Mixing Business and Personal: When Clients Get Too Close

“So… Tell me if I’m getting too personal, but do you have a particular fetish?”

People crave companionship. In a world where human contact and interaction are becoming more limited, we all find ways to compensate for the lack of face-to-face encounters.

But what happens when business becomes too personal?

Blogs feed off theintermingling of personal and business. Online entrepreneurs inject a personal touch in their emails and content. Business coaches instruct all sorts of people to get personal with communication.

That’s good; I subscribe to the school of thought. Business is about people.

More than once, I’ve been told people enjoy working with me because I’m friendly and human. They get a glimpse of who I am (and sometimes a huge dollop) and they like that. Sharon and I talk about what movies we like watching. Jamie-Lynn tells me the antics of too many kids and farm life. Jason laughs at my Canadian accent and distinct Canuck mannerisms. Nicole asks me about licorice, my morning rituals and my thoughts on what makes a good friend.

It’s all good. But there are limits, and I do draw the line on what I share.

Drawing that line between personal and business, though, can be difficult. Should you risk the client relationship and loss of business? When do you tell a client, “This far and no further”? Should you gently guide the person back on track? Should you just let it go and not react?

Why should you even need to deal with this situation of clients getting too personal? People should have the intelligence to know where to draw the the line between business and personal and the good sense not to cross it.

Seems I’m mistaken.

I received an email from a client who wanted to know if I had a fetish. There were other questions about personal, intimate details of my life, too. My instinctive reaction was to ignore the questions. I also asked Harry what on earth I’d done to have the other person think it was okay to ask these questions of me in the first place. I’m friendly, sure, but I don’t encourage or invite that kind of information-sharing. He was as bewildered as I was.

I continued to operate on a strict, business-only level. I kind of hoped the situation would go away.

It didn’t, and in fact it ended up leaking into a business call. I had to address the issue and deal with the situation. I calmly told the person my position, leaving no room for misinterpretation. I also stated that the relationship would continue only if it remained strictly business.

Just in case you ever have to deal with the same situation (and hopefully you don’t), here are my tips for dealing with personal business in today’s working relationship:

  • Avoid discussing your personal life. Friendly communication doesn’t require sharing details about the condition of your marriage or your feelings on relationships. Stay general.
  • Don’t offer information. If you’re the kind of person who suddenly mentions your hobby of carving or your desire for children, then you’ve just turned a business relationship into a personal one.
  • If a client shares something personal, acknowledge it in less than 10 words and move on. Don’t feed the fire with your own comeback of a personal experience. It isn’t tit for tat.
  • When an email or a call makes you uncomfortable, let the other person know – calmly, gently, and without overt explanation. You don’t have to make excuses for your comfort zone.
  • Should there be a misunderstanding between you and the client, calmly clarify your position without going into great detail. Details give deeper insight into you, something you’re trying to avoid to begin with.
  • If personal questions or comments continue, calmly tell the person that you prefer not to continue this level of communication. If that costs you the business relationship, so be it. Your comfort in your own job is everything.
  • Remember that personal comments, intimate details and bold questions are a form of sexual harassment. Yes, this exists in the virtual world. Don’t let someone put you in a position you don’t feel good about.

Establish your personal boundaries well ahead of time and early in the business relationship. Zweig White has an excellent article on how to create boundaries between business and personal relationships, too.

Know where your line is, maintain it, and make sure you’re clear to avoid others going to far.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.