Setting Boundaries and Saying No at Work

Posted on by Leave a Comment

At work and in our personal lives, sometimes we encounter situations and people demanding more than we’re willing or able to give. Learning to set boundaries and say no in response to situations that might include being overworked, micromanaged, harassed or otherwise taken advantage of, is a key employment survival skill. Equally important (though perhaps less obvious), it’s also in an employer’s best interest to encourage workers to stand up for themselves. With employee engagement and retention continuing to top the list of HR concerns, employers need to understand what happens when employees feel “used and abused” by the company, their managers or their co-workers. 

You Want What? 

Why Employers Should Care

The introduction to a study on employee engagement by Florida State University states:

“All businesses want “engaged” employees — those who are committed to the success of the company and are willing to go the extra mile to see it flourish. But there’s a dark side to engagement that many organizations don’t consider: Engaged employees can quickly become disengaged if they feel taken advantage of — and a formerly engaged employee can do more harm to the company than one who was never engaged to begin with.”

While this study, like many others, revealed “Engaged employees work harder, are more creative and more committed, and they represent an important predictor of company productivity.” It also found that “even model employees can ‘give up’ if they sense that they’re being asked to do more and more, and with fewer resources, while comparatively little is being asked of their less-engaged colleagues.”

If even the most committed employees disengage when they feel taken advantage of, it makes sense for employers to encourage effective boundary setting and the occasional assertive “No.” One might even go so far as to provide some guidelines (like these) on how it’s done.

Setting Boundaries

If someone at work is behaving in ways that cause you discomfort, resentment, anxiety, stress or distress you need to set some boundaries. To do that:

  1. State the boundary clearly and firmly, without anger. Start with the assumption that the other person is not aware that his/her behavior is unfair or makes you uncomfortable. If possible, provide an explanation that includes the other person’s perspective (i.e. how the impact on you ultimately impacts him/her).
  2. Even though you’ve made the boundary clear, expect it to be violated one or more times before it’s fully established.
  3. Each time the boundary is crossed, address the situation right away. Reinforce the boundary firmly rather than letting the situation fester and build resentment.  
  4. If the same person pushes the same boundary more than three times, first check to see whether you’ve been clear enough. Explain your concerns once more and ask the perpetrator to share what he/she understands them to be.
  5. If the boundary is clearly understood, but being ignored, you’ll need to follow through with appropriate action. Depending on the nature of the situation, action might include requesting mediation assistance from HR, blocking the behavior in some way (e.g. blocking someone who is being inappropriate on social media from interacting with you); or, in extreme cases, reporting the behavior to someone in authority.

In some circumstances, you may find some of your boundaries are just not compatible with the culture or organizational norms of your workplace. You may feel, for example, that after-hours calls about work are an unacceptable intrusion on personal time, while the rest of the organization considers them essential. It’s important to distinguish between boundaries that reflect personal preference and those that signify being taken advantage of or treated inappropriately. Focus first on establishing the latter and then decide whether it makes sense to tackle less critical boundaries.

Saying “No”

Highly engaged and productive employees are often the first to jump in and take on additional work. Employers know they can rely on these high performers to deliver, so they turn to them again and again. But even the most committed employees eventually exceed their capacity and start to feel over extended. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say no when you’ve been in the habit of saying yes.

Here are three tips to help you break the habit of yes without breaking the relationships you rely on at work.

  1. Buy some time: Respond in a positive way without saying yes. Indicate that you might be able to help, but need to check your calendar/workload first. Ask whether the situation is time sensitive and make sure to respond (with “no” if applicable) by the promised deadline.
  2. Take a slice: Indicate that you can’t accommodate the full extent of the request due to other obligations, but that you’d be happy to take on a small part. Be specific in defining the role you’re willing to play to avoid being overcome by scope creep!
  3. Suggest an alternate: Sometimes people come to the person most likely to say yes rather than the person best suited for a particular task. Get to know the strengths of your co-workers. When asked to take on a task you can’t (or don’t want to) manage, recommend a colleague who’s better qualified for the project. This also gives others an opportunity to step up and grow in their roles.

When a few highly engaged individuals carry the weight of an organization, burnout and disillusionment are almost inevitable. Employees who stand up for themselves and establish reasonable boundaries at work help keep the performance bar high for everyone. Make sure your best talent stays (and stays engaged) by not overburdening them or taking them for granted.


Engage and nurture your talent with NetSuite TribeHR’s uniquely social talent management suite. Start your free trial today.

Employee Retention Secret Sauce

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Employees leave for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common include:  Engaged employees stay longer Inadequate current compensation (or better compensation elsewhere). Limited opportunity for advancement. Feeling undervalued. A poor relationship with immediate supervisor or manager. Lack of organizational support. We’ve all heard the comment “people don’t quit companies, they quit managers.” It turns out that’s not the whole story. While the relationship with an immediate supervisor is highly influential, studies have found that perceived organizational support can actually mitigate the impact of a bad manager when it comes …

Paid Wedding Leave – Not!

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Did you know employers in Spain are required to provide 15 days paid wedding leave to employees who are getting married? In Croatia, marriage is considered an “important personal need” and, therefore, qualifies for up to 7 day paid leave from work.[1]  This type of personal leave is also available in a number of African countries (including Libya, South Africa and Togo).[2] Wedding Ducks, Rystheguy, Wikimedia Commons Other countries in Europe and around the world provide varying amounts of paid leave for employees who are getting married, either in the form of specific wedding leave or as an …

3 Things That Make a Huge Difference to Employee Satisfaction

Posted on by Leave a Comment

The average time an employee stays at any one employer right now is 4.4 years. For Millennials, the number is expected to be half that.[1] In spite of tight job markets, employees who feel undervalued, who lack confidence in management or have poor relationships with colleagues and managers, leave. Current research suggests, if average tenure is to lengthen, the quality of the work experience will be the deciding factor. Employee Appreciation Cupcakes, Wikimedia Commons According to the 2012 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Report, compensation comes third on employees list of concerns. The CEB Quarterly Global …

How to Spot and Nurture Your Intrapreneurs

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Businesses are like people. They grow, they change, they spin-off into bigger spaces and they mature. When small companies become huge companies, they adopt a different attitude to risk and often take much longer to innovate and make decisions. These changes may range from subtle to extreme, but they come naturally with corporate maturity. Ashoka Intrapreneur by Wil Kristin, Flikr In the beginning, the shots are called by founders and entrepreneurs, with their eyes glued to immediacy and the opportunity. Over time, decisions are taken on by more cautious types, who see more merit in process and risk management. Even …

It’s All About Retention

Posted on by Leave a Comment

The most recent release of results from the ongoing National Study of Employers[1] identifies the following five trends between 2008 (in some cases 2005) and 2014. Trend #1: The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act has leveled the playing field—12 weeks has become the norm for leaves for childbirth, adoption, foster care placement, a serious personal medical condition or care of a child or spouse with a serious medical condition; at the same time, longer leaves are less available. Trend #2: Demographics are destiny, though legal and attitudinal shifts have an impact, too! Trend #3: Smaller employers are big leaders in providing flexibility and in not …

When is a Vacation Not a Vacation?

Posted on by Leave a Comment

The United States continues to be the only advanced economy in the world that does not require employers to provide any paid vacation[1]. Although an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act was submitted to congress in May, 2013 to try and change that [2], it was referred to a subcommittee for further study. Iconic photo of JFK on vacation, Public Domain Since paid vacation is not mandatory in the U.S., many workers (especially low wage workers) get little or none. In a competitive job environment, even those who are entitled to paid vacation, based on the specific terms of their …

Pet Friendly Workplaces

Posted on by Leave a Comment

One of the most popular items we posted on our blog lately happened to be the HR eCard about pet friendly workplaces. The card itself was mildly funny, but nothing spectacular. So what made this post so popular, we asked? Could it be that the topic of pet friendly workplaces was of particular interest to our readers? Just in case it was the topic and not the cute HR eCard that caught everyone’s attention, we thought we’d do this follow up article about pet (or more specifically dog) friendly workplaces.   Approximately 44% of Americans and 33% of …

Next Page

Experience TribeHR for Yourself
Contact us to schedule a demo of TribeHR.

Book A Demo
The Latest from Workplace Tribes
Communication is a Hot Topic March 31, 2015
Negotiators: Do You Fit the Profile? March 26, 2015
13 Communication Practices of Leaders March 24, 2015
Advantages and Disadvantages of e-Learning March 18, 2015
Fixing a Bad Hire March 16, 2015
Seize the Season March 13, 2015
Contingent Workers Pros and Cons - Part 2 March 11, 2015
The Talent Mindset of Leaders March 09, 2015
How Coaching and Mentoring Differ March 06, 2015
Contingent Workforce Pros and Cons - Part 1 March 04, 2015