Employees want their boss to stay connected. According to a LinkedIn survey, the third biggest complaint from employees is that their boss is not involved enough. Leadership training encourages managers to ask questions and engage with their staff on a personal level and not just on work topics.
Most of the time your boss is simply making conversation and doesn’t intend to make you uncomfortable. Any conversation can have awkward moments so we put together the 9 best tips for how to handle a simple faux pas all the way up to a boss that won’t stop prying.
Expert Tip: Always avoid talking about race, politics, religion, sex, and money at work. Divisive topics create conflict and can damage relationships – remember you still have to function with your coworkers even if you learn that you have profoundly different views.
Acknowledge Their Question With a Vague Response and Move On
By giving a response to their question you let your boss know that you are paying attention and heard them, but by giving a vague answer you are also protecting your privacy.
The key to providing a vague answer is to immediately move the conversation forward onto another topic in the same breath. Don’t give your boss an opening for follow-up questions. Business-related topics are most effective because they also signal your desire to get back to work.
Boss: How was the weekend at your mother-in-law’s?
Expert Employee: It was fine, do we want to meet with customer A first thing Wednesday morning or in the afternoon?
Boss: What did you buy with your bonus?
Expert Employee: Nothing special, did you have any edits for the proposal?
If you have a middle or high school student you can simply pattern after their answers, or think like a lawyer. Use short phrases that don’t convey any real information and don’t invite follow-up: not really, it was fine, nothing special, who knows, I’ll think about it, that’s interesting, I’m not sure, and others.
Redirect Their Question or ‘Bridge’ to Another Topic
Get in touch with your inner politician and simply interpret their question as an invitation to discuss a somewhat-related topic that you want to talk about. Also called ‘bridging’, the technique is frequently used by political candidates to reframe an uncomfortable issue and keep control of the conversation.
Boss: So what diet are you on this week?
Expert Employee: What you really should be asking is how we made a delicious smoked brisket on our grill this weekend. Let me tell you it was the best one so far!
A similar approach is to just carve out part of the question to answer and just never circle back around to the part that you don’t like. You can also just say “I’ll get back to you on that” and carry on.
One caution about bridging to another topic, be very careful about using the question from your boss to get on your soapbox in order to make your own point. For example, if your boss asks you who you voted for do not use your answer as an opportunity to give your views on current political topics. The best response for work stays neutral “I prefer to focus on what people have in common instead of drawing lines that separate“.
Respond With a Joke, but Avoid Sarcasm
A well-timed joke relieves any tension in the room and lets your boss off the hook for a question in bad form.
Boss: How much does your spouse earn?
Expert Employee: About half what they deserve!
Boss: Why are you taking Friday off?
Expert Employee: Because my real boss keeps nagging me about my honey-do list?
It is a fine line between jokes and sarcasm because both can be quite funny. The difference being that sarcasm is hostility masked behind humor, which isn’t appropriate professional behavior for the workplace.
Ignore Their Personal Question
Sometimes ignoring an inappropriate or personal question is the correct course of action and can also be highly effective. Simply pretend like there never was a question and carry on with the other parts of the conversation. However, when you openly ignore their question your boss may feel slighted. Or worse yet, your boss may double-down and repeat their question, drawing even more attention to the topic you are trying to avoid.
To send a stronger message make direct eye contact, and then pause for a beat before moving the discussion onto the next topic. All but the most socially unaware bosses will get the hint that you don’t want to engage with their question. If you already have a confrontational relationship do not use this method because your boss will view it as a challenge to their authority.
Use Silence to Your Advantage
Silence can be a powerful tool, especially when used correctly. Human beings loathe silence during a conversation because it is just … so … uncomfortable… Interviewers use silence to their advantage as a technique to get candidates to reveal more about themselves. For personal questions, you use the silence to signal you don’t want to continue the discussion.
Boss: I heard you are getting a divorce.
Expert Employee: Yes, I am. (Insert very long, agonizing pause).
By letting the silence linger, your boss will realize that you really don’t want to talk about it. You can also use silence to simply ignore office gossip conversations going on around you. Sometimes you can’t help but hear what is being said, and you may not be able to remove yourself from the area, but you can always choose not to participate.
Answer Their Question With A Question of Your Own
Firing back “Why do you ask?” at your boss comes with some risks, but it can also shed some light on the motivation for their question. For example, your boss could be aware of lesser-known employee benefits like counseling, and their questions might be with good intentions even if they are also intrusive and heavy-handed.
“Are you concerned” works well for probing questions when your boss may not realize they have crossed a line. If you really want to take a strong stance simply turn the question around and ask it back to your boss.
In the moment, it can be tempting to respond with “Are you always this nosy?” or similar questions that also double as accusations. Even if your statements successfully shut down the line of questioning, they also damage your relationship with your boss.
Confront Their Personal Question Directly
You can reply to a personal question at work with “That is something I would rather not discuss” or “That’s a little too personal“. In fact, if the more subtle methods haven’t worked this technique is the best approach because it is simultaneously polite and also leaves no room for misunderstanding. Other phrases you can use here are “That is a rough subject at the moment” or “I like to keep my personal life separate from my work life“.
We recommend using this approach when your boss has asked you a question directly in a public setting if you have been unsuccessful with the vague answer previously. You can’t always predict how your boss will respond to the other techniques, especially in a larger group or with members outside your immediate team present, but confronting their question leaves no doubt where you stand while still being polite and professional.
Talk in Private With Your Boss
When your boss shows a pattern of asking about your personal life at work you need to move beyond normal social cues and not-so-subtle hints. But don’t let your frustration boil over. Find a time when your boss seems relaxed and ask them for a few minutes in private. Once you are alone, calmly explain the topics that you find uncomfortable and directly ask your boss to stop asking about them.
During this conversation it is important to be clear and candid. You can use recent examples in your exchange and explain that those subjects are not welcome and you do not want to share your private, personal details at work. It may feel blunt, but ask them to stop so there is no misunderstanding.
Why You Shouldn’t Bring the Issue to Human Resources
When all else fails, sometimes you feel like you have no other option than to bring the problem to HR. However, in most cases bringing an interpersonal relationship concern between you and your boss to HR will not work out in your favor.
Asking unwanted personal questions shows a lack of judgement by your management and is frequently a sign of inexperience but HR will usually view it as something that needs to be worked out between you and your boss.
Can My Boss Ask About My Personal Life?
Personal questions at work that do not infringe on a protected class are legal, even if they are in poor taste. The fact that you are uncomfortable by itself does not satisfy the legal definition of harassment.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as:
Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Can My Boss Ask Why I Called Out?
Your medical information is protected under the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but your boss is free to inquire about any restrictions or reasonable accommodations you may require that affect your ability to meet your job responsibilities. Many companies allow you to disclose the specifics with a benefits administrator in Human Resources and so you do not need to disclose your medical specifics to your boss. Answering your boss’s questions with “I was sick” or “I had a personal matter” is sufficient, they may ask for details but you do not need to provide them.
Remember that Human Resources is not your friend, they are there to protect the company and by extension, leadership that represents the company. HR will officially side with your boss unless the issue poses a legal risk for the company. The best outcome you could hope for is friendly advice from a helpful HR professional.
“My boss keeps asking personal questions that I don’t want to discuss. I’ve directly asked them to stop, but nothing I’ve tried is working. Do you have professional strategies for how I can protect my privacy and keep work about work?”
What you discuss at work and how much you share is an individual decision. Many people have no concerns talking about family events and other details that most introverts would call oversharing. If you want to have a stronger connection with your boss, you will need to consider what you are comfortable sharing if for no other reason than to keep the conversation going. Remember that workplace chat is normally reciprocal, if you are asking coworkers about topics in their personal life you can expect similar questions directed towards you.
Establish boundaries and stick with them. Your boss (and your coworkers) will learn the topics you will and won’t discuss – and if they do cross a line all it takes is a friendly reminder. You aren’t being rude or offensive by looking out for yourself and protecting your mental or emotional state. It may be uncomfortable at first, but you will feel empowered with practice.
No matter what course of action you choose, managing your tone is vitally important. The words you say are less important than how you say them and you don’t want to come across as mocking, insulting, or insubordinate with your boss. The exact same words can have profoundly different meanings depending on how they are delivered.
“My coworkers are driving me crazy” could just be to get a laugh or it could be a serious complaint.
“Why do you want to know?” asked in a friendly tone is just a question, or it could be a challenge.
When your boss asks you an uncomfortable personal question simply provide a vague response to show you heard them and immediately steer the conversation back to something work-related. If your boss persists, it is perfectly acceptable to respond with “That is something I’d rather not discuss”. Your boss will probably get the hint, but if they continue just tell them you don’t want to talk about that item. If a pattern develops, have a private talk with your boss and directly ask them to stop.