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Taboo Topics at Work: 5 Rules for Navigating Thorny Conversations

A senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School offers advice for how to thoughtfully manage discussions around sensitive topics, including politics, health and money.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business School to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.


From politics to sex, hot-button topics arise all the time in the workplace and can be addressed wisely—or poorly—says Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Christina Wing, whose forthcoming book, Unspeakable, offers advice for managing weighty interactions.

Many people go to great lengths to avoid broaching controversial topics at work, Wing says, partly because they fear a backlash or even lawsuits. But it’s time to shatter the illusion of “fake harmony” that has become popular in today’s workplace and learn how to speak up appropriately, she says.

“What do you speak about with colleagues?” Wing asks. “Weather, food, sports and sometimes vacations. What we don’t talk about is succession, death, age, sex, health, money—so many things that affect our ability to do our jobs. Yet we want our leaders to be authentic, empathetic people we want to follow. If we don’t talk about anything that’s real, how can they do their jobs, and why would we follow them?”

Wing has developed five ironclad rules to apply to any awkward conversation. She has also outlined prescriptions for important topics that she says people should discuss but often avoid (think: job-hunting while pregnant). And when a conversation goes off the rails, she suggests ways to bring both parties back to the table to work on solutions.

Five Rules for a Successful Conversation

Take Steve, a fictitious character who is almost 30 and heading to business school after a stint in private equity. Steve wants to know if he’s in line for the top job in his family’s steel company. How should he broach the subject with the CEO—who also happens to be his mother? Wing says Steve should follow five rules:

  1. Don’t let problems fester. Situations worsen the longer they stew, Wing says, so resolving them early can smooth relationships and improve efficiency. Steve needs to have this conversation before he heads to business school. If his mother tries to push him off, he could say: “I realize this is a tough month, but the sooner the better. I will schedule a time to discuss this with you next month.”
  2. Ask for a meeting with at least 24 hours’ notice. Set a clear agenda when you request the meeting and give the other person time to prepare. It helps to show some vulnerability and willingness to compromise, so that your interlocutor knows you’re not looking for a fight. Steve could tell his mother, “I’ll miss living close to you,” and “I really value how hard you have worked.”
  3. Pick a neutral space and meet in person. An email or text can be read out of context, especially if the person you’re appealing to has other competing needs or distractions. “If I’ve just found out something horrible and you’re piling on with a difficult conversation, it isn’t going to end well,” Wing says. Steve suggests meeting in a conference room with the important figures in the company’s succession strategy.
  4. Keep the goal in mind. Do you just want to be heard, or do you want to accomplish something specific? Your approach should reflect your desired outcome. Steve wants to know if there’s a succession plan and if it includes him, so he needs to ask those questions.
  5. Don’t forget to outline next steps. Leave the conversation with a clear plan, so the gains made during the talk don’t fizzle out. Steve pledges to draft an email inquiring about his future opportunities at the company that his mother can send to other decisionmakers to move the issue forward.

Taboo Topics Workplaces Should Consider Addressing

Talking openly doesn’t just build rapport among teams; it’s also good for business, Wing says. Here are five important issues workplaces tend to avoid but should learn how to thoughtfully manage.


Suppose a 50-year-old manager reports to a 64-year-old boss. The path for advancement for the younger manager will likely happen when the boss retires, but it feels impolitic to broach that topic.

“It may suggest the boss is getting too old, is beginning to experience performance decline, or that we’re looking forward to them stepping away,” says Wing. “We’ve let this fear of litigation prevent us from even acknowledging age at work, to the point that we pretend workers in their 60s or 70s might do their jobs forever.”

This silence about age can lead to surprise transitions that are unnecessarily urgent or arduous. Staying quiet can also limit an organization’s ability to groom successors, threatening performance. “This leads many ambitious 50-year-olds to leave the company in search of better opportunities,” Wing says.

Instead, companies would be wise to initiate an open dialogue about succession, job satisfaction, and the potential for new opportunities with all employees, not just those of a certain age, Wing says. It should be part of each annual review, and every employee should be included in the planning of their own succession to make room for new talent and move them along to a new challenge. If these sorts of policies were put in place, discussing one’s next step (or departure) wouldn’t feel abrupt or discriminatory.


Wing works with a company that saw almost a million dollars in unexpected health care costs last year because the company’s generous health insurance plan covered about 1,000 subscribers’ prescriptions for Ozempic, the costly medicine for diabetes that is often used off-label for weight loss.

“We don’t have 1,000 people with diabetes all of a sudden, but we can’t go have that conversation with them because you’re not allowed to talk about medical conditions, and you’re definitely not allowed to talk about weight,” says Wing.

Instead, Wing says, the company must decide whether to reduce benefits—hurting many subscribers who need the medication—or foot the bill. It would be better, Wing says, if employers could speak with their employees about the fact that the generous health care benefits are intended to help those with needed medicine, and going forward, requests for certain prescriptions will be approved based on medical needs, not personal desires.


It’s another contentious presidential election year in the United States, plus other conflicts are brewing internationally that touch global business, but many believe it’s still taboo to talk about politics at work, Wing says. Economic issues that intertwine with politics, like monetary policy and trade restrictions, feel off limits as well, even though addressing them may be crucial to a company’s survival.

“We are running global businesses where if we aren’t talking about the politics in those countries, how do we have a proper supply chain? Do we just guess?” Wing asks.

While personal voting records and political party affiliations don’t need to be shared, employees should not have to completely self-censor when it comes to discussing geopolitical issues that might impact the business, Wing says. She suggests keeping the conversations professional, but also not avoiding topics that are relevant. In this case, in particular, management can model behavior for their employees.


Coworkers often gloss over financial differences on a team. “We go out for after-work drinks without acknowledging that some colleagues may not be able to afford it. We pretend colleagues doing the same job earn the same amount of money—even though there is often a wide disparity,” Wing says.

Salary negotiations also create unease, but it’s still an important conversation to pursue, she says. In many cases, managers would prefer to hear why employees feel they deserve better compensation and attempt to respond, rather than lose those employees to better-paying jobs.

This reluctance to talk about money can ripple out into broader strategic discussions at a company, creating a chilling effect. “I encounter many privately held companies where employees have no clue how much annual revenue the company makes,” Wing says.

The reason for the secrecy? Sometimes company officials worry that employees will take confidential financial information to a rival. But staying mum often sends the wrong message, she says. “If we can’t trust our employees, why should they trust us?” Wing asks.


Wing cites a study that reveals men are picked for jobs over women between the ages of 30 and 35 by a factor of seven to one. “The number one reason is because employers are worried that women in this age group are going to go on maternity leave,” says Wing. But “they can’t ask.”

She advises job candidates to meet the issue head on. One way to diffuse the issue is to bring it up in an interview, for example, by saying: “I’ve been married for seven years, have had three kids, and thankfully I’m now ready to focus more on growing my career.” And if a woman becomes pregnant after receiving a job offer, Wing suggests she share the news, along with her continued interest in the role. “Either way, they’re going to find out,” she says. “Why don’t you tell them now, so you’re not stressed and can actually plan?”

Employers can also find tactful ways to determine whether the candidate has any personal circumstances that might impede their ability to meet the job requirements. For example, they can say during the final stages of an interview: “I need to let you know that in the next few years you’re going to be on the road 80 percent of the time. Is there anything in your life that is going to impair your desire to do that?”

“Circumstances change and we all have to adjust,” Wing says, “but we should at least talk about it.”

What To Do When Things Go Wrong

Delicate conversations are difficult for a reason: The subjects often hit a nerve, bringing up plenty of deeply personal feelings. Wing offers this advice when a conversation begins to head south:

  • Focus on the main issue. It’s best not to quibble over a grudge from something said or done in the past. Stick to the primary issue at hand now, rather than attempting to resolve whatever insult fed into the problem.
  • Avoid getting defensive. Try not to take a combative stance, even if the other person goes there. Ask, “Why do you feel this way?” instead of trying to sort who’s right and wrong.
  • Hit pause. Ideally, before the conversation gets too heated, take a breath and suggest resuming the talk at another time, so you can step away to collect yourself.
  • Don’t stay silent. It might be easier to pretend a tough talk didn’t happen, but it’s important to follow up and acknowledge that the conversation didn’t go the way you wanted and focus on the parts that did.
  • Ask yourself. Can you solve the problem? When parties are at a stalemate, sometimes it’s better to seek a mediator’s counsel rather than keep going around and around.

Ultimately, Wing says, workplaces that welcome honest, fruitful conversations can improve both employee morale and company performance.

“We’ve spent so much time talking about what we shouldn’t talk about that we never spend time talking about what we should talk about,” she says.


Avery Forman is the senior associate editor at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. This article is reprinted from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge with permission. ©2024. All rights reserved.



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