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August: Secrets Versus TMI (Too Much Information)
Several years ago, a woman who had worked in an organization for many years consulted me about how to handle a secret she had kept from co-workers. After a long illness, her husband had died and she chose to conceal this event from her co-workers. The woman had cordial professional relationships with her colleagues, but she did not wish to be an object of pity or scrutiny. She justified this failure to disclose an important life event as separating her private life from her professional life but felt uncomfortable when she was invited to a barbeque at a colleague’s home. How would she explain the missing husband?
Another woman consulted me about her supervisor, complaining that she heard far too much about the supervisor’s private life of partying, drinking and dating. This supervisor would send pictures of herself to her staff while she was out and about. In many of the pictures she appeared to be under the influence of alcohol.
What information should be shared with colleagues and supervisors? What information should be withheld? What should you do if you find yourself working with someone who shares too much? How do online postings influence the sharing of personal information? In the first case, not enough was shared. In the second, too much was shared.
In general, sharing some personal information with co-workers is healthy. It helps people get to know one another and work together productively. It’s also considered common courtesy. Sharing things or events you are proud of makes sense, such as a new baby, car or home. Asking about a weekend or Red Sox game, volunteering where you are spending your vacation or where your child is going to school are all fine.
Let’s consider some of the reasons why privacy might be an important guideline to observe. You don’t want to burden colleagues with your personal problems. Avoid talking about that divorce or nasty daughter-in-law. Don’t bring your dilemma about how to handle a family member who drinks too much. With social media, be careful of what information you put about yourself online. Facebook and online postings are like tattoos: they stay forever. An article in the June 2007 Harvard Business Review presented a case study of Mimi, a talented young woman who applied for a job in fashion marketing in China. The Human Resources director Googled her and learned that she had been the leader of a protest group with campaigns against China’s treatment of a dissident journalist, a detail that the HR director believed could compromise her ability to establish relationships with Chinese customers.
To be successful at work people should see your strengths, your good judgement, your skill at handling awkward situations and your focus on productivity. You don’t want people to see how confused and upset you are about that pesky personal problem. Many organizations offer confidential employee assistance from trained behavioral health clinicians who can meet with you and help you figure out how to handle those personal problems, preserving a boundary between your work and personal life. The Faculty Staff Assistance Office here at Boston University offers a confidential setting in which people might explore how to handle distressing personal problems and figure out what to say at work to supervisors and colleagues.
In the first case, the widow met individually with each of her close colleagues and supervisors, informed them of the loss of her husband and explained briefly that she had coped with his illness and death by not talking about it at work. She asked them for their understanding and she attended the next office social event.
In the second case, the supervisee informed her supervisor that she was not comfortable hearing about the supervisor’s leisure life and asked her to stop sharing it, which she did. Had the supervisor continued, the supervisee planned to go to Human Resources.
Once you have shared something about yourself at work, you can’t pull it back. But not sharing major life events or simple social activities and interests can be interpreted that you are aloof and do not care about the people with whom you work. Strike the right balance between too little and too much.
by Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW