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How to Set Boundaries at Work

You have likely heard about “quiet quitting” by now.

It was made popular by a TikTok video posted by @zkchillin (now @zaidleppelin) discussing the concept of not quitting your job but rather stopping any effort to go above and beyond the expectation. You do your work and do it well but consciously, maybe covertly, “stay in your lane.”

This means to not stay late, work weekends, or volunteer for extra duties. It might also mean declining projects, pushing back on extra work, and saying no to your colleagues or your boss. The “quiet” part is to be discreet and the “quit” part is to simply stop doing anything extra.

I, like others, heard about this and thought it’s an unfortunate term. While it’s really about setting good boundaries for your job, the covert and quiet part of it makes the employee seem passive aggressive. As though the employee is the problem.

But for those who need to “quietly quit”, they do so because they’re being taken advantage of, not appropriately compensated, ignored, treated unfairly, or disrespected. These experiences breed resentment and resentment sparks the need for something to stop. Hence, the "quit."

In these cases, the employees aren’t the problem. Toxic cultures and bad bosses are.

The opposite applies too. When people are appreciated, supported, given realistic workloads, and there are benefits and meaningful value in working above and beyond, then there is no resentment. No need to quietly quit.

What I would love to see go viral are videos of leaders and teams modeling what it looks like to set boundaries and say no. These are skills and ones that aren’t often taught. Many do develop them after years of experience of being pushed to their limit. Many more don’t and feel stomped on throughout their career.

This is a call to action for everyone to get better at setting boundaries at work. Be overt and obvious so that we all promote healthier work lives.

Here are five tips to help you set boundaries and better yet, stick to them.

Define Your Boundaries

Half the battle to setting boundaries is knowing what they are. Get specific. Is this about ending your workday promptly by 6 or putting an end to working weekends? Is this about quieting an internal voice that drives you to please others, in spite of yourself? Or, do you need boundaries for when you’re asked to do work outside of your scope of responsibility?

Write the boundaries down. This makes them real and not just an idea in your head.

Find a Boundary Buddy

Whether this be a colleague, your boss, a spouse, or a friend - find someone in your life to help you hold firm to your boundaries. Telling someone else and asking them to check in with you about them will help with accountability.

Also, most of us do much better when we are tackling challenges with others, not by ourselves. Likely, your Boundary Buddy needs to maintain a few too. Creating a joint effort with others increases the chances of getting results and benefits from setting boundaries.

Create Responses in Advance

The defining moment for any boundary is what you do when someone crosses it. For each boundary, write out a response. Yes, write out what you will say and then practice it out loud. You are far more likely to speak up if the words have already come out of your mouth in practice. Below are a few examples that will not fit every situation but they’re a good start:

Determine When Crossing Boundaries is OK

There will be times when you must break a promise to yourself and allow a boundary to be crossed. Think about that now so you know in advance where your boundary holds firm and when it doesn’t. For example, I have a colleague who recently set a firm boundary to stop working after 6pm. That time is now dedicated to herself, friends, and family.

That said, she will cross that boundary for unexpected work, but only 2x in a week. If something unexpected comes up and she has already crossed her boundary twice that week, she will respond with “I’m sorry, I am committed to something else this evening. I can complete this request for you by…” She ends every response thanking the person for understanding.

And that’s just it, most people understand that others have commitments. This colleague says she has experienced no retaliation for responding this way.

Tell People about Your Boundaries

Most people don’t realize they are crossing someone else’s boundary or they forget. Everyone is focused on their own stuff. This means the people around you may not be intentionally trying to take advantage.

Therefore, it’s important to communicate your boundaries to those who are impacted by them. For example, you’re less likely to get requests for work after 6pm if your team knows you’re not looking at email. This boundary can sound like, "I don't look at email after 6pm."

Another example might be declining unproductive meetings. You might say, “Given my current workload, I can no longer attend this meeting. I will stay informed via the notes. Feel free to reach out if you need something specific. Thanks!” This promotes an overt boundary.

Setting, sticking to, and communicating boundaries to others can feel hard and there are plenty of tricky situations where the boundary setting may fail. But that is not cause for giving up on them.

Most people would agree we need healthy work environments that welcome boundary setting and saying no. The best way to get there is for everyone to start doing it.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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