Oversharing of personal information happens frequently in the workplace. Photo: Louie Douvis
Have you ever wanted to scream “shut up” to a colleague?
How many of us get that urge to turn to a co-worker and say "enough is enough" with the constant updates? Especially when the recounting of tiresome details is at full flow and your obvious lack of interest is not even noticed!
Oversharing happens frequently in the workplace, says Michele Grow, chief executive of Davidson Trahaire Corpsych, a provider of employee health and wellbeing services.
First, she says, some employees feel the need to disclose personal information to their manager.
Then there are those who may have family arriving and are anxious about it. “So they talk with their colleagues but then they start to put more into the story. They go well beyond where they would otherwise intend to go, partly because of their anxiety,” Grow says.
In the open-plan office, Grow says, some people may make a phone call in an inappropriate open space, or receive a call they might not have been expecting and express an emotional reaction.
“So they are compromised in that situation by the sheer nature of the work layout,” she says.
Tiffany Quinlan, human resources director at recruitment firm Randstad, refers to such people as "interrupters".
“Those who walk around to your pod and have a conversation with you when you are in the middle of something and share things that make you feel uncomfortable or you are not interested in,” Quinlan says.
She says people who are interrupted all the time find it difficult because they struggle with politeness.
“I don't think there would be anyone who would say, 'Look I'd really love to finish this conversation but I'm in the middle of something. Could I come back to you?' If you say that to someone, most people would go: 'Oh, I'm so sorry', and they'll get back to their job.”
Quinlan says if the conversation is about something that makes a person feel uncomfortable or is offensive, or is of a different value set, it is better to be as honest as you can.
When dealing with a person who is oversharing, Grow says, it matters how you raise the issue. “It all comes back to respect and care with which you have that conversation – and you shouldn't do it in any kind of public forum,” she says.
“I think wording can be: 'When you were talking about this, some of the detail made me feel uncomfortable. I really value our work relationship and want to hear and understand about you and your family but I prefer that perhaps a little less detail might be best for me and for you'.
“If you've got someone who is, what I call a 'chronic discloser', someone who is always giving way too many details, your approach needs to be a little bit firmer, and it might be using something like the company values.”
In such cases, Grow says, the issue can be escalated to the manager or HR or somewhere else in the organisation.
“Dealing with something as quickly as you can, as respectfully as you can, privately and doing it yourself – they are the factors that make up for a respectful response,” Grow says.
One of the recommended steps is to prepare for the conversation. “We suggest they write out what they're going to say and say it out loud a few times because often you think, 'I'll say this', and in the moment it all goes off the rails,” Grow says.
“So if you want to be really careful about what you are going to say, write down a couple of key words and say it out aloud. You will able to get the tone right. You will be able to get the order right.”
When sharing information at work, says Quinlan, think about the audience. “It's not about you. Are you talking to someone who you know enough about to be comfortable to share with?
“If you don't really have a good relationship with someone, it's probably not OK to tell them what you did on Saturday night with your boyfriend. You don't go down that path. It's about the depth of the relationship.”
Getting the balance right depends on the relationship. “If it's a manager oversharing with a staff member that can become a real problem because you've blurred the lines between a friendship and a reporting line structure and it can cause all sorts of issues,” says Quinlan.
Social media situations
Is there a flow-on effect from sharing our lives openly on social media into the workplace conversation?
“People share stuff. I look at social media and I think, 'do you realise that will stay there forever?'
“So it might be cool and funny when you are 16 to say something like that. But when you are 26 and someone Googles you and that comes up, that may not be OK.
“As a society we are sharing way more than we have ever done before and it's going to have complications down the track. There's no doubt about it. I think the boundaries about what you would share have been broken down.”
Andre Eikmeier, chief executive and co-founder of online wine start-up Vinomofo.com, says: "This is an interesting one to ask a bunch of Gen X and Gen Y wine entrepreneurs, who've built their business on social media, with a philosophy of transparency and being human.
“It's a fine balance. How much sharing is too much and a question of taste. We've definitely had to address it, both in terms of too much sharing of people's private lives on social media, and keeping sensitive business information in house.
“We've never wanted to inhibit anyone in our team from being themselves but particularly as founders, we're on display and accountable.”