Companies & Industries

How Much Is Too Much Information at Work?


Once you share even a seemingly benign personal story with colleagues, people may perceive you differently—and some may question your judgment

When I was starting out in the white-collar world, it was a very different social environment from the typical workplace of 2007. We talked about work, work, work, with a little personal gossip thrown in now and then. From time to time, we'd say something like "I saw a good movie this weekend." People didn't bring their personal lives to the office as much as they do now.

Of course, the dress codes were more formal, the use of titles was more formal, and workplaces in general were more hierarchical and buttoned-down then. I'm not complaining about the changes. But the loosening up of many workplace cultures has made it more difficult to determine just which elements of one's personal life should be made public in the office.

Loose Lips Sink Careers

Take divorce. Twenty years ago, divorce was a much more sensitive topic than it is now. Today, you can visit a corporate lunchroom and hear the most sensitive details of a divorce shared with co-workers who may not even be especially close friends. Many people look for social connections at work and get much of their emotional support from their work-mates. But is there a cost to divulging too much of your private life in the office?

There can be. People who are in a position to make decisions about your career may have a different (and less positive) view of your decision to tell all in the office than do the co-workers whose advice you rely on. Your organization's leaders may question your judgment if too much of your personal life is familiar to too many of your colleagues.

Spilling your guts at work is tricky. Once you've shared the details of an unfortunate incident between you and your spouse, sibling, or an old schoolmate you recently ran into, you can't take it back. Any story you relate, no matter how poignant, comical, or sympathy-inducing, soon takes on a life of its own. Once a story is out there, you no longer control whether it gets passed along to others, because people will pass it on for conversation value. And forget about saying "Now, I'm telling you this in utmost secrecy." The people you tell the story to will say those exact same words as they pass the story along from workmate to workmate, until the whole floor knows about it.

Sick of the Lies

Here's the problem: Your role in the story (victim, hero, etc.) is based on the listener's perception. You may believe you were blameless or even worthy of praise for your actions in the life stories you relate, but the person who hears your story three degrees away from the actual event may see things differently. Can you afford to have your professional reputation tarnished by a personal anecdote (or saga) that puts you in a less than favorable light—fairly or not?

I get a lot of mail from gay men and women who are pondering whether to come out of the closet at work. The most common query goes, "I am out everywhere else, in my neighborhood and with my family and friends. I just have a hesitation about coming out a work, because it's hard to say how it might affect my advancement opportunities. At the same time, I'm sick of always being asked to meet some nice young man or young woman that my co-workers think would be perfect for me. And I'm sick of having to lie about what I did over the weekend."

I wouldn't try to advise a person on when and whether to make that leap—it's about the most personal decision I can think of. The benefits to establishing your sexual preference are clear: No more inappropriate fix-ups, the chance to talk as freely about your personal life as anyone else. The thing is, the possible downsides might not be clear at first, and they may not reveal themselves for a long time. Your boss's attitudes—something you might not be able to gauge easily ahead of time—are of utmost importance.

Will Sharing Be Daring?

Some organizations have affinity groups that would provide support for you in figuring out these thorny issues. In places that haven't addressed the issues yet, you may be on your own. In those cases, I would seek out an organization such as PFLAG (pflag.org) to get advice from people in your area who have been through the same journey. (PFLAG stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.) Currently, 17 states and more than 150 cities and counties prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But that leaves a large number of areas where such discrimination is perfectly legal. It's important to know what's legal where you live.

There are still people in the real world and in the work world who believe that coming out at work is somehow 'shoving your beliefs/lifestyle in someone else's face.' Personally, I can't see how sharing your gay/straight orientation is especially 'shove-y,' unless walking down the street with curly red hair and freckles also would be viewed as shoving your Irish ancestry in someone's face. But those views exist, and they could affect your workplace relationships, your effectiveness on the job, and even your ability to stay employed.

The freedom to be yourself at work—to whatever degree you want—can be a major factor in job satisfaction, as anyone who has spent time in a walking-on-eggshells workplace culture can attest. How much of yourself to share, when, and with whom are the moving parts that each of us must work out on our own.

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at www.businessweek.com/managing/. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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