Set boundaries at work without being mean

Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you learned how to set boundaries at work? After all, boundaries are the building blocks of self-respect.

Boundaries. We all need them in our lives. It can be a fine line between befriending a client and taking their phone calls at 2 a.m. in the night. How you set boundaries at work is essential, as is having contracts in place to clearly outline what is and what isn’t included in your role. Agreeing to everything a client, coworker, boss, or a friend asks you to do can quickly make it acceptable to take advantage of you or abuse your authority, be it at work or your personal life.

Boundaries define how much you will put up with before you reach a saturation point. Whoever you are – a full-time student, a freelancer, a part-time nanny, a professor, or a tech contractor – setting boundaries at work is the key to making smart decisions about how you spend your time and energy.

Set Boundaries at Work (and stop people-pleasing!)

Taking ownership is the guiding principle of boundaries. To define your boundaries, you need to know: i.) your standards and ii.) what you allow at work. This should be easy to answer if you are clear about what you value, or things that are important to you.

Healthy boundaries are not meant to limit you; they are meant for you to put yourself first and increase your sense of freedom. There are no limits to what professional boundaries at work could be set for; time, energy, personal favors, working late, taking up pet projects, etc. By setting (and keeping) boundaries you can show the world:

  • Who you are
  • What you will prioritize at work
  • What you expect from others
set boundaries at work setting healthy boundaries workplace

Say what you mean, without being mean.

It takes great leadership discipline to increase our sense of control over people we see every day at work. Even the smartest and most talented people fail to live a more peaceful, fulfilling life because they cannot get their people-issued sorted out. If you’re struggling to define an edge to your professional bubble, then here is some advice on how to set boundaries at work.


What are some of the things that make me feel uncomfortable or stressed at work?”

Being able to define things that you find overwhelming is the first step to establishing healthy boundaries at work. No one wants to be taken advantage of or bulldozed in the workplace. Oftentimes, it’s far too easier to not assert yourself than to take stock of your life. So, ask yourself: who is that really helping? Not your career and certainly not yourself.

Take a moment to evaluate your personal and professional values. You do not need permission from anyone else to define your values or boundaries. You are the only person who knows how to best define your boundaries.

When you draw the line for your work life, it’s important to differentiate between boundaries and plain laziness. Learn to distinguish between tasks you want to avoid out of discomfort and the ones that cause stress, anxiety, or feelings of guilt and resentment due to others.


The most boundary-setting word in the dictionary is ‘NO.’ Unfortunately, way too many people think of ‘no’ as a confrontational word.

When you can’t say no, you’re saying yes to things that particularly overwhelm or put you in a spot. Learn to express yourself without ambiguity so there is no doubt about what you want. You may use:

I can’t do that for you”

“This doesn’t work for me”

“Not at this time”

“This is unacceptable”

“I’m drawing the line at”

There will be times when you’ll need to be casual, but also as direct and assertive as possible. Let’s say a client asks you to accommodate his project out of nowhere, but the thing is – you can’t. You’re slammed with other projects and you like to maintain a healthy balance between work and life. What are you going to do?

It can be terrifying to push back when an old client asks for a personal favor. Don’t give a flat “no” or an aggressively-worded refusal, such as, “Well, I wish I could, it’s just that I cannot allow you to steamroll me like at the end moment like this.”

You may use something like, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this, but I was planning to spend this weekend working on other projects.”

You do not deserve to be guilt-tripped into doing something you aren’t supposed to do. Oftentimes, people-pleasers learn to cope with unpleasant situations and accept disrespect, just so they could be seen as polite and courteous even though they feel they are being taken for a ride.


Do you feel the need to apologize over something you did or didn’t do? Was it you or are you taking on additional guilt that isn’t yours to take in the first place? Setting boundaries with your work friends doesn’t negate you from taking responsibility or accountability for your actions. It’s simply a healthy way of distinguishing what is yours to pick up and what isn’t.

No one wants to be known as a pushover. Because after a while, people will stop asking if it’s within your set of limits and simply push tasks, favors, or blame your way. It can be a little intimidating to preserve boundaries in your work life, but it’s worth the discomfort. People who respect you will adhere to your boundaries and get over the initial discomfort of you “no” over projects, tasks, or favors.

In spite of knowing how to set boundaries at work, you may sense a tug of war between work and yourself. You will need to learn to play your cards wisely to avoid getting fired, demoted or even ostracized at work. Defining boundaries entails you’ll work, under what conditions and circumstances you’ll work overtime, and whether or not you’ll take work home. You have to know your values, communicate your boundaries clearly, and bring up a violation right away.

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Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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