You may spend more time at work than you do with your family, but that doesn’t mean employees want to be treated like your family members. According to the 2019 Workplace Boundaries Report by Udemy, some workers are overstepping boundaries, and it’s making their co-workers very uncomfortable.

In an effort to make the workplace feel more like home, many companies are relaxing their rules. However, some workers think organizations have gone overboard in certain areas. For example:

  • 66% believe co-workers shouldn’t be allowed to bring pets to work
  • 65% believe that workout or athleisure clothes are not appropriate for work

When asked which behaviors make them uncomfortable, the survey respondents said these actions topped their list:

  • Gossiping too much: 53%
  • Talking about politics at work: 39%
  • Talking about romantic relationships: 32%
  • Using too much profanity at work: 31%

Those workplace hugs also appear to be unwanted:

  • 51% believe hugging does not belong in a professional environment
  • 31% have received an unwelcome hug in the workplace

And forget about expecting your manager to handle these awkward situations. According to the report, they’re also trying to navigate this new chummy work environment. When managers were asked about social work-related situations that would make them squirm:

  • 41% would be uncomfortable sharing a hotel room with a co-worker for a company event
  • 41% would be uncomfortable caring for a co-worker’s pet or child
  • 35% would feel uncomfortable going on a non-work-related trip with a co-worker

Managers also say they feel pressured to work through lunch or eat with co-workers, and they’re even more likely than employees to feel uncomfortable when co-workers talk about their romantic relationships or when profanity is overused at work

Workplace behavior issues can negatively affect performance, satisfaction, and productivity

The study reveals that some employees are “social butterflies.” These are the huggers who find certain workplace behaviors totally acceptable. On the other side, the “worker bees” are anti-huggers, and they are more likely to find certain behaviors less appropriate at work.

“Our new research found a ‘silent majority’ of workers who prefer to come to the office, get their work done, and skip the socializing,” says Cara Brennan Allamano, SVP of HR at Udemy.

She explains that this difference in work style can cause interpersonal conflict, employee distraction, and dissatisfaction. “While that might not sound like a big deal, unhappy, actively disengaged workers cost U.S. companies up to $550 billion per year,” Allamano explains.

According to Gallup, disengaged workers are more likely to call in sick and engage in employee theft, and they’re also more likely to share their pessimism with co-workers and customers.

“While organizations have long been working hard to transform their workplace cultures and physical environments to be more accommodating to millennial, and now Gen Z workers, there is a growing body of literature that questions the notion of stark generational differences across workforce age cohorts,” says Jonathan H. Westover, Ph.D., associate professor of organizational leadership at Utah Valley University.

“Simply put, pointing generally to generational differences is overly simplistic and fails to acknowledge the demographic complexities of various groups of workers.” And while it’s a good idea to know the broad generational differences among workers, Westover says there’s no substitute for HR and organizational leaders doing the hard work of actually knowing their employees and what matters most to them.

“In the post-Me Too era of business, many individuals are rightfully concerned about workplace communication and behaviors that could potential put themselves and their co-workers at risk.”

However, Westover says there is a high level of inconsistency in most organizations on how related issues will be dealt with, and many organizational leaders are ill-equipped to effectively deal with issues when they arise.

Tips for setting boundaries

Allamano says it’s unlikely to ever reach companywide consensus on acceptable workplace behavior. “Therefore, it’s up to leaders to help teams and individuals define their own boundaries and also get them thinking about their colleagues’ boundaries.”

However, since the report uncovered a silent majority, she recommends moving past assumptions. “Dig deeper to get an authentic picture of how employees feel about workplace behaviors — you may be surprised to learn there’s more tension in workplace interactions than you realized, but there are also opportunities to relieve that confusion.”

Creating a culture of helpful feedback can help with this process. “Nobody gets better at anything — including setting and communicating boundaries — without consistent feedback that is both reinforcing and constructive,” Allamano says. If your leaders aren’t doing this, she recommends coaching or training to develop this skill.

Westover agrees. “Companies need to incorporate appropriate training, as well as policies and procedures, and reinforce healthy and safe norms and values.”