When you spend 40+ hours a week with the same group of people, you can’t help but form bonds. Shared experiences like laughing at office-related inside jokes, dealing with tough bosses, and frequenting favorite lunch spots can turn colleagues into personal friends.
You may even come to know about your co-workers’ lives outside of the office. In the modern workplace, it’s not uncommon to spend time with your co-workers outside the office at happy hours and fitness classes or know about (or even meet) their kids, spouse, and friends.
But what happens then when a close colleague encounters a personal crisis? How can you comfort a coworker without overstepping boundaries?
Whether a co-worker is going through a divorce, caring for a family member with an illness, or experiencing another personal problem, it can be confusing to know how to respond appropriately.
While you may feel a degree of intimacy with this person and feel like it’s natural to inquire about the details and step in to try to alleviate some of the stress, there are still professional boundaries you should respect. It’s wise to strike a balance between offering your support and respecting your colleague’s privacy.
How to Respect Professional Boundaries
Do: Show You’re Approachable
Everyone wants to feel acknowledged and comforted during tough times, but it can be challenging to figure out how to convey support in an appropriate way. When you don’t know what to say, something simple yet heartfelt—like, “I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your mother”—can be just what your co-worker needs to hear.
And it’s absolutely OK to let your co-worker know you’re there for her if she does want to talk about what’s going on. This doesn’t, however, mean barraging her with questions or insisting on details; that could drive your colleague away.
Don’t: Offer Unsolicited Advice
While it’s tempting to want to play amateur therapist and offer advice to your struggling co-worker—particularly if you’ve been there before—focus on supporting, not preaching.
Your goal should be to make your colleague feel comfortable and cared for, not to provide your recommendations. Unless your co-worker specifically asks for your advice, it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself. Instead, ask open-ended questions like, “How are you holding up?” to try and understand how he or she is feeling.
Do: Offer to Help in Specific Ways
Avoid offering vague statements like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” or asking, “How can I help?” These blanket sentiments place a burden on the struggling person to make an effort to generate ideas for you, and chances are, your colleague may feel uncomfortable requesting help from a fellow co-worker.
Instead, be proactive and show you’re willing to help by offering assistance in specific, concrete ways, such as, “I’m running out for lunch; can I pick up a meal for you today?” or, “I’m calling the distributor—do you want me to touch base with him on your behalf about the new designs?”
Simple gestures like these can provide a huge amount of relief for your colleague. And, by offering something specific, you won’t get overloaded with tasks you don’t have the bandwidth to handle or aren’t comfortable with based on the nature of your relationship.
Don’t: Be Susie Sunshine
If your colleague is going through a personal crisis, he doesn’t need you reminding him to buck up and look on the bright side. Every person experiences life’s highs and lows differently, and it’s important to respect your colleague’s unique coping process—whatever that entails.
While you likely have good intentions, your optimism can inadvertently make it seem like you’re downplaying or trivializing the matter, which can make the situation even worse for your co-worker.
A better strategy is to help him or her feel heard and understood by offering phrases like, “That sounds so difficult” or “You must be angry!”
By validating your coworker’s struggles, yet remaining neutral, you’ll help him feel comfortable opening up to you. At the same time, you minimize the risk of alienating him by making him feel like he’s overreacting or not handling things the way he should.
Supporting a colleague who’s going through personal turmoil can be a tricky workplace scenario to navigate. When you reach out to offer your support, remember to honor your co-worker’s boundaries and let him or her take the lead on how much he or she wants to disclose.
By sticking to these rules of thumb, you’ll be able to strike a balance of support and respect. In the long run, this helps you preserve and strengthen your relationship with that person and foster even better teamwork when the clouds clear.