How to Set Boundaries at Work
Deb Ward / APRIL 12 2021

Because we all spend so much time at work, setting boundaries should be a big priority… it means being more efficient and confident and less stressed each day. Boundaries help preserve physical and emotional energy so you can stay focused on your work and meet the standards that are required for your job.

These work boundaries apply not only to you as you relate to your co-workers, but also to you and your boss and how you are treated by guests and patrons. Blurring the lines in your relationships can be stressful and frustrating while setting clear boundaries helps maintain productivity and appropriate social interactions. With clearly defined boundaries, everyone can function more effectively.

Of the three main types of personal boundaries, physical, mental, and emotional, at work we’re focused on the mental/emotional type. There are also professional boundaries such as legal, ethical, and organizational that protect employees, guests, and vendors. On the professional side, there must be a clear understanding of your role, what appropriate behavior is and how to deal with situations that cross those boundaries.  

How do you establish work boundaries? It is often a step-by-step process that works best when you first start your job. That’s when you communicate about shifts, start times, overtime, and being called in on your days off. But, even if you’ve been at your job for a while, you can still go through the process to establish boundaries that work for you.

  1. First, evaluate your own priorities.  What do you value most and what causes you distress? If you’re feeling resentment, anger, and/or guilt, a line has been crossed and you need to communicate clearly.
  2. When someone violates your boundaries, you need to address them right away. Say something and clearly state what’s happening, concentrating on being compassionate and respectful. Many people are not aware of how their actions affect others.
  3. Focus on concrete examples, not opinions or judgments. Be specific and concise.
  4. Consider approaching the conversation like a negotiation. Ask the other person to give their perspective and then share your own. Avoid accusatory language.
  5. Expect some pushback. Some boundary-crossers will get angry—that likely a sign that it’s working and instead of seeing it as a setback, consider it an opportunity. It’ll provide insight into how you can better handle these issues going forward.
  6. If you can’t resolve a conflict, you may need to escalate it to your boss or their boss. At first, you might not name the person specifically, but let the manager know there are some difficult dynamics with the team. Later, you may need to name the person specifically.
  7. Keep an open mind and a positive attitude. Be open to learning and accepting feedback.

What about Guests? Just because you work in hospitality, you don’t have to accept abuse from guests or customers. Your job involves dealing with all segments of society and populations. It’s incredibly important to understand the difference between giving good customer service and feeling abused or unsafe.

There has to be a set of boundaries and reasonable expectations for the customer in your establishment. These should be set by management and shared through training. In no circumstance should there ever be any compromise to the dignity or humanity of the employee or the customer? There has to be a balance between the reputation of the company and the emotional and physical safety of the employees and customers.

Especially in the bar area, people who have had too much to drink can become unreasonable. They can act in a suggestive and inappropriate manner to bartenders or just become very offensive to those around them. Employees should be empowered to ask them to leave and engage management if necessary without fear of losing their jobs. There are standards of behavior that your company finds acceptable and when the line is crossed, everyone should understand how to handle it without reprisal.

Finally, have an escape plan and practice it. If you have an out-of-control customer, you don’t engage. You simply remain calm, ask them to leave and if necessary, call the police. Have a plan for de-escalating a person having a crisis in your establishment. 

The bottom line. We all want a pleasant and friendly work environment. In today’s world, some of the formal hierarchies at work are more relaxed. It’s not uncommon to spend more time with all levels of employees at social gatherings, meeting after work for a drink, or sharing stories about our recent vacation or kids’ soccer games. 

Hospitality is a fast-paced, dynamic job with rapid promotions and often, younger employees. Managers may struggle to balance their roles of recent team members and friends vs. newly appointed supervisors. Clearly, workplace relationships can make you more productive and happy, as long as you maintain healthy boundaries and clearly communicate what matters to you.