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How to Set Boundaries With Coworkers

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It is important to set appropriate personal and professional boundaries in the workplace so you can avoid being drawn into drama, wasting time with non-work-related issues, and being taken advantage of by others. For best results, establish your boundaries from day one to let people know where you stand.

Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries relate to the type of private information you're willing to share with colleagues. Many employees develop cordial if not friendly relationships with their co-workers that often involve exchanging personal life details. Have a firm idea of where you draw your lines. For example, you might be comfortable showing off pictures of your daughter's dance recital or talking about a home repair project, but uncomfortable talking about a recent health scare or a credit problem. Avoid overly-personal or potentially controversial subject matter, including religion and politics.

Physical Boundaries

In a small workspace, colleagues often work in close physical proximity with one another. Respect others’ personal space and ask them to respect your personal space in return. This means keeping your work area clean and odor-free, keeping shared areas and resources neat and in good working order, and taking measures to avoid eavesdropping or overhearing personal conversations with nearby office mates. If you have colleagues who regularly violate your personal space with small talk or interruptions, politely but firmly say, “Thanks for coming by – I need to get back to work now.”

Professional Boundaries

Establishing professional boundaries can be tricky because you're walking a fine line between being a collaborative team player and an independent, self-motivated staffer. Have a firm understanding of your job responsibilities and don't allow colleagues to stick you with their workload or regularly ask you to take on tasks that aren't your responsibility. Don't allow others to take credit for your work, blame you for their missteps or interrupt you in group settings. If they do, calmly and professionally tell them why it bothers you, and ask them to refrain from doing so in the future.

Troubleshooting Boundary Issues

Some people don't take hints about overstepping workplace boundaries. If you're dealing with a colleague who regularly attempts to breach your boundaries, don't get angry or defensive. Instead, simply refuse to engage him. Respond to personal queries with a phrase like, “I'm sorry, that's personal.” Command respect in group settings by making sure your voice is heard. “I'm sure Peter didn't mean to interrupt my presentation, however, I'd like to continue what I was saying about our new product launch plans.”


Lisa McQuerrey has been a business writer since 1987. In 1994, she launched a full-service marketing and communications firm. McQuerrey's work has garnered awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Associated Press. She is also the author of several nonfiction trade publications, and, in 2012, had her first young-adult novel published by Glass Page Books.

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