How to Set Workplace Communication Boundaries
Whether it’s in polite company or on a first date, traditional advice has been that you’ll get side-eyed (or shut out of a second date) if you broach politics, religion, money or anything about your ex. You would think the same would follow for the workplace. Given, however, that we use communication to connect with one another, you might feel yourself wanting to share your take on the issue of the day with a (supposedly) like-minded colleague.
Here are some good rules of thumb for how to discuss these tricky issues (or know when to avoid them) and set overall boundaries in a corporate setting.
First, define the boundary
The American Psychological Association defines a boundary as “a psychological demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual or group or that helps the person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.” What shape that boundary takes is ultimately determined by each individual, and might change throughout the course of their career.
Todd Brazda, a Chicago-based risk management director for an investment firm, says he’s pretty open about his personal life with his work colleagues. The birth of his son Oliver slightly shifted that openness.
“Now I protect parts of my personal life a bit more,” Brazda says. “I also think that the pandemic experience pushed me to be more protective of my family and personal life, simply because that period of time represented a time when most of us were in protective mode.”
For some, protecting your personal life might look like not accepting follower invites from colleagues on social media channels. Others might feel fine being Facebook friends, but would prefer to nix happy hours or keep parties to family and friends only.
Determine what is appropriate
Boundaries can also extend to conversations. Your willingness to share your opinion across myriad topics is one thing; appropriateness is another, says Jesica Speed Wiley, senior associate at Vocable Communications.
“[Determining appropriateness] depends on a few things: the nature of the politics, the nature of the relationship and the nature of the news,” she says. “Events in the news and our political arena have different impact on folks, and I think it’s wise, especially for people who have a lot of privilege, to listen first, share “values-based” self-disclosures in some contexts, and to ask questions that demonstrate that they value learning about others’ experiences, but don’t expect those most impacted by a particular policy to teach them about its impacts.”
Liane Davey, co-founder and principal of 3COze Inc. and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, told the Harvard Business Review you’ll want to “consider… social cues before broaching or engaging in conversation about politics.”
“You usually get a sense of people’s leanings,” she says. “If you wade into an issue that’s highly [divisive], you risk souring a relationship.” However, if it’s a small group or a topic you’re particularly passionate about, you might feel compelled to speak up.
“It is a choice you make,” Davey explains. “Our world would be a less progressive place if there weren’t brave souls to push these issues forward.”
Brazda says he tends to be pretty unfiltered in his expression of his views on hot topics.
“Even at work I don’t shy away from openly making comments about my views,” he says. “That being said, I don’t push to engage colleagues on those topics unless they express interest. I welcome a lively debate at times, but our office tends to be pretty quiet on more political topics.”
Should you remain completely silent?
Given the risk of alienation or polarization, you might feel that staying mum on a certain topic is the best course of action. Not necessarily so, Speed Wiley says.
“It’s important to remember that politics ‘out there’ make a material impact on many of our personal and professional lives,” she points out. “For example, women and transgender employees work at organizations based in states that have passed legislation limiting and prohibiting health care access. With these political actions, those employees have their material well-being and health care access impacted in ways that men and cisgender employees haven’t.”
When organizations do not address these disparities, Speed says, the silence reads as complicity. “More often than not, it’s prudent to acknowledge the impact politics and current events may be having—it’s part of acknowledging the folks we work with and how broader politics impacts us all in tangible and differentiated ways.”
Seek a balanced approach
“Communication scholars often refer to communication as the ‘lifeblood’ of organizations, meaning that communication is what makes organizations exist at all,” Speed Wiley says.
So gauge the room’s temperature, determine your own boundaries and willingness to share and then communicate if you so choose—but carefully.
“Discussing the indictment and arrest of the former U.S. president at work may not yield much in terms of relationships,” Speed Wiley notes, “but ongoing assessment and engagement with the politics of professional communication can ultimately be the good work of expanding our organizations toward deeper inclusion.”
Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.
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