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How to Deal

Personal Conversations at the Office Should be Private

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 23, 2009; 12:00 AM

A co-worker of mine, a 20-year-old recovering alcoholic, on occasion counsels fellow alcoholics over the phone at work. She is in the cube across aisle and I hear her counseling sessions clearly. About a year ago, I mentioned to her after a session that this might not be appropriate. Well, three months ago, she angrily said to me that I was not supportive of her, I was sneaky, and I eavesdropped on her conversations. I was taken off guard completely and apologized that she felt that way. She abruptly said she didn't want to talk anymore about it. I therefore say very little to her at work. (Luckily I don't have to.) However, this counseling at work bothers me, but possibly also because I have a brother who is an alcoholic. Should I grin and bear it? Or raise it to my boss who brought her to our team as they used to work together; or possibly to HR? Any advice is welcome.

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I can understand in a general sense why a co-worker's highly personal conversations could make you feel uncomfortable. It is reasonable to expect a certain level of professionalism in the workplace. Background chatter regarding the intimate details of such topics as romantic relationships, religious convictions, or medical problems detracts from this ideal. Excessive self-revelation is not only distracting, but it can also feel like a violation of emotional space when, as in your case, the conversation evokes painful experiences that you would prefer not to revisit at work.

I imagine that your co-worker is counseling fellow alcoholics as part of a recovery program of her own, which is why she reacted so defensively when you suggested to her that the conversations were inappropriate for the office. Your overture may have been better received had you shared the fact that your brother is an alcoholic and that her counseling sessions are therefore an unwelcome reminder of what your family has suffered. It is not essential that you open up to your coworker in this way. If you want to handle the situation without involving management, however, going back to her to explain your feelings would be a good start.

If you are unable to amicably resolve the issue with your colleague, your choices are to either learn to live with her substance abuse counseling sessions or seek help from a neutral member of management. The relationship between your co-worker and your supervisor suggests to me that your supervisor might not have the most unbiased perspective. Yet, before you approach human resources or some other responsible authority, pause for a moment to think about whether you are prepared to discuss the reasons why your co-worker's counseling of alcoholics so bothers you. Also, think about whether other forms of highly personal information are openly shared in your workplace without consequence. If your leadership censors your co-worker's conversations about alcoholism but not, for example, another co-worker's detailed account of marital problems, then they could be exposing themselves to charges of unfairness or even disability discrimination.

Yes, disability discrimination. Recovering alcoholics who are not currently engaging in alcoholic behavior are considered disabled persons protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If your organization singles out highly personal conversations about alcoholism as inappropriate to the exclusion of other questionable conversations, they could inadvertently create an inference of illegal bias.

Yet, what most interests me about your dilemma is not its legal ramifications, but your co-worker's apparent lack of regard for the fact that having counseling sessions about alcoholism within earshot of other people compromises confidentiality. I wonder whether the people she is counseling would be as comfortable coming to her if they knew that she was speaking from an open cube. Even if your colleague is not addressing people by name or revealing indentifying details, it is inappropriate to discuss the treatment of their alcoholism without regard to privacy.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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