On Your Terms: How to Set Professional Boundaries with Clients

Families of aging loved ones are often dealing with significant stress. Worries about a parent’s safety, medical condition, medications, physicians, mobility, cognitive functioning, caregivers—the list goes on and on. No wonder, when you are their Aging Life Care Manager®, and you bump into each other outside of your regularly scheduled meetings, that you get pummeled with questions.

Question is—should you answer? And if so, how?

Setting boundaries and managing client expectations is a crucial piece of maintaining an appropriate professional relationship. You got into this field because you want to help others, but no one can or should be expected to be on 24/7 call for every client. To do so is a certain path to burnout, which can have significant personal costs for you and doesn’t do anyone who depends on you a bit of good.

So, where to draw the line? (We know of one ALCM who found herself being asked for advice by her doctor during a gynecology exam! Definitely a bridge too far.)

Here are a few tips that we’ve found to be effective:

  1. Use a dedicated phone for your business, and DO NOT give clients your personal home phone or personal cell phone number. Many ALCMs find it useful to have a separate cell phone (and/or land line) for their professional use, even if it’s a bit cumbersome to be juggling two mobile phones. This will help you to establish a clear boundary in your own mind between your professional and private life, as well as spare you from unwanted work calls during off hours (or the middle of the night).
  2. Create an away message that sets clear expectations about how soon you will return a call (e.g. by the next business day). You can always call sooner, but give yourself some breathing room so that you can triage calls that truly demand your immediate attention.
  3. Avoid “friending” clients on personal social media. Understand the differences between various social media platforms. While you may have a professional business page on Facebook that you promote to clients as followers to build your business, you should stay away from friending clients on your personal Facebook page where you post pictures of family, friends, pets and maybe political views. If you choose to use Twitter to promote your business, limit your posts to professional issues and news. Understand that if you decide to tweet from a personal account, anyone can find you and follow you, so think twice about your comments. LinkedIn is a platform for making professional connections; the same guidelines apply.
  4. Arrange for coverage when you are away on vacation, dealing with your own medical issues or otherwise need time off. In our highly connected world, many people find that their bosses and coworkers expect responses to emails, voicemails and texts in real time. However, for many ALCMs with solo or small practices, it is up to each individual to set appropriate boundaries with clients. You may be able to work out an arrangement with another ALCM in your area to cover for each other when needed, following appropriate practices regarding client confidentiality (e.g. shredding any paperwork after it is shared with the professional you are covering, since these aren’t your clients).
  5. Set clear limits about accepting gifts from clients. This is a matter of personal judgment, especially when a client’s culture sensitivities would be hurt if you refuse a gift. However, it’s important to set boundaries, especially regarding expensive gifts or cash; avoid accepting any gift that could appear to compromise your professional integrity. If a client insists, one tactic is to thank them and explain that you are donating the gift to a worthy charity—and why.
  6. Be empathetic but assertive with clients who try to get a free consult when you meet at social events or other off-hours occasions. This one is a real balancing act between being compassionate as well as clear that there is a separate time and a place for the discussion. It’s especially touchy if your client belongs to your house of worship or another social circle where you might see each other more often than not. Language that both acknowledges their concern as well as defines how and when you might follow up with them—perhaps emphasizing that these are confidential issues best explored during a call or appointment—is one effective option. It’s also a good idea to set limits early in a conversation before you get hijacked simply because you didn’t want to interrupt or sound mean. Hand them a business card and ask them to call you during the workweek, and assure them you’ll be glad to address their concerns at that time.
  7. Be clear in your own mind what constitutes a true emergency and how you choose to respond. Some ALCMs elect to stay with clients during an emergency room visit until their situation stabilizes, while others set limits on their involvement. Some may give select clients whom they trust an option to call in the evening or on weekends if an emergency is evolving. Others treat all clients the same. This is your judgment call. Just be realistic about your own needs for downtime, sleep and quality time with your family and friends. Emergencies have a way of stacking up like planes circling an airport, and you can neither predict nor respond well to a state of constant crisis.

For best practices about professional boundaries, please refer to the Aging Life Care® Association’s Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics (which Deb helped to write).

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care Manager™. Drawing on more than 35 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.

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Image: Kai Pilger

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