is my manager taking advantage of our friendship?

A reader writes:

I accepted a new job five months ago with someone I had worked with previously — he was not my direct manager but he was more senior than me. We got along well then, so when I accepted this position, I thought it’d be great that he was going to be my direct supervisor. In fact, it worked out for some parts — I barely had to interview since he knew who I was and trusted my skills. I am very comfortable and honest with him, and it helps my work performance a lot to be able to communicate with him frankly and let him know when I was happy/unhappy. 

However, I’m starting to notice the cons of working with a supervisor that you’re friendly with. My first issue is with his management skills. He tends to micromanage a bit and it’s causing some frustration because I’ve usually handled projects on my own. When he wants to pipe in, he has a certain way of doing things, “best practices” such as formatting documents a certain way, that end up taking me a lot longer to do, even though to him it’s a simpler way of doing it. Or constantly suggesting I print out a copy of anything I’m working on, whether it be 2 pages or 300 pages. I’m not super “green” but I do try to minimize printing as much as I can, and have voiced this opinion to him, but he usually laughs it off and thinks I’m being casual/joking.

Also, lately he’s been asking me to pitch in on a couple more projects (I feel because he’s familiar with my work and trusts my experience) but I’ve been busy enough as it is and I’ve said to him I’ve had to push back my own work to focus on the ones he’s ask me to help out on, and come in on weekends. He thanked me for being such an awesome person. I don’t know how to address this professionally without bringing in the fact that we’re friendly and that, I’m not going to lie, our friendship helped me get this position, but now it feels like he’s asking more of me than I think a regular employee should be doing. I feel like I was guilted into taking on the extra assignments basically. It’s come to a point where I’m considering looking at other jobs, even though I don’t really want to switch jobs, just maybe managers.

Unfortunately, there is no one else I can speak to, there’s no one else above him in my department (not that he’s the head, we just haven’t hired anyone to fill the spot yet). Just as some additional background, the position I accepted is only a mid-level position. I’m not a supervisor or manager but I feel like the tasks I’ve been asked to undertake (managing junior employees, negotiating contracts) are definitely supervisor/manager level and I’d like to ask for a review but feel like it’s too presumptuous since I’m only 5 months in and also might sound like I’m taking advantage of our friendship again.

Your problem isn’t that you’re working for a friend. Your problem is that you’re working for someone whose managerial style you don’t like.

It sounds like you have two separate issues: He micromanages aspects of your work that you don’t think he should be involved with, and he’s asking you to take on more than you want to take on. These are two different issues, so let’s tackle them one at a time.

With the micromanagement, let me first say that I do think good managers are hands-on: They poke around, they ask questions, they make sure that you’re both on the same page about expectations and outcomes and how you’re approaching your work. Sometimes people call that micromanagement, and I don’t think that it is (assuming that it’s not taken to an extreme). However, what you’re describing here absolutely fits the definition. Telling you how to format your documents (assuming that there’s not some serious problem with your formatting) and telling you to print things out to work on when that’s not how you prefer to work – that’s telling you how to do the most basic details of your work and they’re things that aren’t going to affect the outcome. So he is inappropriately micromanaging here, and you should talk to him about it.

Say something like this: “I know everyone has their own way of doing things, but you’ve mentioned a few times that I should print out anything I’m working on. I work better looking at things electronically, so I’m going to keep doing it that way, and I want to make sure that you don’t have a big issue with that. I’ve noticed you sometimes take an interest in the little details like that, or about how I format a document, and with stuff that doesn’t affect the final outcome of my work, I’m hoping you’ll let me make those calls myself. I really value your input on the work itself and my approach, but I’m hoping you can trust my judgment on details like margins or what to print out.”

If he says that that’s not going to happen, I’d be tempted to suggest that he hire a much lower-level person since clearly his expectations are out of whack with how someone more experienced works. (That said, if he just has one of these preferences, I’d tolerate it . Everyone has weird quirks — I once had a boss who had an unshakeable preference for Courier 12, and I just dealt with it, because ultimately it wasn’t a big deal. The issue is when they have tons of these little micromanagey things that they expect you to accommodate and it starts to become degrading and make you feel like you’re not respected enough to make your own decisions on any small issues.)

Now, on the extra assignments … It’s actually pretty normal for a boss to give you extra assignments, particularly if you’re good at what you do. That’s the nature of managers: they assign you work. Your job is to raise it with him when you have more than you can accomplish in a given period, so that you can discuss your priorities and get on the same page about what should be given priority. If you’ve done that and you’ve just been told to work the hours that it takes to fit it all in, then you should raise that too — not as a complaint, but as an attempt to figure out if the fit is right. For instance: “Hey, I want to talk to you about your expectations about my workload. I’ve been having to come in on weekends lately to get everything done, and that’s not something I want to keep doing regularly. Do you need someone in this job who will regularly work evenings and weekends? If so, I want to be honest with you that it’s probably not me. I’m glad to do it when it’s an emergency, but not as a matter of course. Is that in sync with what you need, or too far afield?”

Regarding the fact that the extra work is work that you feel is above your level, I think you might be being too rigid in your thinking there. Plenty of non-managers are asked to negotiate contracts, for instance. Generally being given higher-level work is a good thing — it’s an opportunity to stretch yourself and grow into additional responsibilities. That’s how people move up and get raises. But if it’s work that you’re not interested in doing, it’s certainly your prerogative to tell him that — just be aware that it’s usually a pretty career-limiting move to do that, and that generally speaking, your job is to do what your manager asks you to do, unless you’re regularly being asked to do things wildly afield of what you were hired for.

Overall, here’s what I think is happening: You took a job with this guy, thinking that it would be awesome to work with a friend.  But it turned out not to be the sunshine-and-roses scenario that you were picturing (because working for a friend almost never is), and now you’re attributing everything you don’t like to the fact that he’s taking advantage of the friendship. But I don’t think he is. I think you’re just not crazy about him as a manager.  It’s very, very different working with someone as your manager than it is working with them as a peer, and now you’re finding that out.

In any case, just talk to him about this stuff. Be straightforward and matter-of-fact, not accusatory, leave the friendship out of it, and see what happens.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Marketer

    Agree totally with AAM. The friendship is separate: talk to your boss the way you would to any other.

    “I’ve had to push back my own work to focus on the ones he’s ask me to help out on.” I’m curious: how do you distinguish between “your own work” and what “he’s asked to help out on”? To me, anything my bosses ask me to do is “my work.” So do you have really defined tasks with strict deadlines, and this is on top of that?

    1. Piper

      I used to have a job like this (incidentally, working for a friend; it did NOT end well) where I was in charge of all company related widget making, which kept me quite busy. But because the CEO (my boss) thought I was good at what I did, he often had me to the same type of work for clients. This was fine with me because I like variety, but then deadlines and timing can become quite tricky. Especially, when there are competing priorities and the CEO wants everything done yesterday and is perplexed that you can’t create an extra 4 hours in a day. Maybe OP is in a similar situation.

  2. Meredith

    Regarding the second issue, if it bothers the OP that much, might she ask for a slightly altered job title that reflects her increased responsibilities? I think it’s too soon to do that now, but maybe in a few more months?

  3. Jaime

    I think this is one area where working with a friend is actually an advantage: “I am very comfortable and honest with him, and it helps my work performance a lot to be able to communicate with him frankly and let him know when I was happy/unhappy.” Your answer is right there. Take AAM’s advice in how to word it and put it out there.

  4. JT

    One comment on document format. If the manager is always asking the documents be formatted the same way, that’s not necessarily micromanaging – that’s asking for consistency. If the OP doesn’t do it, I can see the manager butting in again and again for that.

    1. Long Time Admin

      My entire company is like that. Of course, we’re an architectural and engineering firm, and all of our work must be consistent in every regard. Even the subject lines of our emails regarding project must follow a specific format.

      Sometimes there IS a good reason for standardizing documents. JDI.

      1. Anonymouse

        Yeah, if the manager is asking anyone on the team to adhere to Best Practices (or is in the unenviable situation of having to create/standardize them) then it’s actually the OP who is being an uncooperative employee.

  5. Anonymous

    I just want to comment that being anal about formatting is not always just bc a manager is being unreasonably overbearing. At one job, the managerial team found that the lack of consistency in setting up projects was causing huge issues (bc of lost links, confusing organization, and inconsistent output) down the line as files were passed along. We ended up having to insist upon a standard file setup bc the 5-10 minutes we spent policing the initial formatting headed off 2-3 hours (or more) of detective work for fellow coworkers who might end up having to work on the file. Even if these files are just word documents or Excel, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a boss to ask a team to use a consistent formatting–a primary part of visual communication is having a unified approach. A team that uses a common “look” will seem far more polished than a team that presents their materials any old way. Yes, ultimately the information inside is far more important than what font is chosen. But taking the time to care about how the information is presented is actually a pretty important step, and I don’t think it’s right to simply dismiss a manager who cares about that as being a “micromanager”.

      1. JT

        Sorry to pile on, but one other comment about formatting. The amount of time that should be spent on formatting document depends on the readership/users of a document, and how often that document is re-used. With an email or note from one person to another it’s not that important – extra time spent by the writer may be as much as time/effort saved by the reader. But if the reader’s time is much more valuable than the writer’s then the writer should spend extra time on it. A document that’s going to many people should be done with much more care – a little extra time spent by the writer benefits many many readers. Similarly, if a document is going to be re-used, then a little extra time in production benefits many re-uses (if that’s a word).

  6. Allison

    Just wanted to agree with other commenters on the document formatting thing. I’ve never worked at a place where that was left to individual discretion, so that doesn’t sound like micromanaging to me either.

  7. anonymous

    The printing docs, etc is micromanaging and would drive me nuts.

    But I also want to say that I am a Sr Acct Mgr and friends with the Jr ones at my job…..and being friends with them, they always seem a little shocked or taken aback, ever so slightly when I push on them or give them unpleasant tasks. It’s as if, deep down inside, they equate our being friendly with me shielding them from anytime unpleasant or difficult.

  8. Joey

    “In any case, just talk to him about this stuff. Be straightforward and matter-of-fact, not accusatory”

    If people just applied this one little blurb they’d solve nearly all of their workplace problems.

        1. Anonymous

          Because one never knows how the other person is going to react or what they’re going to “read into” what you’re saying.

          Also, if anything someone says can be understood in more than one way, and ONE of those ways makes the listener feel hurt or sad, the listener will immediately assume that ONE way is how it was intended.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            And that is why you need to date people whose default mode is to give you the benefit of the doubt, at least when you explain that you meant it in a different way.

            1. Anonymous

              Yeah, that’s always the intention, but sometimes they’re good at keeping the crazy out of sight long enough for you to get hooked.

  9. Steve

    My only quibble would be with Alison’s suggested “I’ve noticed you sometimes take an interest in the little details like that, or about how I format a document, and with stuff that doesn’t affect the final outcome of my work…”

    The word “little” in this sentence comes across as condescending.

    The positive term for “micromanager” is “Detail oriented”

  10. Charles

    Ditto the comments already mentioned about formatting – it is VERY necessary for consistency.

    Also, for proofreading it is often better to proof something on paper instead of looking at a screen, you will catch more mistakes on paper.

    As far as “best practices,” (why, oh why did you put that in quotes? Best Practice is a phrase meaning the best way of doing things, in the case of documents it is often because there is an in-house standard way of doing it so that everyone is doing things the same way) it sounds like her boss is trying to teach her what the standards in their office are and she is resisting. Not a good way to learn. Yes, often YOUR way might seem better; but, best practices are set up for everyone to be more productive. If anyone else has to pick up your document after you have done it “your way” they might not be able to figure out how to do it since you didn’t follow your company’s best practices. In document production there is little else more frustrating than working with someone else’s document in which she did not follow standards – that’s often how deadlines get missed!

    Lastly, I really don’t know what the OP means by I am able to communicate with him when I am “happy/unhappy.” This is WORK – your happiness or unhappiness comes into play how? If you mean something else, that is fine; but the fact that it is framed in that way tells me that someone IS trying to take advantage of their friendship here and it isn’t the boss. The OP needs to ask herself if she didn’t expect this job to be a “ride in the park” and is now finding out that it is more than she expected; perhaps looking for another job is the best solution.

    1. D

      +1

      I was trying to find the right words and couldn’t- luckily you did it already!

      To me, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. A manager is trying to show the OP how things are done for consistency. You might think that “your way” is better, but there’s a reason for protocol. If you don’t agree with it or you think there’s a better way to do it, mention it.

      This guy doesn’t sound like a micromanager to me. It sounds like he might not know the best way to manage employees, but wanting to know details is showing interest in your work. I would rather have that than a boss that shows no interest in me professionally and has no idea what the heck I’m doing all day long (which, coincidentally, is the case right now).

      In a few words: Don’t expect that this guy is going to dote on you because you’re friends.

      1. The Other Dawn

        I agree. I think he wants to make sure things are done in a way that’s consistent. Also, “wanting to know details is showing interest in your work” can also mean he wants to be aware so something doesn’t come back to bite him in the ass.

    2. Vicki

      ” This is WORK – your happiness or unhappiness comes into play how?”

      That is a very scary statement. If you are unhappy at Work, you need to find another job. The whole “this is why they call it ‘work’ notion causes far too much stress and an unhealthy environment.”

      Ugh.

  11. A Second Heather

    To me it sounds like there is a possibility that he is over-compensating in his management style because of the friendship, wanting to be “extra-professional” because of being unsure of where the line is. There would need to be more details though on whether the OP notices a difference in how they are treated compared with other employees at the same level.

  12. mishsmom

    AAM, ONLY Courier 12?? i can handle many things, but looking at that on my screen all day? that’s torture! :)

  13. Student

    From the OP: “When he wants to pipe in, he has a certain way of doing things, “best practices” such as formatting documents a certain way, that end up taking me a lot longer to do, even though to him it’s a simpler way of doing it. ”

    One of the (sometimes painful) realities of a job is that the boss’s time is more valuable than yours. If the formatting saves him time but uses more of your time, then business-wise it’s probably better to spend your time formatting the documents than spend his time reading un-formatted documents.

    Also, if formatting is giving you a lot of trouble, you might be handling the problem wrong. Obviously I have no idea what you’re working on, but no matter what it is, you can make templates. This might be something as simple as a consistent form that you fill out or simple text outline that you fill in, or as sophisticated as a custom Microsoft Word style or LaTeX document class. Usually, you invest the time to make a correct style template once, then use it over and over again without having to think about style elements.

    1. jmkenrick

      I agree with the other points people have been making about formatting, however – I think that if a small detail is important, the onus is on the management to commuciate that. If this formatting saves a lot of time down the line, for example, as one commentor brought up, then after 5 months, the manager should have clearly communicated this the employee so she understands why she is putting in that “extra” work.

    2. Vicki

      The boss’s time is MORE VALUABLE than yours?
      Some of the assumptions commenters make here really worry me.
      His time is _not_ “more valuable” than yours. He may or may not be paid more, but value isn;’t just money.

      The manager’s job is to support the employee. His job is to help the employee get her work done. If he’s causing her problems, that is a problem.

      Gah. I really need to go read something else now.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        The boss’s time is more valuable to the company, yes. That is why a boss should delegate anything that she CAN delegate, so that she can focus on things those working for her can’t do. That seems like a pretty uncontroversial statement to me.

      2. Jamie

        People’s humanity is equally valuable regardless of position, but the value of time on the job does equal money.

        An hour of the bosses time might cost the company $40 per hour and an assistant $15. So it is just fiscally responsible to have the boss spend time on tasks that can’t be delegated.

  14. Sandrine

    What I do when I have to work on a document formatted in a rigid way is just to work on a copy in the format I like, and make sure I re-format it the way it should be before I submit it (when I did translation work, for example) .

    Depending on the format you need to use (a border ? a font ? font size ? bold things ? ) it can be really easy to do.

    Now, if it’s another kind of formatting issue, then, my bad :P .

    As for being happy/unhappy, well, sometimes, it’s good to mention it to your supervisor. For example, in my line of work, if I am feeling down, I’d better mention it in passing to my boss so that he isn’t surprised if he listens to one of my calls and finds me less upbeat than usual (has happened, I was asked to improve a certain aspect of my performance, and on the next call boss listened to he felt I was sounding less “nice” than usual : I had to explain I was trying to sound more formal and more professional) .

    Now, about the friendship thing… dear OP, you seem to be oddly focused on this friendship thing. Take this out of the equation. Just like AAM said, seems like this is a management issue, not a friendship one. A boss is a boss, you need to deal with this in terms of a work relationship, and from what I’ve read here over time what you’re describing doesn’t seem so weird. Since you’re so friendly (as you say) I’m sure you’ll find a way to resolve the issue without needing to quit, since work is not supposed to be all nice and fluffy and nice like marshmallows :) .

  15. Michelle

    The OP mentioned that their boss’s direct manager position is currently vacant. This may be why they are having to pick up additional work. I am assuming that the OPs boss is having to cover some of their vacant managers work and the OP is getting some trickle down work. I would wait to see what happens when that position is filled as this might be a temporary problem.

  16. RachelTech81

    Sounds to me like OP might actually have a really good boss who is grooming him/her for leadership and trying to challenge and develop a top performers.

    One of the best things to happen to me professionally was having a boss who subjected me to similar perceived “hardships “.

    Just my two cents though.

  17. Anonymous

    The reader should count his/her blessings. People like me who’ve been out of work for months wish we had a job with a “micromanaging” boss giving us extra work! Another way to look at it is that the boss is assigning her extra work because he thinks she’s dependable and can handle it. That’s a form of job security, if anything.

    Aside from that, the moral of the story: if at all possible, don’t take a job where your friend is also your boss.

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