my manager over-shares about his personal life and I want him to stop!

A reader writes:

I have been in my new job for about five weeks now with a very small service-providing firm of only about 10 employees. I am a director-level employee and report right to the COO.

Our COO is new in his role, but not new with the company. I get the feeling he does not have a lot of leadership experience, and he certainly has never led at this level before now. The issue is that he feels the need to share drama about his ex-wife, his two teenage daughter’s antics, and his current wife’s hatred of his ex-wife.  This sharing goes on and on when it occurs — and it occurs during meetings occasionally, where it is totally inappropriate and wastes valuable time.  Once in a while, we leave the office together at the end of the day, and I actually have stood outside waiting to walk to my car while he finishes another tale. He does this over-sharing with everyone, not just me.

I know I need to say something, but I do not want to appear insensitive.  How do I tell this guy to back off without making it seem like I am cold and heartless? I am comfortable initiating the conversation, but unsure of the approach.

When you want to address someone’s problematic behavior in the workplace, you have two choices: Address a specific instance on the spot when it happens, or address your big picture concerns in a conversation at another time.

It’s usually much easier to address it on the spot. Saving it for a bigger conversation later tends to make it feel much more serious, and that’s something that can be particularly sticky when (a) you’re new to the job, and (b) the person you’re taking issue with is your boss. Because the reality is, those two factors make this a situation where you need to proceed with much more caution than you otherwise would – especially him being your boss.

So the next time he starts over-sharing about his personal life, speak up in the moment. If at all possible, do it in a kind way, not with an overtly critical or serious tone. For instance:

Boss: “You won’t believe what my ex-wife has done now! This morning, I had an outrageous phone call from her!”

You: “Not something I should know! Sorry you’re dealing with that, but can we talk about the software bugs that just got reported?”

Do this a few times, and he may start to catch on.

Alternately, you can have a separate conversation with him about the pattern itself, saying something like, “Bob, I really enjoy working with you, but I want to tell you about something that’s troubling me. When you share details about your ex-wife and other personal problems, I feel uncomfortable, especially when we end up spending a lot of time discussing it. I so enjoy working with you aside from this, and I thought you might not realize how often it’s coming up.”

The problem, though, is that he’s doing this with everyone and because you don’t have an established relationship with him because you’re new, you risk standing out as the one unfriendly person on the team who’s shutting him down. Are you willing to take that risk? That’s something you’d want to decide before you tackle this. You might decide that if he’s unprofessional enough to hold that against you, he’s not a manager you want to be working with anyway – but this is a decision you want to make ahead of time so that you’re not caught off-guard afterwards by negative repercussions.

One last option: If you have a good rapport with someone above your manager, you could consider talking discreetly with them about the problem. But you’d want this to be someone you trust to handle it sensitively, not just report to your boss that you complained about them.

Good luck!

I originally published this at The Fast Track blog by Intuit QuickBase.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Tiff*

    My technique for getting rid of my oversharing co-worker:

    “You’ve got 3 minutes, then I start charging.”

    1. Rin*

      At first I thought meant charging like a bull, but you meant charging like a therapist. I like the first option better.

      1. Tiff*

        Hahaha!! The mental image on that is….just wonderful. I think you’ve sparked my newest workplace fantasy. Just randomly head butt the offending co-worker.

  2. EnnVeeEl*

    I’m really interested in the comments on this one. Because my advice would be to just let this go. I’m leery of someone this unprofessional being unprofessional about other things – like holding it against you that you don’t want to sit around listening to his crap. You report to him. I know it’s annoying, but in the big scheme of your career, your standing at the company, etc. – is THIS the hill you want to die on?

    1. Ruffingit*

      Agreed. I’d let this go and I’d try to time my exit from work each day so as not to coincide with his.

    2. some1*

      Yeah, I have a lot of respect for AAM, but I’m trying to imagine saying, “I don’t need to know that!”, even as a joke, to a COO in front of others in a meeting (at anywhere I have worked) and not be put on the next layoff list.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Depends on your relationship with the person and how you say it. I can imagine saying it to anyone I’ve worked for, but if I’d had more distant/stiff relationships with them, I probably wouldn’t.

      2. Ruffingit*

        Agreed. I don’t think that will go over well especially since the OP has already been listening to this stuff. I can see the COO thinking “But you listened to it before, what’s the problem with it now? This is a person who isn’t willing to be there for her team members…”

        I don’t know that the COO would think that way, but I can see it happening. Seems to me that it’s better to just ignore this.

        1. some1*

          That, and if he’s socially awkward enough to think his personal family issues should be up for discussion *in meetings*, he is probably socially awkward enough to get overly defensive to hold it against anyone who calls him on it.

          1. Jessa*

            This, the only thing I can think of is the times when you’re an audience at the end of work, you can maybe say you don’t have time to talk because you need to get home.

            However if the behaviour is happening in meetings, it’s up to the higher ups or the board to deal with this person. I’m with the “is this the hill,” people, just let it wash off you like water on a duck. Ignore it, you don’t have to respond to his venting.

    3. Vicki*

      This isn’t something you can “just let go”. Eventually, someone is going to respond and it will not be polite.

      The COO does this in meetings.
      “Planning” to not leave at the same time is not going to work (the OP is clear that leaving at the same time is “once in a while”.

      OP can you talk to other people at your level? Get their feedback. Perhaps if more of you talk to the COO (or his boss, or HR, or…)

      Something’s got to give here.

  3. Jaclyn*

    In my experience, rampant over-sharing is definitely a hallmark quality of small firms. Some of those employees may have worked together at this firm for many years, building it from the ground up – some of them likely spend time together out of work. Not that I agree with sharing intimate details of your life with co-workers on a regular basis, but some of your fellow workers may not be just the ‘at work’ peeps anymore – they might be close friends. How do your co-workers seem to take it?

    Just a thought – but I agree, I think it’s weird.

    1. Jean*

      I agree. This is based on my own experiences at a small nonprofit and a company that began small (<10 employees) and enlarged (70+ when I left).

      As for "weird," I disagree. It's nice to know something about one's colleagues besides the facts that Chris is an Excel wizard and Wakeen is the printer whisperer. The trick is staying balanced: learning to infuse some personal warmth without Oversharing.

      1. LV*

        I don’t want to hijack the thread, but would someone mind explaining the Wakeen inside joke to me? I’ve seen it pop up pretty often and although I’ve read my way through most of the AAM archives, I haven’t stumbled upon the Wakeen origin story.

        1. Ellie the EA*

          There was a story where someone had a co-worker named Joaquin, but having never heard it pronounced, thought that when people were talking about “Wakeen” that it was someone else. :-) I think it’s in one of those “embarassed at work” threads…

          1. Chinook*

            And don’t forget that Wakeen’s corworker is Shavon/Siobhan (or Psy-o-bi-han as we knew her in school)

            1. LV*

              I’ve actually met/heard of people who do spell it “Shavon” or “Shavan” *shudder*

  4. Lauren*

    I have a co-worker that overshares about every single thing. Everything. It’s horrible.

    1. Laura*

      I had one of those too. She had the cubicle right next to mine and she talked. All. Day. Long.

      At one point she bought loft downtown and then spent the next few months working with contractors to renovate it. I never set foot inside the place, but there was a time when I could have told you exactly what it looked like on the iside, down to the placement of the throw pillows, because it was truly all she talked about for 6 months.

    2. tcookson*

      I worked with a guy who had an open marriage,and he would try to regale anyone who would listen with details of the swinging he and his wife did over the weekend. This was in a warehouse where we were preparing 6-foot-tall pallets of gallon cans to ship, so at first I would start walking around the pallet to get away from him, and he would follow me around the pallet telling me his personal sexual exploits. After just a few minutes, I finally told him not to tell me that stuff. Everyone in that place had a story of being plied with his sex stories.

  5. Joey*

    Of course the safest option is to decide you’re not going to let it bother you. Its easier to do this if you engage as little as possible.

    1. EnnVeeEl*

      Yup. And note she’s only been there a very short time. This may be the culture of the place. At this point, you need to worry about making a good impression and doing great work – not stuff like this.

      Let it go.

  6. Lillie Lane*

    In college, I worked for an oversharing postdoc. It was awkward but ultimately fascinating, so I never said anything to him about it. But when he got a big time faculty position and wanted me to kind of act as a reference for potential grad students he wanted to advise, I warned them that they needed to be comfortable with him oversharing or ask him to cut it out.

    Some of the gems he shared were that he greatly preferred the feel if breast implants to natural, that he constantly thought about getting a divorce, that he almost had an affair with a married friend if his wife’s, and that he totaled his car after hitting a deer because his wife was performing a sex act on him.
    (Awkward, as I occasionally saw his sweet, attractive, intelligent and “natural” wife.)

    1. Joey*

      Isn’t it amazing the things that people share? I’ve always viewed this kind of stuff as entertainment.

      1. Lillie Lane*

        Like a personal daily soap opera. I currently work with 3 women that are from the same country, and my coworker told me that gossip/oversharing is part of the culture — add in the fact it’s a tiny workplace and that our jerk boss’s wife is from the same country — now we’ve got a drama stew worthy of a new Real Housewives franchise.

        I try to stay out of it and to be professional, but man, is it entertaining (and exhausting)!

    2. AnotherAlison*

      Okay, this one sounds like inappropriate oversharing to me, but the OP sounded more like normal stuff people who work together talk about. Last spring, I got a call from both of my kids’ principals on the SAME DAY, and I’m pretty sure someone here had to hear about it! To me, it sounds like the COO’s life outside work is consumed by family drama, so that’s what he talks about. If he was triathlon training, it would be that topic instead. . .

      I usually handle this type of stuff by just responding with uh-huhs and trying not to feed the conversation.

    3. twentymilehike*

      Oh good lord! Reminds me of the time I was stuck driving our trailer home from a trade show with one of my bosses. I learned what kind of sex his girlfriend likes and the details of the moves he prefers. Um …. WTF?! I did a lot of staring straight ahead and, “wow that’s a little more than I needed to know” type of comments and he just went on, and on, oblivious … This was after the dinner in which his girlfriend told me that she doesn’t wear panties and how it effects the seats she sits on.

      I’m still trying very, very hard to repress this time in my life.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I think you should send the bill for therapy to the boss. UGH, this is just so far beyond overshare, I’m not sure there’s a word for it.

      2. Lindsay J*

        I, too, know my former boss’s sexual preferences (and I mean what acts, positions, and toys he prefers, not the preferred gender of his partners). I also know what types of strip clubs he prefers.

        I could just never get over the fact that he was very careful and private about other parts of his life – almost abnormally so compared to others that we worked with – but those things he thought were okay to share. Just what the hell?

  7. some1*

    Question: was the COO an oversharer before he became a chief officer? Maybe he is over-sharing because he knows he has all the power in these relationships and people are more likely to feel like they have to put up with it.

  8. The Other Dawn*

    Being that the COO is a new leader, maybe he thinks this is the way he gets people to follow him. Maybe he doesn’t know that this isn’t the way to do that.

  9. Anonymous*

    I suggest you instead address the problem in the context of getting more productivity out of meetings. Most anyone will say they spend too much time in meetings. Ask your boss to try some basic productivity/career advice: all meetings should have an agenda, and any time someone veers off the agenda they should be respectfully asked to hold their own meeting or discuss it later or whatever. Encourage him and others at work to turn down agenda-less meetings.

    Your boss will probably embrace the new rules to get out of meetings or to cut down his existing meetings. Then, when he does this junk in meetings, you can point to “the agenda rules” and tell him to save it for lunch break. If he turns down the proposition, then you’re still stuck with his rambling. If he embraces the meetings rules, then everyone might get more done and his ramble-breaks might be more bearable.

    1. Editor*

      I can see trying to keep the meetings on track. Maybe the OP can point out that some days are busier than others, and so meeting discussions need to focus on agenda points. Also, pointing out the cost of an extra long meeting — eight people for 30 minutes is four hours of work — might help the COO understand the cost of a long meeting.

      Ever since someone pointed out the work-hour cost of meetings, I have been much more concerned about staying on topic at meetings, even though I love long, rambling friendly staff meetings. One former workplace had a large staff meeting every day that included anywhere from 10 to 18 people and lasted more than an hour “to keep everyone in the loop.” They weren’t brainstorming sessions.

      A new department head came in and cut the big meeting to once a week. I missed the meetings, but it freed up a lot of working time in the department. The department head substituted one-on-ones and used email more (individual and group emails).

      I like to chat at work and have had to discipline myself to talk less. It helps when the other person sends me “busy” signals. This won’t help when you’re both walking out the door at the end of the day, but maybe there are ways you can do something fairly safe while someone talks. I had a job where I got lots of press releases, so I would skim through them and sort while listening to something I didn’t need to pay close attention to, whether it was when I was on hold, in a conference call of marginal application to my department, or chat from other employees around me.

  10. mother of dragons*

    Anyone else have the opposite problem? Having been promoted internally, a lot of people I manage know funny stories about my personal life that were told to them before I was their boss. I pretty regularly get asked updates about my endlessly goofy boyfriend and great aunt Sue. I don’t know, I work in a professional but small, fairly casual environment where this isn’t that weird, but I wonder whether I should shut down these conversations despite that they don’t make me uncomfortable…

  11. Not So NewReader*

    OP. some times you can get people to stop “dumping” on you by insisting that they look for solutions or fixes for their problems.

    I have no clue if this will fit your setting but here goes:

    “Oh, Boss that sounds terrible. I hope things get better for you really soon! I did not want to say anything earlier- but these things can go into a quality of life issue.”

    “Boss, the problems with your ex-wife have been going on for awhile- that has to be cutting into your enjoyment of life. Have you given some thought as to you can do about it?”

    And of course, at quitting time have a plan. You have an appointment that you must scurry off to, OR the plumber is coming late in the day as a special favor to your household OR you have to get to X place before it closes. The key here is to act rushed/hurried and apologize ever inch of the way but still make sure you LEAVE.

    Basically, because everyone is listening to his problems that enables him to keep living IN his problems. He goes home picks up a load of garbage and brings it to work to dump it out. He does not have to solve his problems because he can unload at work.
    In the end, some upper management person will figure out “Hey if he can’t run his own life, how is he ever going to run a department?”

    Sometimes it is the new person that breaks up the old bad patterns. Pick a technique that is in keeping with your personality. Newer people do impact old dynamics.

  12. Christian*

    Is it just me or does the description sound funny?

    “a very small service-providing firm of only about 10 employees. I am a director-level employee and report right to the COO”

    So he reports to someone who reports to the CEO and calls himself a director level employee? A lot of management among 10 people I would say.

  13. Jazzy Red*

    Offer advice. On everything. Every single time. Be one of those annoying know-it-all people, who will tell others what they should do.

    New wife hates ex-wife? “Gosh, I hope it never excalates to violence. You know what you should do? You should try to get both of them into counseling together. Right away, do it today if you can. They really need help, and you should just jump right in and tell them they need to do that” and so on.

    THIS WORKS! My sister does it all the time, it now I hardly ever tell her anything.

  14. Ann Onymous*

    I have a similar problem. My boss wants to talk about his hobby. All. The. Time. (He is an artist). And if he isn’t talking about his own paintings, the paintings he plans to do in the next decade, his studio-mate/collaborator, he is talking about movies about art, books about art, other artists…He’ll go on and on to anyone who will listen. But mostly me, the captive audience.
    The worst part is that I can’t say, “Well, that’s really cool. But I’ve really got to get back to work now.” Because, um, there is almost no work here.
    In fact, the situation is so bizarre that I’ve been thinking of writing to Alison and asking her advice.

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