Forming relationships with the people that you work with is only natural. Companies hire based on the professional competencies of candidates, but also for how well they envision the new hire getting along with the existing staff. This means that, whether you think so or not, you probably have a bit more in common with your co-workers than you realize. If you’re on good terms with the people that you work with, you have undoubtedly seen the advantages that these relationships bring. They’re more willing to help you, even if they aren’t working on the same project, and are just more likely to improve your day through interacting with them. But, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, some things just aren’t appropriate for the professional context. While you’re getting to know your co-workers, you want to watch how much you share and how much they share with you. If you’ve heard gossip from them, how do you know that your sensitive story won’t be their next talking point? Getting too personal (or to nosy), too quickly can strain relationships between colleagues and make what was a productive, healthy relationship into a stifled, awkward mess.
The worst part about co-workers getting too personal is that, if they are the one revealing the information, it is often done with the purpose of building confidence between you and them. When somebody chooses to divulge their concerns to you, it’s because they trust you. You might be the only one at work who they trust enough to drop the info bomb on. While this doesn’t give them an excuse to make your life a whole lot more uncomfortable, make sure that you acknowledge this trust (even if it’s just to yourself) and keep it in mind as you move forward. Remember, they’re taking a chance on your discretion and, unless you’re legally obligated to do so, you’d better keep whatever they tell you under wraps.
When one of your colleagues starts to spill their guts, you need to be firm, but compassionate. Try to hear them out for as long as you feel comfortable doing so (because it’s the decent thing to do) and even give them some advice if you’re comfortable giving it. The next step is up to you. If the things that they’ve told you have crossed the line into the inappropriate (whatever that word may mean to you), you need to tell them that this isn’t what you signed up for. Tell them something like “It means a lot that you’d share something like this with me, but this topic is making me uncomfortable. I’m here for you, but this isn’t the sort of relationship that I like to have with my colleagues. Do you have someone else that you can share this kind of thing with?” The key here is delicacy. You need to let them know that they need to leave you out of it the next time they need to talk out their personal issues.
The flip side of the confiding co-worker is the one who gets all up in your business. Whether they’re asking too many personal questions or have been feeding the rumor mill, the best tactic for these people is the hard line. You need to establish how serious your professional reputation is to them and let them know that you believe the things that they’re asking (or spreading around) have the potential do damage that reputation. If a firm, polite “stop” doesn’t get them off your case, then it’s time to look up the food chain or consult somebody in HR. Remember, if somebody’s making it difficult for you to get your work done, for whatever reason, management will want to hear about it.