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Do You Operate Within Your Professional Boundaries?

Written by: Dr. Margaret Potter, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


In any workplace there are occasions when a peer or someone you manage will bring up an issue or concern that is outside your scope of expertise. Many large employers will have an Employee Assistance Program to provide counselling services to staff with work, personal or family issues. There may also be trauma management and hotline services available for immediate response to critical incidents where physical or psychological injury, accident or death occur. It might be that an individual would benefit from some 1-1 executive or performance coaching.

Despite what might be available, sometimes employees will prefer to seek out their own support network and in smaller companies there may be nothing formal in place. So, what can you do to get prepared and feel confident to provide the right advice at the right time, in the right way if, and when required?

1. Acknowledge the issue or concern that has been raised with you and validate the difficulty that can arise for an individual to share personal and sometimes highly sensitive information.

2. Make it clear when something is outside your expertise. You don’t want to mislead an individual into thinking you will take care of their problem, or that you are the best person to deal with a particular matter if you are not.

3. Have knowledge of any ‘in-house’ services available through the employer and how to access these services. It is also useful if you can answer some common questions such as: What should an individual expect from the service? How many free sessions can they access? How can an individual be assured that the information they share will be kept confidential?

4. Ensure professional boundaries are put in place by discussing the extent and nature of your role. If you are a colleague, you may simply provide the details of a service or service provider and leave it with your co-worker to follow up if they choose to. However, if you are their manager, you will likely have a more ‘hands on’ role to play in terms of making an active referral, being a point of contact for liaison and potentially following up.

5. Regardless of the extent of your role, be open to discussing with the individual the type of support they feel will be most helpful to them. For example, they may want or need coaching, psychological intervention, medical support or legal advice. Show concern and respect and act as an appropriate sounding board. However, depending on your role it may be inappropriate to go any further, for example by providing specific advice or direction on a matter.

6. It will be invaluable to have an established toolkit of referral sources. You can start by becoming familiar with what is offered by your employer. Next, build on this base by asking colleagues you trust and respect for referral sources they have utilised in the past. In addition, you may have familiarity with service providers in the area or have identified options through your wider network. Having a toolkit of referral sources will be especially helpful when the employer does not offer anything, as you will be in a position to provide some alternatives for consideration.

7. Be open to seeking input to inform you of ways to improve. You may be relying on what an individual who has been receiving support says, their observed behaviour and/or input from others. If the issue is resolved and it seems appropriate, ask the individual for feedback. What was the process like for them? Did they get the support they needed? Do they have any suggestions on how you or the process could be improved? In addition, you could seek your own professional supervision to debrief the situation with a more experienced colleague or professional as this active reflection process can aid your learning.

Ultimately, any issues that are having a negative impact on the work performance of an employee should be addressed. If they are not, the consequences may be significant errors, incidents or harm to the health, well-being and safety of the individual concerned, their work colleagues or service users. Therefore, it is important you feel confident to have what is likely to be a difficult conversation and to provide appropriate advice and assistance within the scope of your role. This will ensure you proactively support those you work with in ways that are beneficial and constructive to one-and-all.

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Dr. Margaret Potter, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Margaret Potter is a highly respected educational leader and an internationally certified performance coach with more than 20-years of experience. She is Director of the TELL Centre, which provides short courses to support health professionals with their teaching, supervision and assessment activities. As a consequence of her PhD research on the patient-practitioner interaction in healthcare, Margaret is a sought-after speaker and expert on various topics associated with optimising communication. Her motto: Keep learning – keep growing!



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