Monday, May 17, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Boundaries for a Woman at Work

 Dear Aunt Dorcas,

What are some good guidelines for interacting with men in the workplace? I work for a business where my interactions are primarily male. I enjoy what I do, but at the same time, I think/worry about crossing professional boundaries.

This is in the context of mostly married men. I grew up without a lot of male interactions, so I feel like I’m navigating new territory in some ways. Some ways that I’ve tried to think about this in the past: I try not to say anything that I would not say if his wife was standing right there, especially if we are talking about my personal life.

I am a very outgoing, cheerful person. This seems to add an extra challenge. In turn, people seem to feel safe with me. Just today, I had a conversation one on one and later I wondered if it was okay for him to tell me that.

What about messaging outside of work? Is it okay if its casual? For example, if someone sends me a message like, “You wanna come join us for supper tonight?” or “I appreciate your cheerful personality in the front office.”

Do we cross boundaries if the messages get too personal as in, "I think I miss you when I’m gone," or "I don’t wanna play favorites at work, but girl! You’re pretty awesome!"

Can I ever trust my gut? This feels okay/this doesn’t feel okay? I’m sure that there are things and situations that vary. But seems like there are some pretty standard things to keep in mind. From your repertoire of wisdom, what would you say to me? Where does blessing each other as people come into play? Does Jesus' life in the New Testament give us any insight? He certainly wasn’t afraid of women!



Dear Katie—

I showed your question to some of my adult children who have more experience in the workplace than I do. Our son Ben said, “Instead of answering her question, you need to clarify the context. I don’t know what she’s asking, which means she probably doesn’t know what she’s asking.”

I’m guessing you’ve been embarrassed, accused, or otherwise burned by personal experiences you can’t share publicly. You are naturally friendly and engaging, but you know that a woman being too friendly with men at work can get complicated and end badly.

Reading between the lines, I think you are a caring person who can be fully trusted.

You know your heart and intentions, but you also know others can only see your actions.

The obvious question is your first one—" What are some good guidelines for interacting with men in the workplace?” But other questions are implied: “Are my words going to be misconstrued? Is my behavior appropriate? If someone thinks I’m flirting, does that automatically mean I am? Am I responsible if someone texts me inappropriately? Where, exactly, is that invisible line that has loads of trouble waiting on the other side?

As a housewife, I can’t answer you as someone who’s been in the work world. However, I can share my experience as a writer, an observer, and a wife and mom of people in the work force.

I meet and hear from both men and women. I’ve had many conversations with male readers, and I accept facebook friend requests and messages from men. My husband is free to read all those messages. I’ve learned to quickly sniff out who is a nice, interested reader as opposed to what my children irreverently call a SOOM—Slightly Obsessed Old Man.

Those are the ones who shake my hand a little too long and gush a little too much at book signings. Or they send a nice message about an article, and then the next message says my husband is such a lucky man. Out you go, Sir.

I also share your trait of being someone that people confide in, which carries its own rewards and dangers. Again, experience has helped me discern what’s ok and what’s not. I’m not able to give needy people lots of my time, unfortunately, and no man gets very far telling me about his troubled marriage.

I created my current boundaries gradually after learning that I can’t be all things to all readers and that certain words give instant clues that a man is a SOOM.

You asked if you can trust your gut. My answer is yes. That’s what I do, but my gut has been informed by long experience, input from others, and a commitment to Jesus and my marriage.

Your dilemma comes from a number of factors, I think.

1.     You’re naturally a bubbly, caring person, and people confide in you.

2.     The rules at work don’t seem to be clearly defined.

3.     You worry that your intentions will be misconstrued and your words taken wrong.

4.     You feel responsible for how you’re perceived and how others respond to you.

5.     Your work life seems to overlap with your life outside of work. For example, an employee invites you over for dinner, and people text you outside of work.

The first boundary to draw here is around your own heart. Only you can know what your motives and intentions are. You can define your goals in your work relationships, evaluate messages and conversations, ask for help, and know if your conscience is clear. You have the power to adjust and change.

Then, I feel you need to consult a source outside of yourself for defining expectations at your workplace. If your boss can’t be troubled with this, talk to friends in similar situations or look up sources online. A list of rules at similar workplaces might clarify things for you.

My kids with jobs out in the big world said that their policy is to not mix work life and personal life at all. However, this can get fuzzy if you’ve gotten to know people so well that conversation is easy and you know about their babies, political views, family crises, and so on. Also, if you go to the same church, or an employee is married to your cousin, a list of rules makes less sense.

Here’s where we hit that strange swamp of intentions and perceptions. You are obviously responsible for your intentions, but are you responsible for how they take your words?

On the one hand, we have the people who like to tease and joke annoyingly and hurtfully. When you finally confront them, they say, “Hey, I was just joshin’ ya. I didn’t mean anything by it!” We don’t care about their intentions. We just want them to take responsibility for how they come across.

But then there’s the guy who sent you the [inappropriate] text that you’re so awesome. If you confront him, I would bet money he’ll insist you flirted that morning by offering him a cup of coffee, and how was he supposed to know you didn’t mean a whole lot of other things by doing that?

You both know your intentions were honorable, and it isn't wrong to offer a cup of coffee. That's what really matters here.

I’m guessing you’re Mennonite, although I don’t know for sure, and I want to insert here that in Mennonite male-female relationships, women have borne far too large a burden for how both men and women interpret their words and actions. A friendly girl who likes to talk to the guys is often accused of flirting. That was the case when I was young, limiting my skills in having normal talks with guys. My youngest daughter informs me that that standard still applies.

At best, this makes for awkward conversations fraught with self-consciousness. At worst, it makes women responsible for men’s sins. Some of us find conversations with non-Mennonite men easier, more comfortable, and less stressful.

So, you need to be aware of the culture you’re in and how you’re coming across, and adjust accordingly, but you can’t change someone’s heart. Someone with an evil heart will interpret anything you do or say through their own lens.

Finally, give yourself grace. Maybe you were needlessly nervous or you shared too freely. You can learn from your mistakes and do it differently next time. You mentioned Jesus and his relationship to women. If your heart is guided by Jesus and accumulated wisdom, you’ll be able to read a situation and respond appropriately. Eventually, you won’t need to rely on a list of rules or on feedback from others. You’ll be the blessing you want to be, both in the workplace and outside of it.

That’s what I think. I wish you all the best.

Aunt Dorcas

PS—I shopped your question around to my kids to get a variety of perspectives. Here are some of those conversations.


Our daughter Jenny is about to graduate from college with a degree in mathematics. Originally, her major was engineering, so she’s been in male-dominated classes for years. She’s also done lots of formal and informal tutoring. When she and Amy were both at Linn-Benton Community College, Amy said she’d sometimes walk across campus and see a picnic table full of nerdy engineering majors, with Jenny teaching them how to do their physics homework.

“So,” I asked her, “How did you navigate good boundaries in this setting?”

She said, “One benefit I had is that none of the guys felt like options. Me being ‘religious’ and them being non-religious created a barrier. I’d never talk about personal stuff or crushes like I would with girls.”

“I didn’t agonize about if the stuff they told me was too personal. What they tell me isn’t my problem unless it’s something I’d rather not know, then I’d let them know I was uncomfortable.”

“I often ended up in an informal tutoring role. We’d work on homework together. Often I’d figure things out and explain them to everyone else. Apparently I was notorious for not just giving out the answer. My friend Brian was talking to another friend about me and said, ‘Yeah, you can ask Jenny for help, but she’ll still make you work for it.’”

“There were a couple of times I felt uncomfortable with how close they seemed to feel to me. I never felt like it was my fault. I just tried to avoid them for a while, not in a rude way, but just intentionally not being where I knew they’d be.”

I asked, “Do you feel like Mennonite culture makes heavy weather of girls talking to guys?”

Jenny said, “When I talk to a Mennonite guy, there’s this thing in the back of my mind—ooooh are you being flirtatious?? I even make the same judgment about other Mennonite girls when they like to talk to guys.”

“Overall, it’s fine to be friends with guys and talk about things, but don’t get emotionally invested, and the deepest matters of the heart you should discuss with close female friends.”


Ben is a grad student studying combustion at Oregon State University. I asked him about relating to women at work/school.

“There’s not that many women in my field. I guess there’s one woman in my lab. I don’t get that personal with the people I work with. Some of them do stuff together outside of work, but I have more outside friends so I don’t as much.”

I asked, “Did female students make you uncomfortable?”

Ben said, “No. We’d mostly talk about school related stuff, maybe have a discussion on how we all solved #5.”


Matt is our oldest son. He used to work for the Navy and now works for NASA. Phoebe is our daughter-in-law and has worked in a variety of settings, including jobs in Washington, DC. They focused more on situations that make you uncomfortable. Phoebe emailed the following:

A lot of the boundaries one might set in the workplace have to do with personal comfort levels, not absolute right and wrong. Personally, I’ve leaned toward sharing minimal personal information at work. I can say, “ I’m not comfortable sharing that.” Or “I don’t share that kind of information at work.” I can also change the subject. That goes for men and women.

It’s difficult to set hard and fast rules. To me, it seems like quantity and frequency of information shared might matter more than content.

There are also professional, rather than moral factors to consider. Depending on her role in her workplace, chatting about personal things (like weekend plans, kids, pets, etc) with coworkers/clients could be seen as appropriate or even as relationship-building. In others it might seem distracting and irrelevant.

I think phrases like:

“Wow! That sounds so difficult.” “It seems like you’re handling that well.” “Thank you for helping me with X.” can be used safely with pretty much anyone. But if someone is complaining or venting, some phrases I’ve found helpful are:

“Well, I should get back to working on X.”

“Have you mentioned that to (the person they’re complaining about)?”

“Well, I’m on my way to the (printer, restroom, etc.). See you later.”

Monotone “Hmm” and “Oh” are also good conversation-enders.

If you’re comfortable being more direct and it’s an ongoing situation, you might try: “I’m uncomfortable with the amount of time we’re spending talking about X.”

Or “Let’s not talk about this.”

If she feels uncomfortable with something someone else is saying/doing she should feel free to trust herself and bring her concerns to the attention of the person, or someone who supervises them (or her). If the other person has good intentions, they will want to act in a way that makes her comfortable.

Matt points out here that people being creepy will usually do so in a plausibly deniable way.

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“It was just a compliment.”

“You’re taking it the wrong way.”

“I’m just being friendly.”

If you feel uncomfortable, it’s ok not to believe the person and to report, avoid, or distance from them even if they claim good intentions.

It is also ok to make rules like, “I don’t share my personal phone number at work.” Or “I don’t privately message coworkers/clients about non-work information.” And it is ok for these rules to apply to some people and not others.

I had a conversation about this with Matt and took down the following thoughts of his (since he’s driving).

Matt recommends that the writer think about how she would act toward a man in her workplace that she likes. Does she treat him in a way/talk to him in a way/let him talk to her in ways that feel ok because he’s attractive, but wouldn’t otherwise? That could give other guys in the office ideas about what is ok/not ok with her.

Matt also thinks it’s important for women to understand that men have an almost innate desire for attention from an attractive woman. If you suspect he is unconsciously seeking attention, do not respond in kind. If you receive a long heartfelt message about how much he misses you when you’re not at work, your maximum response should be, “Thanks.” Assume he’s a SOOM.

In Matt’s observation, men who have healthy relationships with their wives are less likely to interact inappropriately with other women. If he is complaining about or “joking” about his wife publicly, or in private messages, that is a major red flag.

Your boss, if he is a man, may not be very sympathetic to a report that another man is behaving inappropriately toward you. Your experience is so far from anything he’s experienced that it might be very difficult for him to understand and sympathize. Even if he is well-intentioned, he may not intervene in the way you’d hope for because he has no concept of how the situation feels to you or is affecting you.

If you bring it up and that is the case, you might consider whether you can bring the situation up with (depending on the workplace structure) his wife, or another woman who can help get through to him.

Aunt Dorcas has four children with degrees from Oregon State University.
The fifth, Jenny, graduates in a few weeks.
Here she poses with Emily in 2017.


  1. Another thing to consider is how you dress. My husband worked in an office for all of his working years and women who were dressed to attract attention drove him nuts. Too short, too tight, too revealing, too flouncy are difficult for the men. He would try so hard not to see it but with cubicles it was out of his control with women walking past all day. No matter how hard he tried not to see it he was constantly distracted by it. Even if those women were doing a great job in their position it made him think less of them. He was relieved not to have to deal with it anymore when he retired.

    1. I appreciate your perspective, Lana. I've been told that it's the guy's problem is he's distracted by how a woman is dressed. I agree that men have some responsibility in this, but so do we!!

    2. I think your comment may be a good example of what the article claims: "in Mennonite male-female relationships, women have borne far too large a burden for how both men and women interpret their words and actions." Obviously, what's ok to wear (and what's inappropriate) is not agreed upon by everyone. In Mennonite settings, the standard is usually put in place from a male-centric perspective.

      It could be that your husband was wrongly interpreting the intentions of the women he worked with. I think this attitude of not wanting to deal with "it" (temptation? women? the female body?) are how we get to super strict dress codes in the name of modesty. When we can't control ourselves or tolerate other perspectives, we tend to place the blame on others and make rules to enforce our opinions.

    3. Lana, I admit I feel torn about this. I am all about women dressing professionally and tastefully at work, and with dignity at all times, but I also feel that you can dig a really deep hole trying to get every woman to not tempt or distract any man. Kind of like I'm easily distracted by noise, lights, etc because of having ADD and have to figure out my own ways to stay focused.

  2. No matter how a man perceives her friendliness or what he says the law obligates her to clearly state her boundaries. "Don't discuss your wife or marriage with me." "Please limit messages to essential business only"
    The law requires the other party to follow those boundaries or risk the accusation of harassment or of fostering a hostile work environment. This applies to co-workers as well as vendors and in the case of clients the business manager is obligated to prevent the harassment.

    Although most Mennonites avoid litigation, both the lady and the business to manager are obligated to obey the law which places responsibility squarely on boundaries not appearances.

    1. Good to know what the legal boundaries are. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is such a tricky issue. I'm also a bubbly, outgoing person that I think has been misinterpreted as flirting by a male co-worker before. Example: Here at my office is a really nice man, he is our go-to handy-man for when things break down. Anyway, he's divorced and we would often talk about his daughter. I had not ever brought up my husband in conversation because it just didn't come up. One day however, I felt like things had changed. The man was not really flirting with me, but I just felt like he had crossed over from being a casual friend to perhaps seeing me as a potential love interest. As soon as I sensed that, I made a point of mentioning my husband and how much fun we had together doing X over the weekend (You're probably asking yourself, "Didn't he notice your wedding ring?" Well possibly, but my wedding ring is not a traditional set and many people don't realize it's my wedding ring) After that, I no longer got the "I'm interested in you" vibe off him. I think he just didn't know I was married and so as soon as he knew, he backed off. Of course if you're single you may have to come up with something else to work into the conversation to let guys know that you are not flirting. And we all know that even being married is sometimes not enough to discourage someone who is interested in you and then you may have to get more forceful. Definitely listening to your gut is a good thing and to perhaps not be unfriendly to someone, but just a little more withdrawn in their company should give them the signal that you're not interested in more than friendship.

    Shannon Combs

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    2. Oh and I just thought of something else. After this encounter with this gentleman I also made a point of displaying the pic I have of my husband where someone coming up to my desk could see it. Before I had it facing where I could look at it, but people in front of my desk couldn't. I moved it to the credenza behind my desk. That way I could turn around to glance at it, but anyone coming up would see my family pic and a pic of my husband. I wanted to make sure there would be no more misunderstandings.


  4. I work at a mid-sized, municipal library where I interact with hundreds of patrons each week. When I started this job, I was in my thirties and I felt compelled to be "nice" to everyone. In those early years I was constantly being hit on by men and I had no idea what to do about it.

    My sweet and assertive husband pointed out that non-verbal communication can be useful in situations where I am getting flirtatious vibes, but I can't pinpoint anything concrete that's out of line. Now, the moment I sense anything iffy, my tone turns to ice. I'm professional and pleasant, but I allow the set of my face to become very uninviting, my eyes to turn hard, and my voice to become all business as I say, "Is there something I can help you with today?"

    Also, I've decided men can minister to the men. Sometimes I see a need and I'm tempted to reach out, but this can get complicated, so a boundary that I stick to, as much as possible, is only responding to the needs of women God brings across my path. The men, I leave alone. No sweet, encouraging e-mails or heart to heart conversations. I enjoy chatting with male co-workers, my brother-in-law, my pastor, and family friends, but the only intimate emotional exchanges I have with a man are with my husband.

    1. You're so wise. "Nice" can get us in a lot of trouble. As you said, men can minister to the men.

  5. Thank you for addressing this Aunty! Lots of wisdom here. In my experience the sweet Christian response is to leave gentle hints along the way— and most of the time that’s not enough. I work as a full time nanny and I felt a need to share with the the couple I work for. I told both of them, “I am uncomfortable how much time Daddy is spending at home when I am here. You have been very respectful and haven’t given me cause to be afraid, but I don’t want to cause rumors and I don’t want anything to come between your marriage because of me. Your relationship as a couple is very important to me.” They have respected that and it’s opened doors to share my faith. We are much better off to be clear with boundaries before rumors fly and people get hurt.

  6. I've been a woman in the engineering world for nearly 30 years and before I was married/had kids, I would have "personal" topics like what book I was reading (economics or history or science) or how my garden was doing to answer any questions in the break area. Most people are trying to be friendly. For me, topics that were nonwork related but not too personal were a good way to build close-but-not-too-close relationships.

  7. Also a Full-Time Employee5/30/2021 4:16 PM

    Wow, Katie, I hear you! Yes, that can be a tough situation. And those of us who have the gift of mercy want to be kind....but sometimes we can get violated by not putting up a firm boundary.

    I would encourage you to talk to the HR person on your team. Hopefully HR at your job is a as great as at mine. HR wants us as employees to feel free to come with anything concerning; even if it is not outright wrong, but perhaps smells a little off. Employees have the right to come with anything concerning and not be afraid of harrassment or fear of getting fired.

    Interestingly enough, I had a similar experience recently. Talking with HR helped to clarify things in my head again and I realized where I need firmer boundaries.

    You asked if you can trust your gut. Yes, I think so. Don't invalidate yourself when a text message or a conversation makes you a bit uncomfortable. If it feels off to you, it probably is. If you are not comfortable with a conversation, it's okay. Respect yourself and what feels right to you. Set a firmer boundary if you need to and then stick with your guns.

    Remember that you don't need to navigate this on your own! You got this!

  8. Thanks Aunt Dorcas! You have addressed a difficult subject well, one that I deal with a lot. I’m also the type that people feel safe with and cared for by. I have had to learn that me being friendly is not me being a flirt. And I’m reminded of what a friend told me, “You will never regret kindness but if you feel uncomfortable in a situation it is okay to say so or to leave.