As a young professional just starting out in the business world, it’s easy to want to please—after all, connections and maintained professional relationships are how you “move up the ladder,” so to speak. However, it’s important to note that there are instances in which you will need to set boundaries or even, in extreme cases, cut ties with certain people in your professional circles. I have had to learn this the hard way, as have other seasoned professionals I know personally. Especially for non-confrontational people, the idea of drawing a hard line in the sand with someone may sound abrasive or over the top—however, knowing when to limit or back away from a professional relationship could save you, your supervisor, or your company from future headaches (or even legal troubles).
First, let’s talk about knowing your limits. While it is good to help out those in your professional circles, it’s important to not overcommit yourself or stretch yourself too thin. With this in mind, the first kind of boundary you need to draw is that of time. At what point of the day are you most productive? When do you take time for dedicated rest? Do you want your weekends completely free from work? When entering a business relationship with someone, know these things about yourself and try your best to not compromise them. Of course there will be times when deadlines need to be met and sacrifices have to be made. However, make sure that the professional relationships you are building are not with people who consistently disregard your time and well-being.
Second, there is the matter of what constitutes appropriate versus inappropriate professional conversation. You of course want to be personable—it is important to build real connections with those with whom you work or network. However, there are some conversational red flags to look out for. For example, does your connection only ever reach out to ask for favors? Do they pry into your personal life past what you’re comfortable sharing? Do they go to you while you’re on the clock for things not related to the business, such as emotional baggage? This last thing actually happened to one of my employees recently—she received a very long message on LinkedIn from a supplier we had recently worked with, who voiced drastic discontent about not hearing back from me regarding his ongoing solicitation for future business. This employee of mine always tries her best to be kind and understanding, but the supplier had crossed a professional boundary by sending her paragraph after paragraph about how he was feeling, venting to her about something she couldn’t control. She made me aware of the situation, and I told her, “Your job is not to be a therapist.” Subsequently, due to his unprofessional behavior, my company has cut ties with the supplier.
With the aforementioned example in mind, here’s some advice: People like this supplier require lots of maintenance. Everything you write to them on behalf of the company is something that can backfire or lead to a professional hostage situation, where they refuse to give you closure until you give into their demands. So, while you may want to be nice and affirming and accommodating when dealing with, for example, a discontent supplier, you absolutely cannot make promises on behalf of the company. No matter how benign they may seem, you need to realize the potential consequences of your conversations. As a young professional, you also have to be very careful about who you let take your time. You can’t respond to every email or LinkedIn message, and you certainly cannot use company time to engage with individuals who do not bring any value to the business.
As a person who is new to the professional world, some people will be kind while others may try and take advantage of you due to your youth and lack of professional experience. However, even in your desperation, you need to gatekeep who you let into your inner circle and who you let take your time. So, know your limits and the boundaries you want to draw with others, and remember—sometimes the only way to bring closure to a professional relationship is by walking away, especially when healthy communication with the person has failed. Know your worth and always seek input from your supervisor or peers when in doubt!
- Boundaries (Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend)
- Necessary Endings (Dr. Henry Cloud)
- Boundaries for Leaders (Dr. Henry Cloud)
- How to Have That Difficult Conversation (Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend)
Sarah Y. Tse is the CEO of TSE Worldwide Press, Inc. and Founder of United Yearbook Printing Services. She is the author of 7 Years on the Front Line and co-author of From Illusion to Reality: True Stories and Practical Advice on How to Prepare for Career Success Before Graduating From College. Sarah currently serves as a mentor and speaker at Biola University's Crowell School of Business, and is deeply passionate about empowering people, especially younger professionals, to explore their gifts, goals, and calling.