When you spend more hours with your colleagues than with your family, it may seem natural that you'll get to know each other. But before you start divulging details about your personal life in an effort to connect with co-workers, beware. There's a fine line between appropriate sharing and creating confidences that might kill your career.
Whether you're a new grad preparing to start your first job or a seasoned industry veteran, the rules are the same when it comes to "TMI" in the workplace. Here are five types of information to never with co-workers:
Negative feelings about your job or colleagues. With social media just a click away, it can be tempting to vent about a bad day at work with your online network. But even if your profile settings are marked as "private," it's always a bad judgment call to fume either on Facebook or in person about negative feelings or experiences you have regarding your company, colleagues or job. Even if you think you're couching terms with discretion, you're best to save workplace opinions for your family and friends who are not connected with the office.
"You've heard the horror stories," says Marilyn Santiesteban, assistant director of career services at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. "My best advice is not to post about your colleagues or any details of your work -- especially if it is negative or might be confidential. Employers love positive staff posts, but it takes a while to determine what's appropriate. If in doubt -- don't!"
Opinions that may cause controversy. While it may seem like a no-brainer to avoid discussing controversial topics like politics and religion at work, the importance of doing so can't be overstated. Nothing good can come from discussions that create dissension among colleagues. Plus, in the worst-case scenario, saying something that offends someone else on these matters may lead to a lawsuit.
"There's an old adage that goes: 'Do not share things that you would not want your mother, boss or priest to know,'" says Jenny Korn, scholar of online identity at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Now, I would substitute parent for mother. The advice still stands, because it operates on not discussing things that might cause discord with a person that is in a position to judge one's behavior, like a parent, boss or priest."
Since your political stance on an issue might not match a colleague's, raising the issue might affect work relations, Korn adds, and bringing up your choices regarding sexual intimacy could be construed as harassment.
Health issues. Sharing positive health habits like exercising on your lunch hour might earn you respect in the office. But be wary of slipping into the negative when detailing health-related issues or disclosing health conditions or health history, cautions Charley Polachi, managing partner at Polachi Access Executive Search. "Discussing your health history can create uncomfortable situations for yourself and others," he says. "There are very few situations in which health history would need to be brought up, and if it does need to be addressed, it should be in private between an employee and his or her direct boss."
Certified diversity professional Eduardo Herrera, who serves as chief communications officer at Liberty Capital Group, adds that revealing personal health information in the workplace may also lead to discrimination by fostering perceptions and stigma that could hinder your ability to be viewed as a viable candidate for advancement. "Although in many instances employees are protected from this type of discrimination, premature talk of a health concern can affect an employee's future," he says.
Relationship issues and family troubles. Negativity in any form can be a turnoff for others in the office, and this goes for what you share about your personal life, too. "If you're always talking about how your home life is in shambles, your boss might think twice about giving you a promotion, because they may think you can't handle the additional stress," says Ian Cluroe, Alexander Mann Solutions' head of marketing in the Americas Region.
Yet even if the personal experiences you are sharing are positive, when it comes to talking about relationships, dating or home life, discretion is key. "We like to know a little about the people with whom we work -- and that's the key: a little," Santiesteban says. "If your colleagues are intimately aware of your romantic relationships, your parents' quirks, your health/medication issues and the mileage on your car, you've crossed the line."
Even sharing too much about a fun night out might be seen as too much information. "If you spend every Monday bragging about your awesome weekend of partying, serious people -- the people who can influence the trajectory of your career -- aren't going to take you seriously," Cluroe says.
How much money you make. You may hope to find out how much your cubicle mate makes by sharing your own salary level with him or her. Yet Herrera says revealing salary and pay details can cause division, resentment and strife among employees. "From a management perspective, variations in salaries are justified by unique variables," he says. "But employees within a department or with the same job title would argue otherwise, because from their point of view, they're working harder, are more educated or have been with the company longer."
At the end of the day, only you can decide what you want to share with people at work. In some work cultures, it's acceptable to share more than in others, and the same holds true for different regions of the country or parts of the world.
Context plays a role as well. "If the conversation is about addressing urgent issues that need a speedy resolution, and the person speaking with you is the one charged with the accountability, it probably is not a good time to go off topic and share anything personal," says Connie Bentley, U.S. general manager of Insights Learning and Development. "If, however, a close colleague is struggling with an issue related to child care during school holidays, and you have some experience that could help, that might be perfectly appropriate."
However, Cluroe leaves us with this caution: "Just remember that everything you say leaves an impression -- and if you want to create a good impression that will further your career, less is more."
Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership and career issues. She serves as a copywriter, speechwriter and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries, including finance, technology, healthcare, law, real estate, advertising and marketing. Robin has interviewed over 1,000 thought leaders around the globe and has won 20 awards for editorial excellence. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association in both New York and San Francisco, and contributed to the book "Be Your Own Mentor: Strategies from Top Women on the Secrets of Success," published by Random House. Robin is also the author of "Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30" and co-author of "The Strong Principles: Career Success." Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter: @robinmadell.
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