I'm Not Your Buddy, Pal; Boundaries in the Workplace
In this late stage capitalist hellscape, you will often hear, “We’re family here!” Which should serve as a giant red flag. Why, you ask? Because work is work. You are there to perform tasks and uphold responsibilities laid forth when you agreed to take the position and really, no more.
Why talk about boundaries in the work context?
I keep hearing horror stories from clients discussing scenarios in which their coworkers and bosses have used personal information against them in ways that are, at best, unethical and at worst an HR nightmare.
Do not get me wrong—unicorns exist. There are companies who do practice what they preach and can cultivate and sustain a worker friendly environment. But that isn’t the case with most workplaces. Instead, workers are often lulled into a false sense of safety and openness that inevitably bites them in the butt.
Okay, Monet, so what do you want me to do about it?
I spend my entire life with these people—I have to be personable, you exclaim! And I get that, and I am not saying to be completely shut off from your colleagues. What I recommend, and what I touched on in my previous blog was the nuanced way to navigate boundaries as a means of keeping your sanity. Now, we combine that effort with keeping your job!
As a quick refresher, boundaries are defined as follows “Emotional or mental boundaries protect your right to have your own feelings and thoughts, to not have your feelings criticized or invalidated, and not have to take care of other people's feelings.” (Thanks PsychCentral).
So when we contextualize this concept to include your work life, work boundaries “are the physical, emotional, and mental limits you create to protect yourself from overcommitting, being used, or behaving in unethical way”(Definition found here). But how do we implement these concepts in real life?
Being intentional with how you approach your work and the way you communicate at work would be a good start. Your employee handbook is essential. Taking time to read over the explicit, written expectations of your role in this job will set the stage for success in achieving healthy work boundaries. What hours are you expected to observe during the day as set working hours? What are the expectations and responsibilities of your role in the company (look at the job description for that), how does the company handle over time (will you be financially compensated)? These are all valid and important questions to answer whether consulting the handbook or your HR representative.
When it comes to interpersonal relationships with your colleagues there are considerations to be had as well. How much of yourself are you willing to share with these folks? How much is appropriate to share? What are things/topics you are not willing to share with them? If those topics do come up, how are you going to make sure you are holding your boundaries?
TheBalanceCareer.Com suggests that the following topics be off limits while at work;
Your Sex Life
Problems With Your Spouse, Your Children, or Your Family
Your Career Aspirations
Your Health Problems
These topics are more appropriate for close friends, family, or your therapist. Your colleagues do not need to know who you voted for in the election or if you suspect your spouse is having an affair. They need to know when they expect your tasks to completed or if you need assistance troubleshooting an issue.
Now that you’re getting the picture and figuring out what not to disclose, let’s look at potential situations that may arise in the work setting where boundaries are imperative.
Your boss asks you to stay late to complete a task. They have no intention to compensate you with overtime. They also mention that this is part of being a “team player” and they would hate for you to give off the impression you aren’t committed.
This is a time boundary violation (remember earlier when you looked over your handbook and discovered your work hours are from 9am to 5pm? Aren’t you glad you did that?) You can confidently respond that your hours, per the handbook, indicate that you are finished for the day at 5. Which you are happy to fulfill, but you must leave at 5:00pm for prior non-work commitments. You can offer to take on some additional work the following day, should your workload permit, to support the team. During working hours.
Your coworker constantly stops by your desk to discuss the latest drama with her teenage son who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. This affects your ability to complete tasks and has gotten increasingly uncomfortable as she is sharing intimate details that are not work appropriate.
This is an emotional boundary violation. While this one-sided relationship may have started with good intentions (you offered a warm smile to a coworker and maybe even listened her to venting session a time or two), it has gotten away from you. You can address by being honest with your colleague—“It sounds like you have a lot going on, I’d love to listen but I'm backed up with my work and have to focus on this stuff ASAP.” You could also mention your company’s Employee Assistance Program (this is free counseling to employees covered by the company). That could look like, “Wow, it sounds like things are getting worse. Have you considered contacting the EAP representative—they are a great resource for stuff like this!”
Your coworkers, during lunch, keep asking you about your opinions on the latest political debacle (I mean, hello, there’s a new one every hour.) You have politely gotten away with avoiding answering the question in the past, but they are becoming more persistent in their questioning. Someone even goes as far as to say, “I bet I know how she feels about…” in a pointed tone.
Again, you have options. You can simply get up, leave the room, and have a nice and quiet lunch at your desk. You can acknowledge the elephant in the room and tell your colleagues, “You’ve noticed I haven’t answered. It’s because I don’t feel comfortable talking about this with my coworkers.” Or you could let your HR rep know that you feel uncomfortable with the lunch situation. Ultimately, you know what’s the best, safest response in these situations.
All this to say—work should not be a place where you are made to go beyond your established boundaries whether they be time, physical or emotional in nature. You show up to work with a professional attitude, do your job and earn your money. It’s my goal that you feel empowered to do just that and nothing more. If you have been struggling with work boundaries, I invite you to try out some of these potential solutions. You can also reach out and schedule a session with me!