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Boundary Setting in the Workplace

training experience Apr 17, 2019

I have been delivering a lot of training lately. Which is great! I have also been getting challenged in my training sessions recently as well. Which is also great. I love it when participants challenge me because it demonstrates that they are really engaged and thinking critically about my content. One of the core pieces of material that I teach around bystander intervention for harassment prevention is the human behavior continuum. The idea is that all of our interactions fall along a spectrum from respectful and professional, all the way down the line to the most egregiously bad behaviors of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation. In a session I delivered recently, someone said to me that they didn’t agree with the idea of the continuum because it is linear, this interpretation insinuates that we will all eventually engage in bad behavior. Another way of thinking about it, is that this continuum is like a slide, a slippery slope that we just can’t help falling down. I disagree with that interpretation and I respectfully explained to the participant that the idea, rather, is that the continuum is a tool to raise our awareness of when our own behavior, or the behavior of others, is moving toward the inappropriate so we can speak out against that behavior early and often. Our job is to speak out against the inappropriate behavior before it reaches the level of unlawful harassment.

In a different training a few days later when I was teaching the behavior continuum again, a supervisor in the session pointedly told me, “what you just said is wrong”. I was, of course, a bit taken back at first however when that person explained to me that my explanation of the idea that if flirtatious behavior in the workplace is mutual, it could be okay. He stated that as a supervisor it’s his job to keep an eye on everyone’s behavior to ensure that it is not making anyone uncomfortable. He went on to explain that from his perspective, flirting does not belong in the workplace, even if it is mutual. I appreciated that perspective which made me think about a recent study[1] I read about boundary setting in the workplace. There’s nothing in the report about flirtation directly, but I found people’s responses on things like hugging (about 50% of people find it inappropriate in the workplace), gossip (53% said it makes them uncomfortable), and using profanity (31% don’t like it). This all brings me back to the continuum of behaviors and setting boundaries when someone says or does something that doesn’t sit right with you. It’s on us to speak up for ourselves to set appropriate boundaries for our personal expectations for workplace behavior. People can’t read our minds. What I may find offensive may be totally different for someone else so it’s our job to tell them what our personal threshold for appropriate workplace conduct is. Organizations must invest in meaningful training that will empower staff with the tools and mindset for effectively communicating boundaries. My new online training will teach all about the behavior continuum and will provide concrete tools for people to set boundaries with their colleagues in a safe, respectful, and meaningful way.


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