When on-the-clock conversations get uncomfortable

CPAs and others offer tips for navigating workplace discussions.
By Dawn Wotapka

The office watercooler isn't known as a fun spot because people want hydration: It's where real conversations happen. Who is getting promoted? What's hot with reality television? How about the big game?

Such conversations, whether held at the actual watercooler or elsewhere, help the workday go faster and colleagues get to know each other better. But these conversations won't necessarily end well if the topics veer into sensitive areas.

What do you do when things take an awkward turn? Here are some tips to help you steer clear of touchy topics and to handle them gracefully when they do arise in the workplace:

Consider the time and the place. If you are engaging in a conversation, follow the age-old advice of thinking before you speak, which is the easiest way to prevent issues. The things you talk about at a neighborhood barbecue or family gathering — such as your irritation with your boss or joking about current events — may not cut it on company time.

When at the office, remember to keep your thoughts and speech in line with workplace standards and avoid profanity and potentially offensive language or topics, said Lois Krause, a practice leader in HR compliance at KardasLarson, a human-resources consulting firm based in Connecticut.

"You might consider co-workers friends, but remember you are not at a friend's house," she said. "It's a workplace, where others might overhear your conversation."

David Almonte, CPA, an audit manager with DiSanto, Priest & Co. in Providence, R.I., agreed. "I always try to make sure the environment in which the talk will take place is conducive to the topic," he said.

Avoid hot topics. It is a good rule to keep conversations largely related to the work, be it tax-law changes or career-building topics. Given that small talk is an essential part of everyday life, food and local weather are time-tested safe bets.

Tread lightly with weight, money, and gossip. Topics concerning race, ethnicity, and heritage are also generally no-nos. Skip politics and religion, which aren't good topics because they can command either devout loyalty or excessive animosity and you're unlikely to change someone's mind on the spot. "When you have only love or hate, simply stay away from the subject," Krause advised.

She also suggested avoiding topics about other people's family or personal life, unless you're congratulating them for a milestone they bring up, such as a birthday, wedding, or new baby. The last thing you want to do is ask about a wedding, only to learn it was called off at the last minute.

Watch for cues. When having a conversation, watch participants for visual clues. Eyes can easily show fear or anger, while faces can lose expression. The tone of voice may change as someone becomes less involved in the conversation. When race or heritage comes up, Michel Valbrun, CPA, an internal auditor with Verizon in Atlanta, generally stays silent or shifts his demeanor "to say that's not something I really want to talk about," he said.

Defuse the situation. If you realize you've offended the listener, apologize immediately. If someone says something you don't like or agree with, feel free to quickly change the subject, Valbrun said. Easy outs include "I value your input" or "Let's agree to disagree."

The conversation shift can be subtler. "I recommend taking a portion of what was said and transitioning to a new topic," Valbrun said. If a colleague or client starts talking about a controversial news story, he suggested saying something fun or quirky. For a quick and safe transition, try something like: "I also heard today is National Pie Day. What is your favorite?" (For a list of other celebratory days ranging from National Spaghetti Day to National Chocolate-Chip Cookie Day, click here.)

Walk away. While working to not offend others, you could actually be the one on the receiving end. If that happens, you can let the person know, but be tactful. "Keep calm when you tell them and do it in a matter-of-fact manner, or you risk escalating the situation," Krause advised.

If that doesn't work, find a reason to exit the discussion. "I always try to excuse myself from conversations that I would rather not be involved in or it's not the proper time and place," Almonte said.

Valbrun gave the same advice. "Do not engage in the conversation," he said. "Participating in sensitive subjects can lead to even more controversial comments."

Escalate the issue. Sometimes, bosses or managers need to be alerted when colleagues are involved. If someone else offends you, and doesn't try to make amends, you may want to approach human resources. You can also be proactive if you fear you're the offender. Consider HR "if you feel you have crossed the line and did not get a warm feeling when you apologized, or if you walked away and thought it was wrong after the fact," Krause said.

When in doubt, she added, ask a manager or trusted mentor to see if he or she believes HR should be consulted.

It's trickier when clients are the issue. Still, don't feel like you can't say anything, said Jennifer Crittenden, a career consultant based in San Diego. Don't pretend to agree with things you don't; instead, steer the conversation elsewhere.

"Deflecting gracefully back to the work is productive and sends a polite message that you shouldn't sit around talking," she said. "Your client doesn't want to pay you to do that."

Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, JofA associate director, at

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