When Intimate Details Invade the Cubicle

By Lily Garcia
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Q A co-worker, who is a 20-year recovering alcoholic, on occasion counsels fellow alcoholics over the phone at work. I hear her sessions clearly. About a year ago, I mentioned to her that this might not be appropriate. Then three months ago, she angrily said to me that I was not supportive, I was sneaky and I eavesdropped on her conversations. I was caught off guard and apologized. She abruptly said she didn't want to talk about it. I, therefore, say very little to her at work. However, this counseling at work bothers me, possibly because I have a brother who is an alcoholic. Should I grin and bear it? Or raise it to my boss or human resources?

A I can understand in a general sense why a co-worker's highly personal conversations could make you 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. 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. 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 co-worker 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 counseling sessions or seek help from a neutral member of management.

But before you approach human resources or some other 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 managers censor 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 people 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, it could inadvertently create an inference of illegal bias.

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