Workplace Hierarchies and Professional Boundaries

Workplace Hierarchies and Professional Boundaries

Navigating the social rules and expectations of a work hierarchy can be challenging, especially when the hierarchy is poorly defined or explained. Aspies, though not alone in this struggle, are often ill-equipped to decipher hierarchies that aren’t explicitly spelled out. Things can be further complicated when people with existing work relationships change roles or supervisory levels.

The goal of this post is to call attention to these issues and to provide a few basic guidelines based on my experiences and with Aspies in mind. Different workplaces will have unique quirks and sources of tension that may require you to deviate from this advice, but I feel the plans I present here are generally good starting points.

Unclear or Unofficial Hierarchies

While at some jobs you will receive a printout of the organizational chart (a diagram that conveys the supervisory relationships between people working within a company, department, unit, etc.) on your first day, other workplaces are less concerned with such structures or less able/willing to clue you in immediately. This is the case in many academic labs because these structures are mostly conserved between labs, departments, and universities. Most labs will expect incoming graduate students to already be familiar with the relative “ranks” of professors, postdocs, grad students, and undergrads.

Despite this, some labs blur the lines between roles in the spirit of collaboration. There is nothing wrong with this necessarily, though it may still be helpful to be aware of the typical expectations for each role. In labs studying live animals, for example, day-to-day husbandry duties are commonly handled by a mixture of grad students, undergrads, and/or paid technicians depending on the lab. While deviations from this pattern aren’t strictly against any rules it’s important to understand what is “normal.” A postdoc or professor who is temporarily roped into husbandry duties may feel they are working outside their role and likely will not want this situation to continue for very long. Similarly, technicians with a narrow job description or set of responsibilities will probably be willing to step outside their role occasionally for the good of the lab. However, if this happens too frequently they might feel frustrated because they aren’t getting to do what they signed up to do or because they don’t have enough time to handle their normal duties. It’s important to know what is “normal” for your and your lab mates’ responsibilities so that you can recognize a deviation from those expectations when it happens and act accordingly.

Work hierarchies outside of academia can be just as vague. In many small organizations like non-profits and family-owned companies, nearly flat organizational structures are common. If hired by one of these you may join a team where everyone shares the same job title and official role description with only one or a few supervisors in charge. Environments like this can create tension because seniority is often held as an unofficial mark of rank within the organization. People who share your job title may feel they outrank you because they have worked there longer, and this can color their interactions with you, their expectations for which duties you take on, and their reactions to the distribution of raises and recognition. There is some validity to this as more senior employees will have experience you lack and should be a good resource for you while you train and get situated. That said, the lack of an official hierarchy can lead to disagreement regarding what the unofficial hierarchy looks like. If a newer employee gets a promotion, is formally recognized, or is trusted with an important responsibility, more senior employees may complain or become frustrated because, in their minds, they outrank the newer employee and have been unduly overlooked. In this case, the supervisor’s version of the unofficial hierarchy conflicts with that of the senior employees.

Flat organizational structures can also lead to “cliques,” where a subset of (often more senior) employees will band together and socialize. Groups of friends in your workplace are not a problem, but if one group is positioned with any sort of authority over the rest of the employees, either officially or unofficially, they can become gatekeepers. If this happens, entirely new social rules come into play if you want to advance or gain any sort of recognition. Everyone will need to curry favor with the in-group to be taken seriously. While it pays to be aware of this pattern there is no simple solution. Many people who leave jobs they otherwise enjoyed have cited workplace cliques as their reason for quitting. This doesn’t mean you have to quit your dream job if cliques start to develop, but pay attention and try not to become part of the problem.

At the end of the day remember that there is always a hierarchy, whether it’s explained to you or not. If your organization gives you a formal chart, make sure you understand it and treat those who outrank you the way you would treat a supervisor. If you work somewhere (like an academic lab) where people will arrive with specific expectations for how the hierarchy should look, be aware of what those expectations are likely to be and how people will react to deviations from them. In the absence of an official hierarchy people will come up with their own, often based on seniority. While you should try to learn from senior employees and treat everyone with respect, remember that unofficial hierarchies can be sources of discord. Cliques may also use this vacuum to position themselves as gatekeepers, creating new implicit social rules you will need to follow or skirt around to succeed in that workplace.

You can’t always predict the dynamics of a workplace hierarchy but it’s in your best interest to understand what your coworkers expect and how they may react to different situations. With some effort you can effectively navigate the social environment of your workplace in an intelligent and responsible way, helping you to maintain healthy relationships and avoid conflicts.

Moving Between Roles

Many workplaces promote internally, raising the possibility of shifting supervisory roles. When a worker steps into a managerial or leadership position their professional relationships with their coworkers can become complicated. I feel this situation deserves some special attention.

I have had coworkers who were originally my peers promoted to leadership positions directly overseeing me and I have been hired to work for an old peer/coworker at a new workplace. Neither of these experiences were negative and I don’t want to imply I encountered any of the following problems in either case, but these were the uncomfortable scenarios I quickly realized I needed to be prepared for in each case.

If your friend/coworker gains a supervisory role, either temporarily or permanently, it can be easy to cross workplace boundaries. As a supervisor they will generally have access to information you don’t, potentially including hiring plans, news that hasn’t yet been announced to all employees, and other employees’ private information. So long as they behave professionally and separate their new responsibilities from their relationship with you there won’t be a problem. However, it can be tempting to reveal some of this privileged information to you due to your existing friendship. That would place you in a very uncomfortable situation. If this happens to you, it’s your responsibility to assert a professional boundary and make your new supervisor aware of the discomfort they are causing you. This can generally be done without sacrificing your friendship.

Your relationship with this new supervisor can also be abused to guilt you into making concessions at work you wouldn’t otherwise. You might be asked to work longer hours, take on more responsibilities, not count hours as overtime that should be counted, cover shifts you wouldn’t normally consider, etc. Because you have a relationship with this supervisor you are more likely to empathize with their problems (e.g. not having someone to cover a shift, not having the money to pay for overtime) and are therefore more likely to step in to solve their problems to your own detriment. Again, maintaining a professional boundary is key. Ideally both you and the supervisor would be aware of this possibility and intentionally avoid it.

Lastly, you may now need to withhold information from your supervisor that you would have shared with them previously. If, for example, you are applying for other jobs and intend to leave as soon as you get an offer, sharing this with your boss is not always a wise choice. Your supervisor may feel hurt when they find out you’ve been withholding information that concerns them as your friend because of their new role. You can’t control how others react, but you do need to make sure your actions are defensible, respectful, and necessary. If your supervisor is emotionally mature they will understand and respect your choice.

Whether you are the worker or the new supervisor in this situation it’s important that you set and maintain healthy professional boundaries. You can’t control other people, but you can set the tone by approaching every situation with rationality and respect.

Photo Credit to Pexels

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