ll solid working relationships need rapport and trust to function well. Certainly as a service provider, it’s your job to make sure your customers feel at ease with approaching you, relating to you and considering your advice.

Relationship-building, however, should not come at the expense of your credibility, effectiveness, health and personal life. Successful (and ethical!) working relationships are anchored on a clear understanding of what your role is and what your role isn’t. Even if your work has personal meaning to you, you have to maintain professional boundaries.

Here are some principles to consider when establishing and maintaining professional boundaries:

Empower Not Rescue

Your role is to assist your customers in achieving their goals.  Point them in the right direction, nurture the attitude needed, give them encouragement— but don’t do the work for them! You may feel that you’re being helpful when you do so, but you may be robbing them of the opportunity to learn and the satisfaction of accomplishment. Remember, everyone’s capable of solutions; don’t assume your customers are any different.

Take Care of Yourself

Do you want to know how to get on the path to job burn-out? It’s in not knowing where work ends and where personal life begins.  Even from the onset, set clear working hours and respect those hours. Don’t take work home and turn the cell phone off!  If an issue about a customer is weighing you down, debrief by talking to a co-worker or your supervisor. There’s nothing wrong with setting reasonable limitations for your customers (and for yourself!).  This doesn’t mean you’re providing bad customer service.  It’s about taking care of yourself.

Service Time is Not “Me” Time

While the rule is not to self disclose, only do so when it substantiates a point that addresses a customer’s needs.  Don’t use your relationship as an opportunity to vent your feelings.  In fact, rule of thumb: just listen! Active listening places the proper focus on your customers’ needs. It also creates an environment of trust.  If you talk or share too much, the customer may feel like you’re more of a “friend” versus an advisor.  This will ultimately change the dynamics of your relationship as a service provider.

Don’t Open Your Wallet

While this may seem obvious, it’s very easy for this to happen, especially when someone is operating on good intentions.  Discipline yourself to only use available program funds.  This includes providing change for vending machines, sharing cigarettes or even food.  Unfortunately, as much as we’d like, we can’t be everything for our customers.  If additional funding or resources are needed, utilize your partners.  Also take the time to find out what additional resources are available within your community.

Don’t Shift From Service-Provider to Employer

Similar to the previous principle, don’t ask customers to perform personal services or work for you, even if it’s for pay. This may represent a serious conflict of interest that could cost you your job.  It also limits opportunities for your customers to pursue competitive employment and may be seen as favoritism.  Moving away from what feels “safe” (e.g. working with your agency) may be difficult, but with your encouragement your customers have the confidence to explore other employment opportunities.

Be Consistent

Consistency is at the core of an effective professional relationship. Always do what you say you’re going to do.  If necessary, underpromise and overdeliver! You need to be someone that your customers can count on.  Also be sure to treat each customer with the same kindness and respect — no matter how difficult this may be.

Be a Role Model

Customers look up to you so you need to lead by example.  Never exhibit behavior that is unprofessional, such as using profanity or taking advantage of your position to influence others.  Always be on time for appointments and keep meetings concise and to the point.  Keep the best interests of the customer in mind and always remember, especially when working with youth, that you are being seen as the “expert.”  It may not seem like it at times, but you are an authority in what you do.

Be Accountable

When working in a community setting, it’s easy to get lost, emotionally and professionally, in the systems that you’re assisting. Stay in touch with an anchor who can give you feedback, perhaps a co-worker. Never keep information from your supervisors; keep them updated with successes and challenges. No one likes to be caught off guard. If you’re not certain what to do, consult with your supervisor.

While setting boundaries may feel like too much work, or even feel artificial, they’re a necessary element in becoming a better service provider. Boundaries sustain your energy and develop others’. They enhance the service process in running more efficiently and effectively.  As with any relationship, if you have a clear grasp of who you are, and consequently who your customers are, the lines of communication will remain clearly understood.