Keep It To Yourself!
In spite of the newly “enlightened” attitudes that supposedly inhabit the upper floors of corporate America, we are still a country of conservative traditionalists. Regardless of how close your relationship is with co-workers and supervisors, there are some things you simply should not reveal during workplace conversations. Some topics are obvious. But others may seem much more benign, even seemingly innocent or neutral, but all of them carry the potential to damage or even destroy your career.
Episode 16 - Keep It To Yourself
Regardless of the newly “enlightened” attitudes that supposedly inhabit the upper floors of corporate America, we are still a country of conservative traditionalists. If you flaunt, broadcast, or otherwise advertise your unconventional behavior, you may find yourself banging into an unforgiving glass ceiling carefully installed by the HR department to limit your employer’s liability.
For example, you may think skinny-dipping in your private backyard pool is a harmless, benign activity. But your boss may find it offensive, even depraved. So, How do you know where to draw the line? What’s acceptable chit-chat over the morning coffee break? In general, if it’s not something that you can read about in the Ladies Home Journal, it’s not an acceptable subject for workplace conversations.
Hey, welcome back. This is Roger Reid with another episode of Success Point 360.
Regardless of how close your relationship is with co-workers and supervisors, there are some things you simply should not reveal. We’ve always had two big subjects that were off the table in workplace conversations—politics and religion. And it’s still a good idea to leave them out of any discussions that take place in a professional work setting.
In addition, there are other categories, other subjects, that should also be avoided. Some are obvious, while others are much more benign, even seemingly innocent or neutral topics, but all of them carry the potential to damage or even completely destroy your career track.
Here’s the first one:
You should always keep quiet about your investments and alternative income sources. Maybe you do a little consulting work on the side, or edit manuscripts on the weekends, or manage social media for an on-line company. Although these may be non-competitive activities, and you do them after work hours, they must remain a secret. Your employer will consider other income-producing activities as threatening competition, affecting your focus, interest, and time.
Listen carefully: In the myopic vision of management, an employee’s dedication to their job is always compromised when they engage in part-time, money-making activities. Corporations are jealous masters and they will not knowingly share their employees’ commitment with other “distractions,” especially those that generate income.
In management’s opinion, your off-hours should be spent recharging your attitude and perspective, so you return to work ready to perform at peak efficiency. If your supervisor learns of your involvement in a sideline or part-time venture, she’ll blame any indication of stress, overwork, or distraction on your outside activities, even though your symptoms may be the direct result of your day job. So regardless of how innocuous your side-gig is, keep it to yourself.
I also think it’s important to keep your regular compensation, the amount of your salary, to yourself. Undoubtedly, there will be others in the company or the same office who know how much money you make. Your boss is one of them, and anyone having access to your HR file will also know how much you’re paid. Along with that access comes the responsibility to keep their mouth shut. Thankfully, most do. The real hinge-point of keeping the lid on your compensation is you.
Yes, others may know or eventually find out what kind of money you’re making, but how they find out is the key. If it comes directly from you, there’s always the chance it will be interpreted as bragging. If they find out through other sources, they still respect you for not revealing it.
Here’s the second area of conversation you need to keep to yourself:
Never express dissatisfaction about your job, compensation, or a company policy or program. Occasional disappointment and frustration is part of every employee’s lot. It goes with the territory. In short, you’re paid to support and carry out the instructions of your superiors, whether you agree with them or not. That’s why it’s called a job – you trade your time, energy, and effort in exchange for compensation that you can use to invest in your personal success. Occasionally, it’s not pretty or pleasant. But it’s a fact of corporate life. And once in a while, it’s going to suck.
For example, you may think you’re occasionally entitled to curse, vent, or blow off steam, but the result will hurt you. It’s the fastest way to lose your reputation as a professional. Make it a point to have others see you as cool and collected under fire. Just because the conversation turns heated or you’re put under pressure, that’s no excuse for revealing a volatile temper or demonstrating behavior that you’ll later regret.
Making verbal attacks and derogatory statements about others – even when they’re true – makes you appear fearful and emotionally immature. You’re demonstrating the other guy got to you, and you couldn’t handle it. Make a habit of dismissing the stupid behavior and comments of others. It demonstrates you’re operating on a much higher level, and in fact, have the capacity to handle much more intensive and serious situations.
The third category of things to keep off the conversation table?
Negative comments or innuendo about other employees. Never say, suggest, or repeat something negative about another company employee. The moment it leaves your lips, it’s out there—it’s like a loose missile no longer under your control, and you never know when it could circle back and blow up in your face. The workplace is a very small environment, and anything you say about others will eventually come back to haunt or humiliate you, and it can even damage your career.
If you’re going to say something about someone, make sure it’s positive, related to the workplace, and has nothing to do with their appearance, personal life, choice of spouse or partner, sexual orientation, after-work activities, financial status, religious or political affiliation, or shows preference over someone else.
I know, that’s quite a list, but each of those subjects has the potential to damage your career, or in a worse case situation, they can end any chance of future success with your employer. Negative comments are a huge liability. They can not only keep you from being promoted, they can guarantee you a place at the top of the list for termination when the next wave of layoff or downsizing hits.
The next area to keep out of your work conversations should be obvious. But it often rears its ugly head after a three vodka martini lunch, or at a work-sponsored social function. And it has to do with talking about alternative social or sexual behavior.
You say you don’t know what I’m talking about? In plain English, if you want to avoid being judged as corrupt, warped, perverted, or depraved, don’t share the fact that you attended the Hookers Ball in San Francisco, the adult entertainment award show in Las Vegas, or any other event that suggests you participate in “unconventional” behavior.
Trying to rationalize your attendance at an alternative event with the claim that you only observe and never participate, will not excuse your intentional introduction of off-limit subjects into workplace conversations.
This also applies to what we’ll call indiscretions from your past. While you may think that less-than-squeaky-clean behavior from years ago will be excused as innocent fallout from youthful imprudence, others who hear it, may not be so forgiving. And if management gets wind of it, they may assume that just because you’re older doesn’t mean you might not use the same reckless, irresponsible logic when making an important work decision.
So while you may be tempted to tell everyone at the Christmas party about your stint as a stripper to pay for college, or your participation in the drunken brawl at the frat house, or how you always smoked a joint before physics class, don’t do it. Just follow the rule of suitable behavior: If there’s the slightest question about the subject being appropriate for the situation and the audience, keep it to yourself.
Serious personal health problems. With the exception of a rare case of the sniffles, you should project the image of perfect health, and yes, that includes maintaining a healthy weight.
Although your health issues may be creating some challenges for you, talking about them at work can suggest the possibility of a future absence. And that’s especially true if your problem is chronic, or re-occurring. Smoking, overeating, and excessive drinking are liabilities, and we all know how employers feel about liabilities.
Trying to find a compassionate ear because you’re worried about your health, or you feel pressed to provide a rationale for not being as productive during a health crisis, is exactly the opposite approach to take. If you need a confidant, find it in your family, or in a friend who doesn’t work for the same company. It’s natural to look for solace from those with whom you associate, but in this case, it’s far more important to be a professional than to reveal your vulnerabilities.
Next subject to keep to yourself?
Any thoughts or plans you may have to leave your job. This even includes nebulous fantasies that you know will never become a reality. Others—your co-workers, supervisors, vendors, and customers—should see you as a motivated and focused professional who handles their responsibilities with a minimum of distractions.
Even if you have a strong, positive relationship with your manager and believe your boss would be supportive of your plans to find a better paying position or even start your own company, always keep your mouth shut until you’re ready to leave. Companies seldom applaud an employee’s efforts to better themselves, unless the company stands to benefit from the change or transition.
This last category may not seem as potentially toxic or volatile as the others, but I’ve seen it become a conflict—one that can grow large enough for management to issue an ultimatum –either terminate your association with what they deemed to be an incompatible fraternal organization or seek other employment.
Based on my experience, I’m going to recommend that, unless there is a definite advantage in disclosing your association with a fraternal or professional organization (for example, because your supervisor or a member of senior management is also a member), you’re better off not mentioning it.
Even though the purpose of many fraternal groups is primarily altruistic, the majority of companies will consider your affiliation with any club, charity, alliance, or organized group as . . . you guessed it—a career distraction.
Management wants you to spend your productive efforts exclusively on their behalf. Revealing your association with a fraternal organization may cause a supervisor to wonder if . . .
- While you’re at work, are you distracted by the bake sale you’re organizing that weekend at the Elks Lodge?
- How often will your responsibilities as a Mason take priority over your job?
- Are you using company time and recourses to make phone calls, produce copies, or sort your mailing list?
There is one reasonably safe exception. And that’s church. Any organization having a religious connotation is usually hands-off. One reason is that most services and meetings take place on Sunday, a day that doesn’t exist on the corporate calendar.
But even if you attend services on a Saturday, or volunteer to help out with church-sponsored activities on a Saturday, you can usually get away with it, but keep in mind you’ll still be expected to give up the occasional weekend when company travel is required.
As a salaried employee, the company will fail to see a hard line between personal and business time. And as you move up the ranks into upper management, you’ll find that line increasingly blurred. For example, if your goal is to rise to a division manager or vice-presidency, you’ll need to project the persona of a “company man,” someone who is never off the clock, and always available to pursue the interests of the organization.
Here’s the bottom line….. With the current trend of work-life integration quickly replacing the more traditional concept of separating our work from our private lives, employees are feeling a greater degree of freedom to share personal and even intimate details with their co-workers. But this can easily backfire, especially when the conversation touches on controversial subjects or a topic with subjective ethical or moral implications.
Don’t jeopardize your career by falling below the standard of professional conduct that’s expected by your employer. Even if such a standard isn’t formally stated or defined, it definitely exists, and your efforts to set an example will be appreciated and rewarded.
Hey, that’s it for this episode. I really appreciate all the emails, comments, and messages you’ve been sending. Some of them have suggested new topics to explore, and yes, I will be incorporating your suggestions into future episodes. If you have a question or comment, you can contact me by traditional email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit SuccessPoint360.com and use the voicemail option in the main header.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next time.
© 2020, Roger A. Reid