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How Much Should You Reveal About Yourself at Work?

Plus, the two things you should never, ever talk about


by Kara Baskin

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Office friendships are helpful: We can compare notes on bosses, swap strategy tips, and vent. Work friends can help us reimagine our careers, by forming alliances that could lead to a promotion, a plum new assignment, even a totally new career. As we become closer to our coworkers, it can be tempting to be too candid. Career consultant Elaine Varelas of career management group Keystone Partners explains what to share and when.

What’s the best reason to keep your private life to yourself at work?

Varelas: It depends on the office culture, but in general you need to think about your career stability first. Anything you say can be used against you down the road when it’s time for promotions or new projects. 

     See also: Work v Life: It's Boundaries Not Balance

What topics are absolutely taboo?

Varelas: Health issues. You should be very cagey about sharing unfounded health fears. For instance, don’t say to a coworker, “I’m worried I might have heart problems, because my parents did.” A great new project might come up, and you might be passed over because it’d be too much stress. Also avoid talk of retirement. Only mention it if you have a specific date set in stone. Otherwise, it looks like you already have one foot out the door, which could hurt your chances for advancement. People won’t want to invest in you.

But what if you have a legitimate health issue, like a sick parent or a chronic illness?

Varelas: Talk to a trustworthy source, which could be a manager or human resources person. But even then, it’s key to show you have a back-up plan in place, whether it’s childcare, a plan to check emails remotely, et cetera. 

What personal topics are safe?

Varelas: Anything you’d show on a resume. Do you volunteer? Coach Little League? Essentially, the same things you’d discuss in an interview. 

     See also: Build Yourself a Better Sounding Board

What about social plans? 

Varelas: Be careful about revealing anything that could shed light on your economic status or perceived financial success. It could backfire. Keep conversations about weekend plans light. Don’t go into excessive detail about an opulent vacation or your daughter’s two horses.

What are the best subjects for small talk?

Varelas: Ask people about their kids, if you know they have them, and milestones. Just realize that it’s not a competition. Only ask if you’re genuinely interested! And if someone asks you about your own children, keep it quick and light—and then return the question. It’s all about mutuality.

Photo Credit: Bruce Brown/Getty