Establish and model boundaries for staff—you’ll be glad you did

Setting boundaries with your staff—and encouraging them to set boundaries at work—is the key to a happy, productive workplace.


Managers aren’t born–they’re made. A lack of training can make it tough to assert boundaries if someone in a leadership role hasn’t had the opportunity to learn and put these skills into practice. But with the proper guidance, they can get there, and everyone will be better off for it. Some boundaries are preventative, while others are responses to unproductive behaviors. Try to set as many preventative boundaries as possible to limit the creation of disciplinary boundaries.

Set clear expectations.

It may seem obvious: If your staff doesn’t understand what to do, when to do it, or how, their outcomes with not meet your expectations. So be sure each role is clearly defined, including expected output, hours clocked, and appropriate behaviors (including phone use, socializing, breaks, swearing, etc.). Institutionalize a weekly check-in to get ahead of potential problems rather than just meeting when there is an issue.

Swiftly deal with problems.

Even if your expectations are very clear and you know through your weekly check-ins that your employees understand them, humans can often slip up and violate your or the organization’s boundaries. Deal with those transgressions quickly. Don’t “see where it is going.” Instead, meet with the employee immediately, explain what you are seeing, and make a plan to correct it using SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) goals. 

Document your observations, meetings, and follow-ups so you can appropriately reward the person for getting on track or take further action if goals are not met.

Place importance on performance. 

While it’s true that fit, culture, and schedule are all critical to a productive and harmonious workplace, you should always prioritize performance. Be honest—is every employee meeting the performance expectations of their positions? Identify underperformers, and utilize the SMART cues mentioned while determining if the person is coachable. And of course, be sure they are interested in their own success. Harvard Business Review Contributing Editor Amy Gallo says, “You can’t coach someone who doesn’t agree that they need help. In the initial conversation — and throughout the intervention — it’s critical that the employee acknowledge the problem.”

In two similar case studies with very different outcomes, Gallo demonstrates that even with appropriate management intervention, not every employee is destined for success in their current role.

Create and use performance metrics.

Performance metrics are KPIs that benchmark and measure employee performance. These should be set by management for each role and used systematically. Performance metrics can help improve performance, of course, but can also reduce turnover and increase job satisfaction by setting clear expectations and boundaries. There are a number of ways to determine the right metrics for your organization and individual roles within it. Consider developing metrics within specific categories such as work quality, quantity, efficiency, organizational performance, training and improvement, and initiative.

Workplace Boundaries

Set and demonstrate professional boundaries.

As the manager, you should talk to your employees about expectations and behaviors, but the most effective way to lead is by example. Be transparent and communicative about your choices and responses so employees can look to you as a role model.

  • Keep relationships professional. Do not engage in gossip, excessive socializing, or drinking with your staff. Don’t touch people without their permission. Don’t yell, act out of anger, or get pulled into someone else’s drama.
  • If your culture encourages a work-life blend, then demonstrate that with flexibility around daycare, scheduling, and personal appointments. 
  • If you expect employees to have strong boundaries between work and home, don’t take personal calls or visitors at the office, and don’t send or respond to work emails in the evening.
  • Establish cues that your employees can emulate, like closing the door or putting on headphones when you need to concentrate, going out of earshot if you have to take a personal call, eating lunch away from your desk, and more.
  • Take your PTO and sick time, and encourage employees to take theirs. Use flexible staffing options like the ones we provide to fill in.

Employees deserve a strong career launching pad, which means setting them up with a clear roadmap to success, and examples to live by. If you are having trouble setting boundaries, look first at your own and how you enforce them. Then seek out training opportunities.

Creating a productive staff takes considerable investment from leaders—we know it can be tricky! It’s the core of our business as the specialty staffing partner to the print, packaging, and graphic communications industries. We offer flex, temp, and direct-hire staffing solutions. Register as a client today.