The importance of having Professional Boundaries at the Workplace
Boundaries are there for your well-being and protection (Lancer, 2017). A boundary is “something that indicates bounds or limits; a limiting or bounding line” (Dictionary.com). A boundary is “a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something” (dictionarycambridge.org).
There are many different boundaries, but I will focus on the personal and professional boundaries. Lancer (2017) even makes distinctions between different types of personal boundaries such as material boundaries, physical boundaries, mental, emotional and spiritual boundaries and sexual boundaries.
- Be familiar with the Code of Conduct at your Company. In a Code of Conduct companies define acceptable and nonacceptable behaviours in the workplace. These in particular include relationships between employees and with management (Gianta & Guerra, 2015).
- Be familiar with the Code of Ethics of your profession and when applicable your professional organisation.
- #1 and #2 are related to boundaries provided by the company which are often voiced in policies. In addition to these, it is important that you give yourself permission to set personal boundaries at work.
- Pay attention to feelings. When feeling uncomfortable, guilty or in any other way uneasy, you or a co-worker may have violated your boundaries. Reflect upon the situation and make changes.
- Consider the nature and context of the relationship. Relationships at work are fluent and although when working in teams a good relationship is crucial, this does not imply that colleagues are also friends.
- Make a list of behaviours and topics of conversation you share with friends versus with co-workers.
- It is prudent to make clear distinctions between work and friendship relationships as in meetings at work you want to be impartial and not feeling you have to be loyal to a co-worker you have a friendship relationship with. When friendship relationships turn sour, it effects work relationships and effectiveness.
For Employers (leaders, managers, supervisors):
- See above #1 to #7 as all apply.
- Set limits regarding when and how your employees can approach you. An exception is a workplace related emergency. Define what an emergency is.
- When communicating by email, set the right tone by leading through example. Work related emails are respectful, to the point and professional. Please educate yourself with email etiquette when not familiar with this topic (see businessemailetiquette.com).
- Avoid texting as texting per definition is not professional communication.
- Be familiar with HR Policies and Employment Legislation (hrcouncil.ca).
- Having clear boundaries avoids confusion and it helps employees to set boundaries as well. Saying “no” in a respectful manner when the request of a colleague makes you feel uncomfortable is a good example of you listening to your feelings as well as you being aware of ethical behaviours and those that violate boundaries.
- Do not hesitate to investigate complaints and to implement disciplinary action when employees have violated the code of conduct and in particular when it involves bullying and harassment and inappropriate relationships.
- When attending company-related functions, avoid compromising your inhibitions. Lead by example. Before the event takes place carefully consider the function of the after-hours engagement and its boundaries. Work-related functions have different purposes and therefore different boundaries. E.g. a Christmas party is not the same as a work function to meet clients the company will be working with. Ensure that all invited are aware of the expectations.
- Make a clear distinction between work-related outings with colleagues and social functions with friends and family and limit outings with colleagues that are not directly work related.
“Ethics in the workplace refers to the prescribed standard of conduct that the members of a certain organization and business should apply in their work relationships. Ethics are derived from human values such as respect, responsibility, integrity and the personal behavioural standards a person holds. Upholding ethics in the workplace allows managers and employees to maintain respectable boundaries by respecting the personal space and work space of others” (Miller, 2017).
“Employers who set boundaries related to breaks, electronic communications and the interpersonal and social environment within the workplace define acceptable behaviour related to these topics. For example, employees who are allowed to use the Internet while at work can only use their computers for work-related tasks. Boundaries set by policy outline the possible consequences for violating company policies and help keep workers focused on their jobs” (Scott, 2017).
“Boundaries discourage inappropriate behaviour by setting rules of conduct within the workplace. Codes of conduct define what behaviour is appropriate on the job and what behaviour is unacceptable. For example, boundaries establish standards regarding physical interactions so workers do not touch one another inappropriately. Boundaries also help employers develop procedures for disciplinary action for workers who violate codes of conduct” (Scott, 2017).
“Without clear boundaries, both co-workers and supervisors may confuse workplace relationships with personal relationships. It is true that workplace relationships can develop into personal relationships over time. But most of the time interaction with co-workers, supervisors, clients and customers stops at the end of the work day. Setting workplace boundaries is much easier when a relationship is viewed as formal rather than casual” …” over time, as mutual trust and respect grows the formal boundaries of the workplace may be replaced with the more casual boundaries of friends. This is not a problem unless casual boundaries begin to affect workplace behaviour. At work, the main focus of each person should be on the job. If a strong boundary between personal and workplace behaviour cannot be established, it may be time for one or both of the individuals involved to find other employment” (Kolb, 2017).
In conclusion: Many wrongdoings do not start with ill intent, but as we can never assume that people have an inner radar for detecting boundaries and that all have a moral compass, we better focus on prevention. Unfortunately, policies (rules and guidelines) are required and never trust a boss who states that their company does not need these (they very likely have stuff to hide).
Business Email Etiquette (2017). Available from businessemailetiquette.com
Gianta, D., & Guerra, D. (2015) How Successful people set boundaries at work. Available from: https://www.inc.com/dana-gionta-dan-guerra/how-to-manage-boundaries-at-work.html
HR Policies and Employment Legislation (2017). Available from: hrcouncil.ca
Kolb. K. (2017). Workplace Boundaries. Available from: http://www.basic-life-skills-made-easy.com/workplace-boundaries.html
Lancer, D. (2017). What are personal boundaries? Available from psychcentral.com
Measom, C. (2017). How to maintain professional boundaries in the workplace. Available from: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/maintain-professional-boundaries-workplace-22157.html
Miller F. (2017). Information on Ethics and Boundaries in the workplace. Available from: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/information-ethics-boundaries-workplace-14706.html
Scott, F. (2017). Available from: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/benefits-boundaries-workplace-10748.html