June 7, 2009

The Social Professional

I've been networking like crazy lately -- it's something I let fall by the wayside the first few years of my practice, so I'm trying to make up for lost time. I've been meeting with lawyers of all levels of experience from contract attorneys, to solos, to attorneys at small, medium, and large firms, to attorneys who are in-house, to government attorneys.

The practice of law varies quite a bit -- there are myriad ways to have a career within it, and all of the different personalities I've spoken with have found different ways to make the career work for them.

Most recently, I went to 2-hour lunch with female partner who had left my law firm to be a partner at a much larger firm. Because of her time at my firm, she had wonderful insights and helpful suggestions on how to be happier and succeed at my firm (and she was excited to share them with me!). Also, I could be more candid with her about my experiences and concerns because she doesn't have a vested interest that aligns with the firm anymore.

Finally, I've found a more senior female mentor who wants to be involved in helping me grow my career. Hurrah! [As an interesting aside, I never seemed to have trouble finding women to play that role when I was an engineer -- despite the facts that (i) women make up more than half the law school grads and only about 25% of engineering school grads and (ii) the average engineer is significantly more introverted than the average attorney.]

I'm not sure why I was reminded of this, but recently, I thought back to an unfortunate incident that happened when I was about 2 years out of college. A guy I'd studied with as an undergraduate had interviewed with my company at my recommendation after he had been laid off. He'd been a casual friend, and I'd wanted to help him out. Several months later, he sent me a creepy hand-written letter professing his love for me and his anger that my new boyfriend at the time (E) was in my life.

I was surprised and annoyed. But, worse, he sent an email to my boss at the time asking if he had obtained the "boss seal of approval" despite not getting the job offer because he "knew that I respected my boss's opinion." My boss, obviously, was also surprised, and asked me what the hell the e-mail was all about.

Embarrassed, angry, and looking for some more experienced advice on how to handle this situation, I called my uncle, a high-level executive at a tech company. His initial response was not what I was expecting:

Oh. That's bad. You don't want to get a reputation as a woman who has stalkers. That is very unprofessional. You need to get rid of this situation, ASAP.

At the time, I thought his response was callous and a bit insensitive. *OF COURSE* I needed to get rid of the situation, duh! But, why is it *MY FAULT* that I had a stalker? Why would it be considered *UNPROFESSIONAL*?

Didn't really matter though -- I sent creepy-letter-guy a curt response explaining that despite the advice of many people I respected who had read the creepy letter, I was not sending it to the police, yet (but that those folks had copies and knew where he lived and if anything bad happened to me, he was going to be suspect #1). Rather than file charges, I explained to him that his behavior was absolutely unacceptable and I wanted nothing to do with him. I wrote that if he ever contacted me or anyone else about me again, I would have no choice but to consider it an aggressive act of stalking and would have to press charges.

I never heard from him again.

Now, after several years of professional experience under my belt, I think I understand what my uncle was getting at (although I still think he could have been a bit more empathetic and supportive in the delivery of his message).

There are people who regularly bring their personal drama to work and share it with everyone, including colleagues who are uncomfortable with the intimate details they feel are none of their business. Some of these people appear to believe that by sharing their personal issues, others in the workplace are now bonded to them and should help them accomplish their job responsibilities in the face of their problems. (Group 1)

In contrast, there are others who go through very difficult issues (death of a loved one, miscarriages, family problems, divorce, serious illnesses) and share the issues only with their close friends at work, if anyone, unless it's unavoidable. They do their best to accomplish their responsibilities despite their personal issues, and if they do need help, more often than not, they quietly go through official channels to get it. (Group 2)

I think my uncle was trying to say,

Because someone you brought into the workplace is creating drama around you, you look like you belong to the first group. To the extent you have the opportunity to control the situation, it's usually better, professionally, to do so in a way that makes you belong to the second group.

Certainly, this is the dominant paradigm in all companies and environments where I've worked, even as a teenager. From a purely business efficiency standpoint, it makes perfect sense.

But, I do have a nagging suspicion of sexism (or perhaps just general unfairness) when I think about the reality that the workplace doesn't reward people for being open with their personal lives, and, may actually punish them for doing so. The sexism suspicion stems from the perception (true or not) that women are more likely to experience emotional issues and need to share them, discuss them, and openly deal with them than men. I, however, don't belong to that group of women. I am an intensely private person and if I need to discuss personal issues, will seek out my long-term close friends for support. So maybe this isn't a sexism thing, and rather is unfair to extroverts of a certain type.

I don't mind when people are open with their issues so long as I can leave the room without repercussions if the details make me uncomfortable and so long as they get their work done without expecting that others will help them out.

Unfortunately, the group of folks who share their issues and then expect that others will step in to help them may have poisoned the well for those people who merely need the emotional outlet, but don't need any additional professional support. Because, whether or not it's fair or sexist, in my professional experience, the folks in group one are perceived as less likely to be dependable in the workplace.

What do you think?


Arvay said...

Oversharing at works makes me uncomfortable unless it's a colleague who is also a friend. People need to ask themselves honestly whether they are talking to someone who truly cares about them or whether they are venting at any available ear.

Biting Tongue said...

Yeah, I've been taking an informal study and most of my friends prefer the "don't overshare at work" approach to the alternative. I wonder if I have some sort of selection bias.

The Enforcer said...

I don't mind some degree of self disclosure at work. I find that it helps to build trust between coworkers, which can lead to a very pleasant working environment. But there is a fine line between appropriate amounts of self disclosure and oversharing to the point where the quality of work suffers. Unfortunately, most people don't know where that line is until its been crossed.

I don't think that sharing or emotion in the workplace are bad things necessarily. But unless you're working with your best friend, you don't need to know every single detail about your coworkers lives. For some, this is a very hard lesson to learn.

Biting Tongue said...

Enforcer: I totally agree. Unfortunately, I think the reality is that everyone has their own idea of where the appropriate line is. And therein lies the rub...

gudnuff said...

It's a tricky business, figuring out with whom and when and what to share at work. So tricky, in fact, that I have been relying on my blog more and more and talking to coworkers much less, and quite frankly, I really like it. And people act all happy to see me when we run into each other in the hallway lately, and I think that's funny. I don't agree that over-sharing necessarily means they want you to pick up their slack. That's just one game people play. Sometimes people overshare because they're needy, lonely, or cluelessly hopeful that their oversharing will solicit similar oversharing in return.