We spend a lot of time with our coworkers, and they make up an important part of our wellbeing and happiness at work. But does that mean we have to be best friends with them? Absolutely not.
It’s inappropriate (and in some cases, it’s illegal) for bosses and co-workers to approach you to ask about much more than work or general pleasantries. Sure, you can inquire about someone’s weekend or where they got their shoes, but pressing people for personal information is an area you need to tread carefully.
In my own life, I was frequently absent from work while getting fertility treatments. Tired, frustrated and angry, it was truly a dark time for me — so much so that work was a pleasant diversion. Despite the flexibility of being an entrepreneur, I found that vendors, editors, even some of the contractors I hired remarked, “Geez, you sure go to a lot of doctor appointments.” Talk about uncomfortable! I didn’t want to have to explain this incredibly personal (not to mention difficult) time. So I decided I’d stop explicitly saying I had a doctors appointments. Instead, I started to explain that for a number of reasons “I’d be less available over the next eight weeks.” People seemed to get the picture that I didn’t want to offer more details and thankfully, left it alone.
Still, it doesn’t mean someone you work with won’t hit you with a bomb like, “Why haven’t you gotten married yet?” or “When do you plan to have kids?”
Once you’ve caught your breath after being hit with a question like that, you might realize that this person is probably trying to connect, especially in our current, largely remote work culture. But it doesn’t matter.
Many of those questions are so out of bounds that in hiring situations in the United States and United Kingdom, it’s illegal to ask them. Unfortunately, employees — oftentimes, women — are still asked inappropriate questions every day by peers, bosses and clients alike.
Some of the most common questions women get asked at work are about marriage and pregnancy status. When someone asks such invasive questions, they may be trying to evaluate how well you’ll do your job, judging your personality, or just being downright nosy. In any case, the answer is none of their business.
Questions that are out of bounds
So what questions are off the table? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, employers cannot ask about:
- Sexual orientation or gender identity
- Country of origin
- Marital status
- Family status
- Salary history (in some states)
Whether it’s a hiring situation or water cooler talk, I would like to make something abundantly clear: YOU are allowed to decide what people can ask you about. The EEOC determines what cannot be used to determine your employment status, but YOU determine how people act around you. This applies both in and out of work. You don’t have to answer any question that you don’t want to, and you don’t have to give a reason why.
Yes, but what if someone else raises a personal issue? For example, you’re already talking to a colleague about a personal matter and they reveal that they are getting serious with their partner, it may be appropriate to respond with a personal question, like “How exciting! Are you thinking about moving in together?” If you’re in this situation you can still say, “There’s no pressure to answer that though.”
One caveat: If you’re higher-ranking than the person you want to query, I’d encourage you to err on the side of not asking. When an authority asks a question, it can be harder to dodge or say no to an over-the-line question.
What to do when someone asks you an invasive question
Don’t feel pressured to answer the question. Being put on the spot might make you feel like you must answer because anything else would be impolite or feel aggressive. But it’s important to remember that your wellbeing and boundaries matter too. And you can be civil while dodging a nosy question! Try these tactics:
1. Answer the question with a question
“What makes you ask?”
This tactic gives you control over the way the conversation goes. Now, the asker has to explain why they’re so interested in your personal life. Most of the time, they’ll self-reflect and step off.
2. Make them aware of how inappropriate their question is
“I’m surprised you’re comfortable asking someone that.”
Laugh it off to show you don’t want any tension. Or offer this statement and walk away.
3. Be direct
“I don’t feel comfortable answering/talking about that.”
Short and sweet. Tell ‘em like it is. You don’t have to explain yourself further and they most likely won’t press your button again once they know your limits.
4. Give them a taste of their own medicine
If someone asks you why you must go to the doctor, ask them what their last doctor appointment was for. Some people might get cheeky and snap back with a non-consequential response, expecting that their honesty means you have to spill.
All you have to say is, “Oh, good for you!” and change the topic. If they don’t get the message, refer to tip #3.
5. Make HR aware
If someone repeatedly asks you questions that the EEOA deems unacceptable, or makes you uncomfortable, and you’ve asked them unsuccessfully to stop, take the interaction to HR immediately. You might tell yourself that it’s “not a big deal” or that they “didn’t really mean anything by it,” but their inappropriate actions could be part of a bigger issue. It’s always good to have a record of inappropriate behavior so document the behaviors (with dates and timestamps) so that HR can take action, if necessary.
We spend about a third of our lives at work. Let's normalize asserting boundaries without fear of consequences. While lawmakers and our bosses often make a good effort to protect our privacy, there are always going to be people that make their own rules. Luckily, you can too. It’s time to put an end to invasive questions in the workplace.