Psychology and Relationships

From unfiltered co-workers to an oversharing boss, here's how to handle 4 situations at work that cross the line

Illustration by Gene Woo Kim.

If you know about your boss's anxiety disorder or your co-worker's disintegrating marriage, it's probably prudent that you set some professional boundaries.

While being friends with your colleagues can increase your happiness it can also lead to a certain amount of chaos in your day-to-day life, says Brandon Smith, therapist and executive coach known as The Workplace Therapist.

"Anxiety comes from unpredictability," he says. "When you don't know what someone is going to talk about it's almost like being on a roller coaster with this person and you don't know when the hills are coming and when the loops are coming."

Here's how to handle four common boundary-crossing situations in the workplace, so you can reduce your anxiety and feel less burnt out.

Your chatty or unfiltered co-worker

The more time you spend with someone the more likely they are to overstep your boundaries, Smith says.  Once you spot that chatty co-worker beelining toward your desk, have a time constraint in mind that you can communicate with them.

"If you have a colleague who overshares and dumps their personal life on you and you don't have time for that say, 'I'm so sorry I only have 30 minutes or 5 minutes to chat."

If you need to collaborate with a co-worker who often meanders off topic during meetings, show up with an agenda, he suggests. "Don't let them drive," he says.

"Come right out the gate and say 'I'd like to talk about this thing.' Keep redirecting them back to a topic that is within your [professional] boundaries."

This tip is also helpful for navigating conversations with a boss who doesn't always respect your time or your workload. "Come very, very prepared to the meeting," he says. You can even send them an email with what you'd like to talk about prior to attending the meeting. Most bosses, he says, will appreciate it.

If you have a colleague who overshares and dumps their personal life on you and you don't have time for that say, 'I'm so sorry I only have 30 minutes or 5 minutes to chat.
Brandon Smith

A boss that texts you at all hours of the day

If your boss contacts you outside of work hours, you might need to have a more direct conversation with them, Smith says.

"You really need to sit down and talk with them about your work and when you're going to be available," Smith says.

He suggests saying something like, "It's really important to me that I support you and I'm there when you need something, that said, there will be certain times of the week I'm unavailable."

You can also ask them when they prefer to be contacted by saying something like, "It would be helpful to know when you need me to be available to you. What window of time would I be most useful to you?"

Typically, he says, a boss knows they will sound ridiculous if they tell you to be available to them 24-hours a day.

However, if they give a vague answer or none at all, you can get specific and say, "If you text me at night I'm not going to respond until the morning."

When you're being asked to take on unnecessary tasks

Although setting boundaries is healthy, you shouldn't be totally inflexible about your daily tasks, Smith says.

"If you're too rigid in your own boundaries it might hurt your reputation as a high performer," he says.

However, if your boss is constantly asking you to do tasks that don't affect the bottom line for your company or your job, for example, planning company parties, you have the right to set a boundary. This burden often falls on women, as they are asked more than men to do "office house work" or tasks that don't lead to promotions, according to a 2017 study published by the American Economic Association.

When saying "no" to a task, make the conversation 20% about your refusal and 80% about an alternate solution. Simply saying "no" might trigger a boss or co-worker to negotiate your boundaries. If you come up with a solution in which the tasks still gets done, that is less likely to happen.

If you're too rigid in your own boundaries it might hurt your reputation as a high performer.
Brandon Smith

If you're blurring the line between work and play

At work events, especially ones which serve alcohol, boundaries can often be blurred. If that is worrisome for you, your instinct might be to simply not attend. Unfortunately, skipping out on a professional happy hour has the potential to be perceived negatively.

"If you don't show up to these events the assumption is 'this person doesn't like us,'" Smith says.

Instead, tell yourself you'll stay for the first 30 to 40 minutes and then bow out. This signals you care about your work relationships, he says: "Make enough of an appearance to show you want to build relationships but leave early enough before the conversation starts to move away from professional topics."

Be sure to communicate you have somewhere else to be, too. "In the absence of communication people assume the worst," he says. "Have some reason you have to go."

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