Getting along with your boss is one thing. Genuinely bonding with them is another.
But it turns out that forging a strong relationship with your supervisor can be good for your career. Those who feel ambivalent about their relationships with their higher-ups are more likely to perform worse at work, according to one 2017 study.
Fostering a real connection with your boss does require opening yourself up at work, but there’s a fine line between being your authentic self and oversharing. It helps to know what you should — and shouldn’t — talk to your boss about.
3 Topics Worth Sharing With Your Boss
1. Health Accommodations You May Need
Cluing your boss into any mental or physical health issues you may be facing could help you get the support you need so you can do your best work. Furthermore, the Americans With Disabilities Act protects against workplace discrimination based on health status, so there’s relatively little risk that sharing this information could be used against you.
According to multigenerational workplace expert Lindsey Pollak, there’s a way to share your health information with your boss without divulging every personal detail.
“Be mindful and deliberate that you’re not bringing someone a problem you’re asking them to solve, but a solution,” she says. “For example, [you could say something like], ‘I’m breastfeeding and need to pump twice a day for 20 minutes. I’m going to come in 20 minutes early to make up for that time, or I will respond to emails and be available while I’m pumping.’”
2. Parts of Your Life That Won’t Make Your Boss Squeamish
Fifty-five percent of managers say they’ve heard inappropriate conversations in the workplace having to do with personal relationships and dating, according to Udemy’s “2019 Workplace Boundaries Report.” Steer clear of talking about your romantic life with your boss. Reminiscing about your weekend escapades probably isn’t a good idea, either.
“You can bond and talk about your personal life, but limit it to the topics you’re comfortable with,” Pollak says. “You don’t have to share about your divorce or bad relationship. … You can share about something like your mutual love of baseball instead.”
3. Work-Related Challenges
Having a tough time cracking a work challenge? Don’t be afraid to ask your boss for their input. Whether you need clarification on a project or help troubleshooting a problem, admitting you need some guidance doesn’t mean you’ll be perceived as stupid. In fact, Harvard Business School research suggests that asking for advice might actually make you appear more competent.
4 Topics to Avoid Bringing Up With Your Boss
1. Negative Things About Past Employers
“In general, you don’t want to be seen as a negative person who is critical of former employers, colleagues, and bosses,” Pollak says. “The [boss's] assumption is going to be, ‘If you’re badmouthing them, someday you’re going to bad mouth me.’”
Obviously, you also want to avoid shining a negative light on your current workplace — but that is sometimes easier said than done. Thirty percent of workers surveyed by Office Pulse in 2019 said their bosses had actually probed them for workplace gossip. If you find yourself in this scenario, tread lightly and redirect the conversation to more neutral ground.
2. Details of Your Boss’s Personal Life They Haven’t Shared With You
When it comes to discussing your boss’s personal life, Pollak says it’s all about knowing your audience and following their lead. If they have yet to open up about their weekend plans or family life, don’t be the first one to take the conversation in a personal direction.
“You might know that your boss has a spouse or children, but they may not want to talk about [those topics] much at work, and that’s fine,” she says. “If they seem to shut down or be very reticent about certain things, I would try to take those cues to make sure you don’t overstep.”
3. Personal Financial Issues
There’s a right way to ask for a raise, and it’s not by stressing your own personal financial woes. If you want to negotiate for more money, you need to be ready to prove your worth by pointing to specific examples of ways you’ve added value to the company and/or contributed to its revenue goals.
While you certainly want to steer clear of discussing financial problems with your boss, you may also want to avoid discussing your financial successes. Even conversations about how you’re building wealth may not be appropriate for the office.
4. Political or Religious Matters
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 73 percent of people feel like voters from opposing parties can’t even agree on basic facts. Religion can be equally polarizing, which is why it almost goes without saying that bringing up these topics with your boss could very well backfire. Again, read the room.
“I think one of the best things you can possibly do for your career is to become an expert on your boss,” Pollak says. “What is that person’s style? Are they really open and authentic and [sharing] a lot with you, or do they hold things close to the vest and are very professional?”
If you do end up putting your foot in your mouth at work, don’t beat yourself up — it happens. What matters most is how you handle it.
“Make a quick apology in a genuine and professional way, but don’t dwell,” Pollak says.
In other words: Say you’re sorry, learn from the experience, and move on.
Marianne Hayes is a longtime freelance writer and content marketing specialist.