There are certain topics in the workplace that are supposed to be off limits. In polite society, these topics are also excluded from the dinner table! I recently had a somewhat awkward “too much information” situation at work. I’ve had a large mole near my left eyebrow for most of my life, but it’s been growing in the last few years. After several reminders from my mom, I finally made the appointment to have it removed. It turns out that it was large enough and deep enough that they had to perform a small surgery to excise the mole, resulting in 4 stitches sitting smack in the middle of my face! I had to wear a band-aid when I returned to work the day after the removal, and I had black stitches showing for the next week.
The first awkward moment happened when I had to go to my first doctor’s appointment. I was under the impression that I could have the mole removed in one visit, so I scheduled a sick day for the entire day off on a Friday. I walked past a manager’s office on my way out on Thursday, and he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow!” I replied that I would be out on Friday, and he asked where I was going. I replied that I had a doctor’s appointment, and he had a confused look and asked, “Oh, the whole day?” I then explained about the mole and he told me, “good luck.” It’s always said that women give too much information in the workplace, but humans are naturally curious about things, especially when they require a full day of scheduled sick time. And, in this case, it wasn’t an overly gross or invasive procedure, so I didn’t mind going into details. But, what if it had been something intensely personal, like IVF? Or, something particularly gross, like a colonoscopy? Or, more awkward, what if I was lying and I had job interviews set up at other companies? At what point do we deflect questions that might force us to provide TMI? Personally, the interaction with my manager didn’t bother me, because I know he wasn’t trying to “catch” me doing something wrong, but the situation still illustrates how easy it can be to meander into awkward or illegal territory.
In addition to the awkward explanation about the doctor’s visit, it was also awkward when I returned to the office. Since it was clear that something had happened to me, some of my colleagues just asked, “What happened to your eye?” In that situation, I just told them that I had a mole removed, and that was that. Some of my colleagues did their best not to stare, but I finally just spoke up and told them that I’d had a mole removed, and again, no big deal. I think sometimes we draw more attention to an issue if we ignore it, because people are stuck speculating about what happened, why it happened, and what’s been done to fix it. I think it’s better to be up front, with a succinct answer when something is obviously visible to the naked eye. However, I think you should keep less obvious issues to yourself. I mentioned IVF and a colonoscopy above, and if asked about my doctor’s visit, I would probably just say, “Oh, you know, routine check-up stuff. Always good to drop by the doctor’s office once or twice a year!” Most people won’t press you further, and I think it’s better to just leave it vague.
I’ve never had a chronic condition that required frequent doctor’s visits, but this situation can lead to more awkward conversations than a one-time, obviously temporary ailment. I had a colleague that was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which affects the digestive system. This colleague did well to excuse his absence and doctor’s visits by saying, “I’ve been having some issues with my digestive system, and I found out that I have Crohn’s.” This allowed us to go look up Crohn’s symptoms, without having to hear the details of his illness directly from him. Contrast this politically correct response to another colleague I had that went through some health issues. She mentioned a mammogram, a colonoscopy, and a visit to the OBGYN, loud enough for several colleagues to hear it. While each of these procedures was medically necessary, I personally wouldn’t want my colleagues (especially the male colleagues!) to know when I went to the doctor for “lady stuff”. Quite frankly, I don’t think the men want to know any more about the “lady stuff” than they already do, so specific comments about the nature of a doctor’s visit are even more awkward!
I think there’s a fine line between explaining frequent or extended absence, and making sure that you aren’t providing TMI in the workplace. In the case of my mole removal, the “gory details” were tame, succinct, and temporary, so I didn’t mind revealing more about my injury. But, for internal issues that are much messier or gender-specific, I think those are best left out of the workplace.
One thought on “TMI”
Oh yes, I hate when people get all TMI at work! I like your tips on keeping it succinct. The closest thing I ever had to a medical thing was when I was laid up for two days following a skin infection (brought on by a nasty spider bite). A lot of my coworkers actually saw my growing swelling ankle and my boss actually sent me home because she was so worried by it. Like yours, it wasn’t anything private.
On the other hand, my boss did have a more private medical condition the first year I worked for her. She had been coming in late a lot and after a few weeks she sat me and my coworker (her two direct reports) and told us why she had been out. I think it was mainly courtesy because she would need several more doctors visits and wanted to give us a heads up. She also told us that she had kept her supervisor informed from the beginning. Sometimes it is good to let people in on those things strategically (for example, my boss letting her boss know about the situation early on so he didn’t jump to the wrong conclusions or think she was flaking on him).