Several years ago, I was speaking with a woman, who was explaining to me how she handled a call from a Human Resources recruiter who wanted to schedule a final interview for a position that she strongly believed she would get. This woman had recently experienced the death of a parent and was telling me how stricken with grief she was during the final stages of her dad's life, her visit with him while on his death-bed, and now that he was gone. She explained, nonetheless, that when the recruiter called, she was still out of town and was in the midst of helping her mom plan her dad's funeral, but instead of telling the recruiter what was going on, she proceeded to schedule the interview for the following week, believing she would have returned home by then. When I asked her whether she had shared with the recruiter that her dad had recently passed away, she said she hadn't, so, naturally, my next question was why not. Her answer: she didn't want to hinder her chances of getting the position by having HR think that her personal issues would interfere with how she handled her professional affairs. Now, I admit that even though, at the moment of her telling me this, I just responded by saying, "Oh, okay," but in all honesty, I was thinking, "Whaaatt?!?! Your father had just passed away!!!"
Why do we feel that we cannot allow information about our personal lives to enter into our professional environments? Maybe because there's an unpleasant history surrounding the notion that when you enter the workplace, you should leave your personal life and it's cares, problems, and concerns behind and never the two shall meet. If we're sitting in a meeting with colleagues but, especially, if with a manager ("the boss") and our cellphone buzzes with a text or a call from our spouse or our children, we tend to ignore it (until the meeting is over, of course). If our boss wants to schedule a meeting late in the day, and we know that it may interfere with leaving in enough time to attend our child's after-school concert, we'll say, "Okay" but cringe inside, hoping that the meeting won't run too long so that we can, at least, catch some of the concert before it ends. We're often not comfortable letting people we work with, especially those we report to, know that work is, somehow, going to interfere with personal priorities or that personal priorities may have to sometimes interrupt work because in professional environments, these realities could give an impression that we're not being responsible. We don't want others to think that we're preoccupied with or distracted by personal matters, as though we're not committed to our work, or that we don't respect the workplace, those we work with, and those we're accountable to. So, we're not always forthcoming with, and sometimes we even hide, our personal affairs while we're at work or within a professional arena, but why? I believe the reason is fear--the fear that someone will think something about us that's not really true and that they'll draw conclusions about us that will work against us and will, ultimately, cause us to lose something.
In 2008, I left my last corporate employer and spent the next several months trying to decide my next steps. After several months, I started interviewing, thinking that maybe I would return to a corporate position, and by January of 2009, my interview trail started really heating up. One company, in particular, asked that I return for, yet, another interview, which I was told should be my final round before an offer was extended. I was extremely excited that I was so close to wrapping this process up, and what was even more exciting for me was that the position was less than a thirty-minute drive from home, something I had longed for. So, after the recruiter finished giving me feedback on my prior round of interviews, she began talking about when they wanted me to come back in. So, finally, she asked: "How about next Tuesday, the 20th, at 10am?" and in all honesty, before I could even think of a reply, I immediately responded: "Oh, no, I'm sorry. Tuesday is Inauguration Day, and I've already planned to watch the inauguration with my family." Under normal circumstances, I would not have been that direct, but these circumstances were no where near normal: President-Elect Barack Obama was being inaugurated, and there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to watch that with my family. Of course, we ended up scheduling for a different day, but I was extremely happy that I exercised my boundaries to protect what was important to me, and even though I didn't lose anything as a result, I would have been perfectly okay, even if a little disappointed, if I had lost something, but I would have deeply regretted not protecting my priorities if I hadn't exercised boundaries.
I've witnessed many people, and I know you have, too, who have failed personally and professionally because they erected such thick walls between their personal and professional lives to keep the two separate, trying to prevent them from intersecting with and impacting each other in any way whatsoever. I have learned, though, that that's not always possible, it's not always practical, nor is it always wise. We fail because we try so hard to successfully keep all the balls in the air and to keep all the moving-parts moving but all in their separate worlds. Perhaps, if we let one world--the work world--know what's going on in the other world--the personal world--we could focus on managing one big, integrated world that includes both work and family, both personal and professional, instead of stressing ourselves out trying to keep everything separate but still in the air and still moving, especially when we're dealing with personal crisis, but it shouldn't require a crisis for employees to freely be transparent about personal and family priorities. If there weren't such an unfavorable historical perspective regarding the intertwining of personal and professional and family and work, many employees would be more inclined to openly integrate the two and less inclined to unrealistically separate them. Yes, ideally, our personal worlds and our workplace worlds should not collide, but the reality is that they co-exist and may very likely result in a collision because of the pace and pull of the times we're living in. There are times when we may have to sacrifice personal priorities for work and may also have to sacrifice work priorities for family, but my word to employers is that a collision doesn't have to be viewed as a detriment but, rather, as a reality that the employee just needs to manage. If employers were more accepting of this, employees wouldn't feel the need to hide it, and many professional-personal failures or derailments could be avoided. What complicates matters is that many employers--Human Resource Departments-- understand and are supportive of this reality, but employees don't always experience the same understanding and support from their managers, and in, fact, they often get the exact opposite--outright opposition from those they report to. Regardless, however, of whether an employer explicitly creates and announces a culture that understands that work-life and home-life are intricately intertwined, my word to employees is that you are responsible for setting and protecting your own boundaries, and as you do, you'll make those around you aware that you have them and what and where they are.
So, be proactive and take ownership of integrating your worlds. The next time a colleague or even your manager wants to schedule a meeting that might interfere with your leaving early enough to be present for your son or daughter, try saying something like, "Is there any way we can push the meeting up? My son has a basketball game after school, and I'd like to leave in enough time to catch it." Or the next time you're in a meeting and your spouse texts or calls you, instead of just ignoring it, try something like, "Please excuse me for one moment. My wife is calling; let me just let her know I'll call her back." You could either pick up and let her know, or you could shoot her a quick text that you're in a meeting and will call her as soon as you're done. Either way, the more you begin to intersect and integrate your worlds, the more others will expect you to do so. And instead of trying to avoid a collision, allow your worlds to collide into one big intersected, integrated, intertwined world with lots of balls to keep in the air and lots of parts to keep moving.
Like you, Katrina loves seeing people in healthy relationships (with themselves and others) that they genuinely enjoy and not just simply tolerate. This blog is dedicated to achieving that vision.
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