Can we have Healthy Boundaries at Work if the Guest is Always Right?!

Nov 21, 2023
Alison Arth standing up in a mint green Rodebjer suit

Have you thought or said anything that sounds like this recently?

  • “I’ve wanted to fire this manager for 3 months, but I haven’t had a single conversation with her about her performance, so I keep kicking the can down the road.”
  • “Showing up 15 minutes late suddenly seems like a normal and acceptable part of our team culture. I can’t change it because I can’t afford to lose people right now.”
  • “I’m sick of my Chef yelling at me.”
  • “I would get a lot more done in a day if my attention wasn’t constantly being grabbed by employees texting me about their schedule.”
  • “It’s so obvious that deliveries need to be put away when they come in. This is just common sense, and I shouldn’t need to waste my time and energy saying it out loud.”
  • “I know I need to be leading thoughtful, effective, connected manager meetings, but I’m just too exhausted and strapped for time.”

Listen, I’m with you. My clients who are reading this right now are either laughing or crying (or both) because this sounds so achingly familiar.

They’re with you too

You are not a bad leader. (Read that again!)

You’re just missing the key that unlocks the pair of handcuffs that have you tethered to the treadmill you’ve been running on for your entire leadership life.


So, what’s the key?

How do you get out of the straightjacket that so many hospitality leaders feel trapped inside and into a leadership stance that feels like freedom born of grounded confidence?


An interpersonal boundary is very much like a property boundary—it delineates where I end and where you begin.

It’s a way of drawing a circle around ourselves and our behavior, just like the edge of a lawn marks where someone’s house ends and the sidewalk begins.

It may seem that boundaries would separate us from others, but in reality, they do quite the opposite.


According to the embodiment coach, Prentis Hemphill, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”


Because healthy boundaries promote self responsibility and empowerment, they lead us out of the helplessness of victim consciousness and into closer relationship with others. By contrast, weak boundaries damage trust and lead to resentment, confusion, and disconnection.

There are two parts to setting a boundary with someone else:

  1. THE REQUEST: Asking someone to stop doing something that infringes on your property (literally or emotionally).
  2. THE CONSEQUENCE: Telling the person what you will do if they do not comply with your request.

A boundary names what you will do when someone chooses not to honor your request. It identifies an empowered action you will take when someone fails to meet your need.

Boundary setting is NOT about what someone else needs or has to do to please you; that’s making a demand of someone, not setting a boundary with them. Truth is, adults get to behave however they would like to behave.

And here’s the thing, you really don’t have any way to control someone else’s behavior, and you don’t need to.

Boundary setting IS about naming what you need so that you’re able to take responsibility for the results you create in your business and in your life. That might mean enforcing heavy consequences for failing to meet your requests, but it does not mean manipulating people to do what you want them to.

It’s very important to understand that boundaries aren’t a way to manipulate or threaten others. They’re also not a way of keeping other people out. They’re a way to keep your energy and peace in.

Healthy boundaries always come from a place of love to promote self-kindness and kindness towards others, because as Brené Brown reminds us, “Clear is kind.”

**We have to give a big shout-out to Brooke Castillo and the Master Coaches at The Life Coach School who have inspired much of our own teachings on this topic. Check out their podcast for more actionable guidance on setting and holding boundaries at work and outside of it.


Restaurants exist to provide food and hospitality, and the very best ones are highly sensitive to guest needs.

You meet guest preferences by using the overflowing sense of empathy that hospitalitarians intuitively possess to read emotions and then bend and flex your service (and often, your values) to ensure that each unique human who walks through the door leaves feeling happier than when they arrived.

In the dining rooms, kitchen, and counters of restaurants, a job well done looks like putting the experience of the guest in front of you above all else. Most of us were taught that this is the “right” way to do hospitality, even when it means compromising an essential part of ourselves to do it.

For me, this created a belief that sounds like, “If a guest experiences a negative emotion in a dining room I’m leading, that’s a threat to the success of the business.”

When I shifted out of a role that was primarily focused on direct guest service and into a leadership role that was primarily focused on team management (which is, at its core, service!), the belief above quietly shifted into one that sounds like:

“If someone on my team experiences a negative emotion in response to something I do or say, that’s a threat to the success of the team and the business.”

Setting boundaries is impossible at worst, and short-lived at best, when you’re believing thoughts like the ones above.

And guess what? Those thoughts above that I was holding onto (and I suspect if you’re reading this that you might be too)…they’re not the truth.


I learned the hard way that my team members weren’t signing up to work with me because they wanted to be people-pleased.


Yours aren’t either.

Your team members are coming to work for the same reason you are: to feel a genuine sense of accomplishment, to enjoy themselves, to make a living they feel proud of and a meaningful contribution towards a shared purpose.

I don’t need to know anything about you or your team to know this is true. I know it’s true because it’s what every human being on this earth is wired to desire.

What’s even more radical to think about?

The guests you most want to attract into your restaurant also want authentic connection above all else. More than the meal or the vibe or even the hard to snag reservation, your guests want to feel belonging in your dining room.

Do you need to tap into empathy and read the person in front of you in order to offer that? For sure. But, you don’t need to abandon yourself.

Choosing to meet spoken or unspoken guest requests that violate your team’s integrity is not kind and loving hospitality that supports the success of your business.

It’s fear-based compliance that breaks trust within the people who do this sacred work, and that leads to the anxiety, exhaustion, and a lack of safety that drives turnover and hospitality burnout.

Setting healthy boundaries in the hospitality profession demands that you allow a new belief that sounds like, “Making what is and isn’t ok in my business and on my team crystal clear is the key to better performance and greater success.”

Once you’ve welcomed the possibility that leading differently might bring forth even more prosperity and ease for you and the people you lead, you’re ready to get in the arena and start practicing.

Photo of Alison Arth & Kimberly Belle, captured by Julia Ngo of Eloquent Co.


Let’s break down what goes into setting and holding a boundary so you’ve got a roadmap to follow as you begin practicing leading from a place of empowerment.


For most of us hospitality folks who are so attuned to relinquishing our needs to honor the needs of others, one of the hardest steps in setting boundaries is actually recognizing that there’s something we need to ask for.

The most reliable way I’ve found to do that is to take inventory of the results I’m seeing in myself or in my team that I don’t like. A couple of prompts that reliably get my wheels turning on where I might have an unexpressed boundary include:

  • What negative result am I experiencing on my team or in my own leadership that I’d like to see shift?
  • What brings up the emotions of resentment, anger, or envy for me?


Once you’ve identified that you have a request that needs to be externalized in support of building trust, improving performance and bringing your vision for your team culture to life, you’re ready to set a boundary. A complete boundary contains two critical parts:

  1. Make Your Request: Ask someone to stop doing something that infringes on your property (literally or emotionally) or start doing something that you need to protect the culture of your team and the goals of your business.
  2. Name The Consequence: Tell the person what you will do if they do not comply with your request.

Take a peek at the examples below to support you in ideating complete, two-part boundaries that support the results you’re seeking to create.


Once you name a clear boundary, it is imperative that you follow through, and that you do so consistently. A few tips for supporting yourself with this hardest of steps:

  1. Anticipate what might come up for the other person in response to naming and following through with your boundary. Visualizing in advance whether they might be disappointed, angry, defensive, or hurt gives you an opportunity to set a clear intention for how you want to show up in response to their emotions and behavior.
  2. Take action and implement the consequences you promised. If a team member shows up late for a second time and you promised to write them up…write them up. If you issued a fair and final warning and promised to terminate a team member if they poured themselves a beer while breaking down again…terminate them.
  3. Support yourself as you follow through with your boundary. My nervous system still gets activated when I witness a team member or loved one experiencing a negative emotion after I’ve set a boundary and followed through with it, even when I know it’s what I need to protect my peace and the health of my team. I practice calming my nervous system by:
    • Reminding myself of why I chose to set this boundary
    • Asking myself what I’ll be most proud of when I look back on this moment in 10 years
    • Getting out in nature and moving my body

Your tactics for calming your nervous system might look different. The key is to experiment with ways of reminding yourself that you’re safe and ok as you build your capacity for emotional discomfort.


If you’re reading this, it probably means that one or more of the pain points I named at the very beginning of this blog resonated with you, so I’m going to use a few of them to reverse-engineer what a supportive, clarifying boundary might sound like.

You can use this exact same system to brainstorm boundaries of your own, and borrow anything in the below chart that serves you.


Negative Result
What are you experiencing that you’d like to shift?

What might your request sound like?

What is the consequence of not meeting this request?

I’ve wanted to fire this manager for 3 months, but I haven’t had a single conversation with her about her performance so I keep kicking the can down the road.

“I’d like to sit down with you and have an intentional conversation about what success looks like for the role you’re in, where there are gaps between your performance and the requirements of this position, and what it looks like to close those gaps.”

“If you feel committed and energized by the game plan we outline for you to develop into this role, I’m game to work together to make progress and keep evaluating that progress so we stay on the same page about our shared goals. If you don’t feel willing to commit to growing in this role, that’s ok. We can agree that it’s just not the right fit at the right time.”

Showing up 15 minutes late suddenly seems like a normal and acceptable part of our team culture. I can’t change it because I can’t afford to lose people right now.

(The reel I recorded about dealing with lateness went viral so I promise you’re not alone on this one)

“Moving forward, I’d like to request that you are dressed, ready for your shift, and clocked in at your scheduled in-time. If you know you’ll be late for your shift, you need to call the restaurant and ask to speak to the MOD to let them know.”

“The first time you arrive late for your shift, I’ll share a verbal reminder of our time & attendance policy. The second time you arrive late, we’ll sit down together and I’ll document our conversation in the form of a written warning. If you continue to arrive late, I’ll continue to issue progressive corrective action, up to and including termination. I don’t want to land there, but it’s my job to be clear about the consequences of behavior that’s out of step with our culture.”

I’m sick of my Chef yelling at me.

“Please don’t raise your voice when you’re speaking to me. I am asking for this behavior modification in support of my own ability to stay present and hear what you’re communicating to me, so I can meet your expectations.”

“If you choose to raise your voice in future conversations, I will ask you to lower it. If you choose not to lower your voice, I will leave the room until you’ve cooled off and feel ready to continue our dialogue with a respectful tone.”

I would get a lot more done in a day if my attention wasn’t constantly being grabbed by employees texting me about their schedule.

“When the office door is closed it means I’m focused on something important. Please find the manager on the floor to get what you need instead of coming in to ask me, unless it’s an emergency.”

“Please don’t text me with schedule requests. Any schedule requests need to be emailed, following the policy outlined in our handbook.”

“If you open the door to ask me a non-urgent question, I will tell you that I can’t address it right now and invite you to find the manager on duty or wait til I’m done with my work.”

“If you choose to text me with schedule requests, I won’t read or respond to them.”

It’s so obvious that deliveries need to be put away when they come in. This is just common sense and I shouldn’t need to waste my time and energy saying it out loud.

“The closing Sous Chef is responsible for signing in deliveries and putting them away within 15 minutes of their arrival in the kitchen.”

“The first time you allow deliveries to sit out beyond 15 minutes when you're the closing Sous Chef, I’ll share a verbal reminder of our SOP. The second time you choose not to follow the SOP, we’ll sit down together and I’ll document our conversation in the form of a written warning. If you continue to neglect putting the deliveries away, I’ll continue to issue progressive corrective action, up to and including termination. I don’t want to land there, but it’s my job to be clear about the consequences of behavior that’s out of step with our culture.”

I know I need to be leading thoughtful, effective, connected manager meetings but I’m just too exhausted and strapped for time.

“I won’t be working over my weekend, and I won’t be available to support service tomorrow between 1-2pm so that I have the time and energy I need to thoughtfully prepare for our manager meeting.”

“If you ask me to step in even if we’re short staffed or super busy, I will not be able to prioritize service between 1-2pm tomorrow. I will not be responding to emails until I return to the restaurant on Tuesday.”



If you’re reading this article and thinking to yourself, “I haven’t been leading in this way, I don’t feel totally confident in my ability to set and hold boundaries, and I worry it’s going to be jarring for my team to experience my leadership differently,” I’ve been there, and I’ve got some tips for making this easier on your team and on you.

  1. Be upfront. Tell your team what’s not working right now and what you intend to create instead. Share with them that you’re committed to being more clear with them about your sometimes unspoken expectations and holding yourself (and them!) accountable to those expectations.
  2. Tie it back to a shared vision. Name what you want to see and experience in your team’s culture and how setting and holding boundaries will contribute to creating it.
  3. Share the vulnerable truth that you won’t get it right 100% of the time (none of us do), and remind yourself and them that this is a normal part of development and change.
  4. Budget for the time and energy that leading differently will require of you. If you haven’t been setting boundaries, it’s kind of like you’ve been letting your neighbors throw a piece of trash on your lawn everyday. As you choose to lean into the kindness of clarity and accountability, know that it will require an upfront investment of resources, just like it would to clear a big pile of trash off your lawn while also letting the people around you know that you’re no longer willing to accept the violation of your property boundary in the form of littering.
  5. Consistency is queen. Boundaries break trust if you aren’t consistent with enforcing them. Build time into your schedule each day and create space in your meeting agendas to evaluate how well your team is abiding by organizational and individual boundaries and create actionable plans for following through with consequences.
  6. Record written policies to support yourself and your team in understanding your organizational boundaries and what will happen if they’re violated. For example, consider including a section in your employee handbook that clearly outlines your approach to progressive corrective action and share this addition with your team during pre-shift. Creating written policies that you commit to sharing and using is one of the keys to making accountability easier, less emotional, and more consistent.
  7. Trust that it gets easier. When I became the AGM at age 21 of a very well-established and celebrated restaurant in NYC staffed by captains and managers who had 40+ years of experience on me, to say that setting boundaries was an uphill battle is a massive understatement! One of the greatest triumphs of my first year of management was when our barista came to work 20 minutes late for the second time without calling to let me know, and he clocked in and sat down in the office. He said he knew I’d be writing him up (because that was the consequence I’d shared with him after the first time he did it), and he understood why. After many months of wading through the mucky work of culture change, it wasn’t difficult or emotional for him or for me. It was clear and kind.


One of the reasons it’s so hard for restaurants to recruit or promote leaders is because these roles have earned a really bad rap. You can usually pick a hospitality leader out of a line-up by looking for the most exhausted, burnt-out, overwhelmed, and overworked person in the room.

I can’t count how many management interviews I’ve led where what I said about the possibilities for work-life balance stood in stark contrast to the way I was personally choosing to live and lead.

And the truth is, until I changed my mind about the value and power of setting boundaries, no one who reported to me was actually empowered to do that work for themselves or with our shared team.


Choosing to shift towards setting clear boundaries unlocks the time, energy, enjoyment, efficacy, and psychological safety that you and everyone else on your team is craving. Full stop.


You have to be the change you want to see.

If restaurant owners and leaders want more qualified applications for management roles when a position opens up, you have to take responsibility for making your own role one that you genuinely love.


The reason I spent so many years of my life feeling resistant to setting boundaries isn’t because I’m a bad leader. You aren’t either.

A big part of me was (and still sometimes is!) afraid of setting boundaries because I want to be an amazing leader. I always want to lead my people with compassion, generosity, and kindness. I bet you do too.

But, listen…when you set out to be that kind of leader with no tools in your toolbox other than an abundance of emotional intelligence and empathy (which we all have because we chose this profession), we can accidentally damage the trust and performance of our teams and make our own experience of doing this work miserable by using emotions as our primary management tool.

I love the part of myself that cared so deeply about the teams and businesses I’ve led that I was willing to attempt it without any support, leadership training, or practical tools.

I love that part of you too.

We can have compassion for those parts of ourselves, continue to be kind and caring leaders AND take responsibility for learning what wasn’t taught to us so that we and the people around us can do and feel better.

This won’t be comfortable, and that’s as it should be. Courage isn’t called upon in the absence of fear. When shit is easy, you don’t need to be brave.

Courage is required in the presence of fear when you make the choice to do the hard thing anyway.

For me, the difference between feeling fear and stopping vs. feeling fear and stepping forward anyway = support.

If that’s true for you too, I want to invite you to consider hiring a Salt & Roe coach to walk with you as a guide, an accountability partner, and a cheerleader while you do the brave and creative work of developing into the leader you most want to be.

Investing in support isn’t weak or weird. Think of every star athlete, top CEO, or thought leader you’ve ever admired. They invest in coaches not because they can afford to, but because they can’t afford not to.

If you want more support from Salt & Roe delivered straight into your inbox and newsfeed, sign up for our newsletter and join our community on Instagram, both of which are free places to add new leadership tools to your toolbox.

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