Space Invader or Space Invaded? Understanding Workplace Boundaries

Posted on January 2, 2011 by VITAL WorkLife

The border between Canada and the U.S. stretches thousands of miles and is often difficult to see—yet people are expected to be aware when they cross that border and obey the laws of whatever land they occupy.

Workplace boundaries are often less well defined, but there are consequences for violating them. In an ideal world, you'd have a road map letting you know which cubicle to seek out when you need a few minutes to vent, which co-worker can't keep a confidence, which supervisor will jump on you for being five minutes late and which manager doesn't care when you come in so long as the work gets done.

"Some managers and organizations are very good about spelling out expectations and setting workplace boundaries," notes Jody Bertram, senior consultant for VITAL WorkLife. "Other times, it falls on the employee to figure out what's acceptable and what's not."


Have you ever walked away from a conversation with a co-worker, convinced that he or she is a rude, unreasonable jerk? While it's satisfying to think the person who was rude was entirely in the wrong, you may have violated an unseen boundary.

  • Did you ask if he or she had time to talk before interrupting?
  • Did you move stuff around to make a place for yourself to sit without asking if it was okay?
  • Did you pay attention to his or her body language about how the things you were saying were being received?

If you say, "Well, if she didn't want me there, all she had to do was say so," you're assuming that your co-worker has the same comfort with expressing his or her likes and dislikes that you do—and that is one of the definitions of a boundary issue.


We all have boundaries. They form a protective line, defining where "you" ends and "I" begins. They separate you from other people. They can be mental, emotional or physical.

"Some are fixed: don't hit, lie, steal or abuse others," says Bertram. "It's the undefined boundaries that are more difficult to see and avoid."

Some people intuitively know they shouldn't tell their entire life story at a job interview. Others embark on their biography but stop when the interviewer's body language tells them they're doing something inappropriate. Others simply don't have a clue they're doing anything wrong.

In most organizations, all these very different people with their very different boundaries are working side by side. The intuitive often resent the clueless and the clueless don't understand why everybody's so mean to them.

The first step to developing strategies for overcoming those differences is acknowledging that they exist.


Here are some of the most common boundary issues, which are often innocently crossed and go unmentioned—until it happens one time too many or something goes wrong. Sensitivity to others' boundaries around these issues can help avoid the majority of workplace explosions.

  • Time Issues: What time are you expected to arrive and leave? How long are your breaks? How many do you take? How much time do you spend chatting when not on break? Also, are you spending non-work time with a customer or co-worker? Do you know what's appropriate?
  • Gift or Service Issues: Do you assume everyone wants to donate as much or as little as you do? Do you judge people by how much they contribute to non-work related activities? Also, are you giving or receiving gifts from customers or co-workers in the workplace? Some professions have ethical codes around this, and many companies address this in their policies.
  • Clothing Issues: Is there a company dress code? Is there an unwritten dress code? Do you know what it is? Are you dressed for work, or for after work? Do you know the difference between professional and unprofessional, or something that's too seductive?
  • Language Issues: Do you know what's acceptable and what's not? Do you swear when angry or stressed? Does your volume go up? Could what you say, or how you say it, be interpreted as abusive or abrasive?
  • Self-Disclosure Issues: Do you tell your co-workers more about yourself than they need to know? Are your co-workers comfortable with what you disclose? Do you stop when you sense discomfort?
  • Personal Space Issues: In the comedy Seinfeld, Jerry would complain about "Close Talkers"—people who invaded his personal space. Are you standing or sitting too close to your co-workers for comfort?
  • Physical Contact Issues: You may "be a hugger," but your co-workers may not.

"Conflict around these issues is usually the result of a conversation that didn't happen," says Bertram. "It's easy to get offended, but it's more effective to clearly state your own boundaries and expectations and respect the boundaries set by others."

If having a conversation doesn't help, or you don't know how to initiate a conversation about a behavior or co-worker that crosses your lines, your VITAL WorkLife benefit can help.


Your EAP benefit includes free and confidential professional support services from VITAL WorkLife—24 hours a day, 365 days per year—to help you and your co-workers establish boundaries that work.

"We can help you decide which issues can be addressed co-worker to co-worker, determine which issues need to be brought to a manager, and learn how to better tolerate situations that can't be easily or immediately resolved," notes Bertram.

Do you have a family member who's dealing with boundary issues at home or at work? Your EAP benefit is also available free to them. Want a face-to-face counseling session? All you have to do is ask.

"For many people, a little coaching on how to approach a co-worker is all it takes to get a productive discussion started," says Bertram. "If a co-worker doesn't know that what they're doing is distracting or irritating, they're not likely to stop. In many instances talking about the situation has an immediate positive impact."


On your Member Website, you'll find helpful articles and links to resources that can help you learn more about and cope with boundary issues including:

  • Common Conflicts: Addressing Power Imbalances
  • Anticipating Conflicts Likely to Arise in the Workplace
  • Agree to Disagree: Listen and Learn
  • Characters in the Corporate Culture

Accessing these resources is easy. Simply follow these steps:

  1. To find these articles, go to, click on member login and enter your user name and password.
  2. On the page that comes up, in the left hand column, click on the "Your Work & Life Resources" button.
  3. In the shaded area at the top of the screen, click on the pull down menu that says "Working" and go to "Effective Employee."
  4. In the Articles Section on the left side, click on "View All."

Pathways to Well Being: call VITAL WorkLife at 800.383.1908  or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App

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