(Reuters) - You may be sitting at your desk right now, appearing normal to all your coworkers. But at home, your life is like a country 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 all early and you can inoculate yourself against criticism later if your personal life affects your work. But overshare and you 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,” says 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.
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 impact on your performance.
Legally, you’re usually on solid ground if you keep your mouth shut, says Nigel Telman, an employee attorney at law firm Proskauer Rose in Chicago. You aren’t even required to mention pregnancy, though of course you would have to if you wanted to take maternity leave.
“The one exception is if you have an illness that could potentially put your co-workers at risk of contracting the illness. For example, tuberculosis. Then you must advise your employer of the situation,” says Telman.
If you have a soft fuzzy workplace and consider your boss your friend, you may feel like telling more. Interestingly, workers’ views on sharing may be affected by their age, says Amy Lynch, a Minneapolis consultant, who offers corporate seminars on managing multiple generations in the workforce.
“Competitive baby boomers consider it unprofessional to share private info, even if it impacts performance,” she says. Generation X tends to share personal dramas since, “withholding it might be unethical because it affects team performance.”
Millennials, says Lynch, “have always shared that kind of info with everybody. They Facebook it.”
And speaking of Facebook, don’t post personal items on social networking sites if you aren’t going to disclose them at work. Your colleagues will find out. And they will talk.
If you want to share with your colleagues, tell your boss first, says Niraj Tenany, chief executive of Netwoven, a tech firm in Milpitas, California with 45 employees. You could be putting your friend in an uncomfortable, or even job-jeopardizing, position if you hand them work-related information before telling your supervisor.
If you do tell your boss about your debt problems or your upcoming surgery, can you be fired? Yes and no, says Telman.
In most cases, “employers have the right to terminate at will any employee for any reason or no reason as long as it isn’t an illegal reason,” Telman says. So in theory, if you offer up tales of how bill collectors are hounding you, and if your employer decides you have a character flaw, you could be canned without any legal recourse. The Family Medical and Leave Act, however, protects pregnant and ill employees from being sacked because of their condition, says Telman.
Stick with the facts. “I really don’t want to know the details of your pregnancy,” says Dan Stockdale, CEO of Adventures in Leadership, a Harriman, Tennessee, firm with 125 employees. “Yes, I care and I am happy for you but only share what is relevant to your work position.”
If it’s inevitable your employer will learn your news, get it out there early. For pregnancies, three months is probably good timing, says Allison O’Kelly of Moms Corps, a professional flexible staffing firm. “After that, I would tell because you don’t want to look like you’re holding back. You want to look helpful.”
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,” says Nicole Williams, connection director at LinkedIn and author of several career books, including “Earn What You’re Worth.”
Marty Kotis, president and CEO of Kotis Holdings, a Greensboro, North Carolina, shopping center developer, 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,” says Kotis.
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, says 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,” Kotis says, “it helps me retain some really good staff members.”
(This September 6 story has been corrected in paragraph 22 to change the description of Rising Medical Solutions to a national cost-containment and care-management company)
Editing by Jilian Mincer, Linda Stern and Steve Orlofsky