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When should you cover up a personal obligation at work?

Two businessmen sitting at a clock tableTwo businessmen sitting at a clock table

With summer vacations ending, you may feel there’s no longer an acceptable reason to be away from work. Can you afford to stay home with a sick child or work from home while supervising a contractor now that the season for time off has ended?

The answer is yes. Workplace flexibility is increasingly important to your colleagues and supervisors. In fact, it was ranked as the most important perk (after cash and benefits) in an EY survey last year. Thirty-four percent of men and 30% of women reported they’d go so far as to quit their job if they weren’t offered day-to-day flexibility.

Companies are responding to this demand: between 2008 and 2014, more employers surveyed by the Families and Work Institute allowed employees to occasionally work from home (from 50% to 67%), control their breaks (from 84% to 92%), control overtime hours (from 27% to 45%), and take time off during the workday for personal needs (from 73% to 82%).

But figuring out when to disclose a personal obligation that takes you away from work—and how much detail to give—isn’t always simple. “The reality is that every work environment has a big culture and then there are subcultures. Any worker needs to test it,” says Karyn Twaronite, EY Americas global diversity and inclusiveness officer and a partner at Ernst & Young.

So, why should you share anything about a family commitment that takes you away from work? Why not just take the time you need but not explain?

First, if you’re comfortable talking about a personal commitment, you will contribute to building a culture in which employees’ work-life boundaries are respected and flexibility is used.

Kim Lubel, 50, chairman and chief executive of convenience retailer CST Brands, makes a point of bringing her children to work events and talking about carpool or other family obligations. “There are lots of other folks who are trying to figure out if it’s okay or not, and I want them to know it’s okay,” says Lubel. “If you have to pretend like your life outside your 10 hours at the office doesn’t exist, you’re going to be miserable in the long run.”

Second, if you don’t share anything about your personal life—or ask for help when you need it—you will miss the chance to build authentic connections at work.

“If you go through your life helping other people, then when you need it, they’ll be there for you,” says Brian M. Wong, 44, a partner at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in San Francisco. “They can’t be there for you if you’re not sharing what’s going on.”

That doesn’t mean you tell everyone everything about your personal life and challenges. Start small when disclosing commitments, and gauge the receptivity of the person you’re telling. If there’s tension, keep it more professional in the future.

“I recommend putting your toe in the water and then putting your foot in the water next,” Twaronite says. “Sometimes people just want to know, ‘Great, I accomplished my personal thing and I also got the job done.’ ”

When Lubel’s now-13 year old son was an infant, her then-employer Valero was going through a crazy transition that required her to travel almost weekly. She brought her breast pump on the airplane every time, but never broached the subject with her colleagues. “The guys never asked me about it and I never brought it up,” she recalls. “It’s an uncomfortable conversation.”

Wong says that he shares personal information with clients or colleagues he knows are receptive but keeps to business with those who prefer that style. “It’s knowing when you need to be transparent,” he says. “Sometimes you can just say, ‘I have a meeting.’ ”

When he and his husband adopted their five-year old son, Damien, they had to appear in court and take time away from work at short notice. With clients Wong has known for 10 or 15 years, he could say he was taking two days off to be interviewed by social services or spending the day in court for adoption proceedings. With others, he simply said he wasn’t available.

Above all, don’t let personal obligations affect your ability to do your work. Indeed, that may be the best way to broach a commitment. Instead of saying, “I need the morning off to train for an upcoming marathon,” begin with explaining that all your projects are on track.

“Performance comes first,” Twaronite says. “If you’ve proven yourself in results, you will have a bigger voice. You’ll have the ability to flex your muscles and be more transparent.”