TMI: How Much Is Too Much Information?

Colleagues looking at a laptop
How much personal information do these coworkers share with one another?. Buero Monaco / Taxi / Getty Images

Do you share personal information at work? It's kind of hard not to tell your coworkers things about your private life. After all, these are the people with whom you spend at least eight hours a day, five days a week. You're practically living with them—you spend more time with your coworkers than you do with your own family. If you don't talk to them you may lose your mind.

I spent almost ten years at my last place of employment.

I shared many lunches and, because we worked some evenings, dinners with my colleagues. We were like a family. They were among the first people to know when I got engaged and they offered advice as I planned my wedding. Many of my coworkers even attended my wedding.

When I first found out I was pregnant with my daughter, though, I didn't want to reveal that information too soon. I especially didn't want my boss to know about it since I didn't want her to pressure me into making a decision about when I would return to work after giving birth. Therefore, I told only two people at work. One was a very close friend, and the other was someone I knew could keep a secret and was someone I could count on in an emergency. It wasn't that I didn't trust everyone else. Okay, there were some people I really didn't trust. As for the others, I didn't think it was fair to burden them with having to keep a secret.

It was tough for me to keep my pregnancy a secret and I had a reason to do that. To expect other people to remember to keep my secret when they had no vested interest in doing so, was, I thought, somewhat unfair.

There are several reasons for not sharing personal information with your coworkers. As I discussed above, you may not want to burden them.

As I alluded to, also, was not trusting some people to keep your secret. There are people around, and we all know someone like this, who will think nothing of talking about you. Some people are very matter-of-fact about it and just assume there's nothing wrong with telling others whatever you told them. Others are malicious and intend to cause harm by spreading information. By the time you find out you've shared your story with the wrong person it's usually too late. There are other reasons for keeping personal information out of the workplace. Let's explore some of them now.

Don't Expose Your Belly

A dog will show its submissiveness to a more dominant dog by exposing its belly. When you share personal information, especially information that shows your weaknesses, you may be "exposing your belly" to your co-workers. If your position at work requires you to exhibit strength and control, such as a managerial position, you may be showing just the opposite by sharing certain information.

Here's what Elizabeth Mitchell, MSW, LCSW, the former Social Work Expert, had to say about this: “Decisions are made and impressions formed about us while at work that are used for different reasons than those with our families and friends.

For example, a person being considered for a promotion would benefit from having an image of strength, excellent judgement and good interpersonal skills. How might your recent disclosure to your colleagues that you are divorcing your alcoholic husband, just obtained a restraining order in fear for your life and are worried about making your house payments, affect your chances for promotion? You can't sleep, fear you are depressed and need support from friends during this trying time. In this situation, a wise employee would make an appointment with an Employee Assistance Program counselor and use his or her friends and family for support, letting colleagues at work know, perhaps, that he or she is divorcing but keeping the details scant.”

Shhh...No Talking in School

What are you doing at work? Working hopefully. While no one expects you to be all business all the time, too much time spent chit chatting means too little time working. According to Susan Heathfield, the Expert on Human Resources, “Where a lack of privacy at work becomes problematic, in my mind, is when it becomes excessive. 'How was your weekend? Just great. We went on a great hike. How was yours?' is common courtesy. To spend a half hour giving a co-worker a blow by blow description of your weekend, is not.”

However, some would quickly argue, there's always lunchtime. You can share a lot of private information during the hour you get for lunch each day. That's five hours a week—imagine all the things you can share. And that doesn't include breaks. Even if talking when you should be working isn't an issue, shouldn't you maintain some privacy?

Keep It Close to the Vest

As mentioned earlier, revealing too much about yourself may give people the wrong impression or rather an impression you don't want them to have. Susan Heathfield says, “When you have worked in a particular work place for a long time, people will tend to know more about your personal world, simply from longevity. As an example, they know when you took a week off work when your mother died. They know you left for the day when your son got sick at school. This level of knowledge about each other is fine, and, depending on the work place, almost unavoidable... I also think people need to leave their personal and family issues and problems at home. If a coworker is going through a divorce, you can extend some sympathy (or joy!), without having to hear all the details. It's a two-way street, however, as coworkers need to leave each others' privacy intact by not prying as well.”

Brian Mairs, a career expert, gets straight to the point: “If you don't want to hear it in the neighborhood pub, don't mention it around the water cooler. If it is a thing of pride (new car, new house, new baby, etc), go ahead and share the joy. If it is a thing of privacy (family problems, etc.) keep it to yourself at work. Find a professional therapist, or somebody you trust to keep a confidence (such as a Priest or Rabbi), to discuss such things.”

As with anything else, you are the only one who can decide what, and how much, information you want to share with your coworkers. The words of wisdom provided by my colleagues certainly give you something to think about. In the end, though, the decision is yours. And the consequences are yours to deal with. If opening up your personal life is what you feel comfortable doing, realize that there will be no line between the “work you” and the “real you.” That may be fine for some people, and, as a matter of fact, preferable for many. A lot of people would feel uncomfortable and unhappy exhibiting a different persona at work than they do at home. Do what you need to do, as long is it doesn't interfere with performing your job well.

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