A Guide To Setting Professional Boundaries In The Workplace

Setting Professional Boundaries

We have a funny little thing that we do in our family when one person feels like another one is simply too close: we yell ‘Elbows!’, then bend our arms and swiftly sweep our elbows from side to side as fast as we can. Three things happen as a result:

  1. Uncontrollable laughter, because it’s hilarious to see this – especially in a place like Target or Hannaford’s.
  2. Someone inevitably gets elbow-swiped because they’re standing too darn close.
  3. The too-close party must move out of the way.

Nowadays, just hollering, ‘Elbows, people!’ is enough to get Dad to move away from our daughter, or our daughter to step back from Mom. Unfortunately, for you, doing this at work, or at Target, could present some issues. But heck, you can always try and see what happens. Just don’t tell anyone that I told you to do it.

Overstepping Professional Boundaries Has Become Commonplace.

Jokes aside, if you look around, people are constantly overstepping boundaries! Whether they’re standing too close in the queue at Whole Foods, sharing medical updates on Facebook, or talking to their best friend on speakerphone at the table next to you, some people seem to have no concept of respecting other people’s boundaries or personal space.

In the past few months, I have had a hyper sensitivity to this topic, mostly unique to people not respecting boundaries in the workplace. Most likely due to a talk I recently gave about effective workplace communication where I criticized people who burst into others’ offices or cubes and immediately tuck into whatever topic is top of mind. Typically, without getting clearance to proceed first.

As an aside, I truly believe that every phone call, in person chat, etc., should always be preceded with this all-important question:

Hey, is this a good time for a chat?

Asking someone that question before beginning a monologue isn’t simply exercising good manners, it also demonstrates respect for their schedule, their state of mind, and a litany of other boundary markers which may impact their ability to respond. Boundaries – physical, personal, etc. – are essential in the workplace and beyond.

But I digress…

Why is Establishing Personal Boundaries in the Workplace Such a Struggle?

More than ever, I’m hearing people complain about having their boundaries trampled yet seeing they do nothing about it. This leads me to wonder, why is it a struggle for some to establish personal boundaries in the workplace? Boundaries are the equivalent of caution tape and safety cones! They advise otherwise unsuspecting people of a pothole, a road block, or other potential risks to their bodies, journey, or property.

If the highway department is willing to put a safety cone on top of a pothole, why do people have such a hard time putting caution tape around personal sensitivities?

Well, I think I have a few possible explanations:

  1. Nobody wants to be the ‘bad guy’, appear disagreeable, or be labeled as difficult
  2. Many are afraid of retaliation.
  3. Most hate disappointing others.
  4. Some aren’t fully versed on their employers’ handbook policies, or the expectations others have of them at work.
  5. Some work within a culture where anything goes, and they are in the minority.
  6. Smaller organizations often don’t have in-house Human Resources, or, a ‘safe’ person for others to talk to freely.

Maintaining Boundaries is Your Responsibility.

Before I offer some ideas on effectively establishing boundaries, let me share this:

If a person doesn’t establish and thoughtfully articulate their boundaries to another person (or persons), then they cannot hold others accountable for violations of those boundaries.

The key, therefore, is for people to reflect thoughtfully on what their boundaries are and why they must be so, to make sure they aren’t in direct conflict with the objectives or core values of their organization, and then carefully and respectfully express themselves in a way that others can understand. Anything else will be perceived as being difficult and disagreeable.

So how does someone face their fears of appearing difficult, disappointing others, being retaliated against, etc. and effectively establish boundaries for themselves?

A Few Tips on Establishing Your Own Professional Boundaries

  1. Consider that How you say something is far more valuable than What you say. ‘Stop doing ___________, because I don’t like it is a great option on the 2nd or 3rd violation. But out of the gate, consider explaining your position and asking their cooperation in stopping (or starting something). Learn more about Effective Communication
  2. Be unapologetic about your personal values (whatever they are), and share those with others. If your family or health values are such that you need to be totally disconnected between 5 pm and 9 am, then that’s your explanation for not responding to work emails, texts, etc. between those hours. Offering any other explanation is not required or appropriate. That said…
  3. Know what’s expected of you. Whether it’s a non-profit board you sit on, or the job description for your role, if you want to set boundaries effectively, you need to know what’s expected of you.
  4. Once you establish a boundary, stick with it. Did you say you weren’t going to reply to emails after 6? Then don’t. Did you say you were going to keep your door closed between 8 and 10 am? Then keep it closed. Be consistent, otherwise people get confused.
  5. If you need to address matters at work, read and familiarize yourself with your company’s employee handbook or other policies. You may be surprised that you accepted certain conditions or terms when you took the job – so attempting to set boundaries around employment or working conditions may land you in the hot seat.
  6. When the time comes to establish those boundaries, be able to cite examples and stick with facts vs. expressing opinions. Whatever the boundary you are setting, when the time comes to discuss it with someone, you need to come prepared with facts and not opinions. They say that the first cut is the deepest, and often the initial reaction you will get will be a reactive one. If you come prepared with information or examples to help support your point or request, then you’ll starting on more solid ground.
  7. Remember that one person’s ‘No!’ is another’s ‘Yes!’ Say you have a sensitivity towards certain subjects, like swearing in the workplace. For many, colorful language is common and no-big-deal. But for you, it may be a violation of your culture, values, or even faith. This doesn’t mean that you or your employer must host an old-fashioned duel to pick a winning side. Instead, everyone should…
  8. Be receptive to change and open to negotiation. Success at setting boundaries is entirely dependent on your ability to flex in other areas and to be willing to meet others in the middle. If you are sensitive to swearing, and everyone except you tends to use colorful language at work, you may be challenged to have your values honored perfectly – but that doesn’t mean you cannot share your perspectives and set some boundaries.
    And finally…
  9. Be patient and give others time. If you have just established some boundaries around communication, behavior, etc., it may take a few tries for others to get things right. When that happens, be patient. Also serve as a teacher (not a lecturer). Think about the shoe being on the other foot.

SEE ALSO: T-H-I-N-K Before You Speak: A Formula for Better Conflict Resolution

Why Are Professional Boundaries So Important to Your Success?

Boundaries are essential for individual and organizational success because they set a foundation where everyone is comfortable, or at a minimum, has had an opportunity to be heard. Not to mention, when we are courageous and bold about setting boundaries for ourselves, we inspire others to do the same.

With this being the start of a new year, it’s an opportunity to create new habits and practices. It’s a fresh start. I encourage you all to sit back and reflect on how and where you can benefit from establishing more clear boundaries. Your email time? Your work hours? When or how you exercise? How you let people speak to you? One relationship in particular? How you decompress and recharge every day?

Whatever you identify as a pain point, or, an opportunity point, be confident about why you wish to take meaningful action, set attainable goals, and articulate yourself thoughtfully to others. By remaining positive, impacts driven, and keeping the best interest of all parties in mind, you will undoubtedly succeed.