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The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and total well-being of their employees first. Register for the 2020 Employee Recommended Workplace Award at: employeerecommended.com. This series of articles supports the award.

You’re sitting at your desk and a peer begins to complain about another employee. He’s being judgmental and appears to be really upset at a colleague. After what feels like a five-minute rant he pauses, look you directly in the eye and says, “Don’t you agree he’s terrible for this organization?”

Before you respond, out pops an old script you recall from one of your favourite business professors: “Words matter. Be careful how you use them, because once you use them, they stick forever.” The professor’s point was that your words, when used inappropriately, can hurt others. It’s always in our best interest to be careful not to unfairly judge others without all the facts, as this only creates an opening for them to retaliate in kind.

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Professional boundaries can be imposed by legal, ethical and professional standards, as well as by individuals. This microskill reviews the benefits of defining individual professional boundaries.

Awareness

Professional boundaries define the responsibilities and limits we set for ourselves, fellow employees, contractors and clients we interact with in the workplace.

Have you personally defined your individual professional boundaries? Many haven’t taken the time to think about and define them.

Setting clear, individual professional boundaries can help us stay focused on the activities that help us excel in our work. They can reduce our risk for temptation and costly mistakes that can damage relationships and credibility.

The first step for setting a professional boundary is to be aware that we have the option to define our level of professionalism.

Accountability

Once we determine that there’s value in setting individual professional boundaries, it requires thinking out the kinds of boundaries we’ll set for ourselves and others.

In the case of a peer complaining about a colleague, you may set a boundary not to engage in gossip or negative conversations about a peer unless they’re present to defend their position.

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The following are a few examples of professional boundaries we can set for ourselves that affect how we interact with others.

  • Make being on time for work and meetings a priority.
  • Admit when you are wrong, and if appropriate, apologize.
  • Never accept a gift from a client.
  • Never tolerate any kind of abuse.

Your profession will influence your list of professional boundaries. For example, a psychologist or medical doctor would set the boundary of never dating a client.

Not abusing a privilege is another example of a professional boundary. When I was working on Wall Street, a group of us at our firm had to intervene with three young bankers who were each provided a car and driver after 10 p.m. to get them home safely, as well as a US$85 meal allowance to get through the night. They used the perk to order food for friends and send them home. When confronted, the bankers rationalized that it was their privilege to use as they wanted. It cost them their jobs.

Becoming aware of and accountable for defining and setting professional boundaries can assist in decision making. Many times, we’re the only person really watching our behaviour. The risk is the one time we make a poor decision, someone else notices. This is why reflecting on individual professional boundaries can be a good exercise.

Action

Individual professional boundaries aren’t common sense; they’re decisions we make that govern our actions.

  • Establish the benefit: Reflect on your level of awareness of your individual professional boundaries. Do you have clear boundaries that influence your behaviour? As you reflect, do you see the benefits of defining and focusing on the boundaries? It’s not like you’ll be putting them on a wall or advertising them to others. You’ll be setting your individual expectations and your social contract with yourself for what you will and will not do, and what you will and will not tolerate as a professional.
  • Set limits: Provided you’ve determined that there’s a benefit to defining your individual professional boundaries, write out your list. Keep it to three to five key boundaries that are most important to you. Focus on a few first and observe them well.
  • Monitor and correct: We all make mistakes. If you set a standard for yourself and you slip, that doesn’t mean you’ve changed your standard; it means you made a mistake. You may need to fix something, apologize, or even experience some consequence. What’s needed is to acknowledge the mistake, fix it if necessary, refocus and re-establish your boundary so you’re ready for the next time.

Read about the 2019 winners of the award and watch a video from the winners here. You can also purchase the benchmark report that outlines findings from 2018 at this link.

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Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

You can find other stories like these at tgam.ca/workplaceaward.

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