Managing the New Professional: Setting Boundaries

By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

two people shaking hands across a table

Photo from Canva.com.

Historically, there has been an unwritten rule that the boundaries between work and life should be clear and impermeable: you leave your life stuff at home and don’t bring it to work (though not, for some reason, vice versa; it’s not called “life-work balance,” after all). As anyone who has worked for more than a minute knows, that’s just not possible. We are each complete human beings with experiences and histories and worries and challenges and all sorts of other things happening ou

tside of work that do in fact show up at work, no matter how hard we try to leave them behind. These things impact the work that we do, the ways in which we show up for one another, and even, for you, the ways in which you manage your employees. Managers are imperfect humans, too.

As the manager of a new professional, part of your role is to advise your new employee on how to navigate these sometimes-murky waters between work and life. After all, this is a new experience for them, and they may not be clear on what they are allowed to bring into the workplace, and what they should leave behind. And, it’s your role to be a model for setting effective boundaries, both as a member of the organization and in your relationship with them as their manager.

We know that engagement matters in the workplace. Teams with higher levels of engagement produce better outcomes, are less likely to leave the organization, are healthier, and experience less burnout. And, thanks to research done by Gallup, we know that a lot of our colleagues and staff members aren’t engaged, which has impacts not only on them as individuals, but also on the organization’s ability to be successful. A big factor in supporting employee engagement rests squarely with you, the manager, getting to know your people on an individual level, caring about who they are, why they come to work every day, and what they bring with them and what they may be leaving behind.

It’s OK to talk to your people about their lives, as long as they are open to having that conversation with you. You don’t need to be involved in their lives. But your people, and especially this new young professional, are in the middle of a full life, and much of it has nothing to do with work. At the same time, they, like you, are there to do a job, not to share their personal lives with you. What may feel to you like a friendly conversation and one you initiate with the best of intentions can have harmful impacts. Whether you think there is or not, there is always a power differential between you and those you supervise. It is your job to recognize when you are stepping outside the boundaries of a manager-employee relationship in ways that make your employee uncomfortable or even threatened.

Boundaries are important. You are not your employees’ counselor or their therapist. Nor are you their financial advisor or their parent. There is a difference between wanting to be a supportive, caring manager and wanting to be someone’s friend and confidante. Your employee needs friends, needs people to vent to, needs people with whom to share office gossip (to a point). That person should not be you. The effective manager knows when and how to set and maintain boundaries. Clear boundaries set the stage for clear expectations and effective relationships. Ultimately, your role is to manage this person’s work. And that means getting clear on what is allowed within the work environment and what is not. You do not do your employee any favors by letting them slide on their work commitments simply because adulting is hard. Be clear about your expectations and hold them accountable. And, be compassionate about their struggles as a human.

Clear expectations include being open and honest about work-life balance, both for yourself and within the organization. Think about:

  • What have been your challenges and how have you worked to manage them?
  • What advice can you share on strategies that have worked for you?
  • Who could be a good mentor or coach for your new employee as they figure out their own balance and what that means to them?
  • What are your expectations for when your employees are “on” and where they might find flexibility in their schedule?

Don’t assume people know your expectations for work, or that they understand the why behind these expectations. It’s your job to gain their buy-in and help them to understand how their behavior impacts other people and the organization at large. And, it’s your job to demonstrate, through behavior and clear expectations, how you will support them, not just as an employee, but as a human being.

For more advice on setting boundaries with your new professional, check out Year One, our resource for new professionals and their managers.

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