From leaning in a little too close during conversation to making crude remarks, co-workers can cross your personal boundaries in a number of ways. Boundaries are invisible lines you place around yourself to create a barrier of personal space, and no one should have to deal with the uncomfortable feelings and negative repercussions of having their boundaries crossed. If you have a co-worker who has been encroaching on your comfort zone, it's important to deal with the situation immediately before it escalates and affects your job performance -- or jeopardizes your safety.
Ask for Space
In some cases, your co-worker's intentions may be innocent, and she could be entirely oblivious to the fact that she's crossing your boundaries. For example, she may think it's harmless to lean over your shoulder to see what you're reading, but in reality, this action impacts your ability to focus and causes you discomfort. While it can be awkward to bring it to her intention, it's essential that you inform her that she's making you uncomfortable if you want the behavior to cease. Politely ask her to back up and give you some more personal space. Chances are, she'll comply and be more aware of your boundaries in the future.
Talk to Your Manager
If you've repeatedly asked a co-worker to give you space and made him aware of your boundaries to no avail, you may need to enlist your manager's help in dealing with the problem. Arrange a private, informal meeting with your supervisor and tell him about the situation. Provide examples of specific times the behavior occurred and times you've asked your co-worker to stop. Your boss can call your co-worker in and discuss the issue, or issue a reprimand if he deems it necessary. After being formally or informally warned, there is no reason your co-worker should continue to violate your personal space, and more serious measures will have to be taken to deal with the behavior if it persists.
File a Formal Complaint
Some forms of boundary-crossing can't be solved by asking someone to stop or asking your employer to informally warn a co-worker, including all forms of harassment. Harassment based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion or physical impairment is illegal and creates a hostile work environment for everyone. While offhand remarks are not prohibited by law, recurring incidences of harassment need to be dealt with seriously. File a formal complaint with your manager and make a written statement to be kept on-file with the company. Your manager will deal with the situation as he sees fit, but repeated incidences of harassment can lead to suspension or even termination for the co-worker responsible for the actions. In the event your manager is the person harassing you, you'll need to go above him and file a complaint with his boss.
Contact the EEOC
If your manager has failed to assist you in protecting your personal space -- or is the person crossing your boundaries -- you may need to take serious measures outside the company to deal with the problem. Contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a formal complaint at the federal level against your company for repeated incidences of harassment. The EEOC will evaluate your case and determine if your rights have truly been violated. If the EEOC finds sufficient evidence of harassment, they will take steps to secure a settlement for you from your employer. If no settlement can be reached, the EEOC will forward your case to their legal staff to determine if you have grounds to file a harassment lawsuit against your employer.
- Penn Behavioral Health Corporate Services: Management Assistance Program: Setting Boundaries at Work
- Federal Communications Commission: FCC Encyclopedia: Understanding Workplace Harassment
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: FAQs: If EEOC Finds I Was Discriminated Against, Will It Take the Case to Court on My Behalf?
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images