Lesson 10: Behavior in Different Workplace Environments - Professionalism and Boundaries


Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this lesson's material, students will be able to:

  • Recognize own prejudices, biases, and assumptions and understands the impact of diversity in the work place.
  • Understand the importance of boundary setting.
  • Learn how to set and maintain boundaries.
  • See differences in people as valuable and potential assets and act without bias.



Boundaries involve setting behavioral limits during workplace interactions. Boundaries establish what is acceptable workplace behavior and how this behavior affects the way workers communicate with one another. Boundaries also establish rules. They are beneficial in the workplace because they help workers understand their individual roles and responsibilities.

Boundaries help individuals understand their limits in the workplace, which in turn, helps to maintain focus on individual tasks. With clearly defined boundaries, workers understand their assignments and who to report to for help. Boundaries allow the workplace to function adequately, even with limited supervision.

Employers who set boundaries related to breaks, electronic communications and the interpersonal and social environment within the workplace define acceptable behavior related to these topics. For example, employees who are not allowed to use the Internet while at work can only use their computers for work-related tasks. Boundaries set by policy outline the possible consequences for violating company policies and help keep workers focused on their jobs.

How to Best Keep Professional Work Boundaries

Effective Communication

Firm boundaries, such as prohibiting inappropriate language or verbal abuse in the workplace, help keep the work environment pleasant and professional. Workers are encouraged to speak in a respectful manner that is not condescending or abusive. With clearly defined boundaries regarding communication, workers utilize the appropriate tone and language with one another, which improves workplace interactions.

Inappropriate Behavior

Boundaries discourage inappropriate behavior by setting rules of conduct within the workplace. Codes of conduct define what behavior is appropriate on the job and what behavior is unacceptable. For example, boundaries establish standards regarding physical interactions so workers do not touch one another inappropriately. Boundaries also help employers develop procedures for disciplinary action for workers who violate codes of conduct.


According to educators at the University of California, San Francisco, "When we talk about needing space, setting limits, determining acceptable behavior, or creating a sense of autonomy, we are really talking about boundaries. It is a general misconception that having good boundaries will distance you from others. However, the truth is that when you know where you end and others begin, you can closely engage with others because you will not feel overwhelmed or unprotected."

Boundaries are important in the workplace because they define the limits and responsibilities of the people with whom you interact in the workplace. When workplace boundaries are clearly defined, the organization works more efficiently. Setting proper boundaries can result in a sense of accountability for all staff members. Job responsibilities can be more precisely assigned, and job performance can be more accurately measured.

Boundaries are the invisible lines that are drawn to help define roles and interactions in relationships. When these lines are crossed, negative consequences may result. Having weak boundaries or no boundaries at all is as debilitating as violating boundaries.

Violation of boundaries, weak boundaries or no boundaries can cause an unhealthy work environment with:

  • Poor performance
  • Workplace bullying
  • Low morale
  • Reduced motivation to take on additional tasks or responsibilities
  • Over-worked employees
  • Disrespectful staff
  • Sexual harassment
  • Acts of violence
  • Legal liability

Boundary Definitions

  • Letting people know the affect their behavior has on you.
  • The lines that we draw that help us define our roles and interactions in relationships.
  • The ability to know where you end and where another person begins.

Types of Boundaries

  • Job Responsibility Boundaries - Individual job responsibilities and duties.
  • Interpersonal Boundaries – Interaction with co-workers and managers in the work place.
  • Personal Boundaries – Special/individual boundaries.

© 2008, PENN Behavioral Health Page 3 Management Resources

Understanding the Importance of Boundary Setting

Setting boundaries in the workplace, whether job responsibility, interpersonal, or personal boundaries, is important to maintaining good productivity and social dynamics in the work place environment. Without boundaries, there are no firm guidelines for behavior. When professional boundaries and priorities have been clearly defined, a group can function more effectively in the workplace.

Most companies and organizations have a code of ethics or fixed rules of behavior. For example, many companies state that all employees must work at least 8 hours a day, employees must ask for approval before taking time off, and must call to speak with a manager or co-worker when calling in sick. Other companies have strict rules pertaining to privacy issues: personal information must not be shared, no cameras are allowed in the workplace, and proprietary information must be locked up each night. The majority of companies also have a code of ethics that outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior. These fixed rules of behavior are company boundaries that help keep every member of the company on the same page. In addition to the set company guidelines, managers need to create specific boundaries for their staff, and employees and managers must establish interpersonal and personal boundaries for themselves.

Having rigid or no boundaries can cause negative consequences, violence being the most extreme. If employees feel as though they have been betrayed or taken advantage of, violent behavior i.e. physical attacks, murder, or sexual harassment, could be one result. Weak or no boundaries could also result in low morale, poor performance, and even legal liability. Firm rules must be established, and certain violations of boundaries such as lying, stealing, or physically abusing a co-worker should not be tolerated.

Mary Sabney and George Gafner address the prevalence of boundary crossing in the health care environment. According to their article, "health care workers, though motivated by good intentions, occasionally cross the invisible line drawn between helper and the person being helped." The article highlights a situation where a social worker became personally involved with two of her alcoholic patients. One of the patients relapsed and beat her up, and the other brought a sexual harassment law suit against her soon after their relationship ended.

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Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

When professional boundaries and priorities have been clearly defined, a group can function more effectively in the workplace. If each team member understands what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, the workplace will be a more productive environment. Managers must define the boundaries. An effective manager understands that failing to define boundaries, having no boundaries, or having rigid boundaries can have a negative impact on the organization.

Job Responsibility Boundaries

Job responsibility boundaries refer to boundaries that a manager needs to set for each staff member. An individual's professional boundaries should be created based on his or her basic responsibilities and reporting relationships. When a manager clearly defines their employee's role and responsibilities, it establishes accountability and leaves little room for excuses and blame. For example, a staff member cannot legitimately blame another employee for his or her poor job performance.

For employees, professional boundaries become more clearly defined when you can answer these questions satisfactorily:

  • Who gives you your assignments?
  • To whom do you report?
  • Who gives you feedback?
  • Who sets your work priorities?
  • How is your company and client personal information kept secure?
  • Do you know how to treat all staff members fairly without positive or negative feelings influencing your decisions?

These questions help employees understand their work role boundaries. For instance, employees should always check with their manager before taking on tasks from a person they do not report to. Make a rule that when someone requires your assistance for a task, they must ask your manager for permission. This will allow the employee to meet his or her specific job duties and obligations in addition to other company needs.

Katrina Katsarelis suggests the following items below to help establish and maintain boundaries in the workplace:

  • Pushing Boundaries
    • Once you set boundaries, let people know when they are asking too much. "If a co-worker says, 'I'll call you later tonight to discuss this project,' you can simply say 'please don't call me after 6pm'."
  • The Right Way to Say No
    • The wrong way to say no is the passive aggressive approach of taking on too many projects and just not doing them. A "No" needs to be made very clear. "Without limits it becomes very difficult to say no to requests and honor your own needs."
  • Ask For What You Need
    • When you are nearing your workload limit, enlist the help of supervisors, coworkers and subordinates. If you need additional staff or assistance to help you manage your growing workload, present your boss with the problem and a solution.

Interpersonal Boundaries

In addition to job responsibility boundaries, interpersonal boundaries should be negotiated in the workplace because "professional and interpersonal boundaries substantially impact workplace productivity and the quality of social environment."

Interpersonal Boundary parameters include:

  • The tone people use with one another.
  • The attitude and approach co-workers use with each other.
  • The ability to focus on work objectives even with people you do not like or with whom you are having a personal conflict.
  • The ability to effectively set limits with others who have poor boundaries.
  • Clearly defining consequences when a boundary is violated and sticking to it.

Interpersonal boundaries can also include limiting work conversations and e-mails to appropriate topics, i.e. no sexual or personal topics, no discussion of salaries, and no hanging of offensive or religious photographs in your office. Again, this is usually included in company policies, but it would not hurt for managers to reiterate this information to their staff.

Interpersonal boundaries must be created so co-workers can work together productively, which in turn, profits the organization. When people have weak interpersonal boundaries, workplace bullying can occur. An individual may be constantly taken advantage of because he or she has not created boundaries. If that employee does not speak up nor lets his or her co-workers know they are being disrespectful, the behavior will continue. When your boundaries are weak, you may attract needy or disrespectable people who will devour the time and energy you need for your family and work.

Personal Boundaries

Setting personal boundaries can also result in a better workplace and an emotionally healthy employee.

In the age of technology, employees are faced with a double-edged sword. They have unlimited means of communications, but are also burdened with the responsibility of being "online" and available at all times. "High tech tools can ease work pressure, but beware: by enabling instantaneous round-the-clock communications, such gadgetry can also trap managers into remaining on the job at all times, in all places." It is important to set personal boundaries to allow yourself time away from work.

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Establishing Boundaries

Once you identify the need for boundaries, it is important to establish your own explicit boundaries as goals, recognizing that the boundaries are not rigid barriers but guidelines for behavior.

  • Draw distinct boundaries between family time and work time.
  • Force yourself to leave your blackberry/cell phone/pagers/laptops at home when you're not working.
  • Make firm vacation plans well in advance; sit down each year at the end of December to plan personal trips – that way they are scheduled on the calendar.
  • Be flexible: A flexible attitude is essential. You are ultimately on the same team trying to accomplish day-to-day tasks. If you are willing to work late during occasional crunch times, chances are your employer will be more receptive to letting you leave early for an occasional school play.

Violating Boundaries

When job responsibility boundaries, interpersonal boundaries or personal boundaries are violated there should be consequences. In most cases, these issues are left to the discretion of the manager and employee.

Proper procedures for serious violations are usually outlined in the company's employee manual. While the consequences depend on the severity of the action, serious boundary violations such as sexual harassment, physical or mental abuse, lying, and cheating should not be tolerated.

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  • Establish firm work role boundaries for each of your staff members so each person understands his or her obligations.
  • Make a list of job responsibilities, interpersonal, and personal boundaries, and abide by them.
  • Know your limits. Know what you want. To protect yourself from going "overboard," be organized and on top of your commitments, including knowing yourself and your strengths to give accurate estimates of timeframes.
  • Tactfully and openly communicate your goals and limits.
  • When boundaries have been violated, address the issues as soon as possible in a clear controlled and positive manner.
  • When communicating boundaries use assertive language regarding the observed behaviors, concerns regarding those behaviors and the consequences of continuance.
  • Be available to discuss differences of views to achieve compromise and agreements.
  • When you are nearing your workload limit, enlist the help of supervisors, coworkers and subordinates. If you need additional staff or an assistant to help you manage your growing workload, present your boss with the problem and a solution.
  • Violations of boundaries should be handled efficiently. Serious offenses should not be tolerated.


In this section you will find a list of the required Assessments that accompany this Lesson. The Lesson Discussions are designed for the ONLINE and HYBRID versions of this course. If you are not in an ONLINE or HYBRID version of this course you can ignore these instructions unless otherwise guided by your instructor.

Lesson 10 Discussion

Provide five examples of boundary violations that you have personally observed, witness, committed or heard about. How could the differences that were identified in these violations be instead viewed as an asset?