There’s an aspect of culture that almost all managers lie about during job interviews – and that’s how fast they expect you to respond outside of regular working hours.
I’ve yet to see a job posting that states, “This position requires you to be on call 24/7. Don’t think that just because it’s Saturday evening and you’ve got Taylor Swift Tickets that your boss won’t demand you drop everything and do that report!”
Nope. They talk about their great work-life balance and flexible schedules!
Some bosses are great and don’t disturb you unless it is a true emergency, while others consider everything to be an emergency and expect you to respond right now.
Can you effectively build boundaries if you’ve got the latter for a boss? Maybe.
I’d love to give a resounding yes, but some bosses are beyond reason and not trainable. But others, you can handle, and here’s what you need to do.
Rules vs. boundaries
Many people mess these up and think they are setting boundaries, but in reality, they are just creating rules. A rule is just that – a rule and people often treat rules like speed limits: something they’ll comply with if there’s a police officer in the area, but otherwise, they do what they want.
When you tell your boss, “Don’t contact me after 5 p.m. or on weekends,” you’re making a rule. And you have no authority to make rules – you’re the employee after all – and your boss will go speeding right past it.
A boundary, on the other hand, is about behavior. Your behavior, not that of your boss.
So, a boundary would look like this: “I turn my work phone off when I leave the office, so I won’t be reachable.” And then you do just that.
That’s a boundary. Your boss can try to violate it, but if your phone is off; it’s off.
You can choose whatever boundary works for you.
“I’ll check my email occasionally, but I’ll only respond in the case of a true emergency.”
Or: “I turn my phone off when I go to sleep so anything after that will wait until morning.”
But the key point in boundaries is carrying them out. You can say, “I won’t check my phone on the weekend,” but if you keep checking your phone on the weekend, you haven’t set a boundary. You’ve just set a rule that even you aren’t following.
Setting realistic work-life boundaries
Just what is a reasonable expectation in a job? Well, that depends on the job. If you work in public relations and one of your clients goes viral for a very bad thing, you must set aside everything and fix it, even if you have the aforementioned Taylor Swift tickets. It’s tough, but that’s your job.
But, if you work as a grocery store cashier, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that your time off is your time off and you’ll be in the next time you’re on the schedule.
You need to determine what is reasonable for your job and industry. A general rule is that the more money you earn, the more responsive you’re expected to be. Sometimes that gets flipped, and managers expect their entry-level people to bust their buns at all times, but that shouldn’t be the case. Push back.
So, it’s not just about setting a boundary and keeping to it; it’s about setting a reasonable boundary.
A great time to talk about work-life boundaries is after you’ve gotten a job offer and before you accept it. Make it clear what you’ll do and see how they react.
If they react negatively, that’s a good sign that this isn’t the job for you. If they react positively at that point and later push back, you can refer back to the original conversation. “If you recall, I told you I won’t be available on weekends, and you agreed.”
When a rule smash occurs
So, you let your boss know you don’t work weekends and you get an urgent phone call or text message anyway. How do you handle it?
- Evaluate: Is this a true emergency or can it wait?
- If it’s a true emergency caused by unpredictable events: Handle it.
- It’s a true emergency caused by other’s failure to plan: Evaluate if this is the hill you want to die on. It’s easy to say you won’t fix it, but there can be real consequences to your career.
- If it’s not a true emergency: Say, “This can wait until Monday.” And then wait until Monday.
Now, the problem with handling the true emergency caused by someone else is that they will expect you to do it again and again.
But if you can anticipate these emergencies, set the rule early so that you can see this is going down a bad path and, therefore, you will not be available, and then don’t be. Turn your phone off. Don’t answer. Don’t let anything get marked as read.
If your boss freaks out when you refuse to handle something that isn’t an emergency, you’ll have to remain firm. Handle it first thing when you’re back at work.
And if your boss punishes you for this? Well, then you’ll have to make a decision: Is this job worth it? Because sometimes that answer is yes, and sometimes it’s no.
If you are consistent in holding your boundaries on non-emergency events and responding to true emergencies caused by unpredictable circumstances, most rational bosses and coworkers will learn to take a chill pill.
But some people won’t, and sometimes those people fire you for not being a “team player.” And then you have to make a choice.
Whatever you choose is fine – do what’s best for you. But, unfortunately, sometimes firmly-held work-life boundaries don’t go over well with boundary stompers. It would be great if we could set boundaries and hold them, and everyone would get in line.
But sometimes, the only way to do that is to go no contact. That works for bad mothers-in-laws, but you need your paycheck, so you may have to bend until you can find a new job if your boss falls in that category.
It’s never an easy balance, but it’s made easier if you set expectations by establishing clear work-life boundaries ahead of time – and perhaps you won’t have to find yourself in this quagmire to begin with.
Frequently asked questions
- What distinguishes rules from boundaries in the workplace?
- In the workplace, rules are externally imposed guidelines that employees are expected to follow, similar to speed limits. They're often set by management and are subject to enforcement or oversight. In contrast, boundaries are personal standards that individuals set for themselves, relating to how they will behave or what they will accept in their professional life. For instance, a rule might be a company policy that prohibits contacting employees after work hours, while a boundary is a personal decision to not respond to work emails during the weekend.
- How can one effectively establish boundaries with an overly demanding boss?
- Setting boundaries with a demanding boss involves clear communication and consistency. It's important to be explicit about your limits, such as not being available for work calls after a certain hour. This communication should be done respectfully but firmly, ensuring that your boss understands your stance. Consistency in adhering to these boundaries is key; if you occasionally break them, it might signal to your boss that these limits are flexible. Balancing firmness with professionalism is crucial in these interactions.
- Do acceptable boundaries change depending on your job role?
- Yes, boundaries can and often do vary based on the nature of one's job. For example, someone in a high-responsibility or crisis management role might need to be more available outside of standard work hours compared to someone in a more routine or non-emergency role. Understanding the demands and expectations of your specific role is crucial in setting realistic and appropriate boundaries. This understanding can help in negotiating these boundaries with your employer, especially during the job acceptance phase.
- What is the recommended approach to handling work-related emergencies during personal time?
- When faced with a work emergency outside of regular hours, the first step is to evaluate the urgency and importance of the situation. If it's a genuine emergency that requires immediate attention, it may be necessary to address it. However, it's important to distinguish between a true emergency and a lack of planning on someone else's part. Consistently responding to non-emergencies can set a precedent that undermines your boundaries. It's crucial to be discerning and to communicate your rationale clearly when deciding not to engage in work outside of regular hours.
- What steps should one take if a boss consistently disrespects their boundaries?
- If a boss continually disrespects your boundaries, it's important to first reaffirm those boundaries clearly and calmly. Remind them of any previous agreements or discussions regarding your availability. If the situation doesn't improve, it may be necessary to reassess your position in the job, weighing the importance of the job against the impact on your personal life and wellbeing. In some cases, looking for a job with a culture that better respects employee boundaries might be the best course of action.