backgrounds, with differing life experiences and from various demographics. This can add a lot of value to your company. It also makes how you approach different topics an essential part of how inclusive of your workforce your company becomes.

As mentioned before, different cultures will have different levels of censorship placed upon certain topics. So for some, there will be conversations that are normalised and they’ll have no problem talking about it. Whilst for others, they have been conditioned to believe that a topic should not be talked about, in certain circumstances or as an absolute rule.

Being able to implement a system where topics can be openly discussed but in a way that won’t offend or disrespect anyone is the key balance here. It will help to promote mutual respect and tolerance in a way that doesn’t compromise beliefs.


Outdated Views

As times progress, so do the topics that are deemed acceptable to talk about. As more information becomes available to us, we become more educated.

For education to make a difference, it must initiate evaluation and structural change. If the way a topic used to be spoken about could be considered unnecessary or dangerous to people’s identity, then it’s important to move with the times. It could be holding back your company’s overall growth if you aren’t having or allowing conversations just because it was frowned upon at some point in history.

A lot of topics that used to be taboo have discriminative undertones because they were established during a time that wasn’t as equal as the world we live in now. As we’re moving towards equality, companies need to think about whether topics that haven’t been openly talked about are a positive discussion to open in terms of allowing people to become more equal and inclusive.


hr taboo subjects

Tips and hints

Think about what needs to be censored and what topics don’t

This is a great place to start when it comes to creating a work environment that is open and can tackle the tough subjects. For it to have a positive effect on your work culture overall, you need to evaluate the situations on a case-by-case basis. Of course, there will be some subjects that should be talked about openly from the off and you will know when you bond with your staff what these should be for your specific workforce.

However, if there are going to be topics that become problematic or less problematic to talk about as new staff comes in, then you need to be able to evaluate what these are as time goes on.


Put structures in place

Although improving the conversations that happen on a social level is great, some changes may need to be made at a managerial/structural level to really initiate change.

There are some topics that will regularly come up and need to be addressed- maternity leave, personal leave and promotion negotiations being some of them. So if you know that there will be a topic that is difficult to approach but will be necessary to have conversations around regularly, then having strategies in place and evaluating on your past experiences can make any future instances where these topics are brought up will be easier to navigate.

This will help to alleviate the work you have to do to sort out the problems that crop up and

it will give your employees peace of mind that when hard things happen in their lives or at work, it won’t affect them even more negatively by being ignored or managed badly.

Aside from the work, think about what employee benefits you can put into place that will help support your employees. A space where they can access lots of health and wellbeing information, a healthcare cost coverage plan, the ability to buy more days off and a 24/7 confidential support line are just some of the ways you can use your employee benefit package to really make a difference in your employee’s lives.


Lead by example – be vulnerable

A new change in the workplace dynamic, even good ones, can be scary and cause tension.

As a leader in your company, you have a sense of responsibility but also a lot of influence. One of the best ways for you to initiate a change in what people are comfortable talking about – is to lead by example.

Vulnerability doesn’t have to mean telling your employees all your private secrets. However, being honest if you’re struggling and talking about some of the difficult things in your life can be pioneering and pave the way to real change.

Have the hard conversations and share your own story, then when your employees need to do the same, they’ll know you’re open to it.

Also, although it’s important to not take the conversation away from them, hearing your stories as a manager can help them feel more comfortable. This will help them open and be more likely to create a successful exchange and take some of the stress away, even if it doesn’t solve their problem.


hr taboo subjects

Make sure that people feel safe

As great as an open workplace is, if it compromises your employee’s safety or wellbeing then it’s not worth it. Whilst you’re navigating the conversations in the office or the conversations that your employees need to have with you, make sure that it’s not going to cause extra stress for them.

Give them a safe space to have these conversations and make sure that if they have it in your office, the door is closed and they can feel like they can be open without worrying about loss of confidentiality.

When these conversations come up in your general work space, take any concerns, complaints or criticism seriously. Getting an open office right isn’t going to just happen immediately, the way these conversations happen may sometimes need to be reviewed. Be okay with this and move forward in a way that allows you and your employees to be open but still feel safe.


Embrace and celebrate your staff, care about their personal lives

The best and arguably first way you can help the employees of your business see that they can be open and honest at work is by showing them that you care about them. It sounds simple and you might already be great at this but by doing little things like asking how people are, listening to their stories, embracing their culture, and generally taking time to get to know them, will help create that manager to employee relationship. This makes any complicated conversations between you, easier as the groundwork of your relationship has already been done.


hr taboo subjects

Take control when needed

When creating an open conversation office, there will likely be times when things come up that shouldn’t and times when tensions may be high if disagreements happen. To stop this from becoming a problem, it’s important to be prepared to be the one to put a lid on it and set ground rules.

To allow people to be honest and open, decide what would be inappropriate and lay these out. This will help to ensure that things don’t get control and that this open dialogue doesn’t become a hinderance to your company.

Be okay with having a word with your employees when something gets brought up that’s problematic or could cause offense. This will show them that whilst you’re given the freedom of being honest, you’re still in charge and will take control if they go too far.

At a more serious level, make sure that you have a system in place for gross misconduct, including a dismissal process. Despite giving freedom making things easier overall, there will always be people who push it too far.

Navigating an open workplace and quashing these taboos that have built over time, is a marathon not a sprint. It will however, make the workplace a more inclusive and less stressful place for your employees if they know that they can bring their problems to work in a way that is confidential, effective and won’t cause any hassle.

We hope that this article gives you some ideas of how this can be done and the benefits of breaking down these taboos. Look out for the articles coming up in the next few weeks that will give advice and support with how to tackle specific topics head on!