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Navigating the World of Workplace Taboos

By Martin Lieberman

A wider generation gap has made the office a confusing place to be. Keeping up on what's appropriate behavior and what isn't can be a real challenge, especially for someone who's new to the workplace. So take warning: This isn't a frat house, it's an office.

The generation gap is wider now than it's ever been. You have a more senior generation that grew up with very traditional values, and a younger generation that was brought up with looser values. -Gloria Petersen

In an ever-changing workplace, the question of what is and isn't appropriate behavior has become harder to answer. "Nobody knows quite where to draw the line anymore," says Gloria Petersen, president of Global Protocol, a business etiquette consulting firm. "The generation gap is wider now than it's ever been. You have a more senior generation that grew up with very traditional values, and a younger generation that was brought up with looser values." Keeping up on what's inappropriate and what's not can be a real challenge, especially for someone new to the workplace. So take warning: This isn't a frat house, it's an office.

Using foul, sexually suggestive, or racist language is an obvious no-no in the workplace. According to a recent poll by Newsweek, 53 percent of respondents said they would either be fired or suspended by their employers if they were caught speaking like John Rocker, the mouthy pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. While swearing might be more commonplace in high-stress places like newsrooms or trading floors, James O'Connor, author of "Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing," believes those who curse in the office are at a distinct disadvantage.

Swearing in a professional environment will only make you seem immature and unintelligent, says O'Connor. "People will judge you based on your choice of language. They will also be less willing to cooperate with you, and will lose respect for you because you're swearing."

You also should avoid talking about your paycheck around the office. After all, if HR wanted you to know how much everyone else was making, they'd tell you. Knowing what your coworkers are paid can cause tension between you and your coworkers. In fact, companies have fired good employees because they shared too much information with their colleagues.

Don't invade anyone's personal space, either. Among friends, hugging or kissing is acceptable, but in the workplace, where people's comfort levels differ, these gestures are unacceptable. A friendly handshake is usually a sufficient greeting.

Here are some more things you shouldn't do:

  • Send personal messages on your workplace email account
  • View porn
  • Steal office supplies
  • Look for a new job while at work
  • Talk about politics or religion
  • Talk negatively about coworkers
  • Dress inappropriately
  • Contradict your boss
  • Make personal phone calls
  • Send or tell inappropriate jokes to coworkers
  • Go outside the chain of command

Some behaviors have become less taboo than they were a few years back. For example, it is okay for employees to display more personal emotions in the workplace than they had in the past. Many companies even have on-site counselors to help employees deal with personal crises. Dating has also become less taboo. In a recent survey by The Workplace Network, 76 percent of respondents said they saw nothing wrong with inter-office dating, and even employers are becoming more understanding of office relationships.

But be careful: Just because some behaviors have become more commonplace doesn't necessarily mean they are stigma-free. To avoid potentially taboo situations, it is important to feel out your company's culture to find out how lenient, casual, and tolerant it is of personal problems. It's also better to err on the side of conservative behavior at all times.

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