Drawing lines – where’s yours? Where’s your organisation’s?

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One of the listservs I tune into had a fascinating conversation recently. Someone was asking advice about how to get in touch with staff who don't seem to read all-staff emails. It's not an uncommon problem and one of the assumptions is that they should read all their emails. Or at least the ones that they're sent by the Communications group, or the CEO, or… But you get the picture.

That people weren't reading them was a problem. The possibility that they weren't reading or responding because they weren't relevant or they were busy or they were in the wrong language was mooted early in the conversation, but then suggestions moved quickly along to techniques to get to the employees. Quite a few talked about "send the material to their home addresses".

Now, I can see some circumstances where that's inevitable – people whose roles rarely take them into any organisation building, who don't have a fixed base. The discussion wasn't about those people, however, it was about people who do have a desk, who do get emails, who do use the intranet. They discriminate and choose not to engage.

What concerns me is that the communicators don't seem to realise that there ought to be boundaries – they seem to think that communicating with someone while they are at home is acceptable practice in the day-to-day running of the organisation. That just because they have left the office is no reason to think they have a separate life.

It's the same concern I have when managers and leaders talk about how their employees are outside work and how they get them to be that in work. It's usually dressed in talk about them "being fully authentic" and "emotional intelligence" and more. The big catchphrase, of course, is "employee engagement".

It's informed, I think, by a misunderstanding, easily arrived at, but toxic if not challenged. Giving someone a job, benefits, bonuses and the rest does not entitle you to their every thought, action or emotion.

As a communicator at places like IBM, I can remember being asked to do something that struck me as crossing a boundary. The manager in question hadn't even perceived that there might be a boundary there – he was interested only in achieving a result and needed me to do that for him. Rather than go away and just do what I'd been told, I chose to raise the possibility that it might cross a boundary. It was a heated discussion for the first few minutes, but quickly cooled – and shifted to coming up with alternatives instead.

We can only recognise those situations if we have a sense of where those boundaries might be for us personally, and then for the organisation. Fixing them in writing is less than helpful – circumstances and environments will change and we need to have the ability to respond quickly. But writing down ideas might start our own process of seeing the limits.

So:

  • Where does the line between work and personal life lie for your employees?
    • Geographically? Chronologically?
  • How far do you go in telling a knowing untruth?
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