You may be sitting at your desk right now, appearing normal t o all your co-workers. But at home, your life is like a country music song – breakups, babies, debts, disease, your truck broke down and your dog is sick. Assuming your job isn't at the Grand Ole Opry, how much do you spill?
Sharing personal details at work can be a difficult terrain to navigate. Tell everyone early and you can inoculate yourself against criticism later if your personal life affects your work. But oversharing can marginalize yourself at the one place where things are calm and quiet.
"Having to disclose personal information in the workplace can be one of the most anxiety-provoking decisions an employee has to make. Particularly in this economy, where many employees are worried that any sign of weakness may adversely affect their continued employment or personnel review," said Wendy Patrick, a management and ethics lecturer at San Diego State University.
Of course, some personal details like pregnancy, or that whole body cast from your weekend skiing injury, may be difficult to hide. But for everything else, here is a quick primer for what, how and when to share at the office.
What do you have to tell?
Distinguish what you need to tell versus what you don't. As a general rule, you should share information that could affect your work, and keep private the personal news that won't have an effect on your performance.
"In Canada, you are required to disclose some personal details if you need some form of accommodation due to an illness or injury," said Daniel Lublin, a workplace law expert and a partner at Whitten & Lublin.
Even then, you need only to disclose the fact that you have an illness that requires accommodation, Mr. Lublin said.
What do you want to tell?
If you have a soft fuzzy workplace and consider your boss your friend, you may feel like revealing more. Interestingly, workers' views on sharing may be affected by their age, said Amy Lynch, a Minneapolis consultant, who offers corporate seminars on managing multiple generations in the work force.
"Competitive baby boomers consider it unprofessional to share private info, even if it impacts performance," she said. Generation X tends to share personal dramas since, "withholding it might be unethical because it affects team performance."
Millennials, said Ms. Lynch, "have always shared that kind of info with everybody. They Facebook it."
Have a plan
Offer a solution at the same time that you bring up the topic. If you need to take time off to care for an ailing parent, for example, suggest which colleagues could take over projects for you, or offer to do some work in the evenings.
"You want to get the news out there early so your employer has more time to prepare and support you, and so they don't feel blindsided," said Nicole Williams, connection director at LinkedIn and author of several career books, including Earn What You're Worth.
Marty Kotis, a shopping centre developer in Greensboro, N.C., appreciated it when one of his employees gave him two months notice before the employee was going to be sidelined with back surgery.
"It gave us a chance to discuss how we were going to cover the work flow," Mr. Kotis said.
Get help with the stress
Some corporations have employee assistance programs (EAPs) run by third-party companies to help staff with personal problems.
They can save a company money, says Sarah Hulsey, the talent manager at Rising Medical Solutions, a national cost-containment and care-management company. If an employee can get help working out a knotty problem like finding daycare for a dependent parent, that can save hours and days of work time. But there's another reason, said Ms. Hulsey: "The EAP is there so we don't have that personal information shared in the workplace."
There are good reasons for companies to support valued employees. "The more flexible I can be," Mr. Kotis says, the more "it helps me retain some really good staff members."