update: does the admin in my new office have boundary issues?

Remember the reader whose new administrative assistant after a merger was generally amazing at her job but was rearranging people’s offices and being a bit heavy-handed in sending out company-wide emails?  Here’s an update.

The admin and I are both still here. The bulk of the problems have subsided. What I’ve learned is that where you sit determines a lot. I sat right where the admin had to look into my cube every time she got up, so I moved when I had a chance and everything except the emails has stopped.

Before I moved, she tried to implement a “confiscation policy” for the space heaters, and mine was the first and only one confiscated. I came in one night shortly after and was working when I found three other space heaters on. I sent her a quick email around midnight letting her know that I was working late and found the others still running, and that I was concerned about the practicality of her being expected to police the personal space of everyone in the office. I also said that while I respect her role in the office, the space heater is a personal item and I expect it to be returned. She was great about it. I came in the next day and it was back and there’s been no discussion of space heaters since (plus the weather is finally warming up).

She still sends out emails, but they’ve become a sort of office-wide joke. It turns out a lot of people felt the same way I did. At the moment, people either laugh about them or just delete them. We were off campus the other day and she sent one out and the president of the company leaned over to me and said, “I don’t want to be petty, but I’m getting a little tired of these snarky emails.” I told her I agreed, but our admin was very good at her job otherwise. I even used a line from one of the comments on your post: “Nobody likes an email about dishes being left in the kitchen sink, but they don’t mind an email when they’ve left their wedding ring on the bathroom sink.” We agreed that neither of us knew how to handle it, so we’d just ignore it for now.

Me again. Her manager should really give her some feedback on the emails — she probably doesn’t realize how they’re coming across, and it would a service to her to let her know, since they’re affecting how she’s perceived. I don’t fault the company president for not dealing with it, as she presumably has higher priorities, but maybe you could mention the conversation to the admin’s manager and suggest that some guidance could help (while emphasizing that you otherwise think she’s great).

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Jessica*

    Would just like to point out that the OP indicated the company president was female (“I told her I agreed”) but the response refers to the president as male (“he presumably has higher priorities”).

  2. LAI*

    I’m wondering if maybe there is a way to give this admin more responsibilities? It sounds like she is overall a great employee and she’s trying her best to do a good job. I know that when I don’t have anything to do, I look for something that will improve my workplace, help my coworkers or let me do my job better. Maybe she feels like she needs to fill her day so she looks for things to fix or improve? Perhaps if she had more and higher-level responsibilities, she wouldn’t worry so much about how long the dishes have been in the sink.

    1. LAI*

      This, in addition to explaining the problem with the emails of course. I am just suggesting another possible solution that might help if she feels like she will have nothing to do if she doesn’t take care of the kitchen.

  3. Seriously?*

    Instead of doing anything about the problem she’s being mocked behind her back. Classy.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Meh, that doesn’t really sound like mocking to me, at least not based on what’s here. But I do think someone needs to nudge the admin’s manager to say something to her.

  4. Chinook*

    The AA really does need a manager to guide her on her emails. I was at a loss on how to deal with dishes in the sink and missing cutlery and cups (which directly affected my job which included getting coffee for clients). My office manager suggested humour and it worked – once I sent an email warning people of cup stealing gnomes (I even found a photo on the internet) who hide stuff on people’s desks, they all magically reappeared. By allowing people to fix an issue while saving face, it helped me come across as mopre friendly.

  5. LBK*

    The whole “implementing a confiscation policy” thing is very weird to me. Do most admins actually have the authority to implement office policies? If anything, shouldn’t that be done by her manager and maybe announced via the admin on the manager’s behalf? If she’s also more of an office manager, that’s one thing, but I would be very put off if the admin in my office tried to make rules.

    1. some1*

      I can’t speak for most admins, but, yeah, I’m expected to enforce policies like this that come Management or Facilities. They aren’t *my* rules, and I couldn’t care less if you tape a Mardi Gras banner to the wall, but part of my job is removing stuff like that when I see it or I could get in trouble.

      1. LBK*

        Enforcing it is one thing, and I totally understand that, but it sounds like the admin herself was the one that decided OP couldn’t have a space heater in her office before she took it. That doesn’t sound like something that would be her call, but I would agree that removing it if there was an existing policy would fall under the admin’s jurisdiction, so to speak.

        1. some1*

          I guess I assumed that the space heater thing was always the building’s rule, not the admin’s. But it definitely should have been communicated to the LW more clearly and shouldn’t be selectively enforced.

          But I have worked for dept heads that I could totally see, after me sending out umpteen emails stating, “We can’t have space heaters in the office”, my boss telling me to unplug them from now on or responding to the email stating that.

    2. Lily in NYC*

      I’m an executive assistant and that would seem weird to me mainly because she singled out OP and no one else. However, I understand “blanket confiscating rules”. I am fed up with my coworkers leaving dishes in the sink all night and weekends (we have a bug problem because we are right above the subway station). I don’t even bother with emails any more – now I just throw everything away if the stuff is still there the next morning. It’s not my job to clean up after people and there are signs everywhere telling them that items will be thrown away if left overnight. I used to try to be nice and warn people but it was getting ridiculous and the sink was disgusting (we don’t have a dishwasher).

      1. Lily in NYC*

        replying because I can’t edit – I misunderstood your comment. I would never create a policy on my own- I would only enforce a policy created by management.

        1. some1*

          This. I report directly to an exec as well, and I feel like it should be assumed that if I send out an email to the dept saying, “We can’t have space heaters/signs taped to the wall/dishes left in the sink overnight” I’m doing it at my boss’s blessing/instigation.

        1. KellyK*

          It is, but if things are repeatedly left overnight, there aren’t many options left. I suppose she could handwash them herself, but that seems like it only encourages leaving the kitchen a mess.

        2. Lily in NYC*

          50% of the stuff I throw away are tupperware-type containers. And then mugs. We have over 1000 mugs left over from an incentive program that never happened and people here tend to consider them disposable (I’m not proud of it!).

        3. Mallory*

          It is wasteful, but I do it, too. I’ve never announced it as a policy, and I don’t make signs (gave up on that at a previous job — there is no sign that magically makes people clean up after themselves). Once a dish has been sitting in the sink for a day/day-and-a-half or so, I consider it to be abandoned, and I “disappear” it.

  6. Kimberlee, Esq.*

    In talking to the admin’s manager, would it be appropriate to note what the president said? On the one hand, it sounds a little tattle-y, or maybe even gossipy? … but on the other, it adds a real bite to the idea, “you should manage your intern a bit on this, even the president of the company is saying stuff.”

  7. EngineerGirl*

    This is a bit of a management fail. The admin is the target of jokes because management hasn’t clued her in on what is/is not appropriate. The worst part is that this isn’t even a huge performance problem that makes a difficult conversation.

    1. some1*

      Yeah, I kind of feel bad for the coworker TBH because the reality is sending out all-company emails are a necessary evil when you’re an admin, and they are always going to bother someone.

      (That being said, the emails shouldn’t have a rude tone and shouldn’t be sent out unnecessarily.)

  8. Jess*

    I think it’s more likely that she’s being told by her manager to do these things, rather than implementing them herself.

    I have a lot of sympathy for this woman. Being in the position of having to enforce rules on people who rank higher than you is no fun. You basically can’t win: you are either not doing your job or people hate you because they think you’re making the rules up yourself.

  9. Marcy*

    I swear, I used to work with that same woman! Only thing is: No one ever called her on it — no supervisor, at least. The staff fought back plenty over officious blast emails (all with spelling/grammatical mistakes) and her inflexible, self-serving policies. She was here for years and everyone complained about her. Management perfectly understood how annoying she was, but no one in a position of authority said anything to her. Then the day came when the company lost the contract and she was deliberately cut loose by the new contract owners. No one in management did her any favors by not addressing her quirks and her reputation preceeded her. I feel empathy for her, but not a lot of sympathy.

  10. Interviewer*

    She has no idea there are other ways to communicate with this large group. By the way, this is exactly why there are signs in every office kitchen about putting glasses DIRECTLY in the dishwasher and COVERING your food in the microwave (and why later someone smarter than me created passiveagressivenotes.com).

    I would gently push her manager to encourage her to find solutions to making her message public that do not involve email. Is each message urgent, or does it require a response from the reader? Probably not. SoI would give her outlets for her notices like: post an FAQ on the company intranet, add items to the staff meeting agenda, or create signage. Makes her feel like she’s getting the message across in a little more permanent way, but for everyone else it’s far less interruptive.

    1. KellyK*

      That’s a good point. You have to be careful with the signs because if you post too many, people tune them out or it makes the space look cluttered. But a reminder right above the sink about what you’re supposed to do with dishes is far more useful than an email blast when you’re sitting at your desk.

  11. Ellie H.*

    It’s interesting to me that there are some people who think her behavior is completely appropriate and justified and some who think she is totally overstepping and out of line. I’m in an admin role and I’m the latter. I don’t really *like* to clean up after people (I typically don’t have to, but sometimes there is a situation where someone has to) but if someone is going to do it, it’s me! I would never dream of sending such an email.

    I think there is some difference people are identifying, though, between being an admin responsible for an entire office/space (like an “office manager”) vs. simply being an administrative assistant or some sort. It seems like there is a consensus that this type of email etc. is in fact appropriate for the former role. However it does also seem that this particular admin is somewhat more officious/eager about these responsibilities to the point where it distracts from the rest of her excellent work.

  12. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

    I agree that being an admin has it’s challenges and it is hard to enforce rules upon people who are senior to you. I definitely think that her manager (or someone senior to her whom she respects) would really be helping her out by pointing out to her that the emails are excessive and annoying (and not effective). By sending out so many unimportant e-mails, people are deleting a lot of her messages without even reading them (if I read that part correctly) and when she has something important to send to everyone, they are not getting the message.

  13. Nicole*

    I dont really comment. But I am the office manager and I send out all of the office emails/updates so its a bit dishearting to hear nobody wants to hear about the dishes or its over the top. Maybe coming from her shes tired of being the office maid and people just walk all over. Maybe be more of a team player and help out a bit. If its that bad someone should speak to her and here why she is acting that way.

    1. Also an Admin*

      Email blasts are only effective in my office when they are an exception rather than a frequent occurrence. Even more so when they come from someone who is not known for sending out large numbers of frivolous emails.

    2. Lily in NYC*

      I know! I think the trick is not to bombard people – only send them once in a while. And try to be slightly humorous in the email if that’s ok with your office culture.

  14. Cassie*

    If it were up to me, I’d do the following:

    Have the admin create signage to put up in the kitchen (of course, sometimes people mock these too).

    Policies about space heaters and stuff should be in the employee manual – if there’s a specific violator, the admin (if she has the authority) should contact the violator and not everyone.

    If the emails are too frequent (or unnecessary) or if the tone is not appropriate, the admin’s supervisor needs to bring it up with her. Don’t just let her continue to send out the emails without any guidance. (The OP should mention this to the admin’s supervisor, if she is in the position to do so).

  15. Lindrine*

    I like the idea of an occasional humorous email or sign maybe involving gnomes. I myself have witnessed the tragic aftermath of email attachment gnomes. It does sound to me like policies may be unclear or worse, unenforced.

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