We recently had an opening in my department for a director position. Had I applied for the job, the position would have been a big promotion for me. I didn't feel quite ready to apply for the job, though, and so I didn't (and I'm fine with that). However, one of my colleagues asked if I had applied for the job in front of a large group of people and it made me very uncomfortable. Is that information no longer considered private? I didn't feel the need for everyone to know if I was or wasn't applying for the job, and I hadn't discussed it with anyone in my department prior to this encounter. How do you respond to questions like this in a group setting when you are put on the spot?
Deer in Headlights
Dear Deer in Headlights,
‘Tis a fine line that we walk between personal and professional boundaries. Though some may argue that this is a professional question being asked in a professional setting, based on the fact that you’re even asking, I’m betting you’d beg to differ. Also, quite frankly, I’d say it's common courtesy to not ask questions like these in a public forum. But, it happened and may happen again, so what can you do in the future?
First, if you’ve been in this office long enough to consider applying for a promotion and a colleague felt comfortable enough to ask you this question, I’m figuring you have a pretty good sense of the different personalities in the room and how to work with them. This is great because this will help you prepare and be proactive as other complicated or potentially uncomfortable situations come up. If you know something is abuzz in the office, then prepare for that inevitable individual who doesn’t have boundaries and come up with a plan. It’s like being single in your 30s and going to a family event where you know everyone in the room is going to ask you if you’ve found someone. “When are you getting married? What happened to that one person you were talking to? Have you met so and so? I think you’d make a great pair!” Very frustrating. So what’s the game plan? Here are a few plays to keep in your back pocket:
Be honest. Tell the person that you aren’t comfortable having this discussion and leave it at that. This may lead to some awkwardness initially but a) it’s the truth and b) it sets the boundary for future interactions and will hopefully reinforce for everyone in the room that there are certain things that you just aren’t comfortable discussing.
Say you don’t know or give a brief non-answer and then refocus everyone on the subject at hand or another subject, whatever works best.
Deflect/change the subject: “Speaking of directors, you just reminded me….”
Have someone in the wings ready to save you. Someone who can call out the inappropriateness, change the subject, or deflect on your behalf. This, of course, implies that you have confided in someone in the workplace and that you are anticipating questions you don’t want to answer and may not be the most practical solution, but one that could be used if necessary.
The difficulty with situations like these is that it's hard to prepare for something you don’t know is coming. And most of us freeze when we’re caught off guard and don’t know how to react, hence the apt analogy of the deer in headlights. And that’s ok. It’s ok to take a minute to compose yourself and your thoughts and answer in a way that is comfortable for you. I think we’re so focused on needing to immediately respond that we forget that we don’t actually have to. In fact, if you give it a few seconds, someone else will usually chime in because people can’t handle the silence. But if that doesn’t work, you at least have a few options above that you can try.
P.S. Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I’m curious what the amazing community of educators reading this post has to say. Chime in, folks! What thoughts do you have for Deer in Headlights? Share your thoughts on the Global Leadership League’s LinkedIn page. Have a question for Sophia yourself, ask here!
Please note: This response is provided for informational purposes only. The information contained herein is not legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice or legal opinions of a licensed professional. Contact a personal attorney or licensed professional to obtain appropriate legal advice or professional counseling with respect to any particular issue or problem.