What are your boundaries?

Look at any source of advice on relationships and you’ll see reference to standards and boundaries. Like romantic relationships, our expectations of others at work can help or hinder our progress to achieving harmony. We don’t always need to get on, we don’t always need to agree, but it sure as hell helps if we can understand what’s going on.

And being clear on the difference between our standards and boundaries, can only help.

Personally, I like to be early. No, let me be more precise. I HATE to be late. It is a standard that is important to me. If I’m supposed to be somewhere, I’ll try and make sure I’m there in advance and I can arrive at a time that I consider fashionably early.

That’s my standard. It’s something that is important to me, for me. But what’s my boundary?

I appreciate that people get held up, that things crop up and that external factors can impact on the plans of others. However, there are things that I won’t tolerate:

  • If you’re late to a meeting it is your responsibility to catch up, not everyone else’s to wait for you
  • If you’re repeatedly late and it becomes a norm
  • If you don’t acknowledge your lateness and offer apologies to others

So when a colleague turns up to the meeting at 9.59, bustles in to the room with a pile of papers spewing out of their hands and a coffee stain down their shirt, what criteria am I judging them by? My standards, or my boundaries?

Let’s look at something more emotive. Honesty and openness.

I believe in being open and honest. I try my best to express myself as openly and honestly as I can – recognising that I’m not a model of perfection. That’s the standard I hold myself to – to be honest. My boundaries are that I won’t accept being lied to and I reject the withholding of information for the sake of organisational politics, but I accept that I cannot know every detail of every situation.

What happens when I hear about a situation that has occurred in work that I have an opinion on, but haven’t been able to contribute to. It might also be one that personally impacts my work.

Do I hold judgment based on my personal standard, or assess against my boundaries? I know and recognise that I cannot be informed about everything, but surely this piece?

Understanding the difference between our personal standards, the things that we hold dear to ourselves, and the boundaries, the red lines that we cannot accept others to cross is critical to our ability to successfully navigate around our organisations and make things happen.

It is only natural to confuse the two at times, but understanding what we’re doing can only aid us in our contribution in both our personal and professional lives.

Relationship matters

Have you ever had a relationship at work? When you think about the amount of time that people spend in work, the role that it plays in our lives, it would seem almost inevitable that relationships would occur. Yet for decades, organisations have been uncomfortable with the idea.

Early in my career, when a relationship occurred between two people in the same unit or team, one was required to move to a different part of the business and if no alternative job was found they were dismissed for “some other substantial reason”. It always seemed slightly perverse to me and had the added consequence of disproportionately impacting on female employees (invariably the junior employee and therefore the one most frequently easier to redeploy). A few years later I was in a position to remove the policy.

Like many of the aspects of our work, a seemingly simple solutions papers over a world of complexity and, I’d argue, potential opportunity. I was quite surprised recently to learn that many organisations still had policies and procedures for managing relationships in the workplace. Which feels slightly arcane and counter to our drive to connect workplaces with human emotion and behaviour.

(Now at this point, I should be clear that I’m talking about consensual relationships – I am not talking about abuses of power, harassment or any other untoward behaviour, which are a completely different topic and one for another day).

Let’s assume that two people fall in love whilst happening to be employed in the same workplace. Are they really going to not fall in love because of a policy? It seems highly unlikely. So we have to assume that this will happen. Now, let’s assume that we say that they can’t be employed together whilst in a relationship. Well there you are either forcing them to lie, or for one or both of them to leave – which means potentially the two people YOU hired as being necessary for the organisation are now gone.

So we go for the middle ground and we say that you have to tell us if you’re having a relationship, but that it is ok. Which feels convenient, but what about if you don’t want to talk about your relationship status, because you’re a highly private individual, you’re lesbian, gay or bi and uncomfortably about this being known at work, or you’re having an “additional relationship”. Are you really going to declare that?

The argument goes that we need to know so that we can be aware of conflicts of interest or potential abuse of power. But do they only happen in sexual relationships? Have friendships never led to anything untoward? So should we have a policy on friendships in the workplace too? That would put an end to the Gallup Q12 for a start.

Like most things in the world of work and culture the solution starts with an “it depends”. And we know that “it depends” makes for bad policy making. My personal view is you’re better off accepting that these things happen, develop a strong and effective approach to “dignity at work”, build trust, transparency and openness and manage problems by exception.

I discussed this recently with others for The Bottom Line. You can hear the recording here.

Rethinking brand

The passing years have seen countless arguments about the distinctions (or lack of them) between consumer, corporate and employer brands. From my early days of working with branding, nearly twenty years ago, to now a lot of the same conversations and debates have persisted.

Are they the same?
Who should own them?
Are marketing and HR broadly the same thing?

I’ve written before about a lot of the differences, but on the question of brand I think there is a really interesting development;

Particularly that consumer brands are becoming more like employer brands.

It is a curious thing, because over the last couple of decades, the mantra has been that employer brands couldn’t exist on their own and they needed to instead be incorporated in to the consumer offering. Marketing teams swept down to envelop all before them and to start to focus on how they could sell jobs – in the same way that they wanted to sell toasters.

But, of course, what those of us knew who had spent time working in employer branding, was that you weren’t trying to persuade, you were trying to explain. You were aiming to build trust, mutuality of respect and joint exploration of value.

In other words, you weren’t interested directly in the sale, but the relationship.

As trust in companies has fallen, as advertising has become less about show and more about connect – marketing departments have had to realign their approach to their brand be more individually focused. You can see the plethora of articles on the topic.

Which of course is the heart of good talent management and good talent acquisition.

But like some weird 80s hangover from drinking the marketing Kool Aid, too many HR people are professing alignment without really understanding the what, the how and the why. I suspect it goes back to the deep hearted roots of wanting to appear commercial, simply by agreeing.

We shouldn’t be afraid of what we know, we shouldn’t be afraid of what we can contribute and bring. What makes any company a good employer will be different to what makes it a good commercial “partner”. There will be overlap, sure, but to conflate the two is dangerous for both.

There are countless examples of amazing consumer brands that are horrible employers and “challenged” consumer brands that are great employers (I’ve worked for some of them!). Put simply, the motivations, aspirations and expectations that we have as consumers are different to those that we have as employees.

That’s why they are, and never will, be the same.