How to Establish Professional Boundaries

Communication is the greatest factor in maintaining healthy employee relationships.

Boundaries can be defined as the line where you end and another person begins. One way to think of them is like fences: Some people are surrounded by sturdy fences, others have fences that are in disrepair, and still others have replaced those fences with brick walls. But in professional relationships, those fences are invisible, and employees often are unaware that their boundaries have been crossed (or that they've violated a boundary) until it's too late. By then, the working relationship has been damaged. Use the following guidelines to help you establish healthy boundaries:

Know boundary types. Healthy boundaries are firm yet flexible, and include honest communication, reciprocity and an understanding that each employee is responsible for meeting his or her own needs in the workplace. By contrast, unhealthy boundaries are the extremes of this model: too distant (with no communication or dependence on others for information) or over-reliance on another person (to the point of sharing too much in a desperate attempt to be liked).

Make no assumptions. Remember the last time you responded to someone's work request by thinking, "That's not my job"? Next time, before you get angry, consider whether you've ever shared the boundaries of your job duties. How do you define your role and responsibilities? How do others perceive your role and responsibilities? If you are in a supervisory position, should employees come to you only after attempting to solve a problem on their own? Do they know your availability, either in person or through e-mail? The immediacy of cell phone calls and texting can give the impression that individuals should be available to respond to employees without delay and at all hours. And be careful when using phrases like "open door policy" around employees - unless you really mean it.

Communicate early and often. What you allow, you teach. In other words, if you allow others to inappropriately cross your boundaries, you teach them it's okay to do so. If someone misunderstands or pushes your limits, let that person know immediately. The sooner you communicate, the fewer misunderstandings will occur.

Prepare for hurt feelings. If you've allowed someone to become too dependent on you, establishing a healthy boundary will feel like rejection to that person. However, not doing so is actually more hurtful for others, because it delays their professional growth. Encouraging a distant person to communicate more can likewise be challenging. Meet frequently with employees who fit that description and model ways for them to share small but safe bits of detail about themselves.

Spot red flags. Technology can blur boundary lines. Disclosing intimate personal information online, for fellow employees to see, can impact how people are treated in the workplace. Be aware of excessive self-disclosure, selective communication, unfair treatment or flirtatious behavior via texting or social networking. These are red flags that can prevent the establishment of healthy professional boundaries.

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