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How to zip it

By Tamar Satov

Made a taboo comment at the office? It can happen to the best of us, especially these days. Here’s how to save face when your foot’s planted firmly in your mouth.

The mood was relaxed and festive when Janet, a Toronto-based public relations professional at a national financial services firm, attended a colleague’s retirement party in Montreal. She welcomed the opportunity to bond with her faraway female coworkers over drinks and a few laughs, but when she pulled out her phone and showed them a candid shot of her current squeeze, things got awkward.

“It was a photo of him in bed,” she admits, quickly adding there was nothing about the picture that made it NSFW (not suitable for work, of course). Even so, the disapproval was swift. “They tsk-tsked me and said, ‘Wow, you really shouldn’t have shown us that.’”

Luckily, there was no lasting fallout from the misstep since she saw the Montreal team so rarely, says Janet, who has since moved on to a different company. But broaching contentious topics — think sex, religion, race and politics — with coworkers at the watercooler or local watering hole after hours can be a risky endeavour with severe consequences.

Indeed, the vast majority (83%) of employees have witnessed a colleague say something that ended up having a catastrophic impact on his or her career, reputation or business, a 2016 poll by Utah-based corporate training company VitalSmarts finds, while 69% say they’ve made a “catastrophic comment” themselves. One in five (20%) of these remarks were about race, sex, politics or religion, and the repercussions were serious: 31% lost a pay increase, promotion or job; 27% undercut or destroyed a working relationship; 11% ruined their reputation; 6% got a poor performance review; and 1% lost a client or partner.

High-octane conversations in the workplace can also affect productivity and a company’s bottom line, as an American Psychological Association survey conducted during the extremely contentious 2016 US presidential campaign indicates. At least one in ten US employees polled said they felt tense or stressed out (17%), were less productive (13%), had difficulty getting work done (10%), or their work quality suffered (10%) as a result of political discussions at work — and these figures were significantly higher for men and those under the age of 35.

Of course, our southern neighbours aren’t the only ones navigating a minefield of polarizing politics and hot-button issues. A single day of trending news in Canada earlier this year hit the triumvirate of taboo topics — sex, politics and race — with sexual-assault allegations against Toronto theatre director Albert Schultz; reports that Tim Hortons heirs cut paid breaks and employee benefits across their franchise due to a minimum wage hike in Ontario; and criticisms raised by Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott against Manitoba’s plans to reform its First Nations child welfare system.

Should we all just steer clear of such news — or anything else potentially sensitive or divisive — when talking to each other at work? Not necessarily, says Chris MacDonald, an associate professor and chair of the department of law and business at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto. “It’s hard to completely avoid all of these topics if you’re going to have the kind of collegiality that firms are trying to encourage,” he says. The key, of course, is to be civil and behave like a professional to avoid treading into hostile workplace territory. That means no vulgar language, no comments about bodies or looks, and if you know an individual is touchy on a particular subject, steer clear.

Obviously, employees should also follow the guidelines set out by their employer for professional conduct, which may include behaviour outside the office and on social media. The axiom to remember, says MacDonald: “Just because you have a right to say it doesn’t mean it’s right to say it.” Touché. If you find yourself or your team descending into controversial territory, read on for a few tips on how to handle it.

Disagree agreeably

Whether you see eye to eye with another person matters much less than how you share your opinion, says David Maxfield, vice-president of research at VitalSmarts and co-author of the business book Crucial Conversations. “Even if you agree with people, but in a way that is defensive, posturing or aggressive, it decreases the likelihood they’ll respect you. But express your opinions skillfully and you can associate with anyone,” he says. Maxfield suggests framing conversations as a chance to learn from each other, not to change each other’s minds or attack each other’s position; emphasizing your respect for the other person and his or her opinion; and looking for an overarching principle governing both opinions to focus on common ground.

Don’t turn a blind eye

If, for example, Donald Trump’s plan to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem leads to a heated debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict in your weekly team meeting, the manager should swiftly shut it down by reminding everyone to stay on topic. “Managers need to be fairly cautious,” says MacDonald. “If it turns into a shouting match, productivity will suffer.” Julie Blais Comeau, chief officer of etiquette at EtiquetteJulie.com in Ottawa, agrees managers should intervene as soon as they sense unease. “All employees have a right to feel comfortable, safe and secure at work,” she says. “Unfortunately, a work environment can be tainted very easily.”

Learn a few exit strategies

To extricate yourself from a risqué conversation, try: “Oh, you’re making me blush. I’m not going to talk about that,” suggests Blais Comeau. Similarly, if someone makes an off-colour joke you could say, “I’m sure you meant that as a joke, but I’m not comfortable with it and I’m going to excuse myself from the conversation.” Don’t get personal or accuse the person of being sexist or racist, but don’t pretend you’re OK with it, either. “Silence is agreement,” she says. If a political discussion is getting out of hand, you can fall back on the trusted, “Let’s agree to disagree,” or simply say you have another matter to attend to, says MacDonald.

Address recurring issues privately

If someone has a pattern of engaging in conversations inappropriately, approach the individual and ask to meet in private — don’t send an email invitation (that’s too official, says Blais Comeau). When you meet, state the facts: I’ve been hearing arguments/name-calling/door slams, etc., that startle me and affect my productivity. Be sure to present it from a personal perspective — “This is what I’ve been hearing and seeing” — and keep the “you” out of it so you aren’t casting blame, she adds. “It’s possible they’re going full-speed ahead on adrenalin, unaware of how others are perceiving them.”

Know the right way to apologise

More than one in four people (27%) say they lack the skills to smooth things over following a “catastrophic comment,” the VitalSmarts survey finds. “We’re all bound to have bad days, misjudge the situation or make a slip of the tongue,” says Maxfield. “What is most concerning is our inability to recover in a way that actually repairs — rather than harms — relationships and careers.”

If you cross a line like Janet did when she introduced her beau to colleagues via an ill-chosen photo, it’s best to apologize on the spot, says Blais Comeau. Try: “Can we scratch that? I didn’t think about it before I said it. I’m so sorry.” But if you didn’t do this, and you now have a strained relationship as a result, you need to specifically acknowledge and apologize for the past incident — even if it feels like raising the dead, says Maxfield. First, apologize as if it just happened, then ask what you can do to make things right and follow through by doing exactly as they ask.