Should You Keep Your Personal & Work Life Separate?


As early as elementary school, I remember taking the twenty-minute ride to Philly's Temple Hospital with my father every evening to pick up my mom from work where she'd be waiting for us on the bench by the back entrance every single time eager to leave the work day behind.

I lost count of how many times I witnessed them make complete U-turns in the cereal aisle when spotting patients they recognized from their hospital jobs, which sent a message about their values when it came to the workplace loud and clear:

Keep your personal and professional life separate.

In fact, build a brick wall complete with floodlights and layered security between the two.

It wasn't because they were ashamed or had anything to hide. As I grew older, it became clear that it was protective measure that ensured the less people have access to your personal life, the less they are able to use against you. Now, as I head to work each day, I've noticed I've adopted a similar attitude where I want work to be more about handling business and less about making BFF's. In my cubicle you'll find more post-it notes than pictures of my daughter. Most days, the mantra I chant through the work day is, "I'm here to make money, not friends."

Because the truth is, when you've built a bitter relationship with the 9-5 struggle, you hit a point when you're over the obligatory small talk at the Keurig.

The limited amount of energy that becomes your life when you're a working mom leads you to prioritize who is worth investing your time, effort, and energy into and, most days, it's not Suzanne from HR.

A recent article published in Harvard Business Review revealed that I'm not alone when it comes to being protective over my personal life as it pertains to the hustle and bustle of the work day. "Why Black Employees Hesitate To Open Up About Themselves" takes a look at an African-American employee at an international bank who, despite exceeding expectations with his work performance, was passed over for promotions repeatedly before he finally got the nerve to discuss the issue with his supervisor. The supervisor's response? "You are really good at your job, but the problem is that the partners feel they don't really know you."

Afterwards, the employee set out with a goal of engaging in more social activities like staff lunches and fantasy sports competitions, all in the hopes of relationship-building, which he says eventually led to growth in his professional career.

Now, before you can finish saying, "Ain't that about some bulls**t," anyone who has worked in the corporate world is familiar with the office politics of socializing and schmoozing your way to a promotion and/or pay raise. But how do you find the balance between being personable without being fake or phony? How do you maintain friendly and respectful relationships at work while still allowing some distance so that work doesn't feel so closely connected to your personal happiness and self-worth?

It's something I found myself forced to explore when a lay-off I experienced left me unemployed and questioning my whole identity. I enjoyed the work I did at the time and, for the most part, the people I got to do it with, but after the lay-off, I was left asking myself questions like, "Was my manager jealous of my side-hustle as a writer? Maybe I shouldn't have divulged that info to someone I soon learned had secret celebrity blogging dreams of their own."

When I learned that supervisors had pretty much laid off their entire staff at the small non-profit to maintain their six-figure salaries, I felt violated. What good was that conversation about my baby's favorite foods if at that end of the day you didn't give a damn about how I'd pay for it? Everyone won't have my same experience, but the situation taught me that work should only be but so intertwined with your personal life. In the event you're stripped of your position, you still want to be able to have a healthy sense of self and feel like the connection you had with people you once engaged with every day for eight hours wasn't all in vain.

The article goes on to state that finding the balance between the personal and professional can especially be a struggle for African-Americans. Many of us were raised in a culture that encourages keeping private business behind closed doors, and in the work space, when many of us are already navigating microaggressions and racial boundaries, shooting the s**t can be more difficult than necessary. For example, my sister and I can talk about Chris Rock's latest stand-up special and find the same jokes funny, but Kathy from Accounting might be offended and the next thing you know, I'll be sitting in front of Suzanne from HR wondering if this will affect my paycheck.

The piece explains that with disclosure comes risk, and it's not just African-Americans who have reservations:

"Opening yourself to others requires risk taking and trust, but without it employees are less likely to build the deeper relationships that lead both to success and to more happiness at work. Our research focuses on African-Americans, but this dynamic applies to the acclimation and professional trajectories of all those who find themselves in the minority at work, including working mothers, older employees at youth-oriented start-ups, and people whose conservative political views make them feel like outliers in organizations dominated by liberals or progressives."
It's not always necessarily about being anti-social either.

I have made friends at work in the past that I've talked to both on and off the clock. I've enjoyed happy hours, holiday parties, and even playdates with colleagues who I developed friendships organically with. But admittedly, it's been difficult for me to navigate the idea of small talk leading to career success. I've always felt like my work should speak for itself and I should be afforded opportunities that were a good match for my talent and work style than just because me and a manager both love Black Ink Chicago. But the authors of the piece say that half-priced margaritas with your manager may just be a necessary rung on the career ladder, and research shows that it's not that people of color aren't turning up with their colleagues, it's that they don't always feel comfortable being themselves while doing so:

"The problem is not that minorities fail to show up for such outings."
"However, in our surveys, minorities are more likely than others to report attending out of a sense of obligation or a fear of negative career consequences if they don't appear."

The studies also confirm that differences aside, attitude is everything and the fact of the matter is if you're only showing up to happy hour out of obligation and not due to organically formed connections, it shows:

"Regardless of race, people who would prefer to skip such events typically come away feeling no more connected to colleagues than when they walked in the door."

Also, when it comes to connecting to colleagues it can be a struggle to find safe things to talk about that doesn't make working next to a person eight hours a day uncomfortable.

Many employees fear that sharing personal details about their lives invites a situation where that info can be used against them.

I've sat in meetings where managers have discussed laying off the co-worker whose husband makes a decent salary before the single mother whose one missed paycheck away from a shut-off notice. Regardless of your performance and how much personal info should or shouldn't affect career opportunities, I think it's always best to proceed with caution when it comes to being an open book at work.

When it comes to balancing your personal and professional life, the advice I can relate to the most in the piece is you have to be comfortable with yourself. Regardless of how disenchanted I have ever been in a position, I've always found that the people I am drawn to the most are those who are authentic. For every colleague who's ever responded with, "Who?" when I've mentioned my love for all things Iyanla Vanzant, there has been another screaming from the printer, "You have to do the work, beloved!"

When you stay true to what drives you in your career and who you are the connections and opportunities will come, and more importantly, they will come from the people and places that are right for you. In the article, a black woman who goes by "Karen" recalls several white colleagues asking her what she did for her birthday one year and how hesitant she was to share about attending a Kirk Franklin concert because they probably didn't even know who the gospel artist was. The moment was significant to her because she realized any position worth having is one where your unique skill set, background, and outlook are welcomed and not discouraged:

"If I am not comfortable with who I am, the music I like, the places I like to go, how can I expect my coworker to value me for who I am? What is so wrong with being excited about Kirk Franklin?"

When it comes to navigating the nuances of your career growth, it helps to create boundaries and rules that keep you safe, motivated, and work for your individual path as a professional. You also have to understand that with growth comes risk and challenging yourself out of your comfort zone once in a while. Work shouldn't be a place where you're uncomfortable being yourself, and adapting to new people and outlooks can be intimidating, but scary doesn't always mean wrong.

It's as simple as being able to bring your distinct identity to your position, without making a mess where you make your money.

With that said, I'm not accepting your friend request unless we've actually had a conversation that wasn't about weather, the Academy Awards, or my awesome "ethnic" hairstyle. You don't get a happy hour invite until I've heard you independently state that you can't stand those squeaky ass shoes our manager wears. And lastly, you can't judge me for listening to Young Jeezy and selling coke in my head until the very last second before I start my shift.

Featured image by Shutterstock

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