E11: Protect yourself and don't apologize - setting clear work boundaries
This is a podcast transcript. If you would like to listen to the show in full, please find it on our podcasts page here.
Working from home is more common than ever, so the lines between work and home life can easily become blurred. It’s up to you to unapologetically protect yourself and set clear expectations with strong work boundaries. After 12 years in corporate America, including several years in leadership positions, I have developed no-conflict tactics to set boundaries that maintain my sanity while still enabling me to be a good employee.
This is part of a series called “Lessons from a corporate life.” The other episodes in the series are episode 2 and 4.
In this episode:
How not to set boundaries
Work doesn’t care about you
Why guilt prevents you from setting boundaries
Do not apologize
Do not establish bad precedents
Set digital boundaries
Take sick and vacation days
Set up a physical office space
Be objective, clear, and consistent
Many of us are now working from home and have to deal with a new boundary paradigm. Previously you spent certain hours of your day at the office and the remainder were spent at home. The physical boundary between work and home made the division clear and work-life balance more accessible. But now your office is your spare bedroom, your email is on your phone and notifications pop up when you’re taking pictures of your baby, and you’re never quite sure when it’s time to clock off.
Here’s a harsh truth: your employer doesn’t really care about you. Unless you’re a niche case where you work at your mom’s shop or own your own business, you likely work for someone who just doesn’t care. They have a bottom line - that is their number one priority - and you were hired to help them make money. Work will take everything you give it and then come back for more.
They won’t look out for you so you have to look out for yourself. If you feel overworked or like the lines between work life and home life are blurred, it’s up to you to establish clear, strong boundaries and hold them consistently in order to protect yourself and avoid unnecessary burnout and work stress.
As I’ve gotten older and more senior in my career, I have developed a bulldog attitude about protecting myself and those who work for me. I always told my employees not to overwork, to look out for themselves, and to never apologize for setting a boundary if they hadn’t done anything to apologize for. I hope to encourage you to do the same today.
We’ll talk about how to set boundaries in an effective and non-confrontational way today. But first, here is how NOT to do it. 12 years ago, I still had a lot to learn.
In 2009, at my first marketing job, I thought I was doing all of the right things. I installed a work email app on my phone so I could respond when anyone needed me. I brought my laptop home with me every night just in case. We were always IMing and chatting, sometimes late at night, and would hold “emergency” calls at odd hours. I even worked on sick days because everyone else seemed to be doing that and I didn’t want to fall behind. I never questioned what consequences would come from this lifestyle. I thought that this level of sacrifice was required to succeed when in fact, it led to my downfall at a few different companies as I got used by managers when I overextended myself. I had zero boundaries with work. Every single work event, happy hour, and lunch, I was there. I would stay late, socialize, and drink too much. As a naive 21 year old, I didn’t know that saying “no” to anything was an option. I was too afraid of the image I’d project if I attempted to establish a boundary.
This lifestyle came to a head later that year. As I said, this was 2009 and you may recall that that was the year of the swine flu pandemic. A few people in my office got it and then, just a couple days later, I was sicker than I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t know if I had it for sure but the timing seemed likely that I had the swine flu. Regardless, I was extremely sick. I took a few sick days off, not expecting to work during that time. But my work kept pinging me, sending impatient emails asking if I was going to join calls. Instead of being objective and direct and saying, “No, I am extremely sick and cannot join,” I assumed I had no choice and joined the meeting. Unfortunately this means I set a bad precedent for a boundary I was willing to shift. Of course one meeting ballooned into a day of meetings, which turned into lots of work for me to do after hours for a big client presentation. I was exhausted but gave my employer the benefit of the doubt. I never actively thought that my employer cared about me, but I did think that they knew that I was sick, so they wouldn’t enlist my help unless it was really necessary, right? I was very wrong.
Work will take whatever you give them and then some. I gave them an inch by joining one call and they took a mile. On the 3rd day of sickness, still working, I got a ping at midnight that I did not respond to. Yet another “emergency” that I had to help with. The next day, my boss reprimanded me for not responding to the ping and told me that I needed to respond in a timely manner when they reached out to me. It didn’t matter that I was home sick, and that it was MIDNIGHT! All that mattered was that my light on my chat app was green so it looked like I was active and I still didn’t respond. They thought I was willfully disengaging. Because I had set a precedent of working at odd hours, they expected me to be available. Meanwhile I was confused and thought they were asking too much of me.
I left that job a couple of months later feeling very disenchanted with the corporate world, assuming that I just wasn’t cut out for it, and assuming that, if I had been able to keep up with the work, I never would have been pushed so hard by my employer. In reality, the problem was that I had let them push me around until I snapped.
Over time, though, I figured out to establish a boundary line and hold it. After I got burned by a couple more managers and employers who were happy to take whatever I would give them and walked all over me when I bent over backwards for them, I started to be more direct about what I needed. No longer afraid that it would hurt my career, I put my foot down and looked out for myself. It didn’t happen all at once or in one big dramatic moment. But, over time, I decided that I don’t work in the evenings. I will not respond when I’m not in the office. I don’t work while on vacation. There are no emergencies in marketing, and if I’m really sick, I’ll see you in a couple days. Since that first job, I’ve never once been reprimanded for any one of my boundaries, despite working in multiple organizations.
The unexpected outcome of all of this is that I actually succeeded more in my career after I developed this mindset. I was no longer too burned out so I was able to be sharp and contribute well. Additionally, I like to think that my employers learned to respect me. You respect people who are clear, direct, and have boundaries. They show you that they won’t be taken for granted and that is a very respectable quality, especially in a leader. If I’m hiring someone to be a people manager, I don’t want to hire a doormat, I want to hire a bulldog.
Now that more people than ever work from home, boundaries can easily become confused. When boundaries aren’t clear, expectations aren’t clear. You can’t really blame someone for crossing a boundary that you haven’t clearly outlined. If your work doesn’t know where your boundary is, they will take whatever they can get and you might be left feeling disrespected, burned out, and taken advantage of. So today we are going to talk about how you can establish clear boundaries with your employer. Some of these are conversations you can have but most boil down to you acting consistently and not setting precedents that you don’t want to keep.
Before we dive into how to set boundaries, let’s have a quick chat about why some people struggle to set boundaries. Is it that they are really hard to set? Or is it that you feel guilty setting them? I’d guess it’s the latter. I know a lot of people who would rather be overworked or even quit a job than have a conversation about boundaries. But as you’ll see today, it’s actually really simple to put certain boundaries into place and it doesn’t require conflict. Simple actions, and simple conversations can be had. What will stop you from doing this is your mindset and that feeling of guilt. If you feel guilty about pushing back on work and establishing boundaries, consider where the guilt comes from and if it’s productive. Productive guilt is guilt that points to something you’ve actually done wrong that you need to make right. For example, if you have been slacking on work, your guilt about setting boundaries makes sense. It would feel wrong to push back on work if you aren’t giving it your best effort. Unproductive guilt comes from something you tell yourself that isn’t true or from some cultural expectation of you. For example, I feel like women are naturally conflict-avoidant people pleasers. We don’t want to be seen as difficult or demanding. We want to be seen as nice. So the guilt might come from feeling like you shouldn’t push back or like you are being difficult if you establish clear boundaries. I have seen this guilt time and time again in my female friends. Oddly enough, I know very few men who feel this way, especially men in leadership. If you are otherwise a good employee who puts your best effort in every day, you should feel no guilt for being clear about where your personal boundaries lie.
Today I will regularly say things like “do not apologize” and “protect yourself.” Not apologizing is about having a very objective mindset. I think women apologize a lot because, as I just said, we feel guilty for causing disruptions and don’t want to be seen as unkind. When we apologize, we aren’t apologizing for setting a boundary, we are usually apologizing for being perceived as unkind. This is a really important distinction. So you have to change your mindset about this and remember that protecting yourself with a boundary isn’t unkind. It’s actually the kindest thing you could do. No one else will do it for you. Being direct isn’t unkind - it’s actually helpful to all parties involved. This way no one is confused about expectations. You are doing what you need to to stay sane and to be a productive employee. Overworked people tend to be less productive. After a certain number of hours at work, we just aren’t as sharp. So boundaries are good for you and for your productivity.
So here are several ways that you can protect yourself and set clear boundaries. I’ve learned these lessons over the years and have had success implementing all of them. This might seem overwhelming as you’ll have to shift the way you think about work so we’ll start slow and easy.
Do not establish bad precedents
The first thing you can do is to be wary of establishing bad precedents for behaviors you don’t want to keep up. This is key to holding any boundary that is very dear to you, like established work hours. I’ll explain what I mean. One of my employees responded to a client email at 9pm, thinking it was the right thing to do. When I explained to him that what he had actually done was let the client cross a boundary and set a precedent that would encourage future after-hours communications, my employee immediately regretted working late. Sure enough, that client started reaching out to our team late at night and would reach out to that same employee if no one responded, knowing that he would respond. I nipped it in the bud when, one time at a 7am meeting (one of the clients was in Singapore so we had to meet at odd hours), the same client asked why I wasn’t presenting his powerpoint that he had sent to me earlier that morning. Mind you, this powerpoint required about an hour of work for me to edit and set up before presenting. I calmly responded to him, “I don’t work before 7am. But I will incorporate your powerpoint right after this meeting.” I did not apologize because I had done nothing wrong and it wasn’t a problem - he simply said “ok” and we all moved on. And you know what - he never expected me to do his work before 7am again. I stayed firm and refused to establish a precedent that I didn’t want to upkeep. Note that the uncomfortable conversation with my client could have been avoided if we had never set a bad precedent to begin with.
There are boundaries you can set with yourself and boundaries you can set with others. Let’s talk about digital boundaries first. These are boundaries you can set with yourself and are the easiest to implement.
Whether you work from home or go into work, you can set boundaries digitally with your phone, computer, schedule, and email. These digital boundaries will affect everyone who tries to contact you, without ever having to have any uncomfortable conversations.
Here it is. Don’t install work email or chat applications like Slack on your personal phone. At every job since that first marketing job, even the most high pressure ones, I have not installed email or chat clients on my phone. Why? Because every little email notification that pops up sends my blood pressure up 5 points and I don’t need that in my life. And the emails are almost never about anything that can’t wait until the next morning. Removing the email apps removes the temptation to check my notifications.
If you prefer to have a separation between work and personal life and do not absolutely have to have email or chat on your phone, uninstall the work email and chat apps right now. Literally click pause on this podcast and do it now. Don’t overthink this step - this is one of the easiest boundaries you can set. You don’t need permission from anyone and you don’t have to tell anyone.
You don’t actually need email on your phone to be a good employee. Unless you’re paid to be on call, you aren’t on call so don’t act like you are.
In the event that anyone asks why you didn’t respond to an email, assuming the email was sent after hours, there are ways to be firm, direct, and polite, while maintaining your boundary. Just ask “when was it sent?” even if you already know the answer. If they respond “8pm” or some similarly absurd hour, politely respond “Yeah, that’s because I stop working after 5pm. But I will get to it first thing in the morning.” Do not apologize and do not establish a bad precedent by shifting your boundary. You’re doing nothing wrong by having a boundary. An email response is timely as long as it’s sent within one business day.
If it becomes clear that people are concerned about how to reach you after hours, remind them that they can always call you. This is a golden secret that has saved me over the years. If you tell people they can call you, you look agreeable and they have a lifeline, but you’re protected because they’ll probably never call you. People don’t like making phone calls these days so, when this is their only option to get in touch with you, they’ll think twice before exercising it. I think I’ve been called a handful of times in the 10 years I’ve been practicing this.
The next boundary has to do with your physical computer. This is not quite as possible these days, especially with so many people working from home 100% of the time. But, if at all possible, leave your laptop at work or in your home office space. I left mine at work back when it was possible to do so. It saved me so much grief and I never actually missed anything important because there are no real marketing emergencies. When I got more senior and managed teams of people, it became more important to take my laptop home with me but I kept it in my work bag unless someone texted or called me, telling me that they needed me. I never voluntarily check it while at home, though.
If you work from home, the concept of work hours is likely a fuzzy one. Even if no one contacts you after 5pm, it can be really easy to just keep working on your own because your work is your home and your home is work. Mitigate this by setting hours in your schedule. If you have a meeting-heavy job like I did, set your work hours in your Outlook or other email client that you use. If you aren’t sure how, Google “Change work hours and days in Outlook” and you’ll see it’s pretty simple.
I had work hours of 8am to 5pm. No one could schedule meetings outside of those hours and expect me to attend. Furthermore, I wanted to protect my lunch time each day (which I would use to exercise), so I blocked an hour every day for weeks on end. I didn’t offer an explanation or ask for permission. I just put a block on the calendar every day - that everyone could see - that said “Hannah lunch” and no one ever questioned it. In fact, when my boss’ boss saw me running during lunch one day, he applauded it and said that it was great that I was taking that time away from meetings. You don’t have to be sheepish about taking breaks that are owed to you. And just because you’re at home now doesn’t mean you don’t deserve regular breaks.
Once you decide on work hours, be consistent in upholding them. You can’t wait for your work to tell you when to clock off each night. It’s up to you to decide you won’t check work email or that you will stop working on that project after a certain hour. If you say you are done at 5pm, assuming you’ve done your tasks for the day, be done at 5pm. If people regularly see you working at 7pm, they’ll expect you to keep working that late.
Don’t be too generous with the hours you provide. Do not fall prey to thinking that working more always has a correlation to being a better employee when it might have a correlation to working inefficiently or to being a doormat. Whenever I learned that my employees were working odd hours, I would ask them “why?” and, if there wasn’t a good reason, I’d tell them to stop. They seemed to think it was a badge of honor to be putting in extra time but I made it clear that it wasn’t. I needed a team of sharp, energized people who were happy to be there. I didn’t want a team of burned out people. I told them that, unless they were up late correcting their own errors, there was no reason to be working at 9pm.
On to sick days, an area where I obviously made some mistakes when I was younger. In this day and age, when we can usually work from home without much disruption, sick days seem like an archaic practice. If we can work from our sickbed, which most of us can, it’s hard to know when you’re too sick to work and how to hold that line. Most people I used to work with would still work from home while sick.
Sure, if you just have a scratchy throat, you can probably work. But if you are sick enough that staring at a screen all day and taking meetings will adversely affect your health, then you have every right to take one of those sick days or personal days that you have in your benefits at work, assuming you have any benefits. It’s about your health and it’s up to you to protect your health. Work does not care about you or your health and will rarely encourage you to take time off. So you have to stick up for yourself here. Sick days are a boundary you can set for yourself and set with others.
When I started working while sick with the swine flu in 2009, my workplace took advantage. They must have figured that, if I was able to take 1 meeting, I was able to work all day. I wasn’t clear with what I needed and didn’t stand up for myself. What’s more - I had set a precedent that it was ok to treat me that way.
Fast forward 10 years and, at my most recent job, if I was really sick, I did not ask for permission to take sick time. I just took it because I had every right to. I wrote an email to my boss or scheduled a call and simply said “I am too sick to work and I have to take a sick day. If you need me, you can call me. I will update you later today with how I’m feeling and if I think I’ll be able to work tomorrow.” Then I set an out of office message on my email, shut my laptop, and rested. Your health is more important than anything. Don’t let your work steal it from you. As a former manager, I can tell you that I never ever faulted an employee for telling me they were too sick to work. A bad manager might but that isn’t your burden. You can’t carry that guilt when you’ve done nothing wrong.
Vacations are similar to sick days. If you have vacation days, use them. Americans are notorious for letting vacation benefits lapse. I think people hear the words “vacation days” and assume that they need to have a vacation scheduled to get the time off. This is not true at all. These are just days off that you get to use how you want to. Schedule an at-home vacation if you need to. Then, check out of work and take your well-deserved time off.
I had an employee once who asked me if it would be ok if he only worked the first few days of vacation. I was flabbergasted. I don’t know where his idea that he needed to work at all came from. I told him that, under no circumstances was he allowed to work on vacation and that he shouldn’t even bring his laptop. So, no matter where you go, or if you stay at home, take vacation and do not check in with work at all during your time off. The company survived before you got there; they’ll survive while you’re on vacation.
If you are working from home, if at all possible, set up a physical space that you can call your office. This will vary based on your home. Whatever you do, do not make your workspace your bed. Your bed is for relaxation and love, period. It is a sacred space. If you have to work in your bedroom or in a living space, try to segregate your work area as much as possible. This can be done with a small piece of furniture, like your table or desk, and with a color scheme or decor that looks distinct from the rest of the room. You could have a certain lamp at your desk that only turns on while you’re working or add a room divider or curtain. Call this space your office, not the living room or the bedroom. When your designated work hours are over, this space is where you will leave your laptop and you will not return to it until the next morning. You’ll shut off your lamp and leave “the office.”
It can be scary to set boundaries, even if you have shed any unproductive guilt about boundaries. But I hope you’ve seen that you can passively set boundaries with how you manage your digital workspace, your physical workspace, your hours, and by not setting precedents you don’t want to keep. And if you do have to have a conversation, remember a few principles - objectivity, directness, and consistency. Objectivity means being unemotional and not apologizing if you aren’t in the wrong. Directness is just honesty and clarity. It’s not about being mean or aggressive. Consistency is about setting a line and holding it. Just like your male boss would, or like you’d encourage your friends to do if you were in their shoes.
Don’t let work steal your life.
To get the full podcast experience, join my Facebook community. It's for listeners of the show to share tips, ask questions, and encourage one another. And follow me on Instagram at @hannah_uncommon_life