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Dear Heidi: How do you know how far to go when it comes to sharing personal information at work?

Rule of thumb: If it doesn’t cross your “no controversial or inappropriate subjects” boundaries, go ahead, and share.

It is a tricky business to balance being a warm, sharing colleague and being a closed-off, cold fish at work. We want a pleasant work environment, in real life or virtually, and we want to feel accepted and part of the tribe. But in the workplace, those feelings of belonging have sticky strings attached.

Which role, warm and sharing, or closed-off and cold, better suits you? Which vibe do you want to emanate? Or, are you like most of us, and you want to do your job well in a generally collegiate atmosphere? Think about what you share; it says a lot about you.

When sharing personal information at work, it’s best practice to have a strategy in place to avoid some serious pitfalls. The hazards of sharing too much personal information can result in an opinion shift; colleagues who otherwise respected your work could have their perceptions of you altered with an unconscious bias because they may not share your opinion. You could become a major turn-off. Remember, just as online content is immortal, so are your verbal comments; once said, you cannot take them back.

So, to begin, set some boundaries. Create a strategy. Be friendly but establish subjects and areas of conversation that are off-limits at work. Some of these could include controversial topics like religion, politics, civil issues, and anything else considered hot right now.  

However, put it in context. Where do you work? Are you working in an arena such as religious charities or human rights initiatives? Or, perhaps you are working on one of the presidential campaigns, then, of course, these subjects are de rigueur at work. 

It’s usually poor form to discuss health matters because it’s too personal. There's a good reason HIPA is in place. But, if you are unfortunately very ill and, for example, going through chemo, then your boss, and probably some coworkers will know, and hopefully work with you during such a crisis.

However, these are unique situations and for many of us, avoiding controversial topics at work is still good advice. Remember your etiquette and social codes: Don’t be offensive.

So, what is appropriate to share at work? A good, general rule is to share what you would find acceptable to learn about a colleague. In other words, share what you’d want to hear. Keeping things to benign topics such as gardening or cooking are pretty safe. Again, beware that once you expose yourself, there’s no covering back up. However, there are times when sharing some personal information is a good idea.

Maybe your colleague mentioned that they sit on a local board devoted to animal safety, and that’s your jam, and you want to become involved but did not know how best to go about it. Alternatively, your colleague mentions that you might like to connect with the local children’s hospital and sit on their board. In these cases, sharing some personal information could help you secure or help your colleague and yourself share.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a far too personal and downright inappropriate TMI situation, grab the conversation by the horns, and switch subjects. For example, if your coworker wants to give you the down and dirty about their latest Tinder date, close your ears and maybe even interrupt (just this once, please) and switch subjects, “How about those Cubs?” They will get the message, and let the awkward conversation fade.

Your rule of thumb should be, “If it doesn’t cross your “no controversial, inappropriate subjects, or too personal” boundaries, so go ahead and share.

In closing, be professional. Remember, even if you're working from home, you’re still at work. You will have to face your colleagues eventually and work with them for a long time. So, don’t let the heat of the moment deter you from your sharing — or not sharing — strategy.


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