I didn’t know much about business etiquette in the face of major personal trauma.
During my previous tenures with blue chip, Fortune 500 companies, I’d maintained a friendly but distant relationship with my various management teams. They knew I liked to snowboard on weekends, but didn’t know whether I had a boyfriend. They knew I could construct a killer presentation, but I didn’t ever share personal details of my home situation or my personal fears that I didn’t actually know what the hell I was doing in front of that projector. I cultivated friendships almost exclusively outside the office, or let just one or two trusted confidantes know the insides of my non-professional persona. I really believed that my insistence on maintaining a firm line between personal and business at the office was a hallmark of my career success to date, and I didn’t think I’d ever stir that pot.
But a year and a half ago, things changed. My partner walked out of my life and I felt perilously close to disintegration. A year before, I’d resigned from my job in radio ad sales to scope out a work-from-home sales career. Amazingly, it had panned out and, I was able to find a job with the same salary that allowed me to work exclusively from home, with the occasional foray to New York or San Francisco for business trips. I felt endlessly grateful to my new employer, who took a gamble and trusted my potential and capability to perform for them from an unseen, faraway office.
At the time my relationship atom-bombed my heart, I was a fairly new employee. My bosses — three kick-ass, amazingly entrepreneurial and razor-sharp women — knew I could sell ad space, but had no idea what was going on in my personal life. It didn’t help much that I worked almost exclusively out of my home office, thousands of kilometers away from them. I didn’t want to tell them about my personal woes, of course — but I knew I wasn’t performing at my usual tip-top level, I knew my voice wavered suddenly in otherwise normal conversations, and there were times I had to go to my lawyer’s office for two hours on a Wednesday afternoon. I needed to explain.
I still have the email I sent in my gmail box, because our company was too new to have a shared server then. I probably should have placed a phone call, but I didn’t trust my voice not to crack, and I have always been more succinct with the written word, anyway.
I explained that I needed to share the details of my current situation due to its potential to spillover into my professional life. I wrote that I wished we could have this conversation over coffee in shared office space — and I reiterated my firm commitment to the company and to my career, noting that I knew this was a blip on the radar of my life. Then I held my breath and blinked back terrified tears, pressed send and wondered if that very personal email was the biggest career mistake I ever made.
It wasn’t. The reply email from the CEO of the company came within minutes. She noted that she had been through this, that she very much appreciated my candor, that it was important to let the right people know at the organization. And then she asked “Permission to send a book you may find helpful?”
“Yes, please,”I wrote back, relieved and grateful and completely newly inspired with loyalty for the little startup that had been so good to me.
She sent me a copy of Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End their Marriages Do So Well, by Ashton Applewhite. It is the single most empowering, inspiring book I’ve ever read on the newly single woman. And it helped me through some extremely dark days.
In my instance, telling the boss of my separation was the best thing I could have done. It relieved the guilt I felt at handling the necessary grunt work of a separation, it made occasional tears and occasional stupid mistakes OK.
Single working Mamas, I’m interested to know: did you tell the boss about your situation? If so, how did he or she handle it?