50. Friends at Work: Boundaries and Rules when you have both a Personal AND Professional Relationship

Do you work with friends and family?  Have you become friends with your coworkers? Maintaining a personal and professional relationship can be challenging, especially when you are trying to enforce rules and boundaries.  You do not want to resent your friend.  You also do not want it to be uncomfortable at work.  This is exactly the situation that Tiffany faces as she tries to supervise a childhood friend.  

After listening to episode 48 on the difference between rules and boundaries, Tiffany reached out to Mary for help to navigate this complicated personal and professional relationship.  We start by differentiating between workplace rules and personal boundaries.  Next, we discuss the employee handbook as the tool to establish the code of conduct in the office.  We clarify the process for monitoring and enforcing the handbook.  Then, we clarify roles and responsibilities.  Lastly, we empower Tiffany with a plan to maintain her personal relationship with her friend and professional relationship with her coworker.   

Main Episode Takeaways

  • Boundaries are for self regulation and rules are for group regulation
  • Clarification of roles and responsibilities
  • Established rules need to have a plan for monitoring and enforcement
  • Boundaries also need a follow through plan
  • When friends become coworkers, we need extra clear boundaries. 

Want to learn more about boundaries?

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50. Enforcing Rules and Boundaries with a Challenging Coworker

Mary: Let’s talk boundaries. I’m here with Tiffany and we’re discussing work and life, boundaries and rules with a co worker. Hey, Tiffany. Thanks for coming. 

Tiffany: Hey, Mary. Thanks for helping me. I’m excited to get help with this. It’s been a problem for a while.

Mary: Awesome. Tell me what’s going on. 

Tiffany: So things have been really frustrating for me, but your boundaries and rules podcast that you did recently was extremely helpful to differentiate rules from boundaries. But I still noticing some overlap that I need help clarifying.

Mary: Okay. What’s the situation? 

Tiffany: So I am a supervisor at an office. The doctor asked me to hire an employee and I selected one that ended up being from the same hometown that I grew up in. We grew up together. I’m two years older than her. So it kind of makes us friends. We have a lot in common there, a lot of connection because of that. But then I’m also her supervisor. We’re in an office that hasn’t had any handbook or policy manual, so there’s really been no rules. So I didn’t have any backing. My co worker she’s great. One thing that’s been difficult is that I don’t know where it’s a rule with her and where it’s a boundary with me. So, first of all, I did get the doctor to let me make a handbook, which has been really helpful. So we’ll start implementing that. But what’s been happening is if she’s looking at her phone during the day, you know, with personal things or getting on the computer to shop for a house during work, sitting and talking with a patient, you know, for hours out in the waiting room, you know, just things that are not acceptable. I haven’t known what’s something that’s not working for me personally. Like what I’m okay with and not okay with versus what she really shouldn’t be doing. And I haven’t even known how to say anything to her because I’ve been kind of confused on it. 

Mary: Okay. Well, let’s take a look at this. Thanks for bringing up this example. I think it’s relevant to listeners. So why is that not okay for you? Like tell me when you think about she’s shopping for a house during work or spending hours socializing during work, like why is that a problem for you? 

Tiffany: Problem for me because I’m the supervisor and I feel responsible for our productivity you know, how we are as employees, how the office runs. I like to obey rules and so before now they’ve just been rules I’ve created in my head. So that’s been hard because the rules, how I think they should be, but we do have a handbook now, but it was just barely this week given to us. So I’ll have that to go on, but I guess I just feel really responsible to the doctor being the best employee that I can and ensuring that the other employees are also being the best, that the office is being the best it can.

Mary: Yes. So if she is not working during work time, how does that impact you?

Tiffany: Well, honestly, I, feel very angry. Things are harder for me work-wise because then I am having double the work. Things that aren’t getting done, we are still gonna have to be done and I’m the supervisor, so ultimately I have to make sure they get done. I’ve been having to go in on Fridays, so we don’t usually work on Fridays to cover the things we don’t get done. Which I feel like has ample time to accomplish during the work day, if we’re working, both of us.

Mary: Okay. Okay. That makes sense. So what will the handbook say about use of work time? 

Tiffany: So the handbook has all the laws for Arizona. So the devices are to be off unless they’re being used for work. And then, you know, the computers are not to be used for personal use. We have lunchtime guidelines now, which we didn’t have any before. She just would take her lunch whenever and stay gone forever long she wanted. And so now we have to clock out. We only have so much time. 

Mary: Nice. Nice. I love that. So it sounds like the handbook is going to be a great tool for you and kind of sorting through rule establishment and rule monitoring and upholding those rules. How could you use this handbook? What are some strategies that you’ve thought of as ways to use the handbook to help you hold her accountable? 

Tiffany: You know, that’s part of the struggle because of the confusion with my role in our friendship and growing up in the same town and, you know, near the same age, I really haven’t acted like a supervisor. I haven’t enforced or said anything to her. When I asked her to read the handbook, she resisted and then later told me she would finally do something she didn’t want to do. And and she did it and was not happy about a lot of things in there. So already I know she’s not happy about having to have some rules.

Mary: Yeah. What generous assumptions could we make about her to help us understand with compassion, like why she doesn’t see you as a supervisor or doesn’t follow rules or want to follow rules? 

Tiffany: That’s a good question. That would be really helpful if I could get in touch with that generous assumption. 

Mary: Yeah. If you were in her shoes.

Tiffany: If I were in her shoes, I’m such a responsible person. I’m very obedient to rules. And so it’s hard for me to think about being otherwise. 

Mary: So if I were in her shoes, I might think something like, I’ve really enjoyed the flexibility and kind of loose guidelines at this job. And I like working with Tiffany and having a friend that I can socialize with and I don’t want to be micromanaged. And I want to be able to come to work for a variety of reasons, one of them might be social, one of them might be financial, one of them might be career growth or skill building but I don’t necessarily want to have these changes in the way that I have felt comfortable so far. 

Tiffany: Oh, that’s true. Change is hard for everyone. Yeah, I could see that. Definitely.

Mary: Yeah. Maybe part of the reason I’ve liked this job so far is because there haven’t been strict rules or someone monitoring me.

Tiffany: Yeah, that might be her nature. 

Mary: Yeah. Okay, so let’s talk about the role definition, because I think there’s something under here that maybe we need to clarify roles and responsibilities. When you established your working relationship with her, what conversations happened then? And did you hire her as her supervisor? Did you hire her as a coworker? Did you hire her as an employee? Tell me where that was established at the beginning. 

Tiffany: So I’m, I’m the office manager. So I hired her as an office manager as my job in hiring. Also, as the senior employee there. So it wasn’t really discussed, but I do feel like she understood because I, I did all the interviewing. I did the hiring. The doctor didn’t have any part of it. He just, he trusted me to pick someone that I felt good about. And she knew that it was all my choice. 

Mary: Okay. And what do you imagine she would say, if I were to ask her, so at work, Tiffany is fill in the blank. What would she say? Are you her what? 

Tiffany: calls me her coworker on the phone. When she’s talking to patients, she’ll talk to me, you know, Tiffany’s my friend from growing up years, she really does see me as a friend so a generous assumption I think is that she would like to see us as equal and friends in the place. She’s invited me to do things outside the workplace, which you know, that’s where it gets a little confusing for me. 

Mary: Yeah. So what do you want your role at work to be with her? 

Tiffany: Well, I did get clear when the handbook came out with the doctor, what my role is so that I know what it is for sure. And I am the supervisor and I am, you know, the office manager and so at work I would like to be the supervisor because that’s what is expected of me. 

Mary: Okay. So when we have rules, which is what this handbook is, the code of conduct for rules, for working in the office, then we need to have someone that’s responsible for monitoring and enforcing those rules. Is that your role. Is that the authority that you have?

Tiffany: Yes, yes, it is. And I, I just this week asked the doctor if he would please do employee evaluations. I guess I’m the one that’s to enforce the rules during the work week and then he will do the overall evaluation at some point on how we’re doing according to the handbook and policy manual.

Mary: Okay, sounds good. So if you are the supervisor and she is an employee, then what would be different at work for you?

Tiffany: We would be work oriented. We would not talk about personal things. There’s a lot of talking, a lot of conversation and I like to get things done. I want to work. So that’s maybe where a boundary question comes in is, it’s a rule that we are productive, but also it’s a personal, I’m not okay with sitting and talking during the workday unless we’re checked out, you know, for lunch. 

Mary: Yes. Oh, perfect. Okay. So this example of sitting and talking or spending time on the internet, right? What’s the rule? 

Tiffany: The rule is that we work. We don’t use our devices or the computers for any personal things. 

Mary: Okay. And so the rule is we spend our work time working. Right? We don’t use devices for personal use. Is there a rule around socializing at work? 

Tiffany: I did ask the doctor. It’s not written in there. I, I asked him how long he would like us to converse with the patients. What would be, you know, a kind thing to do versus how long is too long. And he thought, you know, five minutes of conversation with them would be great. Beyond that we need to work.

Mary: Sure. Okay, perfect. So five minutes. So the rule is we can visit for five minutes. Is that with patients and with each other? 

Tiffany: We haven’t ever discussed the role of visiting with each other. To me, and maybe this is just my personal preference, to me, we don’t sit and talk personal things at all. There’s a productivity checklist that we’ve had before the handbook of things that need to be done. And there’s a lot on there, more than can be done in a day. So, I don’t feel like there’s time to be talking unless we’re clocked out.

Mary: Hmm. Okay so your boundary then is that you are going to follow this rule. The boundary for you is that you are not going to be socializing during work time, that you are not going to be using your device for personal use unless you’re clocked out. Those are your boundaries that you’re going to follow the rules, right? And then if your employee, right, is not following those rules, that’s a supervisory role. 

Tiffany: Right. So how is that discussed then? Do I leave out the boundary conversation of what is, what works for me and not works for me and just stay on the supervisor conversation?

Mary: Well, the difference is that rules are for group regulation. So if you need to have a conversation about managing her behavior, that’s a supervisory role. That’s rules. If you want to have a distinction about your behavior and how you’re managing the impact that this has on you, that is your boundaries. So the rule is that we don’t waste time at work on our phones. That’s for everyone. That’s a group expectation, right? And it’s your responsibility as a supervisor to monitor that and uphold that. But your boundary is that I’m not going to be on my phone and your boundary is, okay, so if my coworkers are on their devices and not focusing on work, how am I going to regulate my thoughts and feelings and emotions and needs in a way that works for me?

Tiffany: So I get clear on that for myself. How does the conversation need to go? I guess that’s confusing for me. 

Mary: Yeah. Well, the good news is that you have this new handbook, which could be a tool as a conversation starter and there’s some changes happening in the office. So it sounds like a perfect opportunity to have some conversations. So the timing is beneficial for you, So what have you said so far in terms of introducing this handbook and the rules in the handbook? 

Tiffany: We kind of had a conversation as she was reading it. So she just barely signed it. But I have used just a few little comments of the handbook says we need to clock out for lunch. I can’t remember the other specifics, but a few times I did say that. 

Mary: Yeah. So what, what might it sound like if you wanted to have a conversation about your roles and responsibilities around the handbook?

Tiffany: Well, if I were to do what I would like to do, I would like to clarify my role. I would like to be really honest, like really truthful of the problem, I feel like our roles have been convoluted because we grew up together, you know, and our friendship outside of work and our friendship inside of work has been all combined and that I would really like to have employee roles at work that we just hold to. I am her supervisor and I would like to operate as that. 

Mary: Great. So let’s say that.

Tiffany: Is that good? 

Mary: That sounds great. 

Tiffany: All right. All right. I need the courage to do it. 

Mary: How are you going to invite her to have this conversation with you?

Tiffany: haven’t thought about that.

Mary: I would suggest something like, Hey, I’d like to have a conversation about our roles and responsibilities at work because it’s been pretty loose and I think we need to clear it up. So that states your intention, right? And the measurement of success. 

Tiffany: Yes, I like that. 

Mary: And then give her some generous assumptions, Yeah. Like I understand why this has been pretty loose because we were friends growing up and because we haven’t had an employee handbook and I just got more clarity around my role and responsibility. And so I want to make sure that, we’re both clear about these things.

Tiffany: I like that. I like that praise because then she’ll feel like I want the best for her also. I appreciate that. I’m not, I’m going to spend some time, you know, thinking of all the generous assumptions because that does help. 

Mary: Putting yourself in her shoes. What’s your hesitation to have this conversation with her?

Tiffany: My hesitation is that she will feel, I know I’m not responsible for how she feels, but I, I will feel sad if she feels hurt by it, or if she’s angry by it, that makes a hard working environment. We’ve had one other little problem, which, enters the boundaries versus rules and that she, she teases in a very hurtful way, which sometimes I can’t tell if she’s trying to cut me down or, it feels like that to me almost as if she doesn’t like me to be in a supervisor position. So she cuts me down a lot of times during the day. A lot of things I do, she will have a comment about that’s negative. So I am worried that she will continue that if she’s upset. And I haven’t known how to handle that because, we now have a conduct policy, which the doctor actually let me write a statement in there about no teasing, that’s unkind. But I am, I am worried about the backlash, I guess, when we have this conversation. And then we’ll have to have more conversations. 

Mary: So I would expect that she will feel discomfort. And it’s okay for her to feel uncomfortable. We have to get comfortable with the people around us feeling uncomfortable, especially when rules are changing and boundaries are being upheld. When it comes to this idea of like teasing that feels hurtful to you, right? You have two things going on and this is the rule and the boundary at the same. So the rule is that we speak kindly or something like that. Is that what the rule says? We don’t tease. 

Tiffany: Yeah. Talks about teamwork and uplifting each other and kindness. And

Mary: So if her behavior is breaking the rule, you have a responsibility as her supervisor to say that whatever you just said, those words are not following this rule, right? Specifically, I would make it just factual. Those words are not following this rule. And whatever your next step is as her supervisor. So you got to figure that out. How do you enforce that? Then there’s the boundary piece of, if she’s saying something that’s hurtful to you and it has an impact on you, your boundary is, how do you meet your own needs? How do you protect, respect, honor yourself in that situation? 

Tiffany: It’s a very good question. I haven’t known. I just go home and cry or feel really angry and complain to my husband. I really haven’t known how to do that. Because it has been confusing, 

Mary: Right? So I think there’s both and I can see why it feels kind of convoluted because this is what happens when we don’t have clear rules in a workplace and we don’t have clear roles and responsibilities. And I’m grateful that you have this handbook. And I think your next step is going to be figuring out how do you enforce it. So you have these policies. Right, but you’re going to need some if, then statements, you’re going to need if this happens, then this is how I uphold the policy as a supervisor. And this is how I honor myself. So that’s the next step. 

Tiffany: Okay. So I get clear on how we’re going to enforce the rules and honor myself in those situations. 

Mary: Yes. I would speak to the doctor about what is the recourse if people are not following the rules. When you have a code of conduct, you also need to have a correlating enforcement plan, right?

Tiffany: I don’t remember how it’s worded, but we’re to go to go to the doctor with any problems. And then if the conduct is not obeyed it could be cause for termination. They’re not really specific. 

Mary: So then it’s your responsibility if rules are not being followed and you’re the supervisor that you follow through with, this rule is not being followed, it’s my responsibility to report this to the doctor.

Tiffany: Okay. That’s a good way to say that. 

Mary: And I would have that conversation ahead of time with her so that we’re getting really clear on our roles. I would say like, Hey, now that we have this handbook, I just want to let you know that it is my responsibility to follow these rules myself and also to monitor your following of these rules or not, and to report to the doctor if they’re not being followed.

Tiffany: Yeah I like that. That’s very simple and clear.

Mm hmm. 

Mary: And then you have to actually follow through because that’s the hard part is following through. 

Tiffany: Right. So I’m okay with her being uncomfortable and even maybe angry or whatever feelings she wants to have, but I still follow through, right? 

Mary: Yes. Yeah. I mean, don’t be a jerk about it. Don’t try to make her mad. Don’t like aggravate her. Just 

Tiffany: That’s not my nature at all. I’m actually opposite of that. Yeah. 

Mary: But I mean, I know that that doesn’t sound like something you would do, but we don’t intentionally want to make people uncomfortable, but we also don’t want to protect them from the natural feelings that they experience being a human, having a human experience as a result of their thoughts and feelings and perceptions.

Tiffany: Right, right. I like that. And also, as you’re talking, I’m thinking, I can’t protect her from consequences. Just natural, natural consequences. Disobeying the boat is what happens. Yeah. 

Mary: yeah, I would stay away from the word obey. I would just say follow or not follow. Obey has some emotional charge to it.

Nobody really likes to obey. They don’t even put it in marriages anymore. I’m just kidding. 

Tiffany: Right. You’re right. Follow. I like that word. That’s good. I’ll write that down. 

Mary: Yeah. And I would be clear with her, my intention is to follow the handbook. And my responsibility is to monitor that we all are all following the handbook here.

Tiffany: Okay. I like that. My intention is to follow dot, dot, dot. My responsibility is dot, dot, dot.

Mary: Yes. All right. How is this for you? 

Tiffany: Yeah. It’s very helpful. It’s extremely helpful. 

Mary: What did you learn? 

Tiffany: Well, first of all, it helped me to get clear on what I want to be at work. What do I want to be? How do I want to conduct myself? And it also helped me to get clear on how to operate as a supervisor over employees. So it’s helpful to have some wording, to know what to say in the conversations. I wrote a lot of that down.

Mary: And your boundaries are, what are your boundaries here? 

Tiffany: My boundaries are what, how I want to conduct myself. And then the rule part is how do I enforce the handbook as a supervisor?

Mary: Exactly. Yeah. So your boundaries tell you what is Tiffany willing to participate in? What is Tiffany not willing to participate in and how does Tiffany manage her own needs and thoughts and feelings? So if you are not willing to lollygag at work, if you are not willing to socialize for extended periods of time, those are your boundaries, And then how you respect yourself, if and when something is going on that has an emotional impact on you. So for example, you have this hard conversation with her about something you see happening, right? And you follow through and go have a conversation with the doctor and make a report of that, right? You might, you might feel uncomfortable if that were to happen. 

Tiffany: Yes. That is a good point. And I need to be okay with that. 

Mary: And have a plan to take care of yourself in those situations.

Tiffany: Okay. And what would that look like? 

Mary: It looks like self care. It looks like, if I need to make a report to the doctor, this is how I will manage my own discomfort. If I need to have a difficult conversation with my employee, then this is how I will stay calm and clear and kind. I think it also looks like how you talk to her and how you refer to her in your own mind is that you are the supervisor and she’s the employee.

Tiffany: Yes, that is what I think will be the best because it’s very clear. 

Mary: Because your role now is the role of a supervisor and so your boundary is that you’re willing to be a supervisor and you’re not willing to be unclear about what your role is. That’s your boundary.

Tiffany: Yes, Yes, and I’m also thinking it helps me to be really clear then that when I’m outside work, if I choose to be friend, then I will drop the supervisor role. And that’s what I would like, would like to be able to drop that outside of work and be friends and do things. 

Mary: Yes. Yeah. And you can talk about it in terms of like a hat being the role, right? Well, I’m here. I’m going to have my supervisor hat on. And if we’re outside of work, then I can have my friend hat on.

Tiffany: I think that would be really good too. Express to her because maybe she won’t take that so personally that way.

Mary: All right. Good work today, Tiffany. 

Tiffany: Very helpful. Thanks, Mary. 

Mary: Thanks so much.