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Corporate Class: How much to tell your colleagues

Is your business any of theirs?

Corporate Class: How much to tell your colleagues

Ann Humphries

(CNN) -- If it hasn't happened to you yet, consider yourself lucky.

It hits almost everyone at some point: Something is wrong, not at work but in your life -- at home or with your kids or in your finances or your love life or your free-lance work.

It's big enough that it's pulling a lot of your focus and energy. You're drained by it. Your concentration is shot. Your nerves are running your life. The last piece of furniture that looked good to you was your bed when you had to leave it and come to work at 5:30 a.m.

Now you're at your desk. Trying to act normal. Not working, is it? Everyone around you, from the boss down, can tell something's wrong. But how much should you tell them? How much, if anything, do you owe them?

CNN: Once we decided we had to get all this off our chests, of course, we knew we needed to put the question to ETICON'S Ann Humphries. How do you keep your career responsibilities together when there's a big hole in your personal life?

graphic Have you felt compelled to reveal personal problems at work at times?

No; it's never impacted my work enough.
Yes; my company was understanding.
Yes; my company was tolerant, not supportive.
Yes; my company was intolerant and unhelpful.
View Results

Ann Humphries: Don't feel you have to reveal everything about yourself. Much of what's going on in your personal life is irrelevant and unnecessary.

There are some things that no one knows. Nobody's business. They're just private.

Then there's that trusted circle of people who have proved to be OK. These people may have some history with you -- you're comfortable with them. You may feel you want to share things with them simply for personal support.

But for everyone and everything in the middle -- somewhere between nobody's business and everybody's business -- the test criterion is need-to-know.

Let's say there's a very serious illness in your family. Ask yourself who you're working for and what your responsibility is.

Technically, your obligation to reveal that something's wrong may end with your nearest executive. Or perhaps with the manager of your division, no higher. The test here is impact. How much is your personal situation affecting your work?

•   If it's mostly a matter of your not being your usual cheery self -- but you're able to stay productive -- nothing needs to be said. Unless you were hired as a cheerleader.

•   If you can tell your normal output level is going to be mildly compromised, maybe only your immediate supervisor needs to know.

•   Are you looking at a major problem? Do you need a week off? "My child is sick -- out of respect for the work, I have to explain this and pay the price."

•   Particularly if you're looking at a temporary setback, consider spreading the word to a small circle of co-workers: "Cut me a little slack." Keep it light, let it pass.

And one reason to soft-pedal something is that you only have a limited number of chits, if you will, to spend. How many times can you expect leniency. "The tornado hit my trailer again." -- that gets old quick.

This issue goes both ways. If you're too severely "professional" and never show any vulnerability, people don't understand. But on the other hand, you don't want to appear to be constantly at the mercy of some emotional or domestic problem -- that's where you can jeopardize your image.

We all cut people some slack sometimes. And if you'll think back to your own experiences, you'll remember that it's easier to give someone some help when they're appreciative of the backup. You feel better about pitching in for someone who's normally in control of her life than for somebody whose lack of discipline means he needs bailing out all the time.

•   Consider a couple of office-political factors in this issue, too. For example, you may find it useful to reveal a problem yourself, on your own terms, being proactive about it. Then, if your work suffers and you need some assistance, you don't end up having to explain things in a panic while doing damage control.

•   On the other hand, if it's not really relevant to your job performance, not revealing your personal problem can save the rest of us from having to carry the burden with you.

And lastly, consider time -- which is money, of course.

Tell us what's bugging you, don't keep it inside, share it and we'll consider it for a possible Corporate Class column topic with Ann Humphries. Kindly click here.

If you can see the need for some time off, maybe a personal day, maybe even a week for a major crisis, give your boss some warning, a chance to think about how to cover you.

"I think I may have something a bit serious coming up next Monday."

Let your company know when you'll be able to tell for sure whether you're going to need some time off. And use your judgment as to how many details are appropriate. If you're talking several days or more out of work, you'll need to offer enough detail to make the scope of the situation apparent. If it's just a half-day or day out, don't overdo it.

Try to evaluate it from your associates' viewpoint. What you're experiencing internally, people around you may not notice. Or you may be running around thinking you're doing fine and they're all just outside your cubicle asking, "What's wrong with her?"

That peer-level perspective will usually give you the answer on how much to reveal and how much to keep to yourself.

Next week: "Do the rules apply to me?"

South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges has named Ann Humphries, founder and president of ETICON Inc., one of seven South Carolina Women of Achievement. Humphries, who's based in Columbia, is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management. Her clients have included several Fortune 500 companies. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Money, and on CNN, CBS and Lifetime TV. You can contact her at



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