Office Talk

A workplace Learning professional sometimes has to step into areas beyond skills training. One such area is office conversation. In manager training, employees should learn when to put an end to a conversation, conversations to avoid starting, and how to gracefully manage conversations that could turn volatile. 

An article a couple weeks ago on Thrive Global by Jade Pulman offers guidance on topics to avoid at the office. However, some of those perilous topics do need to be addressed.

One such topic is salary. While employees should never run around the office bragging about how big their salary is with the new raise, salary transparency is important. Women and minorities have been proven to have lower salaries than white men doing the same work. If employees don’t know how much others in the same position are making, then how can they advocate for fair treatment? In a large company, with many employees in the same job role, and at the same level, Human Resources could provide a list, omitting names but identifying race and gender, of what each employee earns annually. Employees could look at that list at any time to see whether their salary is in line with others doing the same work, and whether there are disturbing patterns of women and minorities consistently being paid less.

How do you handle the pay fairness conversation in a much smaller company in which there are so few employees that, even omitting names, people will be able to easily figure out who’s who on the list of salaries? One way to approach it would be for the paycheck conversation—as it compares to others in the same job role and at the same level—to be a mandated part of the annual performance review. That conversation would be strictly between the manager and each employee, with no other employees in the room. The manager could speak in terms of percentages, such as “Your salary is 30 percent below where the others in your same job role and level are.” Or: “Your salary, percentage-wise, is exactly where others in a parallel role and level are.” 

From there, the manager could explain the objective calculations that went into determining employees’ salaries compared to their peers, including volume of work and money generated by the employee and other accomplishments. 

“Management resentment” is another topic that Pulman warns readers not to bring up. Like the paycheck conversation, management resentment is uncomfortable, but a topic that has to be addressed. Avoiding it can result in high-performing employees who leave mysteriously after just a year on the job, or long-term employees who stay on the job but become disengaged. 

Along with honest conversations about how an employee’s salary compares to his or her peers, the manager, in a one-on-one setting at least once a year, needs to find out from employees how they truly feel about the company. To get employees to open up, managers should share a few areas of needed improvement for the company they have noted themselves. It might help to frame the conversation in terms of “needed improvement” versus criticism. In addition, the company should require each employee, with anonymity assured, to complete an employee satisfaction survey every year. The same question managers ask employees once a year about areas where the company can improve should be asked on the survey. 

The health trade publication I edit was acquired by a large company a year-and-a-half ago. To my surprise, I haven’t seen an employee satisfaction survey circulated. I’m eager to provide feedback on the perils of the open-plan office layout, especially as it relates to women. I have noticed the two men on either side of me keeping watch, and it makes me uncomfortable. I found a Fast Company article online that shows this feeling may be more than paranoia. I would love to share my thoughts, and a link to this article, with my company’s Human Resources department and other executive decision-makers.

I would explain that simple, cheap barriers on the sides of the desks and in front of the employee would suffice in providing enough privacy not to feel constantly watched and on display. There is no need to carve out space for full-scale cubicles. I improvised and got a large poster, placed on poster-board, which I was able to lean on the short barrier in front of me to create privacy from the front. Now I have to figure out a solution for the sides—or maybe my company can come up with one. 

Job searching is another verboten topic, according to Pulman. I’ve had conversations about job searching more than once in my career for the sake of honesty, to underscore my level of job dissatisfaction, and to let my employer know I have other options. It was risky of me to do this, but sometimes a boss or company that takes an employee for granted needs to be reminded that nearly no employee is locked in for the long term. It’s not just as long as you will have them, but as long as they will have you. A friendly conversation on that topic sometimes goes a long way. 

What guidance do you give managers on topics to avoid discussing in the office? What conversations are uncomfortable but essential to have to ensure a fair and satisfying workplace?