How To Set Boundaries At Work Without Being A Jerk

Setting boundaries at work can be a tricky thing to get right. There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are ways to go about this so that you get what you need and your colleagues can see the lines you draw in the sand, the parking lot and even your office door.

woman in gray sweater working as a call center agent

Some may shy away from setting boundaries at work for fear that it comes off as being rude or curt.

Setting boundaries is simply asking your coworkers to give you some space at the office. Here are some tips on how to set boundaries at work without being a jerk.

A few years ago I worked at a startup type company which let me take down my normal “work guards” I put in place.  I had my email and slack(a workplace messaging app) on my personal phone.  Which meant that even on my days off, I may see work correspondence, even if I was out of the office and not going to act on it.

My husband and I were out looking at houses and having a good weekend when I got a slack message on a Saturday from my boss about an issue on social media.  My personal social media.

I entertained that conversation.  I didn’t fold on the issue itself, but I did let it take time out of my weekend and shift the energy I had.

My only regret about how I handled the situation was that I should have responded by saying something like, “I see your message and will address it when I am back on the clock.”

I can guarantee you that if that situation were to ever present itself again, it would definitely be handled differently.  Starting with not having the access on my personal phone that the job does not pay for.

Setting boundaries in your personal life can be hard enough, but doing it at work can be even more complicated. You don’t want to seem difficult or uncooperative, but you also want to make sure you don’t get taken advantage of and put too much of your own time and energy into something that doesn’t benefit you or make you happy; and I am really heavy on the make you happy part. 

Setting boundaries in the workplace is as simple as stating your limits with clarity and respect.

What Are Boundaries?

Everyone has different needs and values. What’s important for your co-worker might not be important for you, and vice versa. 

And the reality is these differences can create conflict in the workplace, especially if your coworker feels entitled to do things that are problematic for you and impedes on your personal space and/or time.  

We have all seen it.  Or at least heard of it.  Or Possibly had to deal with it.

The key is understanding what constitutes a boundary—and respecting others’ as well as your own—when it comes to working relationships.

The easiest way to think about personal boundaries is that they are invisible lines you draw around yourself. The purpose of these lines are to tell others where you begin and end.  Which affords you an opportunity to define who you are and what matters most in your life.

The most important boundary in your life is between yourself and other people. You’re responsible for getting clear on what you value, what you feel, and what’s important to you. This can be difficult because it involves setting limits with other people.  Something many of us are taught not to do as children. But that is a whole other topic for another day.

Additionally, it means learning how to prioritize your needs and wants over those of others.

Why You Need Boundaries At Work

Setting boundaries is important, not only for your physical and mental health, but also for your career. 

A lot of us have jobs where we are required to be on call or accessible during what once would have been off times, mostly due to technology and accessibility. 

Whether it’s responding to emails at odd hours or working in an environment that constantly requires our presence, many of us spend half our lives working outside of standard business hours. It’s easy to let that go on indefinitely if no one tells you otherwise.  

But it’s time for a wake-up call.

Hello!  I am on the line to wake yo behind up.  Pick up the phone.

Establishing boundaries is vital to your well-being, but it’s also essential for your performance. The most successful people know how important it is to be able to separate their personal and professional lives, so they protect themselves from distractions by creating firm rules around when they do or don’t answer emails or phone calls.

When I say separate I am solely speaking on the time commitment we give to work.  

How much of your personal life you share with your work coworkers and friends is something that has to be addressed on a personal level.  And I will not minimize the fact that there are reasons that some groups feel they have no choice but to keep the two completely separate.  While others are completely open about their personal life at work.

But particularly when we speak about the time spent working, when we allow work to extend beyond its limits, we sacrifice somewhere.  For a lot of us, we have gotten used to not getting the amount of sleep we actually need to still feel like a whole person.

Opting to not get sleep is not only good for your physical health.  As that is the time your body uses to repair and replenish itself.  It is also not good for your productivity to be sleep deprived. In fact, not getting enough sleep makes you irritable and more prone to burnout—exactly what you don’t want if you’re trying to impress your bosses with hard work.

Now that you know why it’s so important to protect your health while working long hours, let’s discuss how you can set some reasonable boundaries.

How can I enjoy this job if I have no time for myself?

That’s an excellent question. And if you are asking it, it sounds like you’re suffering from job stress, which is common.  But not something that you should let get out of hand. 

Instead of sacrificing your health and wellbeing in pursuit of success at work, take some time for yourself each day. What does time for yourself look like? 

If you need relaxation time every morning, don’t skip it just because there are only so many hours in a day.

Don't skip lunch because you have a deadline to meet.

Do not cancel your plans you made with friends after work because someone didn't come in for the day and that left you feeling like you didn't get everything done.

Even in a job you love, resentment can come up if you are not allowing yourself the time and space you need from working.

I’m worried people will think I’m rude.

Understand that you’re not setting these boundaries for other people.  You’re setting boundaries for yourself. 

If people think you’re rude, that has nothing to do with it. Ultimately, all that matters is your well-being, and anything else is outside of your control.

You don’t have to be rude; you just need to be clear and firm.   It won’t be easy in the beginning.  In fact, it may feel uncomfortable or unnatural at first.  But that only means it's worth doing. 

It is just like when you start hitting the gym for the first time or the first time in a long time.  Those muscles have to warm up to what you are doing.  And it only gets easier and better the more you do it.

What if they don’t like me?

We’ve all experienced that awful, sinking feeling of getting an email or text back from someone we really want to impress, only for it to be… less than what we’d hoped. 

But rejection is part of life, and some folks react better than others. While you can’t predict exactly how another person will respond, there are ways you can approach difficult conversations that help others feel heard while also respecting your own needs.  

And whether someone likes (or doesn't like) you really is none of your business.

I want my boss to like me. If he sees me as lazy or difficult, I won’t get promoted.

It’s not easy, but there are ways you can politely tell your boss no when she asks you to stay late or work on a weekend.

For me personally, there have been two key components to setting boundaries at work with my boss.:

Being clear and honest about my values and priorities when I am job searching and communicating that when interviewing.  By being upfront about it, you set expectations before a job offer is made.  There is a saying that boundaries are to protect you and others.  Sof for the job that is perfectly for you, it will all work out.  I know this to be true because it has been the case for my last two jobs I interviewed for and really wanted.

Working hard during actual working hours.  I do whatever is asked of me (within reason) during work hours. I work hard and do a good job on what I set out to do. But I don’t bring work home (and I work from home).  But that allows me to be much more effective during normal working hours. 

Have you ever noticed when you are tired and worn out by day’s end all your productivity just seems to go away? It doesn’t have anything to do with what you need to get done or how motivated you are.  It's because you need a break.  Shoot, we even need a break from having fun.  We certainly need, and deserve, a break from work.

people having a meeting

No Doesn't Have To Mean Never When Setting Boundaries At Work

No doesn’t have to mean never in some cases. Learn how you can avoid feeling bad about saying no by trying one of these four phrases that say not right now (or then) rather than no: 

  1. I don’t think I can make that happen, but here are three other ways we can get what we need. 
  2. No, I cannot do that right now.
  3. I’d love to help you out, but I need Friday afternoon free for errands and personal time. Could we move it up an hour? 
  4.  No, I’m not free on Thursday. Is Friday afternoon good for you?

Providing an alternative makes it so you are not setting hard lines in the sand, and also shows that you are willing to compromise.  But you also require being accommodated.

Relationships are not one sided, not even working relationships and both (all) parties should be treated as if they matter.

Why You Should Not Feel Guilty About Setting Boundaries At Work

Taking care of yourself should not ever make you feel guilty.  The setting of boundaries for yourself is not an action you are taking against anyone else.  It is something you are doing FOR yourself.  

Setting boundaries at work helps you to be more productive, focused and overall happy at work.   With fewer distractions your attention will be on your main task of getting things done. When you are a happier person around others you become more magnetic.   

People want to be around you when they see how happy and content with yourself you are. You'll also come across as trustworthy! Your boss will see that he/she can trust you when he/she sees that your priorities lie within yourself before anyone else. No one likes an employee who is unreliable because they let everyone else's problems cloud their judgment or bring them down emotionally.

Take Care Of Yourself.  Your Success Depends On It

In order to be successful in your career, you must first take care of yourself. 

This means that setting limits and establishing clear expectations for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior are essential components of both self-care and professional development. 

While it may be uncomfortable at first, allowing others a say in what constitutes workplace etiquette is essential if you want your own needs considered as well.

The more comfortable you are with setting limits, expressing your needs and creating appropriate boundaries, the happier you’ll be both professionally and personally. 

Take care of yourself first in order to better serve and be of service to others.

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I’m TaKenya

I HELP WOMEN succeed in life and business

Fueled by equal parts oat milk lattes and passion alike, I spend my days coaching, building things, researching, and figuring out ways to help women change the world while finding, understanding, and loving themselves and their unique individuality.   

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