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Addressing personal issues at the office can be a sticky wicket. On one hand, building meaningful connections with colleagues is important to success and satisfaction at work. On the other, mixing the personal with the professional in the wrong way can hurt your credibility in the office. What’s an employee to do?
We asked a panel of career experts for their views on getting personal at work: what should you share, and how much is too much?
When deciding whether to share personal issues at work, it’s important to consider your intent in sharing. “When hard things happen, we often feel the need to vent our frustration, but work is not the place,” says Al Switzler, co-author of the New York Times’ bestseller Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. “It’s important not to share issues at work that come across as complaining or gossiping.”
So when is the time to share personal issues at work? According to Switzler, those times should be reserved for when the issue will affect your job performance and you need to discuss a solution to continue to fulfill your commitments. “If the issue isn’t affecting your job performance, you don’t want to share something that would create questions, hesitancies, or look like you’re asking for special treatment,” he says.
Kathi Elster, executive coach and co-author of Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal, agrees that the only time you should tell your boss and co-workers about your personal life is when it will affect them in some way. For example:
Sharing outside of these limited boundaries can cause a career misstep. “In our virtual, viral, voyeuristic world over-sharing is universal,” says author Sandra Lamb. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s wise; particularly when it comes to your personal life and the workplace.” Elster adds that it is possible to tell too much about yourself at work, making others feel that your life is too complicated for you to take on bigger projects—you may even miss out on a promotion.
“Don’t unknowingly take yourself out of the running for promotions or plum assignments because you revealed your dream to pack up and sail around the world someday or you mentioned you might want to work part-time if you ever have children,” says Liz O’Donnell, author of Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman. “If the time comes when you want to reduce your hours or leave altogether, make sure it’s on your terms.”
To avoid getting labeled as someone who has so many personal problems that it holds you back professionally, Elster recommends that you don’t tell your boss or co-workers about:
Having too many personal items—pictures, mementos, knick-knacks, etc.—decorating your cube or office may give the impression that you’d rather be somewhere else. Certified etiquette instructor Callista Gould suggests thinking about what kind of statement any personal photos you display at work say about you.
“I was in a bank, sitting in the office of a young woman who was an account representative, and I could not help noticing all the pictures taped to the file cabinet behind her of her looking glassy-eyed and schnockered at a sorority party,” says Gould. “It did not build my confidence in that bank.”
Separating your personal information from the workplace becomes more important the higher you go in an organization. “If senior managers don’t display family photos and kids’ artwork, you may not want to either,” says O’Donnell.
“It is good to maintain a little mystery—mystery is what makes a person interesting,” says Gould. “If you put everything you see, think, and feel out there—in conversations at the office or on social media—your mystery is history.”
Not all companies are the same when it comes to the acceptability of bringing the personal to work with you. More workplaces today are recognizing that employees are more engaged and productive when they bring their authentic selves to work—which means in some office cultures, employees can more freely share their personal lives and interests, according to O’Donnell.
She thus recommends gauging your work environment before you share personal data. “Look at senior management,” suggests O’Donnell. “Is the leadership team diverse? Are there mothers in the highest positions? What attributes are valued? Take cues from management. Is volunteer work valued? Do people easily mix work and family? Read the obvious cues and the subtle cues too.”
Your work environment should also prompt your decision-making not just about whom you share personal info with, but how you do so. Management consultant Gordon Veniard notes that if your boss is a results-oriented, to-the-point person, then a full description of a personal situation—even if it’s related to work schedules—will simply be irritating.
For example, suppose one of your kids is ill and you need to take him or her to the doctor. Veniard explains that for a results-oriented boss, a quick phone call will suffice: “Hi, I have to take John to the doctor at 9AM—I’ll be in work by ten and Susan has agreed to cover for me.”
On the other hand, if your team leader is a people person, it’s more important to make him or her feel included: “Hi, John has a sore throat—it’s been tickling away at him for a couple of days now, so Sally and I both feel we’d better take him to the doctor. We have an appointment at 9:15 with Dr. Grey—she’s really nice—and I should have him safely back home and be in by 10. Is that okay?”
All in all, it’s best to think twice before opening up too much about your personal life at work. Lamb notes that sharing only on a need-to-know basis—and only information that directly pertains to doing your job—could mean you are regarded as unfriendly, or standoffish. That may not be so bad, she points out, because you may become known instead for your work ethic, character traits, and business acumen. “More careers have been derailed by over-sharing,” says Lamb, “than have suffered at the hands of an ill-intended boss or co-worker.”
About Robin Madell
Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology, and public-interest issues. She is a contributing writer to U.S. News & World Report and serves as a copywriter, speechwriter, and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Robin is the author of Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30 and co-author of The Strong Principles: Career Success.