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Navigating Inappropriate Client Behavior: Setting Boundaries and Keeping a Client

06/01/2024 7:42 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Loura K. Sanchez

In today's world, where tolerance is increasingly emphasized but patience seems to be dwindling, discerning inappropriate client behavior can be nuanced. While societal norms evolve to foster inclusivity and understanding, the line between acceptable and inappropriate conduct can sometimes blur, necessitating a keen awareness of context and boundaries.  There are 3 key indicators of inappropriate client behavior:

1)  The violation of established professional norms and boundaries. This may include instances of harassment, discrimination, or verbal abuse that undermine the dignity and respect of individuals involved. In a world where tolerance is prized, it's crucial to recognize that acceptance does not equate to condoning behavior that crosses ethical or legal lines.

2)  The impact it has on individuals' well-being and the work environment. Whether it's persistent unwanted advances, demeaning language, or disregard for personal boundaries, behavior that causes discomfort, distress, or harm cannot be justified under the guise of tolerance. In a culture that values respect and empathy, it's essential to prioritize the safety and dignity of all parties involved.

3) Context.  The context in which behavior occurs plays a significant role in determining its appropriateness. While certain actions may be acceptable in one setting, they may be entirely inappropriate in another. For example, humor that is considered harmless among friends may be offensive in a professional environment. Thus, sensitivity to context and expectations of a professional is essential in discerning inappropriate behavior.

There is a good chance that you or someone that works for you or with you will encounter a client that acts inappropriately. That behavior may be done with true lack of awareness or it may be done intentionally. But, regardless, it is an opportunity to hold true to boundaries while utilizing emotional intelligence and educate the client with an eye towards creating a strong, professional relationship.  Below are a few specific inappropriate behavior situations and tips on how they might be handled with these goals in mind. 

Unwarranted Sexual Advances:

These advances can manifest in various forms, from suggestive comments and inappropriate jokes to overtly sexual gestures or propositions. For instance, imagine a scenario where a client repeatedly makes suggestive remarks during meetings causing discomfort and undermining the professional relationship.  In such situations, it's essential to respond promptly and firmly while maintaining professionalism. Begin by setting clear boundaries and expressing discomfort with the behavior in a calm yet assertive manner. For example, you may say, "I appreciate your feedback on the project, but I find comments of that nature inappropriate in our professional interactions. They make me feel uncomfortable which I’m sure is not your intent.  Let's focus on the task at hand." If the behavior persists despite your clear communication, consider escalating the issue to your supervisor or HR department for further intervention and support. NOTE:  If you are the supervisor, you must treat these issues with urgency and priority and fully investigate the situation and make decisions that protect your employee not just your bottom line.  If it is only you, consider a direct conversation asking the client why they continue to make these types of comments and explaining in greater detail why you find them uncomfortable and how you would like the relationship to look.  If it continues, you may have to consider whether the client is worth it.  

Abusive Language:

Another common form of inappropriate behavior that professionals may encounter is the use of abusive language by clients. This can include verbal insults, derogatory remarks, or aggressive communication styles that create a hostile or intimidating environment. For instance, imagine a scenario where a client sends you nasty emails in the evenings questioning your competence, insinuating you are lazy or stupid and then becomes verbally aggressive during a board meeting resorting to calling you names with owners and a business partner present.  

In such instances, it's crucial to maintain composure, exercise control of your own emotions and establish boundaries against this abusive behavior quickly. Politely but firmly communicate that such language and tone is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. For example, you may say, "I understand that you're frustrated, but I cannot continue to communicate with you if you use abusive language. Let's communicate respectfully to resolve the issue." This may mean getting to the real issue which is often not what is present in the moment.  You may try asking probing questions or looking at the situation from the client’s perspective to empathize with their situation and understand the real issue. Understanding the full picture will allow you to model how to discuss a viable solution without abusive language and use the situation as a teaching moment.  If the client persists with abusive behavior, you may wish to address the issue with the entire board and suggest another person be designated as your point of contact or otherwise limit your interaction with this individual.  

Not Adhering to Work Boundaries:

Clients may also exhibit inappropriate behavior by disregarding boundaries regarding communication channels, work hours or meeting times. This can include incessant phone calls or emails outside of designated working hours, insistence on impromptu meetings without prior notice, or insisting on a use of a specific communication channel. For instance, imagine a scenario where a client repeatedly texts outside of business hours, expecting immediate responses to non-urgent queries, disrupting work-life balance, and doing so in violation of your policy of not using text for business.

In such cases, the boundaries you’ve established related to no texts and hours of availability must be enforced. For example, you may say, "I'm happy to address your concerns during business hours. Please refrain from contacting me outside of these times unless it's an emergency."  If you are seeking behavior modification it is important that you be consistent in your response. If you occasionally answer a non-emergency text because it is an easy question but then push back at other times, this is an unclear message and not likely to produce the results you are seeking.  This may mean that you need to reevaluate your boundaries.

Despite your best efforts, there may be instances where the inappropriate behavior persists despite clear communication and boundary-setting. In such cases, it's important to prioritize your well-being and professional integrity which may be that the following options need to be considered:  

  1. Termination of the Client Relationship: If the client's behavior continues to be inappropriate and detrimental to your well-being or the integrity of the professional relationship, consider terminating the client relationship. Ideally, this decision should be a thoughtful decision, not a knee-jerk one, and the decision should only be made after weighing the potential impact on the organization against the need to uphold professional standards.

  1. Reporting to Authorities: In cases where the client's behavior constitutes harassment, discrimination, or criminal conduct, it may be necessary to report the matter to the relevant authorities.  Be sure to document any instances of misconduct and seek legal advice if necessary.

  1. Seeking Support: Dealing with inappropriate client behavior can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. Don't hesitate to seek support from colleagues, mentors, or mental health professionals to process your experiences and explore coping strategies. Remember, you're not alone, and there are resources available to help you navigate challenging situations.

Navigating inappropriate client behavior requires a delicate balance of assertiveness, professionalism, and empathy. By setting clear boundaries, communicating expectations, and addressing misconduct promptly and assertively, professionals can maintain integrity, foster respectful relationships, and uphold a positive work environment. Remember that you have the right to work in an environment free from harassment or disrespect, and don't hesitate to take decisive action to protect yourself and uphold professional standards.

Loura K. Sanchez, as a recovering community association attorney and homeowner member of CAI, uses her years of industry experience to help boards and business owners build strong teams, establish clear direction and address challenging issues. 

(303) 585-0367

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