By Catey Hill, Moneyish
Sex doesn’t sell — at work.
Your sex life is the No. 1 topic that people perceive as inappropriate to discuss at work, according to a survey of more than 1,000 American workers by personal finance site insuranceQuotes.com. Seventy-one percent of workers say discussing that is a no-no. That’s followed by drug use (69 percent), gossip about a coworker (57 percent) and salary or income (42 percent) as the most off-limits topics of discussion on the job.
And yet, many workers can’t shut up about these topics. So what do you do when a coworker starts talking to you about an inappropriate topic? First of all, you have to make sure the conversation is not harassment or meant to be intentionally inappropriate to make you feel uncomfortable, points out LA-based psychologist Crystal Lee. In that case, it may be important to talk to your boss or human resources; this guide will help you figure out exactly what to do if you’re the victim of sexual harassment at work.
Assuming the conversation topic is not harassment — just something you don’t want to hear about — you’ll likely want to handle the issue a little more delicately, at least at first. “Without being needlessly rude, you do have the right to make it clear that you have no interest in hearing further about a colleague’s taboo subject,” says NYC-based career strategist Carlota Zimmerman.
Lee says that first thing you can try to give non-verbal cues that you’re not interested in what’s happening: “Decrease your eye contact (possibly even not giving at all), turn your body away from theirs, not respond verbally, and engage in something else (like looking at your phone or continuing to work on your computer).” You can also try to simply change the subject, says Niteesha Gupte, a leadership and career coach at Ama La Vida. “It is possible that the colleague may be looking to connect on a personal level … so shift the conversation to a current event or something in your personal life that is appropriate and that you’re willing to share,” she says — adding that humor, when appropriate, can also work to shut down the conversation. Finally, Zimmerman suggests leaving the area by saying something like “speak to you guys later, I have to take care of some paperwork.’”
Of course, not everyone will get the hint. Zimmerman says that in that case, “next time you and that colleague are alone, take them aside and gently yet firmly make it clear that hey, you’re their friend, but you’re really not comfortable with this kind of information.” Lee suggests saying something like: “I enjoy our daily lunchtime chats, but when you talk about XYZ, it makes me really uncomfortable. Can we talk about something else?” She adds that you should “try to frame your feedback in terms of how you feel instead of how you believe they’re being inappropriate,” and keep it “short and simple so it feels like a ‘no big deal’ situation.”
Even that may not stop the talk. Zimmerman says that in that case, it may be time to talk to HR. “At the end of the day, you’re at work to do a job — not to be someone’s therapist, or sex ed counselor or life coach,” she says. “And before you get yourself wrapped into knots thinking, ‘well okay but maybe this person needs me,’ yeah, don’t flatter yourself. What they need is therapy.” She adds that if you feel the talk is a cry for help, “steer them in the direction of management and/or human resources.”