August 27, 2012
Commentary: I'm so over oversharing at the office
Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about 20-somethings who are too eager to tell all at work. Whether they are recounting their drunken exploits or their external job searches, their tendency to provide too much information is leaving many managers scratching their heads.
A human resources manager for a manufacturing company told me that several young workers had asked her how many times they could be absent before she fired them. An HR manager at a health-care business was taken aback when an employee casually told him she was looking for a new job that should take six to eight months to land. And a senior manager, asking a direct report how he was doing, was treated to this: “Well, I haven’t had sex for five years, so I guess I’m not doing so good.”
Granted, as a card-carrying baby boomer, I have an opinion on this topic that might be more than a little skewed, but I honestly can’t recall a time when I’ve walked away from a conversation with someone of my generation or even a decade or two younger and thought, “Whoa, did you really say that?” Mostly I see this happening with young people who seem to have lost all sense of boundaries and decorum. Recently, however, I’ve heard a lot of professionals complain that the problem increasingly crosses generations.
One chief executive of a small company, upon congratulating her colleague on becoming a grandmother, received a blow-by-blow account of the daughter’s birthing ordeal, from the progressive state of the expanding cervix to processing the placenta.
So why are more and more people oversharing personal information?
One explanation is that it’s a continuation of online behavior, or, as I like to say, Facebook in your face. Social media have made it the norm to tell everybody everything. The problem is that people are forgetting where they are (at work, not a bar or a chat room) and whom they’re talking to (bosses, clients, colleagues and the public, not their buddies). And even if they know it’s inappropriate to share certain personal information in a business setting, they do it anyway because everyone else does. So they think it must be OK (it’s not), and they think that their boss and colleagues are really interested (they’re not).
Many people blame narcissistic baby-boomer parents for raising children with an overblown sense of worth, who believe that everything they say or think should be shared. When I told a British colleague that many Americans were starting to realize that they reveal way too much about themselves, he gave a full-throated laugh and said, “Finally!”
Others attribute the problem to people’s desperate need for connection. The workplace has become our second home, the place where we spend a majority of our waking hours, so we want to make it as comfortable as possible, which often leads to a lot of sharing. We forget that it’s necessary to maintain a certain level of professionalism.
I’m not saying we stop talking to one another about anything not related to work. I’m a big proponent of bringing the best parts of your personality into the workplace. Sharing some personal information is crucial to building trust and to forging relationships. It also makes working much more enjoyable.
But I think that some rules will help us control our OSD, or obsessive sharing disorder. Before you open your mouth about your personal life, ask yourself these questions:
-- Who’s listening to me (a boss, a client, a colleague or a friend)?
-- Why am I sharing this? What’s the point?
-- In this situation, would less be better?
-- Have I left my emotional baggage outside the door?
-- Does what I am sharing benefit my career or the quality of my work relationships?
You can’t tell me that bragging about your drinking binges to your colleagues or boss will improve your reputation or further your career. Nor can you convince me that my department functions better by knowing that you’re disgruntled and looking for a new job.
I don’t think I’m the exception here. Your 40-, 50- and even 60-year-old bosses -- and there are still many of them -- very likely feel the same way. Decency, common sense and just plain good manners will never go out of style. But, if they do, I hope I’m retired.
Peggy Klaus is an author, executive coach and leader of corporate training programs.
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