Boundaries are Complicated!

The problem: Boundaries.  We see them all around.  There’s the outside wall of our home that defines where we live…not counting our yard…or the parking strip (whose is that, anyway?)  How about the City limits?  The City’s paving crew won’t fix potholes beyond that, but the police will certainly pursue someone right across that same line.  Even in these examples boundaries seem clear at first, but really aren’t.

Workplace boundaries as they relate to time, materials and equipment are a lot like that.  Many employers allow “de minimis” levels of work time, phone, e-mail, copy machines and the like for personal use.  That way, Susan can call her son to make sure he made it home after school, or send her co-worker an instant message to see if she wants to go to the sale after work.  But what about Anthony, who is distraught because he just learned his mother has terminal cancer?  How much work time can friends – who are all work colleagues — use to support him?  Clearly, he needs them during this difficult time, and his employer is not heartless.  But – when, and how do you tell him (and the other employees) to get back to work?

What to do?  Before this situation happens, implement the “de minimis” rule, and

  • Create a culture of caring while also being clear about expectations. 
  • Acknowledge the difficulty of some boundary issues, and periodically discuss appropriate responses to challenging situations. 
  • Contract with an employee assistance program, and publicize it widely.
  • Teach employees how to express empathy without becoming ‘counselors’.
  • Create the expectation that everyone is responsible for maintaining a professional workplace. 

Please tell us how you’ve handled these boudary issues! ~ DS

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