How Self-Disclosure Affects Business Relationships

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The self-disclosure definition is sharing personal information about yourself with others. Most of us do this on a regular basis. What, when and how much we disclose usually depends on the situation as well as to whom we’re disclosing. Self-disclosure in business can be beneficial and it can be disastrous.

When Self-Disclosure Is Inappropriate

We’ve all observed or experienced people sharing way too much personal information in inappropriate situations. There’s the lady in front of you at the grocery store telling the cashier about her experience with high colonic therapy, and there’s your regular customer who shares the latest details of her very ugly divorce whenever she comes in.

Self-disclosure examples like these are cringeworthy, but the only damage they may cause is making you feel uncomfortable. The kind of self-disclosure that you want to be careful about as a business owner is the kind that you do. Not all self-disclosure is bad, but as a business owner, you’ll want to think hard about what you say and to whom you say it.

Self-Disclosure With Employees

When we self-disclose, we share our likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, successes and failures, thoughts and feelings. All of this is good stuff when we do it with people in our personal lives. However, before we share in a business setting, we must carefully think it through. This is especially true when you’re talking about self-disclosing to employees.

Self-disclosing to employees can increase their trust in you if it’s done right. Talking to employees about your intentions for your business and the reasons for your rules and methods is great. The respect and trust it breeds can lead to improved teamwork. It can also lead to employees having more positive attitudes and better cooperation with each other as well as with you.

A little self-deprecation can go a long way because it makes you human. For example, your employees might appreciate hearing an anecdote about a mistake you made as a new business owner. Do not share anything egregious, like the time you broke a U.S. Department of Labor law out of ignorance. Do share how you struggled with finding just the right amount of inventory to carry and how much you wound up giving to charities until you figured it out.

Negative Self-Disclosure Example

Consider this example of how self-disclosure in business can have negative consequences. A busy and successful farrier, or horse shoer, had so many clients that she started turning down new business. She worked in the southwestern U.S. — cowboy country. So, most of the horses she shod were of the quarter horse breed. Quick, nimble and strong, they’re the best working partners for the kind of tasks cowboys still do.

Like pros in any trade or sport, cowboys are very particular about the kind of lassos they use, the kind of bits they put in their horses’ mouths and how they like their horses’ feet trimmed and shod. This farrier disagreed with the way working quarter horses’ feet were traditionally trimmed. So, she developed a technique that made hooves look like they were trimmed the way their owners requested, but they were actually trimmed the way she believed they should be done.

She was so proud of her “tricky business” that she bragged about it to a couple of people. You get three guesses about what happened, and the first two don’t count. Yep, instead of being the darling of the local rodeo crowd, her work now consists mainly of trimming the feet of cantankerous wild burros that have been adopted from Bureau of Land Management roundups.

Never Self-Disclose List

There are some things that are not acceptable disclosure material for the business world at any time to anyone. They include:

  • That you have a record, unless it's a situation in which you're legally required to disclose

  • Anything you did that’s unethical or immoral based on mainstream values

  • That you have or had a communicable disease

  • That you’re in recovery

  • Mental-health problems

  • Anything remotely sexual, including that you’re having an affair or your sexual orientation

  • That you filed for bankruptcy in the past

  • Who you voted for or anything else political

  • What your religion is or any opinions on any religion

  • How much your business is making or not making

  • Drug use (including marijuana) and alcohol use

  • Personal beliefs on controversial topics like witchcraft and conspiracy theories

If you’re thinking that these examples are just part of life and people should be understanding and accepting of them, you’re right. However, if you share intimate details of your life like this with the expectation that people will be kind and understanding, you’re taking an enormous risk.

Some will, some won’t and the ones who won’t could be put off enough to stop doing business with you. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. Hopefully, someday more people will be more tolerant and less judgmental, but we’re not there yet.

Exceptions to the Never-Disclose List

There are exceptions to the never self-disclose list. They rely heavily on environment. For example, if you’re a gay man who owns a leather store on Castro Street in San Francisco, it’s perfectly OK to be open about your sexual orientation. In fact, it might even help your business because often, members of the same group like to support businesses owned by others in that group.

However, let’s say you’re a gay man, and you and your husband own a bakery in a small town in the South. If you’d like to stay in business, it would probably be wise to not be open about your sexual orientation. Once again, it's not right and not fair, but it’s reality.

OK to Self-Disclose List

Almost anything positive is acceptable self-disclosure material for a business owner unless it’s related to anything on the never self-disclose list, such as “I’ve been clean and sober for 16 years today!” That is a fabulous piece of news that deserves a big round of applause if not a party, but it’s best not shared with just anyone in your business world.

People are only human; they can be judgmental and downright mean. Sharing may have no effect at all, and it may have a very negative effect. Do you want to take that chance?

Some examples of self-disclosures acceptable in business settings include:

  • Births

  • Marriages

  • Children, unless it’s something related to the off-limits list, like “My son was convicted of capital murder last week”

  • Pets

  • Sports

  • Self-deprecating stories (as long as the topic is not on the never self-disclose list)

Who Is Off Limits and Who Isn’t

When we talk about how self-disclosure can negatively affect business relationships, we’re talking about relationships with:

  • Employees

  • Customers

  • Co-workers

  • Vendors

  • Other business owners or managers

  • Anyone who has even a peripheral relationship with your business, like people with whom you deal at the bank you use

People in your life who are acceptable self-disclosure candidates are:

  • Close friends and relatives unless they have any influence on your business, like the uncle who lent you $50,000 for startup costs

  • Your therapist

  • Your priest or pastor

Some Businesses Invite Self-Disclosure

Some businesses are perfect settings for self-disclosure, like hairstylists, massage therapists and nail technicians. Why, you ask? It’s because physical closeness breeds a sense of intimacy which lowers inhibitions, and this can lead to sharing very personal information.

The cliche about hairstylists knowing everything about their clients’ life is a cliche for a reason. There’s even an ID channel episode that describes how a hairstylist almost solved her client’s murder.

Self-disclosure in these settings is fine as long as it remains a one-way street. Remain the professional whom you are. Resist any impulse you might have to share in kind.

When Others Self-Disclose

When someone self-discloses to you to the point where you’re feeling uncomfortable, you can try changing the subject, or you can excuse yourself by saying that there’s another customer on hold for you or a vendor at the back door waiting to be paid.

With some particularly persistent people, you might have to be more direct. Example: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this, but have you thought about talking to a friend about it?" Whatever you do, don’t respond with self-disclosures of your own. If the person is telling you about his horrible childhood, do not start talking about yours.

Some of this advice may be a bit tough to follow. After all, most of us like feeling connected to our fellow human beings. One of the ways we do this is through mutual self-disclosure. However, your business is not the place for it.

Online Self-Disclosure

It seems that no matter how much people are warned, there’s still a tendency to share very personal information online in public forums like Facebook. If you need proof of how much risk you’re taking when you do this, consider these statistics from the Recruiter Nation Report.

These percentages of job candidates are passed over when they’ve posted online about:

  • Marijuana – 61%

  • Politics – 51%

  • Alcohol – 35%

While this information pertains to job candidates, it’s an interesting gauge on how the business world judges certain behaviors. So, don’t ignore it. You’ve probably heard adages like "Don’t put anything online that you wouldn’t want your mother to see." However trite that may sound, it’s a good rule for everyone, including business owners.

Damage Control: Lie

If you’ve self-disclosed something in a business setting that you later regret, lying may be your only recourse. This is not to suggest that you tell an elaborate, bald-faced lie. Those sorts of lies sound like lies and can make a bad situation worse. Just mitigate what you’ve said.

Perhaps in a moment of vulnerability you told a customer that you’re going through a horrible divorce that involves an ugly battle over child custody. Now, you’re worried that the customer will share that information all over town and make assumptions, including that your tumultuous personal life is affecting the quality of your service.

You can’t take back what you said, and you can’t control the gossip mill. However, next time that customer comes in, you can mention how relieved you are that you and your spouse have called a truce, and both the divorce and child custody discussions are proceeding amicably. Then, never bring it up again.

Manage Your Business Self-Disclosing

Self-disclosing is a natural human behavior. Most of us like connecting with other people and being known and understood. Friendships can’t develop without mutual self-disclosure. It’s how we find out what we have in common.

However, self-disclosing in business is risky. The keys to safe and appropriate self-disclosure in business are:

  • Don’t disclose anything on the off-limits list.

  • Carefully and thoughtfully disclose things on the OK list.

  • Consider your environment and your audience.

  • Before self-disclosing, brainstorm how it could come back to hurt your business. 

It can also be helpful to always apply the adage for online self-disclosure: Would it make your mother proud?

References

About the Author

LeDona Withaar has over 20 years’ experience as a securities industry professional and finance manager. She was an auditor for the National Association of Securities Dealers, a compliance manager for UNX, Inc. and a securities compliance specialist at Capital Group. She has an MBA from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has done volunteer work in corporate development for nonprofit organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She currently owns and operates her own small business. In addition to writing for PocketSense, she writes for Bizfluent, Budgeting the Nest, Legal Beagle, PocketSense and Zacks.