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How to set healthy boundaries in the workplace

Amrapali Rai
I'm a digital marketing consultant who specializes in content marketing, targeted traffic, and website conversions. I blog at Bazaar Expert about business and marketing.
Originally published at bazaarexpert.com ・4 min read

So, you’ve just taken your first job. You’re excited to finally be out of school and into the world of work! But now that you are working with people daily, it can sometimes feel like they want to know way more about you than what’s necessary–even when it’s personal questions that have nothing to do with your work. This article will show you how to set boundaries in the workplace, so these things don’t happen again!

Why are boundaries in the workplace important?

A few years ago, I had an interaction with my coworker, which made me throw up my hands. I had just started working at a new company when my coworker asked me how long I had been married for. Although I was uncomfortable, I just replied, “A long time”. She then proceeded to ask me the same question again and asked me why I haven’t had kids yet, to which I replied that we aren’t ready yet. She then started giving unsolicited advice, such as visiting a doctor to find out if I can “even” have children.

I tried to brush it off by changing the topic to work-related questions, but she persisted. That interaction made me feel like a deer in headlights–I didn’t know what to do because this was the first time anyone had ever talked about something so personal with me without even getting to know me.

Boundaries can help you feel more comfortable in your work environment. They also allow us to set aside a bit of our privacy. If something is inappropriate or even uncomfortable, it’s okay to say so–sometimes people don’t know when they’re crossing boundaries without being told! Creating and following boundaries at work helps clarify what is okay to talk about and what isn’t, reducing the risk of feeling uncomfortable.

Setting boundaries in the workplace

First, we need to identify why we need one in the first place–whether it’s because of circumstances at work or because we’re just not comfortable talking about certain things with anyone.

If someone asks why you haven’t had children yet and the question makes you feel uncomfortable–say because they’re asking if it has something to do with your fertility. You could say, “It’s a personal question,” as your boundary if you don’t want to give that information out.

When you set a boundary, it needs to be precise. If someone asks, “How old are your kids?” and you respond with “That’s not a topic I like to talk about,” but then they continue prying into the subject–say by asking if you have any kids at all–you should then be more explicit and say “I said I don’t like to talk about my family” or “That’s a personal question” as a second boundary. You can then switch the subject to work-related questions.

You should be able to set boundaries without being aggressive or on edge–it doesn’t need to feel like an interrogation because it comes from a place of your own safety. When we don’t know how to set boundaries, we often brush off the other person or respond in a way that’s not very satisfying–say by saying, “I’m not really free to talk about it” when what you want is for someone else to drop the subject.

If someone is inappropriate at work because they don’t know your boundaries (say by making suggestive comments), then say something like “I’m not comfortable talking about that” and be assertive in this statement.

If someone on your team is not carrying their weight, and you’re constantly picking up the slack, it’s essential to have a conversation with them or their manager. Set the boundary that you don’t want to do their work for them.

If your manager asks you to do something and you’re planning to take the day off at that time, it’s best not to put yourself in the position where they might ask for last-minute coverage. Respond with “I’m sorry, but this day doesn’t work for me”.

Wrap up

We should also remember that as people are setting their boundaries with us, they’re likely to come from a place of love and care. They’re not likely to try to make us uncomfortable on purpose–it’s just the natural way they are.

There’s no wrong way of setting a boundary so long as it comes with clarity and is comfortable for both parties. We may feel like we want to get along with everyone and build rapport, but if it comes at the cost of our safety or mental well-being, then that’s not a price that needs to be paid. Setting a boundary may not always change someone else’s behavior with us right away. Still, if we keep setting them consistently enough, eventually, people will get the message and start respecting our needs more.

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