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Ask The Experts: Does My Boss Have A Boundary Problem?

Is it okay for your boss to step into your personal life and suggest you get back to work after tragedy?

Ask The Experts: Does My Boss Have A Boundary Problem?
[Photo: Flickr user Alex]

Our personal and professional lives blend together now more than ever before. Still, some aspects of life, like grieving, are intensely private. Showing concern is one thing, but does telling your employee to come back to work after the death of a parent cross the line?

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Psychologist Art Markman helps this reader cope with potential boundary-crossing behavior.

My mother suddenly passed away on a Friday evening. On the Sunday my boss showed up to my house with groceries and flowers and suggested that I go into the office on Monday for the quarterly meeting, after all “this was a pivotal time” for the business.

I didn’t go in the next day because of my overwhelming grief. I later found out that I was to receive an award on that Monday. Was this a career-limiting move, or is my boss not clear on boundaries?

Thanks,
P


Dear P,

I am sorry for your loss. Even after time has gone by, it can be hard to think about loved ones who are gone, and that can be made worse when that loss is also connected to a frustrating experience at work.

Because the death of a loved one is so difficult, it is hard to be put in a position in which you are making decisions. As you start the grief process, it is hard to think clearly about what you should be doing. You shouldn’t worry about whether this was a career-limiting move. Grief is difficult and unpredictable, but it is a necessary part of the emotional process of recovering from a tear in the emotional fabric of your life. You should not have to try to think about career implications at a time like that. Do what you need to do to allow yourself to get back on your feet. Then, go back to work.

For this reason, most companies have a bereavement policy that specifies paid and unpaid leave that can be taken following the death of a family member. Many companies provide three days of paid leave to cover the funeral and time to make arrangements. Companies often provide additional days of unpaid leave to be coordinated with a manager to give people flexibility at a difficult time. If you have a loved one who is sick, it is worthwhile looking up the policy where you work just to have it in mind.

Even if your company didn’t have a specific bereavement policy, your boss was emotionally tone-deaf to ask you to come to work on the first business day after your loss. Your boss put the award you were receiving in front of any other considerations, which is remarkably selfish.

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Even though your boss may have thought that giving you the award on that day was a positive, it is a problem both for you and for everyone else in the company. Obviously, you were still at the beginning of a difficult period of grieving for your mother. Asking you to sit through a meeting and to maintain your composure is just too much. If you were at the meeting, it would also send a terrible message to the rest of the company that work is expected to come before everything else in an employee’s life.

Boundaries and Expectations

I assume that this relates to what you refer to as your boss’s “boundary issues.” The jobs we take come along with a set of expectations about how much time we are expected to work, the responsibilities that come along with the job, and the time commitment associated with the work. Different jobs come along with different expectations.

In college when I worked at a lumber yard, I was expected to be there when the store opened, and to work my shift, and that was it. When I was an assistant professor trying to get tenure, I worked long hours six days a week juggling commitments to teaching, research, and service. Both of those levels of commitment were appropriate for the jobs that I took on and the commitments were understood when I agreed to do the job.

Boundary issues arise when managers violate workplace expectations without any acknowledgement that a request has crossed the line related to the explicit or implicit agreement about the work that is required. Every manager has an obligation to communicate clearly when making a request that goes beyond the consensus for what a particular job entails.

When you are faced with situation that violates either explicit or implicit expectations about the scope of a job, it is appropriate to have a discussion with your boss about whether the nature of your job has changed. From a career management standpoint, if your job has morphed, it is also appropriate to have a discussion about the implications of that change in responsibilities for your career path.

Hopefully, of course, most requests that bosses make are not as wildly inappropriate as asking someone to come back to work the day after the loss of a loved one.

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