The Prying Boss

Boundaries are often difficult to navigate in the workplace, and some bosses make this even harder than usual. A boss who is overly curious about one’s personal life presents unique challenges. One on hand, the boss may be genuinely curious and interested in your wellbeing. On the other hand, the boss may be inappropriately prying and abusing his or her power in order to get you to reveal personal details that you don’t want to.

Here’s an example of advice I provided to someone who was trying to deal with a prying boss in a radio interview on NPR’s Morning Edition:

Establish a positive tone. Emphasize that you appreciate his or her concern. If you begin the conversation on a positive note, it's more likely to stay positive. If you start with a negative, accusatory tone, you may inadvertently confirm your boss's concerns or suspicions, as well as hurt his or her feelings.

First, understand why the boss is prying. Is it really because the boss is nosy? Or because the boss has some concerns about the work one is doing? Asking your boss whether he or she is concerned about your productivity or the quantity, quality, or timeliness of your work may move the conversation away from your personal life and back into the workplace.

Try to establish boundaries. Let him or her know that if and when you have important personal issues to discuss, you will do so. Be firm about drawing the line about what you will and will not disclose.

Don't send mixed messages. If you let your boss know that you have several consecutive doctors' visits, that makes it likely that he or she will ask you why those visits are necessary. You may want to take the morning or afternoon when you have your doctors' visits as personal time so that you don't need to let your boss know the reason you will be out of the office.

Consider why the personal prying is so irksome. Some people are able to shrug off the inquisitiveness of their bosses. If your boss's questioning seems more like interrogation, it may be because your boss reminds you of someone else in your personal life or from your childhood.