Tag Archives: workplace boundaries

Harassment Prevention Training: The Two Key Takeaways

After conducting more than 250 workplace investigations and presenting dozens of harassment prevention training workshops, I’ve concluded that if employees could understand just two key points, harassment incidents in the workplace – both actual and perceived – would be significantly reduced. 

The reason is that most accused harassers are not bad people: they just don’t get it.  And if they did get it, most of them would not engage in behaviors that lead to harassment complaints against them.  This is true from top to bottom in every organization.  For those with power, the rules apply even more strongly.

So what are these two key points?

First, it is essential to maintain professional boundaries in the workplace at all times.  Workplace boundaries are different than those on the outside.   Work is a place where you perform tasks within a hierarchy in exchange for money.  As such, at its emotional core, work is a serious undertaking and while there, people are sensitive to anything that might threaten their livelihood.  Television shows notwithstanding, work is not a place to play practical jokes, discuss one’s relationship problems and sex life, gossip about others, or mess with people’s sense of self.  You are free to do these things, but it is at your peril: if you cross the line at the wrong time or with the wrong person, you will pay.  

You can be friendly, laugh, and have some fun at work.  Just be sure to remain professional and remember that you’re at work to do a job, not to get your deeper social and emotional needs met. 

Second, you never know if your behaviors are actually welcome.  You may think that Sue likes your hugs or neck massages because she seems to welcome them and doesn’t object.  And after all, you’re just a friendly  “touchy feely” person with no ill intent.  You may think that Sam likes your racist or sexist jokes because he seems to welcome them and doesn’t object.  And aren’t jokes a good way to create a personal bond?

But Sue and Sam may really dislike these behaviors and the impact on them may be very different from your intent.  Or the behaviors may have been welcomed at first, but no longer. Then why don’t they speak up?  They don’t like confrontation, fear ostracism or retribution, don’t want to hurt your feelings, or believe they need to keep you on their side to succeed at work.  At some point, however, Sue and Sam may decide that your behaviors are hurting their ability to do their jobs and it won’t be you they tell.  It will be the boss.  If you’re not sure you should say or do something, don’t.

Of course, harassment prevention training includes other valuable information. (Like bosses should not have personal relationships with subordinates unless they plan to marry them.) If everyone leaves understanding just these two key points, however, the training may actually work.

Did I miss something you think is equally important?  ~Amy Stephson

Boundaries for Managers: Do’s and Don’ts

Boundaries: those invisible lines that some people instinctively recognize and others just … don’t.  But whether you recognize them or not, maintaining boundaries is incredibly important for managers and supervisors. Why? Because contrary to the images of work life we see on television, most people have a strong inner sense of which types of behaviors are appropriate for their leaders and which are not. 

And when a leader crosses a boundary, the penalty can be severe: harassment allegations, loss of respect, and loss of promotional opportunities.

Following is a list I developed some time ago that has proven to be accurate time after time.  If this helps just one person in supervision or management not cross the line, I will have done a good deed. 


  • Discuss sexual matters or private personal issues with subordinates.  This includes sexual jokes and banter, private problems with a spouse, etc.
  • Let subordinates confide in you or vent to you about their personal social or sexual problems, experiences, etc.  This includes private problems with a spouse, difficulty with children, sexual encounters, etc.  You can certainly be open to employees coming to you with personal problems that are affecting their work, but your approach should be, “What do you need (or how can I help you) during this difficult period?” You don’t want to be their confidant or give advice.
  • Engage in gossip about your peers or subordinates with your subordinates.
  • Touch subordinates.  This means no congratulatory or consoling hugs, no neck rubs or back rubs, etc.  Keep touching to handshakes only.
  • Send e-mail or texts to subordinates on personal issues.  Keep all e-mail and texts business-related. 
  • Drink alcohol to excess while on company business with subordinates.  This includes at conferences, business trips, office parties, and business lunches and dinners.
  • Have closed-door one-on-one meetings with subordinates (particularly those of the opposite gender) unnecessarily or outside business hours.
  • Avoid female subordinates for fear of harassment charges.


  • Be friendly to subordinates.
  • Discuss work-related matters freely with subordinates.
  • Treat all subordinates with respect and dignity.
  • Always remember you are the leader and the one with power–because no one else ever forgets it.

Do you have anything to add to this list?  ~Amy Stephson

Top Ten New Supervisor Skills

This began as the top five skills, but it just wasn’t possible, so I’m going for ten.  An interesting discussion on the LinkedIn HR Group listserv recently addressed this as did a speaker at a seminar I attended in August.  There are lots of books out there on this topic, but I’m aiming to keep it short and to the point. We’re talking about folks who have never supervised before, God bless them. 

  1. Understand your new role and maintain boundaries.  You now have some power (or at least your subordinates think you do) and can no longer be one of the gang.  You want to be friendly and empathetic but not get involved in solving personal problems.  You don’t want to go partying and drinking with your subordinates. And so on.
  2. Listen first, then speak, respectfully.
  3. Set clear and measurable expectations.
  4. Learn the fundamentals of delegation, directing and coaching.
  5. Understand the larger system in which you work so you can “manage up” and exercise your “followership” skills.  Your unit does not work in a vacuum — you can help your people only if you understand the universe, including the organizational values, around them.
  6. Develop basic conflict resolution skills.  
  7. Learn how to handle the routine stuff: timecards, leave slips, accident reports, etc.  Read the Employee Handbook, carefully.
  8. Find an experienced manager or supervisor to whom you can go with questions.
  9. Set up a regular but realistic system for meeting with your employees, both as a group and one-on-one.  No one likes a ton of meetings, but it’s absolutely necessary to have some regular meetings.
  10. Figure out how to reward those employees who do well and motivate those who are not engaged.

And what if we had to pick only five central skills?  First, I’d have to eliminate the practical, obvious ones such as learning how to handle the routine stuff, setting up regular meetings, and finding a more experienced person to be a mentor.  My top five then would be numbers 1 – 5 above.  I’d probably also want to figure out a way to squeeze in 6 (maybe by just adding it to #4!).

 What would you pick as the top five?  Did I miss anything?  ~Amy Stephson

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