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Out of Bounds

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The news these days is full of geopolitical disputes over territorial boundaries: where they are, where they should be, and who is infringing on them. It’s really no different for us personally. At work and home, we create boundaries that we don’t want others to cross, and set limits beyond which we ourselves do not care to go. But in our own self-interest, or the interest of a larger good, we’re sometimes challenged to step across somebody else’s, or our own, boundaries.

Here are some illustrations of the boundaries that people create, the cost of dealing with them, and possible ways to handle these situations diplomatically.

I’m being inundated with phone calls from several of my clients. I could handle it if they limited themselves to telephoning me at work, but they’ve also begun to call me at home. These intrusions are beginning to seriously annoy my wife. I don’t want to lose my clients’ business, but I’m getting a little fed up. How should I address this? I think you need to give yourself permission to set limits on your accessibility to clients, so you can really be there for your wife and family when you’re home.

The first step is to plot out an ideal day. For example, when would you prefer to meet with clients and prospects? When would you take phone calls? When would you work on client plans? When would you make calls or write e-mails or letters? In an ideal evening at home, would you decline to answer client phone calls after a certain hour, or would you refuse to take any business calls at all? After you’ve thought through your preferences, create a written policy defining when you will be accessible by phone. Communicate this to your clients, singly or en masse.

If you feel uncomfortable about taking this step, ask yourself why it makes you ill at ease. What’s the worst that could happen? Write down your concerns and fears, along with ideas on how you would handle these eventualities. Being prepared in this way should alleviate much of your discomfort.

I know just where you’re coming from. My own workaholic tendencies are abetted by the boundary-less spirit of an extrovert who’s always afraid of missing exciting opportunities in work or play. But after deciding not to take calls after a certain hour, I found myself able to enjoy my family more fully while resting and replenishing my energy after a busy workday.

Try to create respectful boundaries around your own time without stirring up annoyance, anger, or defensiveness, so that when you work with clients you are fully present, rested, and ready to respond to their needs.

A colleague in my medium-sized planning firm has a drug abuse problem. I’ve caught him smoking pot on his lunch hour, and there are indications that he snorts cocaine, too. I’m concerned about the quality of his work for our clients, as well as the possibility that our firm’s reputation will suffer if he’s caught. Even though we once were friends, I feel awkward about confronting him on a matter that isn’t really my business. What should I do? If you care about giving your onetime friend a chance to clean up his act in private, you may need to step outside your comfort zone.

Consider meeting with him someplace where you are unlikely to be seen or overheard by co-workers. Tell him directly that you are worried about him, and about the inevitability that drug-taking will compromise his work performance and cost him his job. If he’s responsive to your concern, you can suggest a drug rehabilitation program, a therapist who specializes in substance abuse, Narcotics Anonymous, or better yet, all of the above.

But since his problem puts the firm’s clients and its good name at risk, you can’t just leave it at that. Make sure he understands that you’re prepared to let other people know about his drug habit, unless he starts working to overcome it promptly and aggressively.

This may be a very difficult thing for you to say and do. But I believe that failing to act could cost your firm and, indirectly, you, a hard-won reputation for integrity and reliability. More poignantly, it could deny your colleague an opportunity to recover his natural balance and sense of well-being.

For months now, I’ve been longing to switch to a four-day workweek so I can help my wife care for our young son, who has cerebral palsy. However, fear of losing business has kept me from announcing this to my clients. I know my concern may be foolish, but I can’t seem to overcome it. Help! For your family’s sake, try to muster the courage to take this difficult step.

You may find that all you need is a dignified letter expressing your new policy, with a brief reference to the reason (“to spend more time with my family, especially my son who has special needs”). Assure your clients that you will continue to be fully committed to the same high-quality service as before.

In reviewing your client list, you may find that there are some individuals you would like to inform first in person or with a phone call. If so, set yourself a deadline for completing these calls and conferences, so they don’t become an excuse for further procrastination.

In any ensuing discussions about the reason for your schedule change, you will need to decide how much personal information to share. This may differ from client to client, of course. If you feel comfortable with confiding details of your son’s challenges and the burden on your wife, trust your instincts. If so much openness feels alien, respect your limits and explain the situation in a more reserved way.

I predict that even though taking the plunge may be scary for a brief time, you’ll come out feeling good. It’s my strong belief that when you design your worklife in a way that works best for you, you will ultimately serve your clients better–first, by modeling balanced behavior amid a workaholic society, and second, by being more attentive to them when you are at work.

I’ve recently begun working with a female client about my own age (40ish) whose behavior in my office is way out of line. Knowing I’m single, she keeps telling me dirty jokes, patting my arm or shoulder in an inappropriate way, and inviting me out for drinks. I’d really like to keep her business, but how can I tell her that her attitude makes me uncomfortable? Let’s consider the worst case first. When you have to confront a client like this about out-of-bounds behavior, you risk stirring up so much anger and shame that no amount of diplomacy will prevent her (or him) from departing in a huff. But even this has a bright side: If your client refuses to change her attitude, you won’t be able to work effectively with her, so you may as well make space for new clients you do enjoy serving.

However, don’t assume at the outset that there’s no hope. Instead, you might begin this difficult conversation gently by informing her that it’s a personal preference of yours (or a hangup, if you want to give her an easier out), but you need to keep a more professional distance between the two of you to do your best for her. If she doesn’t get the message right away, tell her specifically that as a financial professional who needs to be objective and clear-headed, you are uncomfortable with touching, off-color jokes, and after-hours invitations from attractive clients.

If she persists in her flirtatious behavior, don’t cave. Repeat the message, perhaps more firmly. A third strike, and she’s out. Terminate your work with her as amicably as you can.

One reason to blame your disapproval on a personal preference, instead of telling her that her behavior is wrong or inappropriate, is to make it less likely that she will become abusive. But in case she goes ballistic and attacks your professionalism or your integrity, protect yourself by keeping good notes on what was said and what happened. Also, check with your firm’s legal counsel to see if there are other ways to head off potential trouble. Good luck in handling this awkward situation!

My boss just called me in to say that he wants me to become our firm’s insurance specialist. This new area of expertise doesn’t interest me at all. In fact, insurance has always bored me. I’m so depressed, I can’t think clearly about how to respond to his urging. Dare I refuse? Have you reflected carefully on why you’re dead set against this new area of specialization? For example, are you afraid you can’t master it? Do you find it peripheral to what you’re really interested in doing? Did you have some earlier experience that soured you on insurance providers?

If you and insurance have irreconcilable differences, I’d decline the job. But first, see if there are other areas of potentially profitable expertise you could embrace as a way to help your company grow. If you can sell your boss on developing one of these other sources of new revenue, he may be willing to let you abandon an area that holds zero interest for you.

Also, if you have a colleague who is more eager and better suited to assume the mantle of insurance guru, you could suggest this individual to your boss. Ideally, he will be perceptive enough to see that forcing a square peg (you) into a round hole will not work well for the firm.

Having clear boundaries and knowing when to modify them is never easy. It takes courage to say no and set limits.

Sometimes, you’ll be challenged to step outside your own comfort zone to help someone else. When you’re faced with this complex task, guide yourself to do it in a slow, respectful way that suits your own personality and need for balance and integrity.

Although you may risk disrupting some relationships, you’re likely to find that the payoff is greater self-respect, satisfaction, and balance in your life. You’ll also serve as an inspiration for clients and co-workers who have trouble setting limits and creating healthy boundaries in their own lives.

Olivia Mellan, a money coach and money therapist, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through the IA Bookstore at [email protected]