Do Good Boundaries Make Good Co-workers?


Recently at work I was asked to scan some documents by someone who: 1) is not my boss, 2), is not in my department, and 3) knows how to use the scanner. This person, we’ll call him Stuart, is older and senior to me in terms of experience, but we are both part of our company’s small management team.

Stuart’s inquiry about the scanning was weird and oblique. He explained that he was in a rush to finish something by the end of the day, and “was there someone” who could help him scan a few pages from his notebook to send to a colleague? I was flustered and unsure what he was really asking. We work in a small office without any administrative staff; everyone does their own filing, scanning, and copying. I said there was no one really to ask. He persisted. I asked if he knew how to use the scanner. Yes, he did. Finally, wanting to help out, but more than anything not knowing how to refuse, I offered to do it for him. I then seethed about it the rest of the afternoon. I was outraged that he had asked me to do something so unrelated to my job; I wanted Stuart to think of me as a peer and to treat my time as equally valuable to his. I was also upset at myself for having volunteered to do it in the first place.

Much ink has been spilled, rightly, over the challenges that female executives cope with in order to earn and maintain leadership positions at the head of an organization. These are some of the highest-achieving women in our society, and even they are faced with subtle and often unacknowledged bias from bosses, colleagues, and boards. These challenges are no different for women in more junior positions, people still in the early- and mid-stages of their careers who are struggling with how to succeed. For many of these women, myself included, a core challenge we face is how to be perceived as competent while still being “likable.” The scanning episode revealed a related workplace complication: how do you go about being supportive and collaborative while maintaining boundaries about your role and responsibilities?

You could argue that I helped create the scanning situation. Stuart was a recent hire and, in the spirit of trying to be helpful, I’d taken on some training responsibilities and made myself very available to him for questions and support even about things unrelated to my core job function. I saw this as an all hands on deck moment and felt I should do my part. This is often referred to as “being a team player”: jumping in to help without being asked and recognizing that if the company succeeds, everyone succeeds. These are qualities I value in others, and therefore something I try to emulate. Beyond this motivation, there are definitely times where contributing in areas outside of our core roles is also simply the smart thing to do, either politically (ex., your boss really needs you to) or personally (ex., if it gives you an opportunity to stretch or do something new that you’ve been wanting to try).

But there is no question that this attitude at work can also be complicating, implying that you are accountable for things that are not actually part of your job. I have observed this to be more common with women, especially when working with men who are older than them – both factors in my situation as well. I noticed that another colleague of ours, senior to me in age and also at the management level, was always very clear about his boundaries. He couldn’t be counted on to volunteer to take on additional work outside of his department, which sometimes frustrated me, but I observed that no one was asking him to do their administrative work for them, either.

When I realized that I would really never ask a coworker who is also not in my department to help me with scanning, even if I were feeling pressed for time, it became obvious that I’d let my colleague cross a work boundary that I wasn’t comfortable with. I allowed it due to some combination of surprise, a true desire to be helpful, and discomfort explaining why I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help. I’m sure Stuart didn’t mean to offend, but the situation cast a bright light on what I want for myself at work: to have my time and responsibilities recognized as equally important and respected as other managers. I’m trying to redraw my work boundaries so that I can focus on those core responsibilities, and also to demonstrate and protect my value to my company. This situation may never come up again. If it does, I have some lines ready to deliver: “I’m sorry, I can’t help.” “I’m not the right person for this.” “This sounds like something you should talk to [name of person in his department] about.”

I already anticipate these are going to be hard for me to say, but I know I need to. I may sacrifice some likability to Stuart, but I’ll hate myself if I don’t.

Image: Quilt from Gee’s Bend



  1. Edward Marritz

    I love this. You’re quite courageous.

    Boundaries are so sensitive, aren’t they, especially when combined with the element of surprise ( like, “where did that come from?!). And yet, if I don’t set boundaries, clearly and hopefully with equanimity, I too can feel unappreciated and/or misunderstood. So, I get it. And I get that it’s a significant gender issue.

    • leda

      Boundaries are SO sensitive! And sometimes we cross them completely unintentionally. I think that’s what happened here, but it still upset me.

  2. Barbara Kasman

    Congratulations for having spotted this and being prepared on how to handle the future.

    Have you considered telling him now in a light manner (even playful or funny), that “you realize you crossed a line in your helpfulness…that you won’t be able to help him with administrative tasks, but you’d be glad to answer any question or help in other ways…that you’re sure he’ll understand especially because you’re a woman, helping in an administrative capacity isn’t appropriate. Perhaps he can repay the favor and help you with a like task?”
    Speaking to him now with humor, might avoid a tense moment in the future.

    • leda

      Barbara, I’ve often thought about this and I agree it’s a great way to defuse situations like these. I wish I were as good as these pointed, but funny, rejoinders as I would like to be. You have a great talent for them!

  3. Meredith Watts

    It’s true this is a problem women often face — being asked to do administrative tasks, order sandwiches, get coffee — by older co-workers who came up at a time when all the important players were men and all the support staff was women. Nonetheless, I think you are over-reacting. You said three important things: (1) you helped train and orient this new staff member in ways that are outside your core responsibilities as “part of the team;” (2) he’s new, and probably doesn’t know yet exactly what the contours of everyone’s areas of responsibility are, and (3) you had a true desire to be helpful.

    I would advise against approaching him about this and making a federal case out of it. Just let it go. Actions speak louder than words, anyway. When he sees what you really do, he will understand that you are not a Gofer. When he sees other staffers his age and station doing their own scanning, it will take care of itself.

    And if it doesn’t, have someone else explain to him that everyone at this office does his or her own admin work. Does he need help with learning any of the business machines? Maybe he really isn’t comfortable with scanning. I’m not.

    • leda

      I’m hardly making a federal case out of it! I acknowledge that by being helpful in his training, I put myself in a likely position for these types of requests. But as I wrote, he knows how to scan, and he knows everyone here does their own admin work. Why wouldn’t that apply to him? I don’t even work in his department!

      • Meredith Watts

        I think my reaction was informed — unfairly to you — by past circumstances in which women have made trouble for themselves by making a big deal about unintended slights. (What Amanda has told me are “microaggressions.”) I like to think that we maintain the upper hand when we can recognize these slights but rise above them. You know what I mean? I have not doubt that you will set a good example of being a consummate professional and that will eventually create your boundaries for you. Why give him this much power over you? This is one of the things that happens, and I’d like to see you girls be able to recognize it, resent it in the moment, but then put it in its boring, everyday place, let it go, and not let it drag you down. And I reiterate my points in my post that made this an unusual situation. If he does it again, sterner measures may be called for. Of course, you will draw the lines at that time. If you can do it without an emotional charge behind your words, you will really have won the battle.

        • leda

          I appreciate you clarifying and think I understand your initial comment much more clearly. And I don’t disagree with you. Sometimes in the moment, it’s very difficult to remain composed. I agree we need to be able to both be firm and rise above to win the battle without destroying ourselves.

        • Meredith,
          I hear what you are saying: “in which women have made trouble for themselves by making a big deal about unintended slights,” and I even completely agree with you about letting them slide off, but I sometimes see those micro-aggressions as paper-cuts that will bleed someone dry.

          There are many ways this colleague could have approached the scanning request that would have left Leda feeling like it was really a one time, desperate thing. Why is it always on us to be better and rise above? And in the moment, it is not always easy to distinguish the best choice of action.

          And it is really disturbing that – we as woman or any group – has to rise above. And yet, we do. And here we are a very privileged group having these issues. Sometimes a person has to actually push back, but we each have to determine when is the time to speak up.

          I once had to playfully agree to go to “Hooters,” because my vendor was egging me on about my sexuality without “saying” anything. (I hadn’t come out to him and he would NEVER have asked that if my boss was there.) My battle – do I playfully agree or tell him he is being completely inappropriate? If I tell him he is being completely and utterly unprofessional- am I making too much “trouble” or if I let it slide and show it doesn’t bother me am I being complacent and allowing his behaviour to continue.
          This may seem like an obvious one to you, but it made a plethora of emotions go through me in the moment and it wasn’t an easy one for me.

          I think Leda was just expressing that everyday we have to make these choices: when to act out, when to let it slide, when to help out but draw clear boundaries and all the other myriad of configurations that lend themselves to each moment. It isn’t always clear and it can be hard to draw lines.

          But honestly, if we make trouble – so be it. Let it be made.

          • CK


            I feel compelled to respond to your comment and second your parting thought – “But honestly, if we make trouble – so be it. Let it be made.”

            Maybe it isn’t appropriate in the situation Leda wrote about but, in my opinion, it would certainly be appropriate in the Hooters situation you briefly describe.

            When someone transgresses boundaries in such a way, the person responding isn’t “making trouble.” The person who transgressed the boundary in the first place already made the trouble – all the other person is doing is acknowledging or responding.

            I personally am so tired of apologizing for perceived “non-feminine” actions in the workplace – things that males would be lauded for – and always, always, always feeling like the guilty party. I’m tired of rising above, of taking it, of swallowing my instinctive responses.

            So, I’ve taken a new tack. When I am faced with a situation like the Hooters one, I just say, “Wow, that was inappropriate.” * and remain silent afterward. It’s painful but boy, does it work.

            *All credit for this advice – in a different context – goes to Captain Awkward. YMMV

          • leda

            Claire, thanks for commenting. “Wow, that was inappropriate” is wonderfully simple. Keep not apologizing!

          • leda

            Rebecca, as you already know, I admire your trouble-making spirit. Thanks for your wonderful comment.

  4. Amanda

    I agree this is a tricky issue. I too struggle with being a younger female member of a team, and wanting to be liked and to be helpful while also maintaining my boundaries. At my work, the male team members who want me to do work not appropriate to my role are almost entirely doctors, and I am a social worker, which gives them extra professional authority.

    I think all we can do is to be prepared for people asking us to do things that we aren’t supposed to do, and just keep firmly but politely drawing the boundaries. Having simple responses at the ready is great, and making an effort to sound cheerful rather than offended probably contributes a lot to maintaining our likability.

    I’m sure my professional role contributes to the issue (social worker v. doctor) in terms of what I’m asked to do. But the likability part seems uniquely female. I have a male social work colleague who is certainly asked to do things outside his role, but I don’t think he cares about being liked when he says no.

    It’s too bad we still need to worry about these kinds of things. It’s rare (for me) to encounter overt sexism in interpersonal reactions these days (street harassment notwithstanding) thanks to the work of our mothers’ generation, so I completely understand the shock and ensuing seething.

    • leda

      Thanks for commenting, Amanda! I agree with all of your points. I have since been much clearer with Stuart about boundaries and, I’m relieved to report, it seems to be helping.

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