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Setting Boundaries at Work

It is a running joke amongst older generations that Gen Z’s goal of setting boundaries at work is just laziness. Back in the olden days, employees just did the work that was given to them. They took on more and went beyond their scope of duties without pushback.

Managers are learning that this is no longer acceptable to many employees. The workforce is shifting toward work-life balance and appropriate compensation for work performed.

But it’s tough to know what will be perceived as a healthy setting of boundaries and what will be perceived as laziness. Where you set your boundaries really depends on two things:

  1. What type of role do you have?
  2. What type of future you want at the company?

If you are content in your role and do not want to advance in the company, it may be easier to set boundaries. This is because you do not have to worry about those boundaries negatively impacting your trajectory in the company.

If you want to advance in the company, it is necessary to demonstrate that you are a team player and willing to take on extra work. This holds true even if it you must stay late or work weekends without additional compensation. The bet you make is that you’ll eventually be rewarded for the sacrifices you make in the form of a bonus or advancement. This only holds true for salaried jobs.

There are different expectations for salaried and hourly jobs. With a salaried job, there are no specific hours to be worked, just a workload to be accomplished. With hourly jobs, you are required by law to be paid overtime if asked to stay late.

Setting Boundaries: Personally

Oversharing is a problem in the workplace. Your coworkers do not need to know your entire medical history nor your personal life, particularly your love life. If you have nosy coworkers that persist in asking you personal questions, let them know you prefer to keep your work and private life separate.

Keep your conversations professional at all times. Making vulgar or inappropriate jokes is never OK. Avoid politics and religion, unless you want to get into verbal battles with your coworkers.

If someone in the workplace is behaving inappropriately toward you, for example, sexually harassing you or verbally abusing you, you can file a report with Human Resources to document the behavior, and let your manager know (unless it’s your manager, then let someone above them know).

Setting Boundaries: Professionally

Certain fields like consulting, law, finance, and medicine are simply demanding. There is no switching off at 5 PM or putting the work phone away for a weekend. It just doesn’t work that way, because they are client-driven businesses with client-driven needs that don’t end just because the work day ends.

A lot more leeway is given to those who are viewed as adding value to the workplace. Setting boundaries when you are perceived as a valued employee is far easier than setting boundaries when you are viewed as lazy.

If you prioritize your time and workload so that you turn in your assignments on time or early, you will have more freedom to take an afternoon off or leave early at times if you are a salaried employee.

Communicate your boundaries up front. If you have commitments outside of work, let your manager know as soon as you know so that they can plan for it. Don’t be afraid to take your time off – whether it’s for sick days or vacation. 

When asked to take on a new project, take some time to ask yourself a few questions before responding.

  1. Do I have the bandwidth to complete this project in the timeframe requested?
  2. If you do not, can you demonstrate that to your employer?
  3. Are you willing to take on extra work beyond normal working hours to demonstrate your worth to your employer?

Setting Boundaries: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

So you’ve set some boundaries, but others you’ve let slide. You’ve taken on more work or work beyond the scope of your job description. Find a time to meet with your manager. Respectfully explain to them what you have been doing on behalf of the company and make your ask for a change in title and/or compensation. A good manager will listen carefully and strongly consider your request because you have proven yourself. If you have a bad manager, it may be time to start looking elsewhere.

Employers do not have locked in employees who will work for them until retirement. The workforce is very mobile and always looking for a jump in salary and/or title. Don’t feel stuck in your job. If you are a hard worker and competent, you are a desirable employee who will not struggle to find new employment.

Setting Boundaries: Have a Life

“Work isn’t who we are, not even if we love our jobs — there’s more to us than that.” Jayne Hardy, Ted Talk: How to Set Clear Work Boundaries – and Stick to Them.

Some jobs are incredibly demanding and time consuming, and it becomes hard to separate personal and professional life. It becomes easy to define yourself and your self-worth by your job – your salary, bonuses, and title. This is not good for your mental health or for preventing burnout.

You should try to have interests, hobbies, friends, and activities outside of work. Nobody looks back on their life and wishes they had worked more. Instead, people value experiences, such as time with friends and family, travel, and serving the community through volunteer work.

There may be periods of time where work is necessarily the priority and all you have time for, and that’s OK too. But if it becomes all work all the time, you should take a close look at your job and explore whether or not it is time to make a change.

What is Appropriate?

Setting appropriate boundaries does not equal laziness. So much of boundary setting is context-specific. If you’re in an environment with a bad manager who is taking advantage of you, being very clear with boundaries may be necessary to protect yourself. If you’ve tried being a team player and have not been rewarded for your extra efforts, it is probably time to adjust your boundaries.

Many jobs have annual reviews, and that is often the best time to raise the issue of a salary increase or title change with your boss. If they value you and your work, they will work with you toward your ask in order to retain you. If they do not, it’s probably time to find a new job.