Relationship Status Is The Most Taboo Topic In The Workplace
"How much do you weigh?" is never really an appropriate question in the workplace, unless your workplace is a boxing ring. "How old are you?" isn't so OK after your 20s. "Who are you voting for in 2012?" can be a little touchy, and "Is Jesus Christ your personal savior?" is best kept to your leisure time. But out of all the potential uncomfortable subjects for water cooler banter, "Are you dating anyone?" is apparently the worst.
In a phone survey of 834 employed Americans, Adecco Staffing found that relationship status beat out politics, religion, weight and age as the most taboo topic in the workplace. Almost a quarter of respondents said it was the most cringe-worthy subject to broach, followed by political beliefs (at 16 percent), and medical history (at 11 percent).
Mixing love, sex and the office seems to be something most workers think it best to avoid. Well, nearly 40 percent of workers have dated a co-worker, according to a 2010 CareerBuilder survey, so they don't avoid it entirely. But most courting co-workers prefer discretion. While the majority of respondents in the Adecco survey socialize with their bosses in their free time (68 percent), 43 percent of those individuals thought a double date would be the most awkward activity, followed by a movie.
But these norms may be changing. Taboos tend to erode over time, and Generation Y -- with its hunger for authenticity, transparency, and a more porous divide between work and life -- is less inclined to stay mum, on anything.
"Everything is more transparent," say Ryan Healy, the co-founder of Brazen Careerist, a career management resource for young professionals, which publishes the salaries of all its employees. "Everyone knows everything."
"They're more comfortable talking about money," agrees Lindsey Pollack, a best-selling author and expert on next generation career trends. "They're more comfortable talking about relationships. They're more comfortable talking about their parents, their feelings. They're more comfortable talking about whether or not they're happy in their job."
Three-quarters of millennials have a profile on a social networking site, according to the Pew Research Center. One-fifth have posted a video of themselves online.
"With social media, all parts of their lives are completely blended," says Anna Ivey, the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. "And they have a very blended sense of self in the workplace."
Almost 40 percent of Gen Y also have a tattoo. Twenty-somethings today care about expressing themselves, even if it violates old workplace norms, like not having a Cobra visibly inked on your bicep.
Relationship status is no different. In the "eureka" moment of "The Social Network," Mark Zuckerberg decides to include a "relationship status" tab on Facebook profiles.
"This is what drives life at college," he says. "Are you having sex or aren't you. It's why people take certain classes and sit where they sit and do what they do, and it's um ... center, you know, that's what TheFacebook is gonna be about."
The workplace is definitely not college. But there isn't just a relationship status tab on Facebook, Pollack points out. There's one on LinkedIn too, and that's a professional network.
Young people have become accustomed to sharing personal details of their lives with the world, and this looser sense of privacy is seeping into the workplace too. And with young people delaying marriage more these days, it's far less of a stigma to be single later in life.
"It's not the '50s, where everybody needs a husband or a wife, two kids and a dog called Spot," says Healy.
But despite an over-sharing culture, Pollack believes that young people still want some control over who has access to their sharing. "Would they want their boss to ask them about their relationship status? Probably not," Pollack says. "Their colleagues? Absolutely."
It was the generation before them, Ivey points out, who worked to make it unacceptable for employers to ask women in particular about personal issues, like relationship status. "Now it's a moot point," she says.
Certain topics remain enduringly touchy, however, according to Healy. Like politics and religion. Two people can have an excellent working relationship, he explains, but if they discover that they fundamentally disagree on the existence of God, say, or Mitt Romney's qualifications for president, things risk going sour.
Of course, this depends on the type of workplace. "If you work in an investment bank, you might want to be more close-mouthed. If you work in a nonprofit, you might talk about politics all the time," notes Pollack.
Ivey believes everything is fair game these days. "I'm not sure if there any more real taboos or boundaries being observed."
Regardless of the sector or the subject, the world is sliding relentlessly into a more open, transparent place. It's much easier to knock taboos down, after all, then to build them back up.
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