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February 14, 2019

Dealing With Inappropriate Personal Stories at Work – Your Top Tips

Matthew Hughes


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It's lunchtime. You're sending a few messages and catching up on that great article you were reading. Suddenly, uh oh, your colleague sits down next to you, and he continues the highly inappropriate personal story he started yesterday. You want to scream, "Please stop talking!" But you feel trapped.

So, what do you do?

It's not always clear whether or not a conversation is suitable for the workplace – when a colleague is going through a bereavement, for example, or if two good friends aren't aware that other people can overhear them.

But, for the most part, it's obvious when a subject is inappropriate. And sometimes, it seems like people just didn't get the memo: work is a professional environment and some things are best left at home.

The guilty person may not realize that they're crossing a line, being rude, or making someone uncomfortable. But with bad behavior at work linked to declining productivity and team cohesion, the problem extends beyond having an awkward lunch.

So, do you tell them to shut up? Do you report them to your manager? Or, do you keep quiet and hope they get the message?

We wanted to hear how you deal with this type of situation. So we asked our friends on social media for advice on what to do when someone is sharing inappropriate personal stories at work.

Shut It Down

Many of you were of the opinion that it's best to close the conversation down, whether or not it appears rude to do so.

Our Facebook friend Sheryl Davis says, "If it is something I do not want to hear, I say I don't want to hear it. Simple!"

On LinkedIn, freelance management consultant Nicola Gould suggests the best tactic is to, "Say politely, but firmly, 'I don't really think that's a topic for the office.' Don't be afraid to call out inappropriate behavior, and don't feel embarrassed or apologize – they're the one who's in the wrong."

Consider Context

We had many responses on LinkedIn suggesting that context is important.

Business consultant Akhbaat Haque Sangita feels that it's important to get to the root of the problem. She says, "Maybe a little bit of moral support will help this person to behave like a mature person, and to stop sharing inappropriate, personal stories at work."

Heidi L. believes that your reaction should depend on the situation. She says, "If they are non-HR issues, you can tell them directly you would prefer not to hear the stories and facilitate a work-related discussion. If the inappropriateness continues, some people just take the issue straight to a supervisor or HR."

Heidi relates a direct experience of the latter situation. She says, "From a recent example, inappropriateness was a part of this worker's personality. Therefore, no matter how many warnings they received, they continued. This person was a leadership/HR issue, but also needed staff to speak up and not insecurely laugh it off, thus encouraging the behavior, and complaining later."

It's also important to take your time when considering your response. "If a colleague or client makes me uncomfortable, I often need a moment to think about it and how to address it," says Jennifer Diamant Foulon. "As a coach and consultant, when I see that someone has been made uncomfortable, I address it with both parties. First, individually. Then, I offer to address it more systemically, all together."

Inappropriate Humour

Jennifer also talks about how cultural differences can affect the way that humor is interpreted. "I work so often in international groups where a lot of people want to be funny," she says. "And their humor does not always create the desired impact."

Similarly, David 風水 V. warned of the potential for getting yourself in hot water if you engage with an inappropriate joke. "Tell them to stop," says David. "If they tell an off-color joke and you're listening, you're liable to get fired along with the teller. You are judged by the company you keep, so err on the side of caution every time."

However, Randy Jenkins suggests that a deft, light-hearted touch can often defuse any potential awkwardness, while also fixing the problem: "We aren’t allowed to cut their heads off so I just jokingly tell them, 'That wasn’t a nice thing to say and we should stay on topic.'"

For more advice on navigating the tricky terrain of office humor, see our blog, Humor in the Workplace: Not a Laughing Matter!

Ignore It

Sometimes the best policy might be to simply avoid the colleague and their stories. This idea was particularly popular on Twitter.

@Duckydoodle18 says, "Dysfunctional people are in every corner of an office. Always be kind. But don’t get sucked into their drama."

And @cpamanagement declared, "Don’t walk away… RUN!"

For the most part, our social media friends agree that you must confront the issue one way or another. Leaving it alone usually just makes it worse.

If you're struggling to find the right words, perhaps this polite (yet firm and final) phrase from careers adviser Marcus Burton is ideal: "Please don't be offended, but I would prefer it if we don't talk about those types of things at work."

Have you ever been told an inappropriate story at work? Let us know in the Comments, below!

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