Tyro Tracts

Personal and Professional Boundaries

Academics ask all kinds of questions and make all kinds of judgments about parts of colleagues' or potential colleagues' lives that are irrelevant to their jobs, writes Nate Kreuter. He says it's time to stop.

January 4, 2013

Professional and social boundaries are blurry in an academic life. We tend to socialize with many of the people we work with. We inquire into each other’s lives when we meet at the copier, and, sometimes to a point of frustration, we talk shop even at purely social gatherings.

This blurring of professional and social interaction can lend academic life the best of collegial feelings. So long as personal boundaries are respected, it's nice to know that your colleagues care about the things happening in your larger life. And because they often share our intellectual passions, it's fulfilling to socialize with our colleagues.

But there is a downside to the inherently blurry boundary between personal and professional interaction. Sometimes we know too much about one another. Worse, sometimes faculty members begin to make unfair judgments about how their colleagues spend their personal time, judgments that can potentially adversely affect careers. Even if we do try to keep our professional and personal lives separate, the close quarters of academic life (and a powerful rumor mill) make it nearly impossible to keep the work- and home-fronts from coming into contact every now and again.

As long as it doesn't interfere with your work (that is, violate college or university policy or the law), your personal life is your own, and, as far as I’m concerned, nobody else’s business. Many of your personal decisions are protected by law. Your college or university can't, for example, deny you tenure on the grounds that you’ve decided to have children and will no longer be able to spend 18 hours a day in your research. As long as you are meeting the obligations of your position, how you spend the rest of your time is irrelevant, and shouldn’t be subject to anyone else’s scrutiny or judgment.

But as a species, humans are a judgmental bunch. In an academic career it is inevitable that at least of few of your colleagues will scrutinize your personal life, that they will — despite having no right or standing to do so — judge how you spend your own time. It's difficult to measure the effects of this judgment. It may simply be an annoyance from time to time, or it could result in tangible hardships, such as denial of tenure.

I'm a big believer in boundaries. My university pays me to teach classes, conduct research and engage in the service that, collectively, keeps the whole operation running. As long as I'm educating my students, devoting time to my research, and fulfilling my assigned service obligations, when the paycheck comes at the end of the month, the university and I are square. We have met our obligations to one another. But relationships are never so clean and neat in practice.

I know of cases where faculty members, especially untenured faculty, have suffered professionally, at the hands of their colleagues, for the most ridiculous reasons: for their romantic preferences; for commuting to campus from a distant community; for being overweight; for being too old; for being too young; for having children; for not having children; for having the "wrong" politics; for not chumming and socializing with fellow faculty enough. The list could go on -- and become even more ridiculous.

The simple fact of the matter is that even though it is technically illegal to discriminate against faculty (or any variety of employee) for many of the reasons I’ve listed above, such discrimination happens all the time. It happens routinely. And such unfair treatment is virtually impossible to prove, because tenure and reappointment votes are typically opaque, and tenure committee members at the department, college, or university level will likely never be accountable in any sense for their votes against a faculty member, or the reasoning behind their vote.

It's a pity, isn’t it, that at colleges and universities, which are incorrectly thought to be some of our culture’s most enlightened institutions, we still can’t escape such judgment? It’s a pity, isn’t it, that we do this to one another?

Again — with the all-important caveat that it is not violating university policy, the law, or interfering with you fulfilling your job duties — your personal life is your own business.

As with most things, there’s a flip side here. Even if you prefer clear boundaries, you may at times be better off revealing what’s going on in your personal life to your colleagues. Perhaps an ill parent is worrying and distracting you, or placing even more concrete demands upon your mind and your time as you try to help out. Sometimes we prefer not to reveal these sorts of things, because they aren’t directly work-related, because we don’t want to bring the associated pain to our places of work, and maybe most of all because revealing that pain can make us feel uncomfortably vulnerable in front of our colleagues. It’s reasonable though for something like an ill parent to affect your work. If they’re worth a damn at all, your colleagues will express empathy when they learn of your situation. They will know that your distraction is both reasonable and temporary. They won’t hold it against you. They may even offer to help you cover some of your responsibilities to get you through.

There may be other times when it would actually be advantageous to share details about your personal life, perhaps strategically. For example, if a job particularly appeals to you because it would put you close to your family, you can make that known. A hiring committee cannot legally ask you about your family situation, but it is your prerogative to volunteer such information. Of course, you would also want to be careful to demonstrate that you are interested in the job itself, and not merely the location of the job. Revealing even a small detail can occasionally backfire if, for instance, a hiring committee concludes that you are interested in their position for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes you may find a colleague, or potential future colleague, inquiring into an aspect of your personal life. They may simply be acting friendly, expressing interest in you as a fellow human. Or they may be prying. You will have to make the judgment call, and trust your intuition in the moment. Even when being questioned directly, it is perfectly acceptable to politely establish what your conversational boundaries are with colleagues.

I'm screaming into the wind here, but it bears pointing out that none of us have the right to judge each others' off-campus lives unless the drama spills onto campus. Perhaps we could all follow a simple rule.The next time we find ourselves passing judgment on a colleague, perhaps we could ask ourselves: are my colleague’s actions hurting their students, their colleagues, or the institution? If our answer is "no," then our business is concluded.


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