By Mark Carey
We all do it and you know what I am talking about. You cannot resist doing this at work. What is this habit I am referring to? Oversharing your personal information at work.
I was recently reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about When Bringing Your ‘Whole Self’ to work is Too Much. The article examines employee mental health and the “sharing is caring” ethos. We have all recently become accustomed to coworkers oversharing personal information during the pandemic. A reminder, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. But the WSJ article made me think of a larger issue no one really talks about. Oversharing and why it is important to protect your job using personal boundaries and also asserting personal information to gain a legal advantage against your employer.
Whether you are talking about sports, hobbies, your weekend social activities, we all engage in sharing information about our personal lives at work. We share to connect with colleagues and engage in self- promotion. But when does oversharing go too far?
The Problem with Oversharing
When sharing information becomes oversharing, it raises many issues that the “over sharer” does not contemplate when sharing. If an employee is experiencing a mental health issue and overshares at work, some coworkers and supervisors do not have the background experience to handle the discussion in a respectful and objective manner. From my experience, many employees interpret a coworker’s bi-polar, anxiety or depression elaboration as a red flag resulting in pejorative name calling behind the employee’s back, i.e., she is crazy etc., and coworkers regarding the employee as having a mental disability.
When I am investigating a legal case for an employee, I ask what the client has heard other coworkers say about them behind closed doors or directly to their face. I am looking for two forms of disability discrimination claims to use against an employer; disability discrimination directed at your mental nervous condition and “regarded as” disabled discrimination, where coworkers perceive you as having a mental nervous condition even if you do not have one. You would be surprised how often I find inflammatory comments made by coworkers and in particular managing supervisors. Coworkers can be insensitive about other employees experiencing mental health issues, even though there has been a great deal of public support lately for mental health awareness.
There are other problems with oversharing beyond the mental health issue. Discussing finances, marriage etc. can put off coworkers. See the following article on LinkedIn, How to Stop Oversharing With Your Boss.
Oversharing Can Become Illegal in Some Cases
In some cases, coworkers and supervisors who “over share” can violate the employment rights of other employees in the office. For example, openly discussing weekend sexual exploits with coworkers can infuse the work environment with sex and negatively impact other employees who just happen to overhear the conversation. Obviously, employees who behave this way did not read the company code of conduct policy or latest DEI initiative. Other examples can include discussions about older employee’s physical and mental characteristics and abilities, even if benign, can cause older coworkers in the office to feel ostracized because of their age. There are many more older employees in the workforce today who are not retiring, cannot retire, or just want to continue working in general.
In any case, I ask clients about the general office banter in order to build legal leverage for severance negotiations. You would be surprised at what I gather. The biggest overshare I see all the time is a discussion, by a manager, asking when my client is going to retire or what their exit strategy is. It is illegal to ask employees over the age of 40 this question because it conditions their job situation based on their age. It happens so often that I ask every client who is at least 50 years old this same question. Ironically, 6 times of out 10, the client responds that they were asked about their retirement plans either from coworkers or directly from their supervisors. I will also point out that many managers will ask a coworker to dig up dirt on older workers by asking about their retirement plans, again this is illegal.
A few years ago, the NY Times ran a story about one of our cases involving pregnancy discrimination. The article discussed the oversharing that happened to one employee, “on the company’s trading floor, men bantered about groping the Queen of England’s genitals…Ms. Murphy’s boss, Guy Freshwater –openly discussed how much ‘hot ass’ there would be at the gym near the new office…But when Ms. Murphy told Mr. Freshwater she was pregnant with her first child, he told her it would ‘definitely plateau’ her career.” The supervisor’s “oversharing” here caused the employer liability for pregnancy discrimination because the employee’s boss expressed his biased opinion about female employees and pregnancy.
Using Oversharing to Your Advantage
What if you could use oversharing to set up your employer and build either job protections or a legal case for severance negotiation purposes? This was the idea I thought of when I read the above WSJ article. When I work with clients before they are placed on performance improvement plans or fired, I get a unique opportunity to set up the employer for liability.
First, I have to get the employee beyond the “fear based psychology” employers work so hard to instill in all employees. Clients often explain they do not have the stomach to withstand any further maltreatment by their coworkers or managers, when the proverbial writing is placed on the wall by the employer, i.e., “get the (blank) out!”.
Second, once we explain the strategy to the client, they begin to self-advocate directly with his or her peers and supervisors. Specifically, the client intentionally, both verbally or in writing via email, overshares personal information to coworkers, managers and human resource personnel about topics such as disability, medical issues, PTSD related concerns, pregnancy, and discrimination experienced from other employees. If there is a verbal discussion between the client and coworkers, where oversharing is occurring, the client would then document the conversation in an email. The email must summarize the same information as was said during the verbal conversation. The idea here is to build a factual record using the time stamp of an email.
This process of intentionally oversharing places the employer in a box. If the employer reacts negatively to the oversharing client, the client can assert a retaliation claim or assert other forms of harassment. As you can see, oversharing personal information can be used as a tool for an employee’s legal agenda. For example, the employee may want to overshare for purposes of requesting reasonable accommodations, reporting sexual harassment, reporting retaliation etc. Since employers always set up employees for performance improvement plans and terminations, why can’t employees do the same thing? I actively encourage employees to aggressively “police” their employment situations and put the employer on the defensive. I have seen this process work effectively to promote employee legal claims and increased severance compensation.
Before you go out and overshare, develop your strategy about what information you are oversharing, to who(m) and why you are doing this. Think several steps ahead and see if you can position yourself with an advantage over the employer, wherein you will use the oversharing information to aid your severance negotiation or your legal case against the employer in court.
If you would like more information about this topic, please contact our employment lawyers at Carey & Associates, P.C. or call (203) 255-4150.