Setting Boundaries at Work

Unsure of how to set your own boundaries as a leader or a new employee? No need to worry. This guide contains information and tips on how to navigate relationships in an office environment and more details about setting boundaries at work.


What are workplace boundaries?

Workplace boundaries are limits of behavior that are established through rules and expectations. Boundaries can be physical and emotional. Establishing boundaries at work is a key method to creating a professional atmosphere in the office.


What are workplace boundaries?



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The Importance of Setting Boundaries

Effective boundaries can enhance quality of work and encourage workplace efficiency. An employee who knows what is expected of them is more likely to focus on their own projects rather than worrying about confusing or underdeveloped expectations.

Setting up clearly defined boundaries eliminates any confusion about expectations and helps minimize micromanaging from leaders. Effective workplace boundaries set rules, give instruction, and define expectations that will make the office a stress-free environment.



Types of Boundaries

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In a professional office atmosphere, physical boundaries refer to personal space and physical proximity. For example, a personal space boundary would be respecting a coworker’s desk by not touching their computer or other items, knocking before entering, or even setting up a meeting before taking up their time. Physical boundaries also foster respect for individuals in the workplace by discouraging inappropriate actions.

  • Handshake vs Hug – Hugs may seem harmless, but context is important. A hug involves entering a person’s personal space and many professionals may not be comfortable with colleagues touching them in this way. It’s important to be aware of personal boundaries for individuals and to be vocal about your own physical boundary preferences. And, as a general rule of thumb, don’t hug your coworkers. A handshake is a perfectly acceptable alternative.
  • Workspaces – Be conscious of how you behave in and around others’ workspaces. This includes controlling your speaking volume, leaving paths to others’ desks or offices clear, and respecting work schedules. There is a time to chat about things like favorite TV shows and funny anecdotes, but not while your colleagues are hard at work!
  • Bodily – It’s important to never violate a person’s physical personal boundaries. In general, keep your hands to yourself in the office, regardless of how comfortable you feel with your coworkers. And, both in and out of the office, always respect others when they express they don’t like being touched.
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    Emotional boundaries are put in place to manage how you are affected mentally or emotionally by the actions of others. In setting your own emotional boundaries, it’s important to prepare yourself for all types of feedback from leaders or coworkers.

    Another aspect of setting your own emotional boundaries is understanding what type of communication is appropriate and inappropriate in an office. Once you set these emotional boundaries, you’ll be able to accept constructive feedback or even recognize unprofessional or harmful moments when they occur.

    • Attitude – In managing your own emotional boundaries, it’s important to prepare yourself for professional interactions with your boss and coworkers. Remain calm when receiving feedback or when working as a team. Keeping a controlled and positive attitude is a great boundary to set that will help keep your interactions professional and constructive.
    • Trust Your Feelings – It’s okay to be upset or affected by things at work but be aware of how you react to certain situations and figure out how you can set a boundary to deal with those emotions.
    • Unprofessionalism – Recognize what emotional boundaries are and how they protect you so that if an emotional boundary should ever be breached in an unprofessional manner, i.e. bullying, manipulation, etc., you’ll recognize it.



      Setting Boundaries with Coworkers

      Coworker boundaries are those that exist between employees. They are limits that exist primarily to keep interactions professional and ensure that work is done in the office. Setting boundaries with coworkers is an important step for productivity. Coworker boundaries include setting physical and emotional limits that prevent unprofessional activities and encourage comfort and peace.


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      How to Set Boundaries with Coworkers

      Physical and emotional boundaries between coworkers create a welcoming environment and discourage unprofessional actions that reduce productivity. Here are a few important steps to creating boundaries with your coworkers:

      1. The first step to creating interpersonal boundaries with coworkers is to be aware of any boundaries set by the employer. Different working environments have different policies and expectations with regards to familiarity between colleagues. Some settings are laxer and allow for easy fraternizing, while others are more intense. Once you are aware of office-wide boundaries, take care to follow them willingly.
      2. If you have any personal boundaries not already acknowledged, consider discussing them with your leader if they could affect the office as a whole. It’s possible that another office-wide rule/boundary can be made. However, if you have boundaries that are particular to yourself, such as personal preferences for how you function within a team or how you work, consider discussing them on an as-needed basis. For example, if you prefer to communicate through email rather than by phone, discussing that with your coworker would be more productive than trying to turn it into an office-wide rule.
      3. Communicate! If you’re someone who likes to have a morning chat with others while you sip your coffee, ask a coworker, ‘can I bend your ear for a minute?’ Or, if you’re someone who prefers to start their day in solitude, put the headphones in and politely decline attempts at conversation. Your coworkers will get the message.



        Setting Boundaries with Employees

        Boundaries as the boss differ from boundaries made between coworkers. These boundaries are essential in creating expectations in the workplace. Well-formed boundaries will create trust, respect, and confidence in the workplace.


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        How to Set Boundaries Between Your Employees

        • Encourage respectful interactions including the use of calm speech and demeanor.
        • Encourage teamwork when appropriate.
        • Encourage communication.
        • Discourage physical and emotional conflict.


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          How to Set Boundaries Between Yourself and Your Employees

          • Create a consistent workflow – Make office tasks, expectations, and instructions clear to avoid any guesswork that could lead to confusion. This creates a physical boundary that dictates where and how work should be done. 
          • Avoid Favoritism – It’s natural to connect with certain people over other people, but in the office, it is important to remain impartial. This is an emotional boundary that can help leaders and team members focus on the job.
          • Practice clear communication – Clear communication is a great way to set an emotional boundary in the office. It can include being realistic with goals and setting achievable tasks that everyone will feel comfortable attaining. Clear communication also includes being available to communicate with employees when issues arise.



            Boundaries of Time

            It’s not just personal space that needs to be respected – it’s also employees’ and colleagues’ time. 


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            Phone Calls After Work Hours

            After-work phone calls should remain professional when discussing work-related topics. This upholds workplace boundaries even when out of the office while still attending to professional matters. These professional calls will also protect the integrity of the work and the professional relationship between an employer and employee. The most common after-work calls that are made are ones where the employer calls an employee to ask if they can come in for an unscheduled shift.

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            Non-Working Holiday

            In the United States, non-working holidays are also known as federal holidays. These holidays are recognized by the government as days when non-essential government offices, schools, and post-offices are closed. Some private business, as well, observe federal holidays as a non-working holiday and remain closed to the public so that employees can observe the holiday.

            Many private businesses, however, remain open on federal holidays. These days can be some of the busiest days of the year. It is common for employees who work on holidays to receive holiday pay which differs from their regular pay.

            Setting boundaries during these holiday shifts include having realistic expectations for time-off requests. Avoid favoritism and remain impartial by creating your own rules for assigning holiday hours and days off.

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            Non-Working Hours

            Non-working hours include hours when the business is closed, and employees are not required to work. It is important to respect non-working hours, especially for salaried jobs. By setting work hour boundaries, employees will not become overworked.

             An important part of respecting work hour boundaries is setting realistic tasks and goals with employees to avoid the need to stay past working hours to complete projects. Respecting non-working hours can lead to higher productivity since employees will know when they are expected to work and when they can relax.

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            “Can my boss make me work on my day off?”

            When your boss calls you on your day off, things can get confusing. Are you required to go in if they call you in even if it’s your day off? According to the NCSL, you may need to go in if asked  because of the US At-Will labor law that allows an employer to dismiss an employee for any reason, including failure to come in on a day off, if asked.

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            “Can my boss make me work weekends?”

            Under the At-Will law, your boss can ask you to work on the weekends, even if unscheduled. Legally, however, your boss cannot make you work during religious meetings. 

            If you have religious meetings on a weekend (or any day of the week) and cannot work on a specific day due to those meetings, make sure to talk to your boss and notify them that you cannot work on those days. Even with the At-Will law in place, they cannot fire you for refusing to work to attend a religious meeting on a scheduled day or time off.



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            Learning More: Best Books on Setting Boundaries

            Are you interested in reading more about creating healthy boundaries at work? Here are a few book suggestions that can help you turn your office experience into a productive and peaceful one.


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              ABOUT THE AUTHOR

              Sam is a Boston-based writer and blogger. She can usually be found writing on the road while road tripping around the country. In her free time, she loves watching sci-fi films and working on her first novel.

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