I once heard a comedian say that he had gone on so many dates with a woman, he felt he needed to stay with her for eternity simply because she knew too much. He didn’t even get to the punch line before the audience was in stitches, undoubtedly reflecting on the mayhem that might ensue were their own secrets to be broadcast by a bitter ex-partner.
It made me wonder how many of these same people may have spilled their guts about something personal at their office earlier in the day. Whether they said something that may have changed the way their colleagues view their character that put a self-inflicted chink in their professional armor. I see this all too often.
We are extremely careful about protecting our privacy when we come into a job, but then we allow the lines between personal and professional to blur as we become more comfortable in our workplace. Sometimes we say things that have the potential to come back to haunt us.
Maintaining boundaries at work is critical. The risks of sharing too much information far outweigh the rewards of doing so. This doesn’t mean we should never make friends at work, or that we should let paranoia guide our days. It just means that we need to use common sense in our professional communications and relationships. An employee who shares that they hate their manager or tells coworkers that they’re looking for a new job is inviting trouble. My advice is to ask yourself this question internally before speaking, “If someone divulged this information, could it have negative repercussions?”
With that in mind, here are some tips for establishing and enforcing boundaries without alienating your colleagues:
Own and communicate your policy
First, determine where you will draw the line and what rationale you will communicate to others. Then, find a natural moment to share it. For example, if someone asks you a personal question, it’s absolutely fine to tell them that (a) you are a private person and aren’t comfortable discussing private issues, or (b) you like to keep your professional and personal lives separate. When you communicate your need for boundaries respectfully and matter-of-factly (and make it clear that “It’s not you; it’s me”), people tend to accept and comply with your requests for privacy.
Uncomfortable about having that conversation? Practice with a family member or friend you trust. Ask how they would want to be told. Running through a couple of scenarios, such as what to say if a coworker asks why you have a doctor’s appointment or if your boss asks too many questions about your home life, will give you confidence and help you develop a “script” that works.
Speaking of bosses, always keep your audience in mind. While a casual-yet-professional approach may be appropriate for your peers, you may want to inject even more professionalism and tact when speaking with higher-level executives. You might explain, for instance, that you don’t want details of your personal life causing any distractions from achieving your goals at work.
Hold the line on social media
It’s not a great idea to friend coworkers on social media. If you do, or if your job requires it, make good use of your privacy settings so that you can maintain your personal network separate from your work network. As a general rule of thumb, don’t share any information with colleagues on social media that you wouldn’t share at the office.
Limit after-hours communication as much as possible
Some jobs require after-hours accessibility. This is an aspect of your employment you should discuss before accepting the job offer. If you’re not comfortable being on call 24/7 but the job requires it, then it might not be a good fit. If you’re open to that level of accessibility, make sure that the conditions for round-the-clock communication are clearly outlined so that colleagues don’t abuse the opportunity and interrupt your personal life with trivial matters that could have waited for morning.
Again, communication is key. If you tell colleagues that you turn your phone off when you go to bed at 10 p.m. (assuming your job allows this), they will get the message. And show by example what kind of behaviors you appreciate. Don’t send emails at all hours of the night, because others will know they can email you at all hours of the night. Hold those notes in your drafts folder until morning, so that as much of your work as possible is conducting during regular business hours.
Check yourself in social settings
The bottom line is that you have the power to set and enforce boundaries, through your workday and beyond. If you’re unsure how much information is too much information, always err on the side of caution and maintain your professionalism. Your career and reputation are on the line, so never hesitate to be a steadfast advocate for yourself and your privacy.
Ariel Schur, LCSW is the CEO and founder of ABS Staffing Solutions.