transcript of “my coworkers overshare really personal details”

This is a transcript of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “My coworkers overshare really personal details.”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Today I’m going to answer a bunch of shorter questions from people. The first question today is from someone who works in an office where people do way too much over-sharing.

Caller 1: I have worked in the same office for over a year and a half and I am baffled at how much my coworkers share. I have worked at several offices before and had very open discussions but nothing on this level.

To give you a snapshot, my office is open concept. The majority of us are in cubicles in one room with a few of us sharing offices. My office is 99% women and the majority are in their early 30s so they’re going through similar things when it comes to marriage and children. This past year, one of my coworkers got married, two just had babies, and one had a baby about a year ago. This has caused discussion to always be about the female body and babies. I’m fine with sharing about these moments and hearing all about these milestones however, I am not sure I need to hear about every kind of breast-pump, the specifics of my coworkers’ bodies after birth, and associated issues related to pregnancy.

I understand that they may have questions for each other as they go through certain things for the first time. However, I now know that one of my coworkers had to go to a vaginal physical therapist because of the condition of her reproductive organs post-baby and now has to use kegel weights, another’s husband was not into the Brazilian bikini wax she got, and the another kind of hates her husband.

One of my friends in the office has brought it up to her supervisor but since her supervisor is also one of these people who overshares, nothing really happened. The few of us who aren’t in their stage of life feel super uncomfortable. If we walked in talking about how much we drank over the weekend or what we did at a nightclub we would be seen in a negative light. But, if we talked about our child is afraid to use a toilet or that our breasts are chaffed from breast feeding it would be completely fine.

As tempted as we are to go to HR, it doesn’t feel like a major enough issue to bring up and our HR department is a joke. Also, since it’s the majority of the office having these discussions, it would be pretty obvious to figure out who complained. Are there any ways we can reduce the oversharing in house before having to take it up to someone higher?

Alison: People are so fascinating with the things they do and don’t have boundaries about. And caller, you have somehow landed in a nest of people with no boundaries at all, it seems.

So in general, I’d say this is mostly stuff you that you want to try to address yourself, rather than escalating it to your manager or HR. There’s one exception to that, which I’ll get to in a minute, but in general, with interpersonal stuff like this, typically it’s something you’d address on your own – unless it’s at the point where it’s really interfering with your ability to do your job. Like if you had a client in your office and your coworker was talking loudly about her bikini wax, that’s something that would be appropriate to give your boss a heads-up about – because it’s affecting clients and affecting your work. Although even then, I’d say try talking to your coworker about it yourself first. If it’s a one-time thing, that’s not manager-worthy. If it’s a pattern, talk to your herself first. If that doesn’t work, then talk to your boss. But the reason I say try talking to her yourself first is because first, that will often solve the problem without you needing to involve your boss, and also because if that doesn’t solve it and you do need to talk to your manager, it’s going to look better that you’ve already tried to handle it yourself. Your boss may even ask you, “Have you tried talking to the person about this directly?” and you want to be able to say yes. And then also, from your coworker’s perspective, it’s annoying to have someone complain to your boss when they didn’t bother to talk to you about the issue directly first. And if it’s not stuff that’s affecting your work – if it’s just annoying interpersonal weirdness – that’s not really stuff for your boss.

There is an exception to this, though, and that’s if someone is oversharing about sex, specifically, and having to listen to sex talk at work is making you uncomfortable. That’s getting into problematic legal territory for your employer, because sexual harassment laws can be in play. Sexual harassment isn’t just one person targeting another – it can also be that you’re working in an environment that’s inappropriately sexualized and where you’re subjected to a barrage of unwelcome sexual discussion. So if something like that is happening, your company has an interest in knowing about it and shutting it down because otherwise they can be legally liable.

As for what to do here … You can try shutting it down when it’s happening – like when one of these conversations gets going, you can say, “Hey, this is more graphic than I want to hear at work. Can we keep this PG?” Or you can say, “Whoa, that’s too much for me at work. Let’s move on!” So sort of nudging people to realize, oh there’s people here who might not be happy bystanders to this conversation. Now, if you’re actually working when this conversation is happening, you especially have strong standing to say this. But if it’s more like a conversation over lunch where it’s more of a social context, if everyone else at the table wants to talk about post-baby body changes or so forth, it might be that you just need to cut back on how often you’re having lunch with that group. Because they do have more freedom with conversations in social settings – although, to be clear, it’s still a work context and there’s still a line they shouldn’t cross.  It just really depends on exactly what the topic is and how graphic they’re getting.

But you may just need to be armed with some phrases like “whoa, too graphic for me” or so forth – something you’re ready to say when the conversation veers in that direction.  That doesn’t mean it will work. There are definitely groups of people who think it’s funny when people object and will tease you about it, so how effective this will be will depend on your coworkers. But if you can frame it in terms of “hey, I’m trying to work over here,” that may help.

But it’s also true that if this is the culture of your office, and since your manager is apparently part of the problem too … this might be the culture there. That doesn’t mean that you would need to put up with sexual harassment if that’s what were happening or a sexually hostile work environment. I want to be clear that the answers to those things wouldn’t be “oh, it’s just the culture there.” But assuming it’s not that and it’s just people over-sharing … there’s probably not a lot of recourse. Even if you did have good HR, which you said you don’t, I don’t think that this would be something that you would get a lot of traction from them intervening on. I mean, a good HR person would talk to your manager and explain why she should rein this in, but HR also doesn’t have the power to come in and insist people change their conversational habits, as long as it’s not something like harassment. And in your case, you said HR at your company is bad, that’s probably moot anyway.

So, the upshot here – be armed with phrases that you can use to redirect the conversation, emphasize that you’re trying to work, but that may be the best you can do.

Okay, let’s go to the next call.

Caller 2: I’m building a new team to turn around late deliveries for an important internal customer. In the process, I’m going to inherit a team member who is away from his desk for hours, on his phone, I walk by his desk and see him watching movies on his phone while keeping his monitor alive with a spreadsheet, he comes in at 9am, takes a long lunch, and leaves at 2pm . . . .and that’s in the course of a typical week.

In this guy’s defense, he’s pretty new to the organization and was never coached by his manager, who had been on vacation or traveling the majority of the time he was here. The person who was responsible for onboarding him was moved to another team because he couldn’t handle the workload, so I’m thinking that he probably picked up bad habits from that time.

So what am I going to do? I feel like I’m going to demonstrate the energy I expect, give tough but fair deadlines, establish weekly goals, ensure he is aligned to the work. Do I give him the benefit of the doubt and see if he needed a more engaged manager, or should I just start out addressing his behavior directly and allow him to start with clear expectations immediately? Just don’t know whether I should face this head-on or let him evolve into the employee that I need. What do you think? Maybe there’s another way forward, I don’t know.

Alison: You know, I could argue this either way. There’s an argument to be made for addressing it right up-front with him, so that he knows the bad work habits have been noticed and aren’t okay. But if I were you, I’d give it a little time to see what happens – not months, not even weeks, but like one week. See how that first week goes. If you notice any of those habits during that week, address it right away. But who knows, it’s possible that the reason he was slacking off so much under the old manager was because they hadn’t given him much work to do, or something like that. And if that’s the situation, and he wasn’t doing much because they hadn’t delegated much to him but he otherwise would have been happy to be working if there was any work to do, it’s going to be pretty mortifying to him, and maybe upsetting, to be called on the carpet for that – and he’s going to make him feel like he already has a strike with you, even though it wasn’t really a situation of his own making. Now, that’s giving him a huge amount of benefit of the doubt, but who knows what was going on and why that slacking was happening.

So I’d give him that week and during that week I would watch pretty closely. And be ready to step in if you do notice anything problematic, but see how it goes first. If there wasn’t some sort of extenuating circumstance that puts his earlier behavior in a better light, then presumably that’s going to show up for you too, and you can address very, very head-on when it does. But give him that week and see how it goes.

Caller 3: I have applied for positions before and been given a heads up by colleagues that they were contacted to serve as references for me, even though I hadn’t listed them as references. The place of employment had seen somewhere that I had worked with these people before, and just contacted them out of the blue. Luckily, they all had great things to say.

I’ve also been on the other end of this where I have been contacted as a reference, not having been listed – and the employer has been transparent about that, that they were just calling to see what I thought of this candidate. 

Is this okay? Is this something that happens a lot? And if so, is it okay or does a candidate have the right to control who gives them a reference when they apply somewhere? Thanks so much!

Alison: You’re talking about what are known as off-list references, meaning they’re off the list that you provided, and they are definitely common. From the employer point of view, it’s pretty likely that when the candidate hands over a list and says “these are my references and you can contact these people about me,” it’s pretty likely that they know those are people who will say good things about them. Maybe that’s going to give you a full picture of who they are as an employee, but maybe not. If someone is a not-great employee, they may have hand-selected the very few people who will say something positive. So some employers won’t always stick to that list that you give for exactly that reasons.

I’ll tell you what I do personally when I check references. When the person gives me a reference list, I really pay attention to who they have chosen to put on there. If it’s their last three managers, then great – that’s pretty standard, and it doesn’t look like they’re trying to hide anything. But if there’s only one manager from a decade ago and all the most recent people are peers or other people who didn’t manage them, I’m going to wonder why. What’s going on there, that they’re not offering up any managers? And I’m just going to directly ask, hey, can you put me in touch with your last couple of manager? The exception to that if for their current job, of course. I’m not going to contact your boss at a job that you’re still working at if you haven’t given notice yet and that can put your job in jeopardy. But if you have a few previous jobs before your current one and none of those managers are on the list, I’m going to wonder why and I’m going to ask if I can talk to them. And when I coach managers, I tell them they should be doing that too – because when you’re checking references, you really want to get a full picture of someone and you really want to talk with managers. Managers just often have a different vantagepoint on the person’s work, different than other references will have, because it was their job to assess it and they might see different things. And so if I get a reference list with few or no managers on it, I want to go digging into why.

But the other thing that I do, and that a lot of employers do, is that if I know someone who has worked with the candidate before, I’m going to contact that person about them, even if their name isn’t on that official reference list. Whether it was their boss or a peer or whoever it might have been, if I know someone whose judgment I trust who’s worked with you before, I’m absolutely going to reach out to them and get their take. And that type of informal reference checking is really common – where you have mutual connections, and they got contacted about you.

There’s also another type of off-list reference checking that some employers do, although it’s less common. That’s where they’re reaching out to people not on your reference list, and who also aren’t mutual connections. They’re just calling up your last employer and asking about you. And when they talk to people, they might say something like, “Is there anyone else Jane worked closely with who you’d recommend that I talk to?” And then they’re calling those people. That’s a lot less common, that’s a very, very thorough kind of check, but it does happen.

Now, you also asked if a candidate has the right to control who gives them a reference, and the answer to that is no, at least in the U.S., I can’t speak to other countries. In the U.S., an employer can seek out references for you from pretty much anyone they want.

But the informal ones where they just talking to mutual connections – that’s the most frequent type of off-list reference. That’s just pretty basic info-sharing – “hey, I see you used to work with Jane Smith – I’m thinking about her for a job – what can you tell me?””

Okay, let’s go to the next call. Before we do, I want to explain some of the terminology that you’re going to hear this caller using. You’ll hear her refer to people working 5x8s – which means five eight-hour days each week – and 4-10s – which means four 10-hour days each week. Okay, here’s the call.

Caller 4: One of my direct reports is the manager of a group of 15 people. Approximately 8 years ago (before I was around), this group of 15 was much smaller (8-9) and the work was much less intense. As an experiment, the opportunity was given to the staff to work 4, 10 hour shifts rather than the usual 5x8s. This worked well for awhile. Now, the team has grown and (as mentioned above) the scope and intensity of work has also increased. Currently, 6 people are on the modified 4×10 schedule, with the rest of the team providing coverage for absences.

I should note that we are a 7day/week operation to some extent with weekend schedules being covered by a skeleton crew made up of mixture of folks who have a staggered workweek and by overtime shifts taken by the standard M-F employees.

As we’ve grown and expanded, the 4×10 shifts (and the coverage concerns they cause) have become an increasing problem. After a time analysis and other considerations did not justify hiring additional staff, my report (the group’s manager) and I have come to the conclusion that we need to pull everyone back to 5x8s in order to ensure adequate coverage. This has been suggested in the past by the members of the team currently on the 5×8 schedule (to much wailing and gnashing of teeth of the current 4x10s), and it is to the point where the business needs are showing us that we really do need to make this change.

We are trying to be as kind as we can in the way that we announce this transition but are struggling with the message, the timing and the lead up to implementation. Any advice on how to approach this? I’d like to make this as straightforward and drama-free as possible, and am aware that some folks may quit over this change (putting us even more behind the 8 ball while we try to re-staff afterward).

Alison: Yeah, this is tough. For a lot of people, working four 10-hour days and getting three-day weekends every week can be a significant benefit, and it could be a blow to hear that’s changing. I think you’re right to prepare for the possibility that some people may quit over it – but that’s okay, people need to do what’s best for them. What you want to avoid is people rage-quitting – being angry at how it’s handled or feeling like they weren’t heard. If people quit, you want them doing it from a place of rational decision-making, not irritation.

So the best thing you can do is to be really transparent about what’s going on – be open with people about the reasons for the change, the alternatives you considered instead of this, and why you ultimately did pick this as the best solution. Tell people that you know that this is a major change, that you appreciate what a benefit the old schedule was, and that if there were alternatives, you would have taken them – but in this case, switching back to 5-8s is what made sense because of ___. Tell people you get it’s a blow and that you’re available to answer questions or talk about concerns they might have. And if you can, give people as much of a heads-up as possible before the change happens because people may have child care schedules to work out or other scheduling issues they’ll need some lead time to address, so you don’t want to spring in them without much notice. And of course, if people do tell you that they’re rethinking whether the job will still make sense for them, don’t penalize them for telling you that – let them know you understand, and you hope they’ll stay, but that you support them in doing what’s best for them.

Beyond that, though, there’s not a lot you can do. People are going to feel how they feel, and some might decide that this changes the calculation of whether the job still makes sense for them, and that’s okay. As long as you’re open and transparent and hear people out about their concerns and genuinely listen with an open mind and be willing to be flexible where you can, that’s about all you can do to manage a tough situation well. But those things will go a long way. The different between doing those things and not doing them is pretty significant.

Caller 5: Hi Alison. I’m a fairly senior lawyer at a large law firm on a partner track, and after I was passed over for partnership this year for again not having enough billable hours, I’ve decided that I need to find something that allows me a little bit more work-life balance, because I have two small children whom I’m trying to parent properly and hobbies that I’d like to have, and just generally I need a different balance in my life.

My question to you is: from reading your blog it seems like being a lawyer, particularly at a large law firm, is one of those jobs that typically is understood to just not be skewed towards balance. I take hope from that that there are jobs out there that I can achieve some sense of being able to serve other parts of my life besides work. However, what I would like to know is: when I’m interviewing, how can I make it sound like… how can I get across the idea that I’m leaving my job in order to be able to spend more time doing other things without sounding like I don’t want to work hard. I’m happy to work hard. The way I’ve been framing it in the few head-hunter conversations that I’ve been having is I want to be the client, I don’t want to be the service provider — because it’s really the on-call nature that is really struggling with. But I’ve also mentioned saying things like, “I don’t mind working hard, I’m happy to work nights and weekends, I’m happy to travel. I just don’t want it to be every night or every weekend.”

Anyway, I would love your opinion about how to make it sound like I’m not just looking for part time. I don’t want to coast. It’s not that. I just… I’m not doing anything but work and parenting, and I need to do things like sleep and exercise occasionally. Thank you so much. I love your site. Thanks for everything you do.

Alison: This is going to be easier than you think it is! You’re absolutely right that people generally know that being a lawyer at a large firm means absolutely crazy hours and no work-life balance. So you can really lean on that in explaining why you’re looking for something else now. Because people will get it! You can just say something like, “I love my work, but I’m ready to move on from 80-hour weeks. I’m looking for a job where I can still work hard but also where being able to have dinner with my family won’t be a novelty.” And that’s all – you don’t need more explanation beyond that. You’re not going to sound like you’re looking to coast or not work much. People know there is a middle ground between crazy law firm hours and part-time hours – and that most of the population is in the middle ground.

For what it’s worth, I would not use that framing you mentioned about wanting to be the client, not the service provider. I don’t think it’s totally clear what you mean there, and you don’t want to confuse people. And it’s also possible they’ll take that as meaning something different than how you intend it. I think you’re using that because you feel like you need to have more of an explanation than you do. But really – it’s totally fine to just say you were working. 80-hour weeks or whatever it was and are ready to live more like a normal human being. You could even use that language about wanting to be a normal human. You don’t need anything more than that! People will get it, and you will be fine.

Before we wrap up, I want to share an update that I got from the caller who was on last week’s show, the episode called “My coworker is unbearably negative.” She’s the person who had to work closely with someone who did a couple of difficult things: One was that she was talking nonstop, including just talking out loud to herself, while sharing work space with the caller. And second, she was just really, really negative, unrelentingly negative – constantly injecting their shared space with negativity, which was getting hard to handle. The caller had said she felt like she was an un-consenting therapist to this coworker because it was just this stream of negative problems in her life. The caller has recorded an update about what has happened since she was on the show. Let’s hear it.

Caller 6: Hi Alison, I’m the letter writer that recorded the podcast with you about my coworker who wanted me to be her non-consensual therapist. Thank you so much again for taking the time to talk over the issues that I was having with her.

I wanted to let you know how that’s been going. I’ve been keeping my usual coping strategies, like taking a lot of breaks and having a lot of work to do — which hasn’t been hard, I’ve had a lot of work to do. And at one point she came in and I was doing a stack of calls, and I said, “Hey I’ve got a lot of work to get through, so I may not be as talkative today.” Even though I’m not the talkative one. But I said that, and she said “Okay.” And she started to do that thing again where she talks out loud to herself and says negative things out loud. And I just turned and said, “Hey Jane, would you mind not talking out loud like that. It’s just kind of distracting for me.” And she totally stopped. And I so appreciate it, because while she was a little huffy at first, I think I was just being so reasonable that she wasn’t going to push back on that. And I just can’t believe it was this simple of a solution to get that to stop.

And then as for the negativity kind of stuff where she’s just really negative, you shared an anecdote with me on the show about your mom and how sometimes she just gets like a kind of twisted joy out of sharing bad experiences, almost like a way to connect. And I’ve started to see things that Jane was saying that way and it really, really helped because I was less frustrated. I was able to use my normal coping strategies, but just having that different mindset and attitude about her and about why she does that really made a difference and made me be able to have better empathy for her as that was going on, and not take that negativity in quite so hard.

So it’s not perfect but it’s way, way better. And thank you so much for your show and your website, Alison. I just really appreciate all the work you do here because I know there’s a lot behind the scenes. Thanks so much.

Alison: That’s a great update! It’s so interesting how sometimes solutions to things that are really bothering us can be end up being much more simple and more straightforward than what we’re fearing they will be. So that’s a testament to what you can get done by just being direct. Friendly, but direct.

That’s our show for today! If you’d like to hear your question answered on a future episode, you can record it on the show voicemail by calling(855) 426-WORK. That’s 855-426-9675. Or, if you have a longer question, a question where you’d want to actually come on the show and talk with me, email it to

That’s it for today! I’ll be back next time with more questions.