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July 19, 2011

How Much Should Your Coworkers Know About You?

Just because you share everything — a boss, a printer, a mutual loathing for the office suck-up — doesn't make you besties. Some secrets are best kept out of your office.

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Every day, Liora Gottesman, a 31-year-old copywriter for a Boston-based financial services firm, beelined for the elevators, cigarette and matches in hand, to meet up with her colleague Mike. It was during one of their smoke breaks that the conversation turned to Mike's wife, how she'd become very close to another woman at her job. Gottesman didn't make much of the comment until Mike confided that they had an open marriage. "I was skeeved out," Gottesman recalls. "He went from being a nice, normal guy I work with to some kind of swinging weirdo. Way too much information." Gottesman shared their exchange with a few of their colleagues, and before long nearly everyone in their department was in on the secret.

Much has been made of the pitfalls posed by the Internet, how prospective employers scope out your Facebook and Twitter posts for insight into your character and work ethic. But theirs aren't the only prying eyes you need to be wary of. Our culture of oversharing has made ultra-personal disclosures seem safe to share with even casual work buddies. Only they're not. According to a survey from the American Society for Training and Development, an estimated 85 percent of workers gossip, nearly a quarter of them regularly. That can have devastating consequences on your career. "Many people have an unconscious need to feel superior to others. So they get off on your drama," says workplace expert Marlene Chism, author of Stop Workplace Drama.

A couple years back, Evelyn Samuels, a single, 41-year-old corporate sponsorship coordinator, revealed to some colleagues that she was pregnant. It was unplanned, she told them, and she wasn't sure what she would do. Looking back, she's baffled why she trusted these relative strangers with such personal information. It took only a day before word of her pregnancy made the rounds at work. "From then on, my boss was a nightmare to work with. If I'd been able to break the news to her myself, maybe it would have been different, but I think she thought I was reckless or something," Samuels explains. Not long after, Samuels was let go. She is convinced the disclosure of her pregnancy sealed her fate.

The takeaway: Don't confuse colleagues with confidantes, warns Chism. And, drastic though it sounds, consider un-friending coworkers on Facebook (they probably won't notice anyway) and restricting your Tweets to work-only matters (tip of the hat to Anthony Weiner). While that's no guarantee that your secrets will remain so, it will increase your odds of preserving the spit-polished career persona you've worked so hard to build. And if a cringe-worthy personal detail does hit the rumor mill, best to keep your feelings about it to yourself. "Don't talk to the boss — you'll just give the impression of needing to be rescued," warns Chism. "The ultimate mark of success is the ability to be courageous in the face of embarrassment and just deal with it."

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