What are boundaries in a workplace context? 

Simply put, boundaries in a workplace context are the rules and guidelines that companies set in order to protect their employees by establishing what constitutes acceptable behaviour. These create clear parameters that ring-fence professional and personal life. These boundaries also include those that employees set for colleagues and themselves, and incorporate three distinct categories: 

  • Organisational boundaries – are the predetermined rules through which an organisation establishes what is acceptable or unacceptable practice or behaviour from its employees. For example, HR departments will develop policies and procedures to protect employees from workplace bullying or harassment.  
  • Team boundaries – are the rules and guidelines that managers can set for their own departments or teams. For example, a manager may set a boundary that prohibits gossiping with colleagues at work.  
  • Personal boundaries – are those set by each employee, providing limits to acceptable behaviour from their leaders and colleagues.  One such boundary could be that an employee limits responding to emails or WhatsApp to only during work hours.  


Healthy work boundaries help to maintain employees’ physical, emotional and mental health – and their safety. 


Why is setting workplace boundaries important? 

An essential component of an organisation’s success is effective communication, as well as good rapport and trust between employees and their leaders. In helping to build trust, boundaries serve to support each employee as they interact with each other and fulfil their role. They help to maintain a safe, respectful and conducive working environment for all employees. It is interesting to note that while external factors like organisational culture, the rise of technology and automation, and work from home or hybrid workplaces can all have a significant impact on the complexity of boundary setting. The way people approach setting boundaries and their respect for keeping them has much to do with how they each think and act as individuals, because boundaries are set by people for people.  


Establishing boundaries for your team 

As a manager, building a cohesive team in which members work well together is your most important and most difficult job. Setting boundaries with your team from the get-go is a great place to start developing a team, because boundaries help to establish trust. They add to employees’ sense of psychological safety at work. Here are three areas in which you can set boundaries with your team, along with encouraging them to set their own boundaries with one another:  

  • Workload boundaries – clearly define each employee’s role and responsibilities. This will establish primary accountability and leave less room for finger-pointing. There is no harm in starting with stringent workload boundaries some of which you can relax slightly as the team grows to become more cohesive – particularly in the area of role responsibility if you want team members to be skilled across several disciplines or to break down silos and support cross-discipline creative thinking or accountability. 
  • Communication Boundaries – Setting boundaries for when and how the team communicates about work is important. It is helpful to have open dialogue with your team about each member’s preferred communication style. And, it is important to set boundaries as to when and how the team communicates with each other on work matters. It is counterproductive for employees not to have uninterrupted personal time, relaxation and paid time off so as not to feel constantly tied to their work. 
  • Interpersonal boundaries – These are boundaries between co-workers as well as between employees and their managers. They lie at the heart of co-workers being able to work together productively.  Factors can include:  
  • The tone of voice used in the workplace 
  • Use of any language or action that constitutes a thinly veiled instance of racism, homophobia or sexism  
  • Team members’ attitudes toward one another 
  • Work conversations about certain topics that could be offensive to some 


Establishing boundaries for your team 

Setting professional boundaries can be particularly challenging within smaller enterprises or teams, where people tend to wear a lot of hats and there can be cross-over in employees’ roles. The lines between different roles and responsibilities can blur. This makes it especially important to set clear boundaries. Here are three steps to managing employees who overstep set boundaries:  


  • Clarify what the boundaries are from the start 

Employees will unknowingly overstep if they are not made aware, upfront, of an organisation’s or leader’s boundaries. As the boss, it is your responsibility to set the tone for your relationship with your employees by making boundaries clear and leading by example.  


  • Manage employees who overstep boundaries 

When employees overstep professional or personal boundaries, it can lead to poor team morale. It is important to correct the situation without delay. Here are three tips on how to manage the situation: 

  • Have a private discussion. Call the employee into your office, define the problem and provide your observations. Ask the employee to explain his actions to ensure the employee understands what the boundary is and how they are overstepping it. If appropriate, outline any further course of disciplinary action that will take place should they continue to violate the boundary. 
  • Strive to reach mutual agreement.  To make very sure that the employee understands that there is a problem, find out what impact they think their behavior may be having on affected colleagues. Ask the employee what they will do differently in future. This is an important point to agree upon as it clarifies that the employee understands how they are overstepping the boundary and how they intend to change their behaviour – and that aligns with your observations.   
  • Follow up with the employee. Schedule a date to follow-up and provide feedback to the employee. If they have continued to overstep boundaries, bring particular instances to their attention and find out why the problem is still occurring. At this point it is advisable that you put down your concerns about their behaviour in an email or letter to them. If you find the employee simply refuses to conform to company standards, inform them that stronger disciplinary measures will be taken.  


  • Prepare for confrontations 

While most professionals respect boundaries, when setting or enforcing them you should expect to be on the receiving end of a range of negative responses. These can vary from simple resistance to out-and-out hostility or even threats. It is helpful to prepare upfront by understanding how, and to what degree, you are prepared to compromise. If an employee repeatedly tests or ignores a boundary, in accordance with the severity of their infraction, consider informing human resources of the situation. This will allow them to document the situation and manage any future issues if the professional continues to overstep the boundary. 


Keep things social, but stay professional 

In the “new” less formal, more flexible workplace, there is an increased chance that leaders will find themselves socialising with colleagues or employees outside of traditional work hours or a traditional workplace. Even if socialising is sporadic and not the norm, this can blur boundaries. Unless certain leader-employee boundaries are maintained, it can become more difficult for leaders to order a course of action or provide constructive criticism, as their team may not see the boss they socialise with as being fair or impartial in doing so. We recommend you keep socialisation to work hours and do not socialise one-on-one with employees outside of work. This could mean hosting a team happy hour at the office, taking employees to lunch or holding an office party. To complicate matters, imposing social boundaries may disappoint certain employees. But, inherent to leadership is the fact that you cannot please everybody all of the time.  

Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

What are your thoughts on setting boundaries for employees?

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

Leave A Comment