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Build Your Career Work-Life Balance

5 Tips for Setting Personal Boundaries at a New Job

5 Tips for Setting Personal Boundaries at a New Job
Credit: KREUS/Shutterstock

When you start a new job, it's natural to want to make a great impression on your new boss and co-workers. Eager to impress, you might volunteer to stay late or take on extra assignments during your first few weeks — only to find that your colleagues now expect you to keep performing at that level.

"As the 'new kid,' one can quickly be the dumping ground for new projects," said Parker Lee, principal at Compass52 design consultancy and co-author of "The Art of Opportunity" (Wiley, 2016). "The biggest challenge I have seen for new employees is the tendency to say 'yes' to every request. This points to the need to set up clear goals, objectives and activities [at the start] of a new job."

It's great to hit the ground running, but setting boundaries and expectations early on will keep you from burning out too quickly. Here's how to (politely) get co-workers to respect your time and energy while still showing that you are enthusiastic about contributing to the team. [See Related Story: Starting a New Job? Don't Wait to Make a Good Impression]

Before the days of Wi-Fi and smartphones, "work" and "home" boundaries were a lot clearer — you either stayed late at the office, or sat down at home after-hours to do paperwork or make phone calls. Today, it's a lot more complex than that, said organizational psychologist Michael "Dr. Woody" Woodward.

"The proliferation of mobile technology and social media has changed our expectations about availability, particularly when it comes to work and kids," Woodward told Business News Daily. "We are constantly connected and thus always available — something every boss, employee and client knows."

Rather than achieving true work-life "balance," it's more about determining how to blend your time, Woodward said. Before you can communicate your personal boundaries to your new colleagues, you need to figure out for yourself how much time and energy you're willing to commit to your job outside your expected working hours.

"Whether you are a full-time parent, small business operator or corporate commando, it's likely you spend a good portion of your time monitoring texts, emails and social media," he said. "We live in a globally wired world, where the expectation is that if you have a mobile device, you are available. It's up to you to take responsibility, set boundaries and unplug when you are with your family."

"Think about why you left your last job or position as a starting point for you to understand the importance of [boundaries]," said Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at Blue Fountain Media. "Set your own boundaries and expectations when you start a new job or position so that you have a standard or tone in place from the get-go."

Your colleagues and boss don't need to know exactly where you are every minute you're out of the office, but giving general timelines and explanations regarding your "unavailability" will let your team know you're not just trying to shirk your responsibilities to the company. For example, you could note in your calendar that you are not available before 8 a.m. because you're getting your kids ready for school, or you're unavailable after 7 p.m. because you have a fitness class, Lambert said.

"By effectively communicating the 'why' and 'when' you are and are not available, [you] will give colleagues transparency and not come off as dismissive or unenthusiastic," Lambert said. "Keep your calendar up-to-date so that there are no surprises, and when it really counts — like when there is a client or team member emergency — do what you can to be there."

"Be clear with your boss or peers on what is expected, how long you and they think it will take to complete, and the effort involved," Lee added. "Once your time is full, you can use that to deflect new requests and work with others to manage your initiatives. It also shows you are collaborative and a team player."

Setting your own boundaries is important, but you can't walk in on your first day and expect that everyone else is going to change their work flow to accommodate you. Keith Rollag, an associate professor and chair of the management division at Babson College and author of "What to Do When You're New: How to Be Confident, Comfortable and Successful in New Situations" (AMACOM, 2015), said it's important to talk to your new co-workers and find out what they consider to be "reasonable" and "unreasonable" requests from a supervisor.

"Some of this is defined by organizational culture and norms around accepting requests from above, and some is based on the management style and personal expectations of your specific boss," Rollag said. "Evaluations of unreasonableness and 'being taken advantage of' are often built around our perceptions of fairness. The more we understand how often others are being asked to do additional tasks, the more we can bring fairness into our justification for pushback."

Rollag noted that you should also look for "reciprocal" boundaries. Your co-workers likely have different ideas of what is reasonable, and these differences can create opportunities to distribute extra work in a way that doesn't frustrate co-workers and bosses.

"You may find requests to work over the weekend unreasonable but are OK with coming in early or staying late on weekdays," Rollag said. "Another co-worker may be happy to do extra work on analyses and reports but find any request for making presentations too burdensome. By discussing and negotiating these reciprocal boundaries in advance, you can establish your desired boundaries and still be seen as a committed, loyal team member in the process."

When you do have to turn down a request, you can soften the blow by employing the "no, but" strategy. Rollag said a polite refusal immediately followed by a suggestion of something you are willing to do still shows respect and loyalty to the person who asked.

"Using 'no, buts' can help you say 'no' but still show commitment to your boss and co-workers," Rollag said. "For example, you can say, 'I'm sorry, I've already got plans this weekend and really can't commit to creating this presentation. But I would be able to review the slides and provide feedback on Sunday night if that would be helpful."

In both your work and personal lives, it's important to make sure you're communicating your responsibilities to others who rely on you — especially if there's an issue. Woodward noted that many times, people don't even realize they're violating your boundaries, unless you initiate a conversation about it.

"Set and communicate boundaries with both your work colleagues and your family," Woodward said. "Remember, if you don't set boundaries, someone else will."

Nicole Fallon Taylor
Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.