How Do You Assert Boundaries At Work? Experts Weigh In On How To Avoid A Toxic Work Environment

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Toxic relationships can occur in all aspects of our lives, but many of us focus on them primarily in partners, friends, or family. However, when they rear their heads in the workplace, they can be aggressively awful for your morale, performance, and ability to function. And often, toxic behavior in the workplace is characterized by violating your boundaries: encouraging you to do things you're not comfortable with, getting into your personal space, expecting things from you that you didn't agree to, and touching or interacting with you in ways you don't like are all potential toxic boundary-crossing interactions in the workplace. How can you assert your boundaries at work and avoid a toxic work environment without adding too much stress onto your plate?

You may be working on a day-to-day minimizing plan. Laura McLeod, an HR specialist who runs the From The Inside Out Project to help communication and reduce conflict among coworkers, tells Bustle there are a few ways to deal with toxic coworkers who keep getting too personal or trap you into listening to their rants. "Don't ask questions," she advises. "You will get a torrent of personal information, rants and complaints — and before you know it, you're stuck listening and feeling lousy, angry and frustrated." Also, she says, it's useful to make statements ("Nice to see you. Good morning. Have a nice day.") rather than inviting dialogue, and politely interrupt them with a smile and a gentle detachment from the conversation to "get back to work." However, these are only temporary strategies. What if the problem is much bigger, and you feel as if a fundamental line has been crossed — personal or professional? Bustle asked experts about how to deal with boundary-crossing behavior at work, and how to deal with it without causing too much stress.

What Are Boundaries?

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Nina Brown, a professor of counseling at Old Dominion University, has defined boundaries as "those that define you as separate and individuated from others, and provide the sense of knowing where you begin and others end, or where you and others are different." In practice, boundaries are the rules you set for yourself and for others about what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. The Violence Intervention & Prevention Center explains that this translates to "reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits". Boundaries are very much about the line between you and others, and they have implications for all aspects of human relationships, from family to the workplace.

People often conceive of boundaries as physical: hugging without permission, for instance, can be a boundary-crossing behavior, as is getting up in somebody's personal space in an unwelcome way. But emotional boundaries are seriously important too. "Making unsolicited personal remarks, criticisms, etc., can be, a violation of a personal boundary. Getting your feelings hurt is an example of an invasion of your psychological boundary," writes Professor Brown. "This is not an acceptable way to treat me, and because you've done it, I am going to take X action" is an example of asserting an emotional boundary.

Delineating your own needs and desires from those of other people can be tricky for some of us, particularly if we don't come from good boundary-setting backgrounds and are inclined to preference the needs of others over our own. Women in particular have often been expected to be low-boundary actors in the world, whose preferences were "less important" than those around them. If you feel expected to bend or be flexible to make way for others — not pushing back when your parents ask intrusive questions or people say things that hurt you — it's a sign that you've likely been trained to have poor boundaries. While this is a problem, it's also perfectly possible to overcome it. Allison Botke, author of the classic Setting Boundaries series of psychological advice texts, explains in Setting Boundaries with Negative Thoughts and Painful Memories, "Psychological boundaries protect our sense of identity and self-esteem, and ... enable us to separate our feelings from the feelings of others." Having weak emotional boundaries, she says, is like "being caught outside in a hurricane."  

Step 1: Figure Out Your Rules

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What's happening in your workplace relationship that's making it unpleasant? Are you being asked personal questions that you don't want to answer, drawn into discussions that make you uncomfortable, asked to divulge information or bend rules, excluded from things or spoken to in a way you find hurtful, or expected to deal with the emotions of others in unacceptable ways? All of these can qualify as boundary-crossing actions, things that violate your ideas about how you expect to be treated and allow other people to influence your emotions and place in the world.

Working out what is and isn't acceptable for you in a workplace environment means considering the job and the work. Being expected to take late-night phone calls because that's in your contract and is part of your pay, for instance, is not a crossing of a boundary. Having to endure extensive and uncomfortable interactions with a coworker who tells you about his divorce at length, however, is.

Georgene Huang, co-founder of Fairygodboss, tells Bustle that identifying precise boundaries in the workplace can be complicated. "After hearing from tens of thousands of women about workplace situations and issues," she says, "I've come to realize it's impossible to perfectly and exhaustively define in a "bright-line rule" manner what constitutes an acceptable versus unacceptable boundary at work. That said, I do believe that in many cases there is a clear line for what is acceptable, e.g. there should be zero tolerance for sexual assault or sexual harassment. However, in many gray areas, you simply have to trust your judgment and gut intuition and communicate that you are uncomfortable if you cannot avoid a work situation or workplace relationship (e.g., it's not a one-off client interaction) that is toxic or abusive or simply overly negative or passive aggressive in nature."

Unfortunately, as the #MeToo trend across social media testifies, for women the assertion of psychological and physical boundaries at work can often be an attempt to fight back against sexual harassment. But that doesn't have to at the root of the problem for it to be difficult and worth addressing. Workplace boundary-crossing can involve the personal in many ways: intrusive questions about your relationships, marriage, children or health, or too much information about personal topics from others, are prime examples. But they can also be professional in nature. Being screamed at by bosses, disrespected by employees, asked to make decisions above your pay grade, or given the blame for problems that weren't your fault, are all examples of professional boundary-crossing.

Step 2: Assert The Boundary

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So now you've figured out what is and isn't acceptable, and what's going beyond your limits. Now you need to set it in place. Laura McLeod tells Bustle, "When dealing with toxic and problematic co-workers and superiors, boundaries must be crystal clear- if you want to maintain your sanity and positive attitude at work."

Peter Yang, the co-founder of the résumé company Resume Go, agrees. "Communicate your limits clearly," he advises. "For example, if you don't want your colleagues to call you on the weekends or in the evenings when you're home already, tell them this explicitly and specify the hours during which you will be available. Of course, sometimes you may need to accommodate emergencies, but stating your limits up front will help you establish boundaries between your work life and personal life." And, he adds, it's a good idea to identify how you might handle boundary-crossing behavior. "For example," he tells Bustle, "if your manager e-mails you on a Saturday asking you to do a few things over the weekend, will you take care of them right away or will you wait until Monday to respond? Your answer will likely depend on your specific work situation, but planning how to respond in these situations before they actually happen is critical to managing your workplace relationships properly."

But what if it's a case not of extra work or adjusted expectations, but of over-personal questions, invasive behavior, things that cause you discomfort, or harassment? Experts tell Bustle there are ways to assert boundaries there, too. "I believe that being forthright and communicative is important in case the other party doesn't realize you are uncomfortable," Huang says. "How this communication happens is important and will depend on the nature of your relationship and the particular situation." Thomas Gagliano, a life coach, agrees. "It should be noted that there are three essential when one asserts boundaries," he tells Bustle. "Boundaries need to be short, specific, and fair. For example, “Please don’t put your hand on my shoulder, it makes me uncomfortable”." They also need to be consistent, he notes; it's best if they're enforced in the same way with everybody if possible.

And, he adds, don't fall into the trap of explaining to the toxic person. "The person putting down the boundaries does not need to explain why they feel the way they do," he says. "If they find themselves explaining why or justifying why they feel the way they do, then they are going down the wrong path. What is acceptable to one person may not be acceptable to the other and that’s okay. Everyone has the right to set his or her own personal boundary.""

If you're the boss, you can set boundaries too, and help others set theirs. Steve Pritchard, who works as the HR representative at communications company giffgaff, explains to Bustle that bosses need to monitor the boundaries between their employees and make sure they know what's happening. That's usually part of your job. "If there appears to be animosity between certain employees, be sure to keep an eye on their relationship both inside work and outside work," he says. "If a member of your team is taking their work home with them, because another employee is pushing them to, without your consent, you need to implement rules that state staff should only be contacted at work, unless you, as a manager, have granted permission to do otherwise."

Step 3: Back It Up

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The crucial thing about boundaries is that if they're crossed there need to be consequences. Every time. No exceptions. That's the mark of a strong boundary: that going over it means it's a problem, consistently, and without exception. It's rather like training a dog: If you let them pee in the house one time, after punishing them every other time for doing it — even if you're tired and it's late and is it really that bad to let them do it once? — they'll get the message that it might be acceptable under certain circumstances, or even all the time.

If somebody is crossing a line, Yang says, it's important not to wait to respond. "Sometimes when your boundaries are violated, it is easy to get upset about the situation and brood over what to do for days or weeks," he advises Bustle. "Then when you finally bring up the issue with your boss or coworker, they have completely forgotten about what happened and don't really understand where you're coming from. Thus, it's important to reinforce your boundaries as soon as realistically possible instead of waiting too long to do anything."

Pritchard agrees with this, and notes that it's also important if you're a manager. "If staff continue to ignore rules you’ve set, reinforce them before it's too late," he says. "Every employee needs to be considered when you set boundaries for your team, so make it your mission to suss out if there are any unresolved issues between team members, and put rules in place as early as you can, to prevent future feuds.”

So how do you reinforce the boundary and make sure that crossing it has consequences? "One of the most efficient ways to maintain boundaries in a toxic work relationship," life coach Desiree Wiercyski tells Bustle, "is to utilize clear, intentional communication in any interactions with the other person. This helps create clear boundaries and frames up the situations to be a bit less complicated." In other words, you're going to need to talk to them, and should find a way to do this that helps you feel comfortable, whether it's one-on-one or through escalation to HR and a formal complaint. Examine your options and make choices that fit what you need.

Wiercyski encourages people fighting a boundary violation to look at what they want to happen. She advises that you ask yourself questions: "Am I trying to get the person to do, accept, or stop an action or behavior? Am I trying to influence how the other person perceives me? Am I concerned about how I perceive my response to this situation? Will an undesired outcome effect how I perceive myself?" Getting answers to these questions, she says, means you'll find it easier to determine what it is you want and how you feel about what's happening to you.

Gagliano adds that you need to be clear about what you mean when you say something is not acceptable: it's a unequivocal statement. "No means No. It does not mean 'ask again'. Once a worker says No to something involving their own personal space, it should be respected and not challenged at a later date," he says. Keeping pushing is another way of not respecting your boundaries. If they keep trying to find exceptions or alter your position, they're not "being helpful". And you deserve to work with your boundaries intact.