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Readers recently had a great discussion on how to set boundaries with clients and coworkers who take advantage of your time, skills, and efforts — but it’s a huge topic, so let’s discuss! What are your best tips for setting boundaries with coworkers and clients?
I think it’s important to note at the outset that coworkers are different than clients are different than bosses — and most of the advice herein applies to coworkers most strongly. Keep in mind that bosses and clients may expect you to answer questions that ultimately lead nowhere — that isn’t an intentional wasting of your time (or busywork), but rather the normal part of doing business.
Some of our previous discussions may also be of help here — we’ve talked about the colleague who takes credit for your work, how to tell your boss you’re not her personal assistant, and what to do with the client who hits on you.
How to Set Boundaries with Coworkers Who Take Advantage Of Your Time, Skills, and Efforts
That said, here are some of my best tips on how to set boundaries with these types of people:
Set boundaries on your time. I always appreciate when people note that they will not be responding to email until Monday morning, for example. Know your office, though!
Pass the buck. This won’t work with everyone — but if that coworker of yours keeps finding sneaky ways to make you do their work, it’s OK to refer repeat offenders to other people. “You know who would know this? Jim in marketing!” (This would work less with clients or with bosses!)
Make it clear where they are in your list of priorities. “I have to get done X, Y, and Z for other people, and then maybe I can spend 15 minutes helping you with this.”
Get them out of your space. You may also want to refer to our post on how to deal with chatty coworkers, because a lot of the tips will work there, as well — it’s especially important to get this person out of your space because you kind of get trapped into the conversation then. Walk to the printer with them or go to the office coffee station — that way, there’s an obvious moment where you can say, “OK, great talk, I’ll see you later!”
When this came up with the readers, some of their tips were also amazing:
One reader noted that the tone is important — you can be warm and kind without leaving space for negotiation.
Be assertive in content, but not in tone, i.e., “Unfortunately, I won’t have bandwidth this week for this task. You can try asking X if he can take it on.”
Don’t get mad at people for asking you for things and don’t get preemptively defensive. Less is more – you don’t have to explain yourself or justify anything. Be as warm and kind with it as possible, but don’t leave space for negotiation.
Another reader stressed setting time/space boundaries, as well as putting her own priorities first:
Send an email while I’m commuting home? If it’s about something for the next morning I’ll answer it after I’ve had my dinner, not in a hungry, hangry rush before I eat. If it’s not about the next morning I’ll reply once I get to work in the morning. Teams chat me while I’m taking a break for a walk outside? If it’s not something that needs to be done that minute I’ll address it in 1/2 hour when I’m back. Basically I put my own priorities in terms of schedule, work, etc., ahead of others in all cases unless it’s something that needs to be dealt with quickly at that minute. And I stopped ever apologizing “for the slow reply.” If they have an issue they can raise it, but I don’t preemptively apologize anymore.
And guess what? Nothing has ever come up that made this strategy a problem, and I stopped feeling like I couldn’t budge from my seat or take time for personal priorities because I needed to be able to respond at a moment’s notice.
A third reader noted that she stops being so useful to the offender:
Set the boundary and then stop being so useful to them, e.g., coworker who emails me instead of the help inbox. The first time I answer and tell them the help inbox is where they should direct questions like this in the future. Any subsequent times they email me I don’t respond for 1-2 days (and still redirect them to the help inbox). Eventually they realize the help inbox is more useful and quicker than emailing me.
Readers, have you had this come up? What are your best solutions for setting boundaries with coworkers who take advantage of you? If you’ve felt like you needed to set boundaries with your boss or a client, what are your best tips for that?
Stock photo via Stencil.