July 6, 2014
It’s the sort of thing you don’t know exists until you are told you’ve done wrong. It’s not written into an organisation’s code of practice, or the house rules, and never in your employment contract.
But still you learn pretty smartly when you have stepped over a line.
The line in the sand is collectively ‘professional boundaries’, not something we get to talk about over a brief coffee break. And lines drawn in the sand mostly get washed over in the next tide, so we forget about the boundary rules until the next time, when the rule seems to have changed, or we encounter a different one.
A colleague has been reminded about professional boundaries recently. Light-hearted banter with a volunteer led to an idea to introduce a bit of comedy into the workplace. It did not happen because the boss called in to say “this was not the type of professional image we wish to project in our organisation”.
Hmmmm…. Professional image? What does that look like? How would we know it? And why didn’t we get inducted to expectations when we started in the job?
The image is all part of a professionalism package. Professional values deem the expected behaviour, in relationships, and work responsibilities. Anything from the dress code to communication style can be included, along with conventions around loyalty, confidentiality, respect and trust. In other words, a professional image is a set of qualities and characteristics that represent perceptions of your competence and character, as judged by your key constituents (work colleagues, volunteers, members of your community network).
While my colleague discovers she has transgressed a professional boundary, she has also learned volunteers are attracted to the organisation through her reputation as a competent and professional manager for the volunteer programme. Which adds a bit more confusion to the line in the sand.
There’s a bigger question for me when I start thinking about volunteers and boundaries (professional or otherwise), especially for volunteers engaged in interpersonal work. Training will cover the importance of confidentiality and privacy provisions, but how many new volunteers get to consider the line between being ‘friendly’ and ‘friendship’, or discussing the difference between a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ relationship? When does accurate information turn into advice of the “if-I-were-you” kind? That’s another good reason to provide regular support and ongoing training for volunteers, and for managers of volunteers to engage in a mentoring process. We need to talk more about boundary issues.
But why can’t we get a fixed line in the sand?
Because, like the tide that washes away my sand-artwork, determining professional boundaries is a fluid process. Crossing the line is a matter of degree, a perception or judgement that is made too often by someone else. Yes, we learn from experience. But knowing the traps, and how to avoid them would give us a head start.