Boss or Friend? Why Boundaries Matter More Than Ever!
You’ve been in HR awhile and have learned to navigate the slippery slope of work relationships. You know that crossing the line is easy because it is an invisible line. We are social creatures and need to collaborate with others to achieve results far beyond what a sole contributor could create. Work is not just about money: we develop our interpersonal skills there and seek to build working relationships based on trust, respect and mutual regards. So how does it go wrong?
Owner in a start-up was short of cash but highly in need of a particular skill set and so the path was laid. A friendly relationship between owner and technical guru ensued. Promises of deferred compensation aka: work now – be rewarded later AND to sweeten the pot, a future equity partnership was offered. The guru bought the dream, accepted in good faith and set to work. This guru also had access to revenue and profit projections but dreams take time to convert to cheques and legally drafted partnership agreements cost money.
When their careers were still in embryonic phase the players knew each other as friends. The decades gave space for leadership skills, ambition and hard work to shift the level playing field of wet behind the ears rookie. They come together again but leadership and team roles are not clearly defined. It is an exciting time as things are moving quickly. Team player feels they are all still equal. That’s how it used to be in years gone by.
Owner wants a happy productive team. Rules are set and not followed consistently but hey, the performance is there so why rock the boat? The tension mounts as one tries to maintain the standard while the other continually tests for new fault lines. The resulting squabbles are reminiscent of the kids fighting in the back seat of the station wagon. Finally the point of no return is reached and it is ugly.
HR professionals are in a unique position to see the problems festering in the scenarios above long before the players do. Boundaries at work are more important than ever. We have an important role to play in helping our teams and clients see the potential doom that lies ahead. It is not easy to shift the focus from friend to manager. U2 said it best: “Achtung Baby!”
What helps is to point out the impact of the situation. I find role play is very helpful in isolating the dynamics in play between people and how it is likely to go in the future. Simple works well here: “Sounds like you are feeling the need to explain your decision to your direct report. As the company gets busier can you see yourself continuing this? Whose decision is it to make and when does brain storming give way to decision-making?” Compare and contrast is also useful as in: “You have 3 reports but you only go for lunch with one. Would the other 2 maybe see this as favouritism?” Often just sharing how it looks to me is enough to start the conversation and move things along.
Types of boundaries at work have been described as: job responsibilities, interpersonal and personal. I find this to be a helpful way of looking at things and clarifying for myself:
- Is there an issue?
- Whose responsibility is it?
- What is the possible risk? Non-compliance with Employment Standards, lawsuit over partnership promises depending on documentation and discussion (Scenario 1), possible harassment (Scenario 2), wrongful dismissal/harassment (Scenario 3.) In all the scenarios the working relationships would be strained and productivity would be impacted.
- Whose decision is it to make?
- What conversations are needed to manage personal friendships that are now also work relationships?
- Is the attitude demonstrated between people acceptable given the circumstances?
- If you didn’t have a prior history would you be involving this person in this discussion?
- Have the consequences of not changing the current situation been discussed with everyone?
- Discussion around there is no “off the record” and human rights legislation obligations don’t stop when you leave the office.
It is a complex topic but the story of Goldilocks is helpful. How can we help our teams and clients have their professional relationships “just right?” Not under involved or over involved. How can we help them be “friendly” and not “friends” so they can stay focused on their professional roles? We have a unique vantage point and a wealth of experience in this area. What are your thoughts and how do you handle this?