• Erin Kahlenberg

4 Steps to Honoring Your Boundaries at Work When They are Threatened

Almost everyone has had an experience where they’ve put boundaries in place, only to have them not respected. It’s important to remember that you’ve put these boundaries in place for a reason. They may be for your physical or mental health, to spend time with your kids or family, or time to work on passion projects or volunteer. Regardless of the reason why, they should absolutely be adhered to.

Let's start by taking a look at my story as an example:

I was at a point where I realized my health was in major decline. My burnout had gotten so bad that I was having multiple headaches per week, heart palpitations, so emotionally drained I was snapping at everyone, and making poor food choices because I felt I never had enough time. My wake up call was hearing my doctor tell me I needed to make lifestyle changes at age 32 because of high cholesterol.

My health was in a really bad place so my top priority became my physical and mental health, and I knew that spending time with my husband and fur babies was important for me to achieve this.

Now at work, I had been negotiating a promotion and raise. In the middle of those negotiations, I had a vacation scheduled. It was also my anniversary so I’d planned this big surprise for my husband with tickets to a Tenacious D concert. Welp – the second day into my vacation, the date of our actual anniversary, my boss texted me and said they were offering me a certain number and a certain title – this would be my raise. It was well below what I’d requested. He said he would send me a PDF that I would have to print, sign and send back by the end of the day.

At that moment I felt a lot of pressure to sign this thing, like I didn’t have a choice or time to negotiate. Especially because of the day they sent it to me. The more I talked about it with my husband the more and more angry I got. Here I am, on our anniversary, during a trip we had been planning for months, on approved paid vacation time and they are sending me a high pressure document to "just take care of real quick"...

I told them they had to suck it! In a professional way... of course!

I told them I wouldn’t be able to get it printed or get it back to them and to be completely frank, I didn’t really like the way it was being handled and would prefer to continue discussing this in person when I get back. I would also prefer that they not contact me again while I was on my paid time off. BOOM! That was the end of that conversation.

When I got back, they were VERY apologetic! Everything was handled and negotiated properly, I was able to get more for my promotion and I got the title that I wanted. Was that a delicate situation? Oh F*** yes. Was that an everyday situation? Absolutely not. But it also goes to show that even in more delicate situations you can still ask for your boundaries to be respected. It did not ruin the relationship, AND I got what I wanted.

So, how can you implement this yourself?

Step 1: Figure out what your priorities are.

I recommend doing journaling or writing a list as tools to figure out what’s important to you and why. This way, you fully understand your motivation and can explain it easily if it is not being respected.

So moving forward let's say as an example, your priorities are quality time with your family and time to recharge. Maybe you create a boundary at work that you don't take meetings after 4pm so you can wrap stuff up for the day and leave at 5pm. Perfect!

Step 2: Assess what impact this request might have on your priorities.

Someone is disrespecting your boundary with a request. With our example, you just got a calendar invite to a meeting at 4:30pm. What this means for you is that you will have to work later, possibly miss dinner with your family and have less time to yourself this evening. Is that worth it to you?

Step 3: Say no in a professional way.

If you’ve decided it's not worth sacrificing your priorities, then say no. You don’t have to be rude about it, but be firm and leave no room for interpretation.

Being polite doesn't mean you respond in a disempowered way by saying something like: “Oh hey! Could we maybe move this to another day because that would just work a little better for me. But if not that’s okay! Oh, you know what, never mind… just forget that I asked!”


Respond in an empowered way like: “I won’t be able to make it, here are some other times that I’m available.”

See the difference?

Step 4: If you get push-back, explain to them why it matters to them.

People inherently want to know what's in it for them, so show them that there is benefit for them as well.

So with our example again: “Look, I understand you may think there’s no wriggle room, but I’m really not going to be as focused if we meet during this time. I’ll be much more helpful to you and fresh minded if we schedule this for tomorrow morning.”

Real talk though: There will always be times where you have to bite the bullet and just do the task for whatever reason.

Such as in our example: maybe that is the only time the client was available to get on a call this week so there was no option to reschedule. It's frustrating, but such is life sometimes.

What you can do is talk to your boss the next morning about the issue so it is known that this boundary is important to you and work together to brainstorm how this issue can be avoided in the future.

So remember, you do have power in this relationship!

Don't diminish yourself when you can use your voice to ask for respect.

Far too often I hear people who want to leave their company saying things like "well I don't want to leave anyone hanging," or those who are leaving say "I gave 4 weeks for extra knowledge transfer time."

You do have purpose, you are important – or there would be no one left hanging, or knowledge that only you have.

Making the decision to leave IS using your voice. Submitting a resignation letter IS using your voice. So why not use it for those everyday annoyances that become the foundation of your resentment and dissatisfaction?

We have to teach others how we want to be treated.

And for those of you that are laughing at your screen right now saying things like "yeah right!," "I'll get in trouble in two minutes," or "that will never fly!" I have news for you.

If your company wants to continue to push a narrative on you about how they have the power and can make your life miserable, wouldn’t it be better to know that sooner rather than later? If that’s really how they operate, you’re going to be leaving one day anyway. It's not a good fit.

Don't constantly bend to others, not even employers. If you are, then you’re constantly giving them the keys to your happiness. Boundaries are how you take those keys back.