how to handle a nosy boss

A reader writes:

What do we do with nosy managers? Since I’ve gotten sick a few times, my boss has asked me outright, “What do you have?” or “What did you have?” I get these questions in places where others can hear if I respond, so usually I give a very vague answer in reply. The last time I was sick, I was out for two days so I went in to her office and volunteered the information. I knew she was waiting to hear what kept me out of work.

If I run errands at lunch time, she wants to be informed that I’m leaving the building, even if I’m going to be back before lunch ends. Why?

Also, if I have an appointment, do I have to say what the appointment is for, or who is it for? I am a caregiver for an older relative and I’m also a mom.

Please help! I’ve been working here for almost 15 years. All the bosses I’ve had have been the same (in that they expect you to tell them things), but this one is more prying than most.

She probably doesn’t realize that she’s doing this. She might think she’s just being friendly, not realizing that the nature of her position means that you’re going to feel obligated to answer, and that you might even feel that she’s questioning whether you’re entitled to the time off.

If you want it to stop, try just being straightforward with her. Say something like this: “Jane, I’ve noticed that when I need time off, you usually ask me details about why I’m taking the time — whether it’s the nature of a medical issue or what kind of appointment I have. I know you’re just being friendly, but there might be a medical issue I don’t want to talk about, especially in front of other people, or a family situation that I don’t want to get into. I think that’s the case for everyone. If there’s ever an issue with whether I’m using leave time properly, obviously please address that with me, but otherwise we should all have some privacy around this stuff.”

Or you could come at from a different angle: “Do you have concerns about how I’m using my leave time?” She’ll probably say no or seem confused, and you can then say, “You’ve been questioning me about how I’m spending the time, and I wasn’t sure why.” Sound genuinely concerned, not defensive.

As for running errands at lunch, I’d approach it as an honest question: “Am I not supposed to be leaving the building at lunch, generally?”  She’ll probably say it’s fine to, and then you can say, “Okay. In general, let’s assume that I’m often going to leave the premises at lunch then, and I won’t clear it with you each time.”

Technically, you could also involve HR on the medical prying, since they’ll tell her to knock it off, but like most things, this stuff is generally handled better with direct conversation.

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. Wilton Businessman

    Manager: “Where are you off to today?”

    Employee: “I’m off to get a Brazilian wax job. Like to come?”

    Problem solved.

    1. Josh S

      (Male) Manager: “Sure! That sounds like fun! Maybe drinks after?”

      Problem just got much, much worse.

  2. K.

    I had a professor like this at college- I missed a class for a doctor’s appointment, and he kept pushing me to tell him what the doctor’s appointment was for, and why it was so urgent that I had to miss class. So I told him. “I have hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids so bad that I needed to meet with a surgeon, *who only had an emergency appointment during your class*, because I am going to need surgery on my anus to fix it. Thanks for the sensitivity.” I stormed out, and he later sent me an email just telling me he wasn’t marking me off for missing that class period.

    I get that students lie sometimes about doctor’s appointments and the need to miss class, but he just kept pushing and pushing, telling him I had an emergency appointment with a surgeon wasn’t good enough. So fine, dude, you can have the whole story.

    1. D

      Wow! I hope that guy got a really bad visual he couldn’t get out of his mind for days. LOL I’m surprised a professor would even ask about an absence. At my school it was our responsibility to show up. If we didn’t, we didn’t. The only time something was said was when we missed several classes in a row.

    2. Anonymous

      I started doing that with my supervisors after they were really awful to me in 2009 about medical stuff.

      I needed surgery, so I had a lot of doctor appointments to go to. This stuff came up on my review. For a while, they tried to tell me I had to get a doctor note EVERY TIME I was sick or had an appointment. I contacted HR, got the facts, set the supervisors straight, and put an end to that.

      Now, if they question me at all, ever, I give them WAY more detail than anyone would ever want. I notice lately that they don’t question me any more. ;)

      1. JPT

        If there are repeated absences due to a surgery/medical condition, it’s good practice to have your FMLA paperwork taken care of beforehand. That legally protects you from adverse action for missing work for those reasons. Sounds like in these cases supervisors are bullying people into giving detail, and that’s not OK. They can’t fire you for not telling them and they can’t contact your healthcare provider if you have all your ducks in a row for a long-term illness/repeated medical issue.

        And I will add that as a supervisor, if I’m given too much detail about an absence, it can come off like the person is lying.

  3. Dan Ruiz

    I would assume she’s just interested in you and how you’re doing. If you don’t want to share, be vague or light on details (“it’s a medical thing”, “I just need 20 minutes to take care of something for my son”, “I’m running a personal errand”, etc.) She should get the hint.

    If pressed for details, you can respond that you’d prefer not to go into details or request to go somewhere more private to talk about it.

    I agree with AAM, “…this stuff is generally handled better with direct conversation”. Don’t go to HR until all else fails.

    Dan

    1. Jamie

      This is perfect. A vague answer will suffice for most people if they are just being nice. People have different boundaries, so it’s important to differentiate because well intentioned (but still annoying) conversation from managerial intrusion.

      I can have conversations with one of my bosses that would completely freak me out of the same topics were broached by another. We have a pretty close relationship and I know whatever she asks is totally out of concern…and if I chose not to answer it wouldn’t be pressed. But that’s a kind of blurring between boss and employee and two people who have a close and friendly relationship that doesn’t happen all that often.

  4. grace

    I had a boss like this and I left the job after six months. She even made me reveal to her a VERY personal medical problem… and then wouldn’t shut up about how she had the SAME problem, which really grossed me out.
    I had to text her when I left for lunch, and text her when I got back. Once, I went to the bank for two hours to deal with some fraudulent charges when she was out of town–sort of an emergency–and left my phone on silent in my purse. When I looked at it as I was leaving, I had 11 missed calls from her and 7 texts. The texts started, “why aren’t you answering?” and eventually progressed to “did you take the day off?” “Where the hell are you?” I never gave her any reason to mistrust me, she was just horrid already. Apparently, she had a track record of running of the previous four people in my position, in the past 3 years. I only lasted six months, and apparently I was the longest one! I did get HR involved, but hers was a blatant mistrust, not ‘just being nice,’ though she did take pains to disguise it as such. She once told me she would have to put a video camera in my office to make sure I was there when I said I was — because I forgot to text her when I left for lunch!
    On a side note–she was supposed to work ‘in the office’ and probably only spent about 4 hours a day there. She was always there when I got in at 8:30 (my start time) to comment if I was even 2 minutes late, don’t you worry. She was usually gone from 11-3, which is why lunch required the texting. It was just the two of us in the office, so there was no release. I confronted her about it several times, and she would always say “I’m just joking!!” or something, but that just wasn’t ok. It was a very stressful environment, and compounded by the fact that it was my first job and I thought that was just the ‘way it is’ and didn’t speak up for quite some time.
    In the case that your boss is just being nice, you can tell in your gut based on how they ‘phrase’ it. Are they backhanded comments? (example: “you’re sick, again?” etc.) Trust your gut. Obviously you’ve been at the company for 15 years, so you have a track record and the company must trust you, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much, as long as you get to the bottom of the problem with your manager. She’ll probably stop if you point it out to her.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Wow. With the medical stuff, I might have said, “Are you really telling me to share personal medical information with you?” But that sounds like the least of the issues there.

    2. AshRad

      THIS! This is my job. I’m a real estate agent’s personal assistant (I’ve posted on AAM before). My boss is WAY too intrusive. On Fridays, she wants to know what I have planned for the weekend. On Mondays, she wants to know if I did what I planned. Almost once a week I get this: “What do you do when you get home from work?”. And I get a “my husband and I had a fight” every once in a while. UGH. I’ve been in this position for 2 years, and from what I’ve gathered over this time she has NO friends. She loves to make small talk with the other realtors in the building and waits eagerly for them to leave so she can talk crap about them behind their back with me. I usually offer a noncommittal “uh-huh” and move on to business – thus, she has no real friends. Heaven forbid she send me out for coffee and I take too long, I get a text within 15 minutes that says simply “joy-riding?”. I recently had a death in the family and -Im not kidding- was *really* angry with me because the memorial service was scheduled on a weekend where we had an open house scheduled. I mean, really?! Im literally counting down the days to when I get my paralegal certification so I can move on. At this point, I would kill for a 9-5 desk job.

  5. Anonymous

    Where I work we aren’t required to state what we need time off for…just in general if it’s for medical or personal. So this just seems odd to me. If we do disclose medical information to our direct supervisors/managers they can’t share with other team members without our consent. Maybe the manager has nothing better to do, but be nosy.

  6. Dawn

    A former boss of mine was like OP’s boss. It was annoying as hell. I could see if I was regularly late or taking an excessive amount of time off, but that wasn’t the case. Every time I asked to take a personal day off he wanted to know what it was for. I’d give him some vague answer. It was really none of his business. It’s personal, hence asking for a personal day.

    In regards to letting the boss know she’s leaving the building for lunch, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. Depending on what kind of job it is, something urgent might come up during lunch and she might need OP. If she knows she’s not in the building, she could find someone else to help.

  7. Anonymous

    In most places I’ve worked, it’s not considered impolite to ask someone if they “got what’s going around”, particularly if a cold or other bug has in fact been going around, nor is it uncommon to volunteer such information when you come back from taking a sick day. But that’s more along the lines of making conversation as opposed to interrogating them about why they called in sick.

  8. Yeah!

    I have a female boss and most of my coworkers are female as well (I’m in HR Dept). And somehow the culture here is ‘very open’. People just talk about their personal life, what their husbands do, what the kids are up to, etc. But nothing with bad intention, not sure if it’s just the nature of being in all women environment. My boss is awesome, but she also shares almost everything that’s going on with her life! I came from a very different background: conservative company with 99% male executives and my former boss was a man as well. So no conversation went that ‘deep’ into personal life.
    Since I know that there is really no bad intention or them trying to be nosy, I just play along with it. I listen to their stories, sometimes tell my stories, although I don’t have much, and everything goes really well. Maybe because I love my boss and coworkers, so that makes a difference.
    So my suggestion is, as long as there is no bad intent, just be nice and courteous. I don’t think they really want to know what’s happening with you. It’s just ‘normal’ for them to ask questions, probably to show their attention to you.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      The problem is that not everyone wants to share personal details like a medical situation. And when it’s the boss who’s asking, it carries a subtext of “you have to answer this,” even if the person doesn’t mean it that way. So managers need to be cognizant of that.

      1. JPT

        Yes… AND, even if you offer up the information, it’s not OK for them to then talk about it to others.

    2. Anonymous

      I think this was argued in great detail yesterday on another post, but just because a workplace is mostly male/mostly female does not dictate how personal people are going to get.

      I have a male manager who constantly wants to know about my personal life (dates I’ve been on, plans for the weekend, what I made for dinner last night…) because that’s how he makes casual conversation. He also tells his staff anecdotes about his wife, kids, neighbors etc.

    3. Yeah!

      Well, I wasn’t trying to be genderish, but the fact of the matter is that men and women ARE different. It doesn’t mean that one gender is more professional than the other. It just means we do think different, approach things in different manners as well. And of course there’s always an exception to this. I’m just speaking based on my personal experience. People at my work (again, who are mostly women) just talk more about their personal lives, even health issues. I know how many kids they have and when they had their tonsils removed!

  9. Gina

    One issue to consider here is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If an employee continued to take intermittent absences for being “sick”, at some p0int it may become necessary for the supervisor to know if the employee would have a “serious health condition” as defined by the FMLA. The employee is afforded certain job protections for FMLA related absences that are not provided if it’s not an FMLA absence. Also, if I had an employee that was frequently sick or needed to leave for “appointments” I think it is reasonable to inquire about the situation if it creates a hardship for the other employees.

    1. Joey

      Lots of employees aren’t comfortable telling their supervisors about fmla related medical issues either. And they really don’t need to if there’s someone else in the company that can handle the request. In fact I think it’s better if the supervisor doesn’t know anything about the medical condition other details about when the employee won’t be at work. You’d be surprised how many supervisors question the validity of a doctors diagnosis. Or stereotype the employee based on the illness.

      1. Anonymous

        This is true. Because of my whole issue back in 2009/2010, my supervisors now make me keep a daily work log, detailing everything I do all day!

        It’s been THREE YEARS! Come ON! I even ask every year if they still need me to do it, and they always say “yes.”

        I can’t wait to get out of this place!

  10. JPT

    You might also try a preemptive doctor’s note if you’re going to the doctor. (Of course, that doesn’t always happen when you or a kid is sick!) But most doctor’s offices have a form that states when you came in and when you’re OK to go back to work, without stating the specific medical problem. At my job, it’s in our policies that a supervisor can require a doctor’s excuse if time is taken off (though no one ever asks for it). Generally in our office, if someone’s kid is sick they tell us all that. It prevents us from thinking they’re sick and worrying, asking questions when they get back, etc. But that’s their choice to say why they’re off. Unless they ask for a doctor’s note, I don’t think it’s any of their business! And if they need to know each time, they should require documentation to ensure that you’re using your sick time according to policy.

  11. Malissa

    If you come to my office half the women will tell you the boss is super nosy. The other half will will have no idea what you are talking about. I ask for a day off, I state whether it’s sick leave or annual. End of conversation. The ones who think the boss is nosy will give him details about why they need the day off. These same women used to pester me into trying to give out details on why I’ll be gone. They really aren’t happy when I’m vague. My go to answer is, “because I need the day off.” So the OP might want to be sure she’s setting proper boundaries and enforcing them.

  12. Joanna Reichert

    This boss sounds like my mother-in-law . . . . except I don’t get to clock out, because I live with her. Sigh . . . . .

    Anyways, the only way I can work around this is to pull the answer-a-question-with-a-question.

    “Why, do you need something?”
    “Why, is there something wrong?”

    I can avoid answering questions that are none of her business, and get to what she’s REALLY asking me – because she’s super passive-aggressive (not to mention a phenomenal gossip and busybody) and demands any and all information about everything. This is the quickest way to circumvent this cycle.

    Hey, if it works for family, it could work for work!

    1. The gold digger

      Joanna, does she BCC everyone on her emails to her grandson where she is criticizing him for not working hard enough and what will happen in the future and he’s DOING IT WRONG?

      The only good thing about bad in-laws is they are great blog material.

    2. La Reina

      Oh God, your MiL, my mother. WTF is this behavior? My mother basically pesters me about me entire daily schedule (we live in the same town), especially what time I’m leaving work. I too have responded with, “Why do you need me to do something for you?” Otherwise, how I spend my time is my own business. Her latest is pouting and saying “I’m just interested!” because I told her that I wasn’t going to discuss the exact building I’ll be working in for my latest project because it’s a boring topic and she doesn’t need to know that level of specificity about my life.

  13. Anonymous

    As a manager, I had the problem where I tried to get my staff NOT to tell me why they were out sick or where they were going on vacation. That was quite the learning curve for them, I have to say.

  14. Anonymous

    I am the one who asked the question. The environment is somewhat open here, and many people have worked here for 10 years and longer. She’s been here about 22 years.

    She is VERY open with her life and feels the need to share details about EVERYTHING. I am private and quiet. I prefer to keep some things private, especially when it is medically related. I also know that many of them (the managers) will talk about what they know to others.

    The backlash in not saying what is happening (and having to mysteriously disappear often) is that people will start rumors about you – like you’re avoiding work, etc. when that is certainly not the case. My older relative is almost 90, so there is a lot involved in caring for them. My son is in elementary school and there are situations that I’ve had to face due to medical issues that he has. With me juggling all of that alone, I’ve had to miss work more often than normal, so I understand the expectation on being clear about such matters. What I cannot stand is when I desperately need time off because I am SICK (as in bed-sick) and they wonder about it.

    To give you even more background, my former supervisor directly reported to her in the past. She had to beg for a transfer because her intrusion was more than she could handle. If she was running late, she broke into a cold sweat just thinking about what she would face when she walked into the building.

    I used to get A LOT of “drive-bys” to see what I was doing at my desk or to see if I was there. I think because I’ve spilled my guts I don’t get them any more. I also told her – point-blank – that unless my personal or financial situation changes, my life will more or less be like this for a while.

    One of my coping mechanisms (which seems to work) is to volunteer work-related information – such as where I am on various projects, or on my personal situations that I have to handle during business hours by stating what is coming next (another dr. appointment or school meeting).

    The interesting thing is I always take vacation time to do these things, or sick time when I am sick. Our policy is you must bring in a doctor’s note if you’re out 3 or more days. It’s considered ST Disability if you’re out more than 5 consecutive days.

    1. Sally

      Unless you are taking more time off than provided/approved, it’s none of their business how you spend it. You’re entitled to it, you should use it. That’s not avoiding work.

  15. Anonymous

    I wish I’d seen this post with all its clever ideas five years ago! I went from a company with a trusting, respectful environment to one where professionals were treated routinely as children. I was appalled at having to tell my male manager “I’m going to the gynecologist for a routine checkup.” So I quit routine med care for three years. I won’t go into detail but it cost the company more in insurance in the long run. It’s not cost effective to subject people to such scrutiny of reasonable time off for med care. I wish wellness plans addressed issues like that instead of providing cute wellness tips like, “Did you know that eating too much causes weight gain?”

    1. Joe

      I’m sad to say in my case it was my company that. …. went from a company with a trusting, respectful environment to one where professionals were treated routinely as children.

      This doesn’t just relate to absences, and it seemed to coincide with a lot of longstanding junior managers & supervisors being suddenly promoted into positions vacated by more mature managers.

      Of course they all tend to still believe they are that former company , just better, but fail to see how they have lost it below them.

  16. JessB

    Just a point about checking in when you leave the office at lunch – we have this policy at my current work, which in in case of fire. If we have to evacuate the building, we need to know who is there, to know who to expect at the meeting point, and who to ask the emergency services to look for.

    Having said that, we have an ‘In/Out’ board in reception that we use to indicate whether we are, well, in or out of the building! It doesn’t sound like that’s the reason here, but I do think it’s a valid one.

    1. Liz in a library

      We have a policy like that for emergencies as well–though many departments do not follow it. It is a legitimate reason for knowing whether your staff are on or off location.

      It is not an excuse for prying into where your staff are going and what specific errands they are running, of course.

  17. kris

    My eyes. I can’t believe I read all those words on something I was taught at the age of 5.

    If someone asks a question you feel is too personal to answer – answer “it’s personal”. There’s no need for additional drama, dialogue or reading things into it. Saying “it’s personal” is a much softer and tactful approach that builds respect.

  18. Joe

    A lot of good advice here to choose from, depending on the nature of the relationship.

    You might also like to try jokingly, like : “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the post mortem, but thanks for your concern”, when the incorrigible managers feel obliged to pry.

  19. Over it

    I’ve been in my Job for 6 years and I get mid service leave ( an extra week paid leave) starting from next year until I hit long service, plus company pays well but geez I don’t know how I will last. Not to big note myself but ive never given her a reason to disrespect me. I work hard , high performer, I’m polite, respect people’s privacy, I do not gossip (that’s probably why) These’s no politeness about her she is nosy , passive aggressive, control freak and has to micromanage everyone. Currently there’s only 2 of us under her in our dept and soon to be just me as she has driven my colleague to transfer to another area. I’m the only one who stood up for myself and I asked to have chat to try and air out differences she literally laughed in my face so I had no choice but to report my concerns to her boss. He was very professional and we had a mediation where I confronted her about making me discuss private issues amoungst the floor, my sick leave etc she admitted it was her fault. That was 7 months ago the attitude has returned ive tried really hard to brush it off , it bothers me and stresses me and I’m sick of feeling this way. I was off sick for 1 day in ages I phone up she pretty much just grunts at me and ‘so when are you going to the dr’ I’m like ‘as soon as it opens’ she responds ‘ ring me as soon as your done i want to know what he says and how long he gives you’.
    I don’t even have to have see a dr for 1 day. I do just to shut her up.

    I guess I need to have that chat with her boss. ( I really don’t want to)

    My advice is most companies encourage you to take up your concerns with your boss’s boss if your not having any luck yourself.
    If its that bad dont wait for them to change – waited 6 years -nothing. discuss it calmly try resolve it but be honest and to the point. I don’t feel I should be the one to leave my job, I work hard.

  20. Beth

    I am in public service with constant changes in management occurring, for better and worse (mostly worse with each change). Staff is coming under more and more scrutiny by managers who have no education in business or training in management. They are typical gov’t job lifers hanging in there for their 100% pension. We small guys, who do the day to day grunt work on skeleton crews and stretched to the breaking point to keep our doors open, are doing it so management can keep their high salaries, long vacations, 3 day epweekends, and pensions intact.Working with homeless populations daily exposes us to germs and illness the managers never get exposed to in their ivory tower offices, removed from the public we serve. And yet we “lesser thans” are given the third degree when out sick, asked for doc notes before legally required, and generally persecuted to scare us into never calling in sick. Most of us work sick, that’s how bad it is. The top boss always makes snide comments to us about “Oh, you were out sick again, weren’t you?” when otherwise she doesn’t even bother speaking to the troops, who are ensuring her sizable pension. It’s a bad economy, but everyone is looking for jobs to get out of this dysfunctional institution. Management is totally disrespected, disliked, and with good reason…they have become the KBG, out for themselves. They have forgotten their roots. Everyone leaves this place disillusioned, embittered…but glad to get away from the inept, self-serving bureaucrats.

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