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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Professional Distance

In the workplace smart workers understand they need to put some space between themselves, the work they do and the people they work with and serve. This boundary is known as Professional Distance.

Professional distance allows a person to stay objective about the work they do and how they do it with their co-workers and how they provide services for their clients. When a person is objective, they focus on the tasks at hand.

When there are workplace issues, they focus on solving the problems, not on appeasing the people in conflict.

A person who applies professional distance to their work understands it’s important to follow company policies when doing their work, especially when interacting with clients. They understand that the workplace is about communicating in a professional manner not, socializing in a way that is detrimental to the orgnization’s business.

A person who practices professional distance also understands that things aren’t personal when it comes to work. When a person has professional distance they are objective enough to work with co-workers and supervisors to learn from them what they need to do in order to do the best job possible.

A worker who is professionally distant isn’t cold. They’re very passionate about the work they do. But they understand that there is a clear boundary between them the people they work with and the people they serve. And this line is to never be crossed no matter how they feel.

In today’s workplace I believe there isn’t enough professional distance. I feel too many employees overstep their bounds when it comes to working with clients.

And when they cross these imaginary lines it leads to them violating workplace policies such as sexual harassment. Some even commit crimes like embezzlement, fraud and statutory rape.

These breaches of trust can not only tarnish the reputation of an individual employee they can tarnish the reputation of a business. And that trust is hard to earn again once it’s been broken. All it takes is for the public to have one bad experience with one employee from a company to make people wary about doing business with an organization again.

For example, a young female teacher has sex with one of her male teenage students. Her actions make it that much harder for other teachers in that school district to do their jobs. One person’s violation of the public trust is all it takes for people to start scrutinizing all the work of the good teachers in that school district.

When did the teacher in the example she cross the line of professional distance? When her perception of the boy changed from a Teacher/student relationship to seeing the child as someone she could have a romantic interest in. By acting on her feelings she breaches the trust placed between her, the school, and his parents to look out for his safety while providing him an education.

A teacher with an understanding of professional distance would have established a clear line between herself and the male student from day one. She sees herself as his teacher and nothing else. She understands this child is a minor entrusted to her care by a school district and his parents. She understands that the law establishes a clear boundary between herself and him and that she is responsible for protecting him from harm.

If she has to tutor him, or work with him one-on-one she follows guidelines established by the principal, school board, and state law. And when she schedules that tutoring it’s in a group on school grounds. A truly professional teacher will also involve their department head and principal so there will be official records of their involvement with the students, the time she was interacting with them and the subjects they were discussing. And a truly savvy educator will enlist the help of a second teacher at the tutoring session so there will be a witness to see their interactions with students.

Another example of a violation of professional distance is a male manager at a college bookstore who decides to become chummy with a female student working in the store. After work, they go out to dinner together, and sometimes he buys her beer even though she’s underage. One day in a casual conversation with said student, the student decides to start talking about their sex life. The clerk then starts talking about what he’d like to do to the student sexually. Later on, the student files a sexual harassment complaint.

Where did the manager breach the trust? When he decided to become chummy with the female student. By not establishing that imaginary line in the sand on day one and defining his role as a supervisor, he crossed a line which led to him down a road where he violated business and personal ethics and put his employment and career at risk.

When a person utilizes professional distance as a part of their business demeanor it sets a tone of authority. By establishing clear boundaries for workplace conduct, it shows that a person is going to take their work and the workplace seriously. When they interact with the public it makes customers take their business seriously and establishes a reputation for high standards and quality in the community.

It’s common place for some to call an individual who practices professional distance aloof. Stuffy. Even conceited. However, this formal body language is a sign of the highest level of professionalism.

The workplace is supposed to be where people are on their best behavior. And a little formality goes a long way towards making people take each other and their work seriously.

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