Many professionals find that they spend more time during the day at work than they do at home. With so much time spent together, employees often find themselves forming friendships with coworkers after hours as well. If all parties are not careful, these friendships may soon lead to difficulties maintaining proper boundaries in the workplace.
Once friendships are established in an office setting, it can be far too easy for all parties to lose sight of appropriate professional behaviour. The first sign of this is often switching to a more casual way of speaking and interacting, which may lead to other colleagues feeling resentful or ostracized, or in the worst scenarios, lead to employees speaking in an inappropriate manner in front of or to clients. While it is important for our own mental well-being to feel connected and supported at work, a professional style of interaction must be maintained.
One fact that must be remembered at all times is that, no matter how close you are to your colleagues, your first goal should be to be the best employee possible for your job. It may be tempting to step in and help a colleague/friend with their work when they fall behind, but this should only happen with the knowledge of management and without jeopardizing your own work performance. No matter how tempting it is to advocate for a colleague you get along well with when it comes time for promotions or work assignments, it is important that you remain neutral and professional when making these important decisions.
Similarly, care should be taken to ensure appropriate professional interaction is used with colleagues even if they are actively disliked. Work objectives and expectations should be communicated clearly and professionally to all colleagues, and realistic estimates of time and ability should be provided. When disagreements arise, they should be addressed calmly and rationally, without name-calling, bullying, or finger-pointing behaviours. Whether a colleague is a friend or someone you actively dislike, it is critical that professional communication is used.
Every now and then, an office will find that a member of the staff is lacking in professional boundaries. This individual may share too much personal information, tell inappropriate or off-color jokes, or invade the personal space of others. While your Human Resources department should be notified in these cases, particularly if sexual harassment is occurring, it is also the responsibility of each and every member of the staff to clearly communicate their own boundaries.
The only way for individuals with a poor understanding of professional behaviour to learn and grow is to be politely but firmly told that the behaviour they are engaging in is inappropriate because of social conventions or workplace rules, and that the behaviour must stop. If you can, providing an alternative appropriate behaviour for the offender to use can go a long way toward teaching them to identify professional behaviours that they can use in other situations.
In the end, it is ultimately the responsibility of each individual to ensure that their own behaviours remain appropriate, and that they clearly communicate their own abilities and personal boundaries to others. By remaining focused on your own use of professional behaviour and communication, the members of your office that struggle with these skills will soon find themselves learning to maintain professional boundaries themselves.
Head of Training and Development
Originally published: 30 July, 2014