How to Maintain Professional Boundaries

istock_000004710680xsmall.jpgWith the casual lifestyle so prevalent, some days it can seem like people have lost the ability to conduct themselves appropriately. I think we can all take a lesson here and remember:

Mixing business and pleasure (or at least business and your personal life) can cause serious problems.

Here are five tips to keep your professional and private worlds from colliding.

1. Avoid being casual on email. This is a biggie. In email, it’s far too easy to slip into casual or even poor writing habits. Don’t fall into this trap. Use complete salutations (don’t start business emails with, “Hey,” or, “What’s up?”). Write in complete sentences, and avoid text shorthand like, “BTW” or “OTOH.” Maintaining a formal tone in your emails also serves as a reminder to keep the conversation strictly on the business at hand and not delve into private or personal matters.

2. Stay cordial on the phone. The same casual attitude that affects email communication also applies to the telephone. Answer the phone with your full name and, if applicable, your position, title or the name of your business. This lets the person on the other end know immediately that they have the right (or wrong) person. And when you’re calling someone else, respect their time and get right to the point. Save the chitchat for lunch or after work.

3. Keep your personal life private. When at work, stick to work. Discussions about your love life, how much you lost on last night’s game or other personal activities are simply a distraction. Also, keep in mind that information about your private activities, personal habits, religion, sex life or politics could be either intentionally used against you, or unintentionally affect someone’s opinion of you or your business. And in some cases, even knowing about your personal life creates a liability for your supervisors, should they ever need to fire, demote or discipline you. So do everyone a favor and adopt the mantra “what happens at home, stays at home.”

4. Stay on time, on topic and on the ball. If a meeting starts at noon, be there at 11:45. If work starts at 8a.m., don’t spend the first half hour in the break room nursing your Starbucks. Stick to agendas and don’t derail discussions with unrelated or tangential conversation. And always follow through on any promises or responsibilities. This works both ways, too. Letting colleagues or clients get away with calling you after hours, not following through on promised actions or otherwise trampling on your own boundaries sets a precedent that can only result in resentment, misunderstandings and unhappiness on both sides.

5. Just because your boss is friendly doesn’t mean he’s your friend. If your boss is a great person, congratulations. But don’t mistake friendliness for friendship. In order to do their jobs properly, your supervisors must maintain a professional distance from the people that work for them. Plus, it makes it hard for them to maintain the respect of others if there’s even an appearance of favoritism, actual or not. And if you and your boss really are friends, keep that relationship out of the office. Don’t put your friend in a tight spot by trying to get preferential treatment in the office or by throwing around power you don’t actually possess.

In these days of casual Fridays, text message conversations and informal manners, it can be difficult to maintain proper professional boundaries. But with a little extra effort, maybe we can all do our best impression of civilized human beings!

Copyright 2008 David Bohl and All rights reserved.

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Thanks to Working at Home on the Internet for including this post in the Working at Home Blog Carnival, and to Musings of a Thoughtful Conservative for featuring this post in A Waukesha Carnival.

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