Question:  My question is regarding employee/employer boundaries. I want to know the best way to keep my recruiters on task every day and have them talk to me only on urgent matters. I have two recruiters that work with me in an open office environment. One recruiter just started with us 2 weeks ago and is still in training. The other recruiter has been with us for a couple of years. Your thoughts? Tim, Atlanta, GA

Coach Mike:  That is a phenomenal question simply because most of us do not have boundaries; I did not. I am easily distracted. Was I ever perfect in putting them in place? No. Will you be? No. One strategy is to establish clear boundaries for times to ask you questions. One of the reasons people want to get up and ask you questions all the time is they are trying to avoid doing the things they are uncomfortable with. Do they need to talk to you about Candidate A that they are going to submit 3 weeks from now or, do they need to talk to you about the great conversation with the employer that said, “Call me after the first of the year. I might have two openings.” Do they need to talk to you about that right now? Most of the stuff that they want to talk to you about is important, just not urgent.  Is it urgent that they talk to you in this moment? My gut feeling is 9 times out of 10, no.

The way I set boundaries when I was on a desk, was to have a schedule of times not to interrupt me. I had an office door and I would close it if I was unavailable then. If that door was closed and you wanted to talk to me, these were the conditions:  something was burning, blowing up, somebody was in dire physical danger or it was a debrief call on an interview for one of my clients, or a closing call for a candidate. Those were the only acceptable conditions. 

If you do not have an office door, since you said you were in an open environment, I would have different color Post Its up on your cube wall or on some visible surface.  A green Post It means “You can interrupt me.” A red or pink Post It, they are not to bother you, even if you are off the phone. If you do that, put some system in place that involves doing things in blocks of time. This type of system should also allow for interruptions and unplanned situations.

I might say, “I am going to be marketing” or, “I am going to be on the phone from 9:00 to 10:00 and you might see me off the phone. It might appear to you that I am doing nothing. These are the conditions you can interrupt me. These are the conditions you cannot,” which is almost everything else. “If those questions are important, save them for 11:30 when I check my email and can deal with interruptions.”

The same system will work if you are off a desk and not a billing manager. You still want to have times when you close your door and execute strategically; where you can think. If you think about anything strategically, there’s probably a 5 or 10-minute kind of formation stage to the idea and it starts coming together. If you are interrupted, at least with me, the ideas go away.

If you put this system in place and have blocks of times where you cannot be interrupted and you can use like a simple Post It system or you have a Post It calendar for the day, I am telling you right now, you will be tested. Recruiters will ask a question during your “no interruption” times. If you answer it, you are screwed because basically you have said the system worthless. What I would do is, get a little physically looking ticked off.

When I got tested, I said, “Tell me under which one of the four or whatever it was, criteria, that I gave you for interrupting this one fell.” “Well, uh, this will only take a minute and, um, you were off the phone.” Again, “Tell me which one of the criteria that you could interrupt me this situation fell under. It did not. Go away and come back at 11:30.” “Yeah, but…” “Go away and come back at 11:30.”

If you establish boundaries and you do not protect them, they are going to be worthless. So, it might sound harsh but you have been really, really clear on the front end as to what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior as related to interruption. I am telling you any time you do something new in leadership or management and you change a policy, just know you are going to be tested.