Are Coworkers Crossing the Line? Check Your Boundaries.

Bosses have employee issues. Employees have boss issues. Coworkers have peer issues. Isn’t working together supposed to be easy? 

We often set ourselves up for the people problems we face. When we fail to set boundaries that keep out unwanted coworker behaviors, we pay a price. 

Ominous signs 

People problems generally sneak up on us. One day we realize we’re caught in a cycle we don’t like—one that’s interfering with our work. 

Typically, here’s what takes place: 

Unsolicited confiding: A coworker or employee shares a personal problem, a bit of gossip, a critical opinion, or a confidence. By listening and engaging in the conversation, we open a channel for more in the future that we really don’t want.

Uncontrolled access: The concept of the “open door” policy for bosses and willingness to “drop everything” to help a coworker sounds nice but is often counterproductive. Once we allow anyone to interrupt us anytime, we reward poor planning and devalue our own time.

Unwanted associations: We become friendly with a colleague who makes a great first impression. Later, we discover that s/he has a poor work history, a tendency to let us pull part of his/her weight, and is not well thought of. We need to create some distance.

Unanticipated involvement: We encounter coworkers and bosses who have strong views about what should and shouldn’t be taking place at work. Their perspectives have some logic on the surface but may be steeped in old resentments and personal interests. We’re asked or expected to “get on board” with them and support the “cause.” In time we discover that we don’t support their views and need to decouple. 

Making the break 

Experience is the best teacher for boundary setting. Once you realize you’re in a place you don’t want to be with coworkers, that’s the time to examine the boundaries you 1.) set and broke or 2.) never set in the first place. 

A workplace boundary establishes what you will and won’t allow. It says to your coworkers, “This is off limits,” “This is something I don’t do,” and “This is what I live by.” 

The time will come when you will need to (re)establish a boundary with someone who has crossed it. That’s not easy, but letting things go only make conditions worse. 

Here are some conversations that you might initiate designed to (re)set boundaries: 

Gossiping: “Several weeks ago, you told me about Joe’s marital problems and speculation about his involvement with his IT specialist. At first I got caught up in the details. Then I realized that it wasn’t the right thing to do. I’ve decided to stay away from office gossip. It’s not what I want to do.”

Interruptions: “As much as I believe in being helpful and supportive, I’ve come to realize that constant interruptions are negatively affecting my ability to lead/perform well. Too often, I’m asked for answers because it’s easier than looking them up and learning them. So, I will set aside a specific hour each day when you are welcomed to bring your ideas and questions.”

Professionalism: “I’ve been concerned about the lack of courtesy at our meetings. In the past ,whether I was leading the meeting or simply participating, I too spoke out without being recognized, made sidebar remarks, and was focused on my BlackBerry instead of listening. From now on, I will stop that behavior and will request the same from my colleagues.”

Performance: “I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten sloppy about report deadlines because I can’t get the data I need from you (a coworker or colleague in another department). This seems to be a pattern throughout the organization, but it doesn’t do either of us any good to be seen in that negative light. Shall we commit to supporting each other so we can build a reputation of being on time?” 

Boundaries build your brand.  

Boundaries define who you are at work. They are the rules you set, making it easier for others to work with you. 

Without boundaries, we allow others to impose themselves on our daily work and impact our careers. With them, we regain control. 

Photo from kevindooley via Flickr


28 thoughts on “Are Coworkers Crossing the Line? Check Your Boundaries.

  1. I like the emphasis on owning your transgressions. It’s so easy to get caught up in the office gossip–and people “in the know” hold a certain kind of power…that is, if we feed it. I wish I could say that I’ve been “the bigger person” and resisted office gossip, but this is not the case.

    Thank you for the advice to extricate yourself before it becomes too late, and too distracting. If healthy boundaries are not the key to healthy relationships in life, I don’t know what is…??:).

    Thanks for the wonderful scripts, Dawn–much appreciated!

    • Linda, great comment. I think everyone, at one time, gets drawn into conversations and/or relationships that, in retrospect, they realize aren’t right. That’s when we raise our awareness about boundaries and (re)set them. The challenge is inextricating ourselves from places we don’t want to go anymore, particularly when others keep trying to draw us back in. Sometimes we wait a long time, only knowing the time is right when we start feeling the consequences personally. It’s always better to avoid the muck than struggling to wade out of it! Sometimes that takes more than a pair of Wellies! Glad you liked the scripts!

  2. Good post! It is so easy to get caught up in the emotional drama at work. It sure relieves the boredom sometimes! LOL!
    There’s just something about charged emotions that are so delicious and contagious.
    But, alas, it is best not to get caught up in the drama and once you realize you have gotten caught up in it to politely extricate yourself!

    • Kathy, great point about emotional drama as a way to relieve the boredom. I guess it’s one thing to have a little drama now and then rather than a lot of drama all the time. My guess is that coworkers who thrive on the drama want to make a career out of perpetuating it. For the rest of us, we’d like some peace and quiet so we can get work done! Ah, the beauty of a sound proof barrier! Thanks for a terrific comment.

  3. Do you have any advice for a supervisor who has trouble defining those personal and business lines. How does someone actually sort through the issues and determine how to apply those boudaries? To seperate friends from business and to develop a proper and healthy working enviroment working with subrodinates?

    • Well, you’ve raised some critical questions, Erin. Each supervisor’s situation is different, being a function of the composition of the work group, its culture, and collective/individual performance. It starts with establishing yourself as the leader, committed to driving specific results which you clearly communicate. Boundaries start with structure…goals, performance standards, codes of conduct, etc. Those need to be articulated along with how they align with the expectations of the business. Give everyone a chance to comment and ask questions; then be sure you reinforce your rationale for the way the group will perform. Then stick to it.

      You may need to revisit and reinforce each employee’s job description. If they need to be revised, that’s a helpful exercise. Now you’re ready to deal with individuals who are crossing the line. You may need to meet one-on-one with people who can’t separate friendship from your role as leader. If they are your friends, they will want to support you. If not, they will resist and attempt to prey on your fear of losing their friendship. Your first responsibility is to you role as leader. That’s what you get paid for. Be patient but be firm and consistent. In time you’ll find that most everyone will fall in line, especially when the output of the group is recognized and rewarded. Thanks for asking. Hope this helps, ~Dawn

  4. Thanks, as a new college grad navigating the work place, I began to feel my niceness and willingness to lend an ear was being taken advantage of by co-workers, young and old. I thought; they just think I’m a good guy, but I didn’t feel good inside. I now know boundaries are crucial for my own mental health and for everyone’s professionalism.

    • Thanks, Danny, for this wonderful comment. I’m delighted that the post was helpful. Getting off to a good start with your boss and colleagues makes navigating each step in your career a whole lot easier. All the best, ~Dawn

  5. I got an issue an don’t know wut it fall under.can anyone help me figure this out……
    My wifes boss keeps gettin into personal matters when it come to her personal life.. give her unwanted/personal advice when it comes to our relationship. She know feels uncomfertable… what kinda of complaint can we file to make sure that he don’t cross the perfesional boundery again.

    • Johnny,

      Thanks for your question. Filing a formal complaint would be an action of last resort. For starters, your wife needs to figure out what she may have said that gave her boss the opening to offer his advice. Then she needs to think about how she reacts each time that unwanted advice is given, asking herself how her reactions may inadvertently encourage continuation. With that in mind, she needs to stop whatever she’s doing that is encouraging the advice.

      Then she needs to meet fact-to-face with her boss and explain that his advice makes her uncomfortable and she would like it to stop. As an employee she is looking for advice on how she can continue to add value to her job.

      If the boss continues, she should keep notes on what is said and when. With that information in hand, her next step would be to meet with someone in HR.

      I hope this helps. Good luck with it all. ~Dawn

  6. I have been struggling the whole time I have worked with understanding boundaries between having coworkers and turning coworkers into friends. I forget a lot that even though I spend a lot of time at work with my coworkers that there are still boundaries of professional courtesy that need to be respected. Then, when someone is offended, I feel like such a fool. Because I have just, in my mind, integrated them into being my friends rather than just my coworkers. I still believe it can be okay to have coworkers as friends, though. Just as long as it’s a 2 way street and it doesn’t interfere with the professionalism at work.

    • Melissa, please don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s all a learning process and one that will have it’s ups and downs. There are very real trade offs when you get to be the boss and this is one of them.

      I believe it would help if you took the position that you are the boss first (even when you’re outside of work) and friend second. That means you always need to measure what you say and how you act toward your coworker/friends against your need to develop and maintain the respect that is essential to being a good boss and for them to being good direct reports.

      In time this will get easier. But the days are over when you can completely let your hair down and reveal details of your personal life. You’ll find that being a good boss is the best gift you can give to your coworker/friends. Hang in there. ~Dawn

  7. I have a similar problem to Melissa in terms of co-worker/friends and allowing that situation to get out of hand :( I also have another boundary problem that you might be able to help me with … co-worker/subordinates that are so keen to be seen in a good light by the higher bosses that they strive to out-do you and cross all sorts of boundaries in terms of whose work is whose. How do I sort this out without looking defensive or insecure? Thanks

    • Nicky,

      Again it’s a bit hard for me to zero in on specific strategies without knowing more, but maybe this will help. If your employees are so eager for higher recognition, it may signal to you that they don’t believe you are giving their work the visibility it deserves. Often employees believe, rightly or wrongly, that their bosses are taking credit for what they do. Finding legitimate ways to showcase the work output, ideas, and initiative of your employees will go a long way to halting that boundary crossing.

      You might start by looking at key projects or milestones and announcing to your employees that when they are met, you will give the appropriate employees a forum for presenting them in person or via a report to higher bosses. Let those bosses know in advance that you want to let them see the work of your employees as a way to strengthen morale, reveal up-and-comers, and develop employee communications skills.

      Then when employees start crossing those boundaries, be sure to confront them and let those higher bosses know not to reinforce that behavior. It may take a while to get all this lined up, but it should help. Thanks for asking and good luck, ~Dawn

  8. What a useful post!

    I am the kind that’s friendly to coworkers sharing a little about personal life like “hey how was the weekend”. ” mine was good, thanks. Iwent to visit a cousin”. While my coworkers share way too much detail. For example, one lady just bought a home. She describes it frequently. The other woman likes hearing about it and they go on discussing about buying homes or something On those lines. I feel they are crossing limits here. I am a passive listener since I am there siting right next to them. What do you think of such a situation? Off limits?

    • Tay, I sympathize with your frustrations. This case, from what I understand, seems more about over-socializing. These two have found common ground for chit chat that has become chronic, appearing to take away from their productivity and performance. It seems they have become a real distraction for you, especially if they speak so loudly that it interferes with your ability to concentrate on your own work.

      Clearly, their supervisor should be taking note of their conversations and intervening. Since this doesn’t seem to be taking place, it may end up being your role to speak to them. In this case, you might ask them if they could talk about the house somewhere else, like in a break room or over lunch since their conversation makes it difficult for you to concentrate. Do this in a friendly way and see what happens. Unless you have some authority to stop it, that seems to be all you can do for now.

      If somehow all of this is seriously impacting your own performance, you may ultimately need to mention these distractions to your supervisor during a routine performance meeting.

      Thanks for reading my post, for your kind words, and for your comments. Good luck with it all. ~Dawn

          • My coworkers got the message. Yay!!! They were surprisingly quieter today than usual. And I made it clear from my body language that I dislike their over-chattiness

          • Wow, Tay, this is quite a coup! Your headphones initiative coupled with your body language did the trick. All the kudos go to you. They may not know it yet, but your steps may very well help your coworker’s careers if they will ultimately stop their over-socializing habit. Time will tell. I sure hope your remedy works for a very long time. Well done,~Dawn

  9. How to unstucked myself from the job I like. I am choked! If I go along with the demands I ‘ll die earlier. PIease help.

    • Zorinah, Try to relax a bit so you can think clearly. The best way to get unstuck is to begin working on a plan that either changes what you’re struggling with at work, gives you a chance to move onto something else at your company, or starts you looking at a new place to work. The more you fret over what’s choking you, the more you are feeding into your own anxiety. You may wish you didn’t have to take charge of your situation, but that’s what you need to do. Once you have a plan of action to pursue the conditions that are upsetting you will take on a different light. I’d suggest finding someone you trust to help you sort out the issues that are causing your angst and to listen to the options you are considering pursuing. Having a trusted ear to help guide you will contribute to the most workable plan. Thanks for writing and good luck. Be optimistic! ~Dawn

  10. Dawn thanks for this site. its great.

    Dawn I have a few qs, not sure if you can give me some advice. I’m a recent college grad in an IT professional program. and I’m on a work-term right now in a mid-size company. ive been there for 1 month. more so by necessity for now! i have 2 co-workers.

    one of them in particular, has no filter. i am part of a religion where we have certain dietary requirements, and so is the other co-worker (B). this first co-worker (call him A) on the first day, kept making lots of comments about how good said food is – the one i can’t eat. he makes these comments frequently jokingly, i just dont take him serious though.

    this dragged on for a while, i’ve gotten used to this, but i keep my mouth shut for the most part. today i came in to work in the morning, and he said something very rude, but jokingly – that i should be more nice to my mentor and **** him in the arse. well, that wasn’t very cool with me, and for the first time, i insulted him back, and pretty badly – but it felt good! in general i’ve gotten used to their joking, but i can say the first day really caught me off guard, and i can say its super unprofessional.

    coworker B, talks way, way too much. too much.

    is this sort of thing common in a work place? and how to handle these situations? i am very religious person but im trying to keep my personal life to myself best as i can.

    • Felix,

      First thanks for your kind words about my site and second for your willingness to trust me with your situation. You have done very professional job describing the events that got you to this point.

      It’s clear that to date you have exercised enviable self-control in dealing with A’s insensitivity to your dietary requirements.

      What seems to have happened to you is that a line was crossed that triggered a strong reaction, a chance to vent about the language incident that was tied up with everything else. We’d both agree that, even though it felt good at the moment, it ultimately didn’t feel like your finest hour. I’ve experienced the same myself.

      You are right to separate your personal life from your work life. You and your colleagues are there to do the organization’s work. It sounds like, because you are seen in some aspects “different” from A, that s/he has been trying to get a rise out of you. Is this common in the workplace? Yes and no…it depends on the kind of workplace culture your supervisor has created.

      Inappropriate language…things said that are offensive…are a problem. If you feel that it is a form of harassment or is creating a hostile work environment, it’s something that needs to be addressed by your supervisor. At this point, the transgressions by A seem to be at a low ebb but possibly rising. Your most important first step would be to take A aside in a private place and ask him/her to not use that kind of language around you and to make comments about what you’re eating. You might even express regret about your outburst without actually apologizing for it. Explain that you want to be able to work effectively and comfortably with A in ways that will be the best for the company. Ask for some commitment from him/her to make some changes.

      If that meeting doesn’t change things, you might go ahead and talk with you supervisor about it. If this is only a temporary work placement, you may not want to go that far. If you will be moving on somewhere else where you will never work with A again, by holding that face-to-face meeting you will still learn a lot about yourself and how to conduct a sensitive conversation, a skill which will be useful as your career progresses.

      I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to keep in touch. Thanks again for writing. Good luck, Felix.~Dawn

  11. Great article. The issue I encounter is an office manager and other staff members (more females than men), who attempt to cross many boundaries. If I don’t want to attend a group holiday lunch, I get major back lash although I coordinated the department holiday potluck. They feel they can speak to me anyway they want to, without a reaction from me. I continue to remain professional but because I don’t go along on somethings, the manager gets mad. There is a difficult time with the folks separating business from personal. This makes for an unpleasant situation for me. I do believe in dialogue and try to address issues when they come up, but things just continue.

    • Monica, thanks for sharing your predicament. Interpersonal dynamics at work can be challenging with boundaries often contributing to their complexity. I find that in most cases, offering a context for positions and actions taken help others understand ones actions or inactions. Today we are often faced with go-along-with-the-crowd expectations, so when we don’t, people feel put off. That’s why a simple statement about why you aren’t/won’t/can’t go along to the holiday lunch could soften reaction. If I read between the lines here, it seems that you have an issue of socializing outside of work–that being your boundary. If your reason is one of principle, you can find a way to say that kindly. The same goes for that way others speak to you. If something is said that you find off-putting, you need to say something without becoming defensive. You will not see a change by doing these things once, so repetition will be in order, but using a calm tone will go a long way to reinforcing your boundaries. Just remember that the quality of your work and your willingness to support the efforts of your colleagues/team are what, in the final analysis, should trump whatever negatives that you have been feeling. Hope this helps.

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