Setting values-based boundaries at work

i love your boundaries illustration
Illustration by Katie Daugherty

When I talk to people about my career in tech, without a doubt, the most common questions are about how I can maintain my integrity as a Muslim in this environment. How can I observe hijab while working directly with so many men? What do I do if meetings are in the pub and everyone else is drinking alcohol? Don’t I feel weird sneaking off to pray my salat all the time?

This answer will shock those people, but a situation is only as awkward as you make it. Most people really don’t care that you’re fasting or would rather stay in a separate hotel room than share a house with everyone else. If you treat it as no big deal and are honest and upfront about what you need, they’re not going to think you’re a weirdo for having different needs than everyone else. But you’ll raise some eyebrows if you yourself feel awkward about needing to pray, don’t say anything, and just sneak off.

Be sure to read our interviews with Zuzana, Rahma, and Marwa to learn how they feel comfortable owning their Muslim identity at work.

Setting boundaries based on your personal values will go a long way in helping you feel comfortable in awkward situations. I’m grateful that my company, HappyPorch, is so genuinely interested in respecting boundaries and making everyone feel welcome and comfortable. I know that not everyone has that experience at work; but, everyone needs to find their boundaries and practice setting them. Even if they don’t share your personal boundaries, your colleagues will respect your efforts to establish and professionally communicate them. More importantly, you will respect yourself more for not compromising your values.

4 ways to set your personal boundaries at work without feeling guilty

1. Know your core values.  

What are the values that if you went against them, you would feel worse about yourself later? Would it be missing your daily prayers? Staying in a house full of non-mahrams? What about attending a work event where there will be alcohol?

Make a list of things you’re definitely ok with, things that are ok depending on the context, and things that you’re absolutely not comfortable with at all. Having your values written and well defined will help you reaffirm your boundaries with a clear head without emotions getting in the way. 

2. Communicate your boundaries clearly and professionally

Once you establish your limits, you’ll need to openly and honestly communicate them to your colleagues. Be open right from the beginning, if you’re able, so that there are no surprises. If your colleagues are unaware that you don’t drink alcohol, suddenly dropping out of the meetup at the pub will look much stranger than if they already knew.

Everyone at my company fills out a User Manual with questions like conditions I like to work in, the best ways to communicate with me, and the things I need to work at my best level. Having a document like this is a great way to tell people about you and your boundaries without coming off as intimidating or too demanding. 

3. Explain your boundaries rationally 

If someone asks you why something makes you uncomfortable, you’re not required to explain. “No” is a complete sentence. 

However, if you decide to give more details, try to frame your answer with concrete reasons rather than subjective ones from your personal perspective. “I can’t take on this project because I feel too stressed” sounds whiny. “I can’t take on project X because I’m already working on project Y, and the working on X will delay my progress. Which project has a higher priority?” sounds much more professional and gives your colleague a chance to stop and reevaluate what she’s asking you to do. 

4. Prepare yourself for when your boundaries get pushed

You defined your boundaries, clearly communicated them to your company, and gave solid explanations for why you need these boundaries. Someone will still probably attempt to violate your boundaries at some point anyway. Even they have a harmless excuse, something like this can trigger a lot of emotions in us. Unleashing a storm of negative feelings on our colleagues won’t help the situation. We can get ahead of our emotions by visualizing our reactions to triggering situations and create a plan of action. Imagine Neil asked you to stay late to finish off a project. Instead of feeling irritated that he never checks your schedule and doesn’t respect your time, imagine yourself calmly saying, “Sorry Neil, I need to pick up my kids now. I’ll work on it first thing tomorrow.”

If someone violated your boundaries, it’s best to say something right away. Not reinforcing your boundaries at the moment they get attacked will make them lose their power. If your colleagues are backbiting and you don’t want to get involved, it’s better to tell them right away than sit and think about it for weeks. 

If you feel like your colleagues don’t respect your boundaries and constantly violate them, it’s healthier for you to leave such a toxic environment. The people around us are out of our control; we can only control ourselves and our reactions. We can’t force people to respect our limits, but we can respect ourselves by setting boundaries and taking appropriate action if they get abused. 

Have you ever been in an uncomfortable situation at work? How did you deal with it? Let us know in the comments.

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