So, one of my co-workers informed me today that she was going to be on a week-long leave for an upcoming surgery and would need time to recover. She wanted me to handle anything that might come her way during her absence. I was concerned/curious as to what she was going through. However, I did not ask her about her upcoming surgery and instead just wished her luck and agreed to take up her tasks.

Would it have been considered rude on my part to have asked her about the surgery? Or was I callous in not asking her further about it since she volunteered that information?

PS: I joined this company during COVID and any interaction I've had with my colleagues, including this person, has been virtual since day 1.

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    Where the company is based? It is pretty much normal here (Bulgaria) to discuss personal health issues with a co-worker (they may as well decline), it can be completely unacceptable to even ask somewhere else.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 6:59
  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Colleague overshares medical information
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 14:04
  • I'm hesitant to ask anyone anything about their personal leaves/procedures ever since I wished my boss a wonderful vacation when he had actually taken PTO for a funeral. Keep it cordial and non-specific is my rule, baby.
    – Turbo
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 22:20

7 Answers 7


Would it have been considered rude on my part to have asked her about the surgery? Or was I callous in not asking her further about it since she volunteered that information?

No, you did the right thing. It’s her private information to choose to share or not share as she pleases. It’s nothing to do with her being female and you being male. Medical issues are highly personal and by asking, you risk a potentially awkward situation.

If you want to show empathy for what she’s going through, you could say something like, “Good luck with the surgery! I hope everything goes smoothly and that you have a speedy recovery.”

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    Thanks. That was my instinct as well. I felt bitter for having quickly moved on with the discussion after she had mentioned her surgery. I did wish her luck though :)
    – srjhnd
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 18:22
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    This answer is good. The truth is if the individual wanted to share more about the surgery you would not have had a need to ask this question. It clear they told you as much as you needed to know.
    – Donald
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 22:52
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    “if the individual wanted to share more about the surgery you would not have had a need to ask this question” — could be. Then again, there's a small but real risk they'd actually love to discuss it in excruciating detail, and you've deftly dodged that particular bullet. Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 4:32
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    @PaulD.Waite, yes, that is what I was worried about... especially after she had mentioned that she needed time to recover.
    – srjhnd
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 6:09
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    @PaulD.Waite and of course the middle ground, of "they'd be keen to tell you about it for a minute or two, if you were curious, but by default feel that additional detail would be an imposition". In which case everyone's lost out on a positive personal interaction. I don't think OP's approach is wrong per-se; but there are definitely scenarios in which it happened to not be the optimal outcome.
    – Brondahl
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 16:08

Personally, my model of social appropriateness goes like this:

For potentially sensitive topics, with people where you don't know their own views on how much they're willing to share:

You only ever go as far as they do. You don't push for more information than what they offer.

Let's review:

They told you they were going to be on leave for a week.

They told you it was for medical reasons.

They told you it was for a surgery, specifically.

So wishing them luck, hoping it will go well, maybe asking around the edges of that level and seeing if they want to offer more detail, all good.

(If I were going to ask around the edges, I might respond with something like "I hope it's nothing too serious!" which expresses concern and a desire to know more, while also giving them easy ways out if they don't want to share any further details)

Specifically asking them what the surgery is for? That would be asking for even more personal information than what they gave you. And putting them in an awkward position if they don't want to share. So I think you did the right thing by not doing it.

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    I would replace "I hope it's nothing dangerous" with "I hope it's nothing serious", but otherwise 100%.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 13:17
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    I'd definitely include the "I hope it's nothing ..." line as it gives your colleague the opportunity to talk about it if they want to. (Which they might well need, if they're very anxious about it and don't have anyone else to talk to!)
    – Brondahl
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 16:10
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    Also, saying "serious" instead of "dangerous" (as @FreeMan suggested) may put the person more at ease to share about it, without you having to ask. For example, the other person answering with "Oh, it's nothing serious. I just have this and that and will be ready for another one in a day". But I can also see it turning into a "Well, no, it isn't anything serious" and the person being put on the stop about it. I believe the best is to do not say anything at all regarding the seriousness of the surgery, based on your relationship with the co-worker. Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 11:03
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    @IsmaelMiguel Thinking about it, I might go with "I hope it's nothing too serious". Which provides an entire spectrum of assumed interpretations rather than a strict binary.
    – Kaz
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 15:48
  • @Kaz I agree, that feels more open as well. As what is serious for me may not be so serious for you. But, again, wishing a speedy recovery and not touching the subject is probably the best to do, in my opinion. Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 16:08

On personal issues, it is always good to leave it to the person(doesn't matter how long we know them). The respective coworker decides whether to share it or not and if they are ok with sharing, they may not share it immediately.

She may(or may not) talk to you in details post the recovery as she may feel more comfortable speaking with you because you take care of her tasks in her absence and your relationship with her will be in better position.

As stated in above answers you did the right thing by wishing her the speedy recovery.


While the other answers are already perfect, I'd like to add a thing.

I will undergo a fertility surgery next year. I will be out of office for likely one week. Of course the surgery of your colleague can be anything, but I just want to tell you the implications of "my" type of surgery.

Of course I know about the one week sick leave beforehand and I find it only fair enough for my colleagues to share the information as soon as I know the exact date. I would feel playing foul not telling them beforehand. They are planning with my work's results and our meetings, of course, and they will have to reschedule lots of things if I don't tell them beforehand. So I will cause them lots of avoidable extra work by not informing them in time. So I'd love to tell them, hey guys, I'll have some surgery planned next week, I won't be available.

I would definitely hate to be asked what the surgery is for, though.

Fertility surgery hints on me trying to become pregnant. Which has - of course - huge impact on my working ability. If it works, I will most certainly need some weeks of sick leave due to pregnancy issues, and of course parental leave. In Germany, where I'm located, I'm allowed to leave up to three years! (which I don't intend to, but my colleagues can't know my plans - and I would definitely be allowed to lie about them according to German law if they asked, so they can never be sure how long I might be away)

Of course this can have huge impact on me being considered for raises or promotions.

Therefore, I'm not interested in telling them anything. I have surgery. No more information.

I'm planning to tell them about my planned surgery as soon as I know the concrete day, yes. But if they ask for further details, I will not tell them. And if they don't relent in asking, it will be the first and the last time ever I will have told them.

So, if you follow up, you risk to never be informed beforehand again. She will just call in sick the day of the surgery the next time.

So far, she is being very fair in telling you everything you need to know right now. Don't ask for more.


Now for something different :-). Most advice is "don't ask". I agree that that's the norm here in NZ.
I personally tend to NOT follow the norm, but would take great care.

I find in life that being genuinely interested in people is often appreciated. But, not always. It certainly carries a degree of risk, but may also be appreciated - possibly even greatly appreciated. I'm a male in my late 60s. That can be both and advantage and a disadvantage. I've experienced a wide range of medical happenstances - none have, of course been female specific, and my wife has had her share, and much medical and hospital experience is relatable to other areas.

I'd consider saying something along the lines of "I certainly understand that you may well not want to say any more, and I know it can be considered rather impolite to ask, but if you were comfortable in doing so I'd be interested in knowing a bit more what you are facing ..." -> This applies to a range of situations.

That's not meant to be a "recipe" or even what I'd say exactly, but gives a general idea.
This makes it relatively easy for them to decline further comment without feeling rude. And, it may be extremely welcome.


It would probably be best to politely state your wish for her to have a speedy recovery and still respect her personal boundaries by not inquiring in regards to the particulars of something that is confidential and really none of your business.

In my years as a teacher I always decided if somebody asked me a question that I knew the answer to I would give them the answer. I don't have holy cows. If somebody asks me my views on politics or religion I will give it to them. This willingness to talk about anything is probably atypical of the people in the world. The best words are often the ones left unsaid as my father used to say.


If you're their boss, maybe, depending on the requirements of the job.

I don't know about any India-specific norms, but I'm going to address a general aspect of this that other answers have left unaddressed.

As a manager, your job is to facilitate the performance of your team, and remove blockers that might inhibit that performance.

There are many surgeries that impose restrictions on the physical activities that can be performed for a time, afterwards. If their job requires lifting and carrying (even as little as a few kilograms for something like a laptop), it's entirely possible that they may not be able to fully perform that aspect of the job afterwards until they've recovered.

As such, if you're their manager, in order to mitigate the negative effects that this would cause to the performance of your team, it would likely be reasonable for you to ask them about any medical restrictions they might be under afterwards so that you can plan around them (e.g. get the intern to carry their laptop into meetings for them).

As a manager, you might also wish to speak about this with HR. As the old refrain goes "HR is not your friend", but one of their roles is ensuring that the company provides appropriate accommodations for its disabled employees in order to protect the company from lawsuits down the road (and yes, someone who is temporarily disabled as a result of surgery would count for the ADA, and would likely count for your country's equivalent of it).

If you're not the manager, you could perhaps make an offer to help them with any restrictions they're suffering from in the office - something along the lines of "By the way, it occurred to me that after your surgery you might be under restrictions in how much weight you can carry, so if you need any help carrying your laptop or something, just let me know" might be appropriate, depending on your relationship with the person, relative seniority, how formal the company's culture is, and whether you would genuinely be interested in helping them.

Of course, Covid work-from-home changes a lot of the context of these things, but the general principles should still apply, and it may mean that they might need assistance if they need to pick things up from the office, or if they need to come into the office for some other reason (e.g. performing an on-site inspection of a manufacturing plant or something).

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    Usually when someone needs accomodation is up to the employee to bring the issue, and they bring some medical documentation explaining what is required (e.g. "Mr. X. should avoid tasks that imply carring weight") but not the medical condition that causes the requirement.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 9:32
  • You might want to edit your post to clarify why you feel the manager should request this medical restriction information from them up-front, rather than just reassuring the employee that they'd be supported if they need any accommodations. I suspect the nosiness aspect is why you're getting downvotes.
    – Sneftel
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 9:45
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    @Sneftel Okay, I've edited it to include information on what the role of a manager is, and why a manager would be interested in knowing this information. I left it unstated because I figured it would be obvious that a manager would want to remove blockers that might impair the performance of their team.
    – nick012000
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 12:02
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    This is very surprising advice. I think most employees would be pretty weirded out and immediately become defensive if they told their manager they needed a medical leave and the manager responded by asking for personal details.
    – Stef
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 13:27
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    @Stef This reminds me of a fun argument I had with someone once when I asked them if they would rather shelter in place "if there just so happens to be a fire drill today"...instead of walking down four double flights of stairs in a walking boot for a drill. (I was an emergency monitor for that section of the building.) Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 17:39

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