It can be tricky to decide how much personal information to share about yourself at work, especially when you’re hoping to connect with your coworkers on a deeper level.
When you feel at ease talking about personal matters beyond the office such as your interests, hobbies, and relationships or partnerships, you’re more likely to feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety. Navigating what’s safe to share at work can be confusing, though, and it can be even more difficult and anxiety-provoking for employees in LGTBQ+ partnerships.
Psychologist Dr. Brittany Bate says when employees do share, cisgender and heteronormative assumptions are made regarding employees’ families, sexual orientations, romantic orientations, and gender identities. It can be emotionally exhausting and painful for LGBTQ+ employees to continuously correct a coworkers’ assumptions about the gender of their partner.
So, what are general guidelines for when and where to talk about romantic relationships at work, and what’s the right amount of information to share? How can you safely talk about your relationship if you belong to the LGBTQ+ community? And as an ally, can you ever inquire about coworkers’ partnerships in the workplace without outing them? We asked Black Remote She founder and director Jasmine Williams-Jacobs and LGBTQ+ sensitivity and transgender inclusion expert Dr. A.C. Fowlkes to weigh in.
Talking about romantic relationships in the workplace: what to consider before opening up or asking others to do so
Sharing aspects of your personal life at work can help build better connections and foster a positive work environment. That being said, when considering how much or how little to share about your partner, it’s best to exercise caution when disclosing highly personal matters that have the potential to make people uncomfortable.
The best practice is to follow the lead of others in your workplace. If your coworkers and boss constantly slip in tidbits about or plans with their partner, it’s a more appropriate decision for you to follow suit and do the same.
However, there are some situations that are better or worse for bringing up your relationship status. For instance, you should skip discussing your relationship in meetings with clients, presentations, or other formal business interactions.
Relevant times to talk about your relationships might include:
Casual conversations: Casual discussions about weekend plans, holiday celebrations, or general interests at the beginning or end of meetings, during break times, or in a Slack channel can be an easy time to bring up your partner.
Team-bonding activities: During a team-bonding activity or a more informal gathering, colleagues may naturally share aspects of their personal lives. You might get to know your coworkers a bit better at after-work events, but be careful not to overshare—especially if alcohol is involved at a company happy hour.
Celebratory events: If you’re celebrating an event like your birthday, engagement, or work milestone, you might be more inclined to share personal news or experiences.
If you do decide to share information about your romantic relationships at work, that’s an individual decision. In other words, just because you feel safe divulging personal information, does not mean you should pry and press for information from another coworker, because they might not feel as comfortable.
Considerations when bringing up LGBTQ+ relationships
Even when it’s relevant to the conversation, it’s not always safe for an LGBTQ+ person to bring up their romantic relationships. For example, they might fear reciprocatory bias if they talk about their weekend plans with their partner in casual small talk.
Employees belonging to the LGBTQ+ community have to continually assess whether it’s safe to share aspects of their identity at work. “A person in a heterosexual relationship rarely, if ever, pauses and assesses if they can share the gender of their partner at the watercooler or at happy hour for fear of potentially being passed over for a promotion, or worse, terminated,” says Dr. Bate. “The consideration that goes into ‘coming out’ is different for every person, but usually involves some level of conscious assessment and varying amounts of anxiety.”
Because cishet workers are able to talk about spouses, families, and life outside of work in casual work conversations without fear of discrimination, there’s a double standard for LGBTQ+ workers that can lead to feelings of exclusion at work.
“When people feel comfortable expressing their relationship status, it’s often in workplaces committed to maintaining a gender-affirming and psychologically safe space,” says Williams-Jacobs. “Company-wide priorities centering and reinforcing open communication, holistic hiring practices, trauma-informed policies, and respect for the autonomy of employees helps folks feel comfortable to share.”
If you decide to test the waters, you could try talking about LGBTQ+-related news stories, movies, books, or TV shows as a way to start the conversation about your own partner. As you’re easing into the conversation, you can gauge your own safety and comfortability.
Tips for talking about your relationships at work
Williams-Jacobs suggests deciding first what information you’d feel comfortable sharing about your relationships and then setting boundaries to uphold your preferences. “If you prefer to keep your personal life separate, you are entitled to uphold your boundaries. In general, finding gender-affirming workplaces can relieve the pressure and concern of sharing your partnership(s) with your colleagues.”
Be inclusive and mindful of the language you use when talking about your relationships. Dominic, an employee at OpenTable, says, “I remember having a conversation with a heterosexual coworker about the word ‘partner,’ and she told me that she makes it a point to use the word “partner” to describe her husband to be more inclusive and give a sense of allyship to LGBTQ+ colleagues, whether she knows they are LGBTQ+ or not. It was a subtle way of reducing assumptions about a person’s orientation. Personally, I appreciated the effort, as I think it helped build that inclusive environment and a safe mental space.”
Here are more tips for talking about your relationships:
Share personal information gradually. In general, start with lighter topics before delving into more personal details to help you gauge the comfort level of your colleagues.
Set clear boundaries regarding what you’re comfortable sharing. You have control over how much or how little personal information you disclose, and it's essential to prioritize your comfort and privacy.
Maintain a level of professionalism. Avoid oversharing or going into overly intimate details, like a disagreement you’re having with your partner, that could make others uncomfortable. Focus on sharing information that is relevant to the conversation.
Listen and gauge interest. Pay attention to your coworkers' reactions and engagement levels. If they seem interested and engaged in learning about your relationship, and you continue to feel safe doing so, you can continue sharing within the comfort boundaries. Test the waters, and redirect the conversation if necessary.
Follow workplace policies. Adhere to any workplace policies regarding the sharing of personal information. Some organizations may have guidelines on what is considered appropriate in terms of personal disclosures.
Is it possible—or okay—to ask your coworkers about their relationships without outing them?
Learning about your colleagues’ lives and interests outside of work is part of being a good ally and holding space for your coworkers—understanding that everyone has an individual identity and experience. In order to do this, you might feel inclined to ask questions about your coworkers’ personal lives, but it’s important to be mindful of your colleagues' comfort levels.
“Alternatively to inquiring about a coworker's relationship, allow them to disclose if they’re comfortable sharing,” says Williams-Jacobs. “If your coworker chooses to disclose their relationship(s), be intentional about keeping what they share at your discretion. Instead of making assumptions when someone shares something about a ‘partner’ or ‘spouse,’ allow them to elaborate as much as they're comfortable sharing. Avoid pushing or overstepping their boundaries, even if you're curious to learn more.”
If someone seems uninterested or uncomfortable with personal discussions, respect their privacy and keep the conversation more focused on work-related matters. While you shouldn’t point blank ask your coworkers about their relationship status, you can subtly invite them to share more about their life with some open-ended conversation starters.
Some safe conversation starters that might allow for acknowledgement of a partner include:
What are your plans this weekend?
What are you doing to relax after work this week?
Do you have any vacations coming up?
Have you been to any new restaurants recently?
Have you seen any good movies lately?
What’s been your typical morning routine lately?
If your coworker does open up, Dr. Fowlkes says it’s important to avoid assumptions about their sexual orientation, such as assuming they’re heterosexual, and relationship structure, such as assuming they’re monogamous, while they’re talking.
Williams-Jacobs says, “It’s equally as important to make sure folks don’t feel isolated in the workplace if they’re not interested in sharing. There are a variety of other ways to learn more about colleagues without inquiring about their relationships.”
True inclusivity is about creating a safe space for people to be authentic and comfortable with where they are currently.
“While I think we place a lot of emphasis on ensuring people feel safe sharing aspects of themselves with us, sometimes we miss the opportunity to ensure we’re creating a space where people feel safe not sharing aspects of themselves with us,” Dr. Fowlkes says. “People shouldn't feel as though they have to share aspects of their life with you that aren’t directly work-related. If you're asking questions and placing people in a position where they have to either be evasive, or answer a question they’d prefer not to, that's not a fair position to place them in.”