Should sports chat be cracked down on in the office? Some people say yes

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Creating truly inclusive workplaces has become more important than ever, an issue which has led to debate as to whether reining in the discussion of certain topics in the office is part of the solution in changing corporate culture.

Ann Francke, CEO of a U.K. professional body called the Chartered Management Institute, said in an interview with BBC radio that talking about sports like soccer or cricket in the office made women "feel left out."

She warned that discussing sport in the office was a "gateway" to locker room talk and left unchecked, could result in this becoming part of a company's culture.

Francke said it was easy for a conversation in the office to escalate from debating sport to "slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend."

While Francke did not call for an all-out ban on talking about sports in the office, she encouraged employers to moderate these discussions in order to ensure conversations were more inclusive.

However, some have argued that assuming women aren't interested in having a conversation about sport is sexist in itself.

Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice president of U.S. think-tank the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), said "women are just as likely to be sports fans and love to participate in that type of conversation."

In fact, she said that talking about sports or other hobbies in the office can build a "camaraderie" and "connection" with colleagues, as well as helping foster employees' "sense of belonging" at work.

Bev Shah, CEO of City Hive — a network working for greater diversity in the investment industry — agreed that "watercooler moments" discussing each other's interests can actually help build a company's culture and give "people points of connection that help develop working relationships."

Having "shared moments" such as a soccer World Cup, cultural holiday or another event, she added, can help create "understanding and awareness."


When asked whether these sorts of comments risked backlash, if employers started to censor workplace conversations, Jain-Link warned companies could face "disgruntled employees and bad press for diminishing freedom of speech."

More problematically, she added that employers ran the risk of creating environments where people didn't feel comfortable sharing opinions, which could "undermine innovation and impact the bottom line."

Instead, she advised employers create guidelines about how employees can have difficult conversations or be more inclusive in office small talk.

"For instance, if you are having a conversation about football and there's a person in the room that doesn't follow the sport, you can still find ways to include them or bring them up to speed," she suggested, explaining that "it's about acknowledging and respecting your colleagues."

Shah said that restricting the discussion of certain topics was putting the emphasis on the wrong issues as opposed to addressing a true corporate culture change.

"The risk is individuals will be made to feel a part of the problem as opposed to finding a collaborative solution that includes them," she said.

Old boys' club

At the same time, Shah said a workplace dominated by "one topic or one style of communication is not an inclusive one."

"There should be a cultural contract in the workplace where colleagues are mindful of the intensity, volume and duration of the conversations they are having – this goes for any topic," she said.

Shah said it was important for companies to "draw a clear distinction" as to where conversations crossed a "red line," as "any communications that violates boundaries or makes people feel targeted or victimized is unacceptable."

Jain-Link equally said distinguishing between discrimination and exclusion was key.

She actually argued that companies should be focusing on bigger issues, such as harassment and "not these side conversations about hobbies."

The CTI has been conducting "culture audits" with a number of companies in the U.S. and Jain-Link said it found that for a lot of companies going through issues there was the presence of a "boys' club culture."

Also referred to as an "old boys' club," this alludes to a culture in a company which favors and is dominated by men, which originated from the connections men in the British elite have made in business from having attended certain prestigious schools.

Jain-Link said that sometimes this culture occurred "systemically" and other times in "isolated pockets" but emphasized that this should be the real area of focus for companies.

A recent working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicated that "male bonding" may be partly responsible for the pay gap between men and women.

Based on an analysis of a multinational Asian bank, it found men working for other men were promoted more often than women and suggested this could be responsible for nearly 40% of the gender pay gap.