Is Your Coworker Crossing The Line? Here Are 3 Ways To Set Boundaries

Heidi Lynne Kurter
4 min readFeb 27, 2022

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Boundaries are about knowing your worth and values.

A lack of boundaries at work can invite toxic situations, overwhelm, disrespect, and increased levels of stress. This can look like being manipulated to take on extra work that you don’t have the bandwidth for, feeling taken advantage of, or having someone take credit for your work or idea. All of which eventually lead to burnout.

Unfortunately, many people struggle to set boundaries for fear that they’ll be viewed as difficult to work with, hurt others’ feelings, or become disliked by their peers. The reality is, boundaries protect one’s time, energy, and mental well-being. Zac Hughton, CEO at Loftera, said, “boundaries are physical, emotional, and mental limits you establish to safeguard yourself from overcommitting, being taken advantage of, or acting unethically at work.” He added, “it’s inevitable that there will be pushback, no matter what your boundary is. People cross boundaries too often, which is why boundaries are necessary.” He advised, “don’t view boundaries being violated as a setback but rather an opportunity to improve your communication and boundary-setting skills.” While not everyone intentionally means to disrespect your boundaries, it’s crucial to remain firm and consistent with communicating your boundaries and being prepared to repeat them until they’re taken seriously. Sooner or later, people will refrain from trying to violate them.

Here are three ways to set healthy boundaries at work.

Know Your Bandwidth and Learn To Say No

Setting boundaries at work helps you to stay productive and happy. When you say yes to something you’re ultimately saying no to something else. That something else could be your own workload which can then impact your productivity and performance. For this reason, it’s important to get clear about your priorities and your bandwidth. When someone says, “can we jump on a quick call” or “do you have a minute”, take a moment to reflect on your current tasks. If you don’t have the time, instead of taking the people-pleasing route, respond with “I can’t right now but my calendar is up to date, feel free to schedule some time”, “Have you asked Susanne?” or “is this something you can email or Slack me and I’ll reply after I’m done?”

Another way to set boundaries around your bandwidth is to be clear about when your workday ends and your personal life begins. For example, you might communicate that you won’t answer emails after 7 pm because spending time with your family is important to you. Of course, there should be room for flexibility when it comes to workplace emergencies. As such, make sure to communicate what constitutes a workplace emergency and how you can be reached when one occurs. Otherwise, other people’s non-emergency but urgent requests will start to turn into “emergencies.”

Workers struggle to advocate for themselves when they’re being pushed past their limits. This can occur in the form of last-minute meetings, department know-it-alls, bullying, or anything that violates a boundary. Adam Wood, cofounder of RevenueGeeks, explained, “if we never feel like we’re enough, we can immerse ourselves in our work to determine our sufficiency through our output, usefulness, and indispensability. However, doing so tends to lead to burnout. Furthermore, those around us will become accustomed to a certain level of output from us. We are more likely to say yes to what is asked of us, even if we would prefer to say no. If approval temporarily feeds our feelings, we will seek it indefinitely.” He added, “when we value ourselves and our time, energy, skills, and expertise, we become more selective about what we take on and which balls we’re willing to drop.”

Communicate Boundaries Clearly But Don’t Overexplain

In order to maintain a healthy work-life balance, it’s crucial that you establish and communicate boundaries. Establishing boundaries allows you to advocate for yourself, maintain a healthy work-life balance, and prevent you from burning out from taking on too much responsibility. To avoid the potential of boundaries being violated keep your communication clear and concise. One of the biggest mistakes people make when attempting to set boundaries is over-explaining or justifying why they need them because they feel guilty. As such, they have a habit of apologizing, asking “is that okay?”, or have difficulty saying no.

Some phrases you can use to set boundaries are

  • “When I’m in uninterrupted work time, I turn off email and Slack notifications. I’ll respond to all questions when I’m done.”
  • “I understand you need this handled urgently, but I have a full plate right now too, so I won’t be able to complete this according to your timeline. I’m happy to help once I have more bandwidth
  • “That doesn’t work for me”
  • “I understand that you sent an email when I was on PTO with an expectation of immediate response but I have limited to no email access during the weekends and when I’m out of the office. I’ll respond when I’m back at work.”

Address Boundary Violations On The Spot

When a professional boundary has been crossed, it’s important to address it immediately. You’ll want to remain respectful and avoid letting emotions drive the conversation otherwise addressing the boundary violation loses its effectiveness. Tian stated, “setting and letting people know your boundaries is not enough. You also have to let them know when they cross you. Whenever someone crosses your boundary, you have to let them know that their action is not okay with you.” It’s important to have a response prepared for when your boundaries are violated. This can be saying something like, “that doesn’t work for me”, or “I feel like you don’t respect my boundaries.”

By being coy and not addressing boundary violations, you not only risk growing resentful but it takes a toll on your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. This then leads to a higher risk of anxiety, stress, and depression all of which negatively impact all areas of your life.

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Heidi Lynne Kurter

Forbes senior journalist, workplace culture consultant, leadership coach, domestic violence advocate, workplace bully activist and Corgi mom!