When work gets personal

When work gets personal

Jun 01, 2008

Q. How do I set boundaries for employees' conversations while at work?

Shawn McVey
"Ideally, we make rules about boundaries," says Shawn McVey, MA, MSW, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and CEO of Innovative Veterinary Management Solutions in Phoenix. "And the boundaries should match the practice's values. You can't say you want an upbeat, friendly, enthusiastic culture, then tell team members they can't discuss personal information with clients or each other. Because weaving our own life experiences into conversations is a way we connect with people."

Emotionally intelligent employees understand and maintain these boundaries, McVey says. But more expressive team members may struggle. So start by outlining a policy for appropriate language and topics for work conversations. Identify off-limits topics, like sex, politics, or money. Then consider controversial topics, like team members' familial or romantic relationships or pop culture.

Boundaries are usually a negotiation, McVey says. "If there are areas where no rules exist and you feel boundaries have been violated, give the person feedback about her behavior," he says. "Say, this was your behavior and here's how it affected me or others. And focus on the behavior, not the person."

Finally, recognize when there's a bigger problem. "If team members have time to talk about touchy topics, perhaps they're focused on the wrong things," McVey says.