Published in: Research | Sept. 24, 2019

Money Talk: Over 1,000 Employees Discuss Taboo Topics at Work

man and woman talking about money at work

Would you share your criminal history at the dinner table? How about details of your sex life? Would you bring up family issues that you're dealing with?

Even among close friends and family, there are topics too private and sensitive to be discussed at the table -- let alone the office. But this attitude isn't always healthy, particularly when it comes to money. Worrying that a financial topic is taboo can keep people who need information from finding answers.

We wanted to learn more about this "taboo barrier" both in and out of the office, so we surveyed over 1,000 employees about where they feel comfortable discussing sensitive subjects. Which financial topics are they willing to discuss, and which are too embarrassing to bring up? Read on to find out.

Dinner table discussions

people eating dinner with statistics about dinner table taboo topics

The most taboo dinner table topic was criminal history. Approximately 29.5% of Americans have a criminal record, but only 15% of respondents would bring up the topic at dinner. Receiving government assistance was also too sensitive for almost 85% of dinner guests, possibly due to the stigma that it carries.

Even taxes, a topic most working Americans can relate to, were considered taboo by 65.6% of respondents. That said, our study also revealed a significant difference between genders in how willing they were to talk about taxes at the table. Women were 7.2 percentage points more likely to consider taxes to be a taboo dinner table topic.

Perhaps if gender roles had been an easier topic for dinner guests, both genders would feel equally equipped to discuss their taxes over a meal. But 66.2% of respondents wouldn't talk about this tough subject at the table.

Overheard at the office

people talking at work with statistics about workplace taboo topics

Things changed when the location shifted from the dinner table to the office. The percentage of people that thought a subject was taboo increased for every single topic. Whether because there's the potential for repercussions at work or because they don't know their coworkers as well as their dinner guests, people are more reticent to broach tough topics at work.

Respondents' sex lives were the No. 1 topic avoided at the office -- 91.9% won't talk about it at work. Criminal history took a close second, with 91.8% of respondents considering the discussion impermissible at the office. Men and women were in closer agreement on this issue, with only a four-percentage-point difference in their likelihood of considering criminal history to be a taboo work topic.

Credit card debt, a common American dilemma, was still too taboo for 85.5% of employees to discuss. Employees may be willing to do their own research on credit card issues online, but they're not willing to talk about them at work.

Financial exchanges

56.9% of people think personal finance is a taboo topic

Society doesn't have an easygoing relationship with financial discussions. Revealing how much money you make, owe, or even aspire to earn could rub somebody the wrong way, as 56.9% of respondents agreed that personal finances were a taboo topic regardless of the time and place.

60.2% of women think personal finance is taboo, compared to 53.6% of men

Women were more likely to feel this way than men, with 60.2% of females saying that personal finances are a taboo topic of conversation in any situation (only 53.6% of men agree).

But not all women felt the same: Those who weren't satisfied with their pay were less comfortable discussing their personal financial situations. Those who were satisfied with their salary were about five percentage points more likely to feel comfortable discussing their personal finances.

59.4% of people dissatisfied with financial situation think personal finance is taboo, 55% of people satisfied with financial situation

Level of employment, however, had the opposite effect. The more senior a respondent’s position, the less comfortable he or she was discussing personal finances. Mid-level and senior managers (60%) were more likely than first-level managers (54%), intermediate-level employees (57%), and entry-level employees (57%) to say discussing personal finances was taboo.

That said, those who were near retirement had evidently moved beyond some of these social restrictions -- these respondents were the most likely to think that discussing personal finances wasn't taboo.

Management discussions

employees talking with managers at work and statistics about comfortability

For our respondents, there's a big difference between talking to your manager and talking to your co-workers -- even when talking about professional topics. Most respondents weren't willing to discuss their managers' work history and education. Only 46.5% of employed respondents would ask their manager about their employment history, yet 65.3% were willing to ask their co-workers the same thing.

The small number of people willing to broach these topics didn't stem from an overall discomfort with the subject, however, as 79% of respondents revealed that they would ask a close friend about their work history.

The discrepancy in comfort between management and co-workers widened when it came to discussing thoughts on the CEO. Only 24% of employees would consider asking their managers about their thoughts on the current CEO, even if they might be complimentary. Forty-two percent happily discussed their chief executive officers with their co-workers, however.

Gendered conversations

24.0% of males are comfortable talking about finances with co-workers, compared to 27.4% of females

While 32.4% of male employees felt comfortable discussing personal finances with other male co-workers, only 28.5% of women would approach the topic with other female co-workers.

26.7% of males would talk to female co-workers about finances compared to 28.5% of females

Nevertheless, women were less likely to feel comfortable discussing personal finances with the opposite gender than men were: 16% of women could speak about personal finances with male co-workers, and nearly 26% of men could talk about personal finances with female colleagues.

32.4% of men would talk to male co-workers about personal finances, compared to 16.2% of females

There may be a distinct motivation behind those respondents who were willing to discuss potentially revealing financial information: 55% of employees believed that discussing personal income at work would help to increase awareness of the gender pay gap.

Another 20% of employees felt that the discussion would help build employer trust. Evidently, open and honest communication concerning finances reveals hope for positive changes -- even in the workplace.

Freedom of financial discussions

What keeps you from bringing up these tough topics? Do you worry about what others might think? Do you fear repercussions at work?

Whatever the cause, not talking about these topics could keep you from engaging in useful conversations (even if they're tough ones). Although it may be uncomfortable at first, your co-workers or even managers may have the same personal finance questions and interests as you.

If the office and dinner table don't prove to be the most informative, seek free but reputable education online. At The Ascent, trusted financial experts and advisers cover topics from choosing the best credit cards to navigating brokerage accounts, all of which are based on years of experience and education. And if your co-worker happens to be brave enough to ask financial questions, you'll be better equipped to engage them in more helpful and informative ways.

Methodology

For this study, we compiled responses from 1,008 employed people in the United States. Of the 1,008 employees polled, 517 were female, 411 were male, and six respondents identified as neither male nor female. The average age of the group surveyed was 37. This poll had a margin of error of +/-3%.

In some cases, questions and responses may have been rephrased, grouped, or relabeled for brevity. In all of these cases, we made an effort to represent the respondents' original intent. Outliers have been removed where necessary, specifically where annual salary was questioned.

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