am I crossing boundaries with my boss, who’s also my friend’s mother?

A reader writes:

I am a new hourly intern at an office. One of my interviewers, and now boss, knows me on a somewhat personal level; her daughter and I have been friends since high school. We (my boss and I) didn’t see each other all of the time, as my friend is kind of flighty and flaky, and even then, I didn’t spend a lot of time around her, but her daughter mentioned the internship to me and I expressed an interest. (Note: her daughter hasn’t worked here and does not work here now. She said her mother asked her to mention it to me.)

I don’t think for one second that I’ve been hired simply because I know the head of the department (my boss knows I am pretty responsible and trustworthy in my personal life), but I do worry a bit that others might see it that way. While looking for my boss one day, I mentioned that I had emailed her and had even tried texting her daughter to a coworker from another department who dabbles in everyone’s work from time to time. That was probably stupid, and stupider still, later as this coworker was by my desk, I pointed out the picture of the two of us in my cubicle (I have a bunch of pictures of friends and family hanging on the wall, and she’s in one as one of my besties). I felt a bit neurotic after this incident. I get the feeling it might have been better not to mention her at all, or at least not in the context of “she’s the boss’s daughter,” but I wasn’t thinking.

I’ve also noticed that when I mention my friend to my boss (which I’ve only done maybe twice), unless it has to do with my weekend plans, she seems to clam up a bit and the conversation, in my opinion, turns awkward. It’s an awkward dynamic anyway, knowing her both inside and outside of work, and I haven’t been here very long, so maybe I just haven’t gotten into the swing of things yet. Maybe it’s because her office door is open, or maybe because she just tries to mix home and work as little as she possibly can. I have theories on that last one, because her relationship with her daughter is pretty strained at times, but that’s irrelevant.

I’ve always had a problem with oversharing and being too trusting of others. Would you recommend that I at least keep that aspect of my personal life (that her daughter is one of my best friends in the world) quiet in the future? As far as I know, no one has said anything or passed the information along. Do you think I’m in the clear this time?

Yes, you should definitely stop mentioning the connection to people at work because (a) you don’t want people to think that you only got the internship because you’re friends with your boss’s daughter, and (b) you don’t want people to think that you think that relationship should play any role in the job now that you’re in it, like getting special treatment or — importantly — special access to your boss.

When you work for someone who you know outside of work, it’s crucial to not bring that relationship into the workplace. Otherwise you risk looking like you think you should get special treatment, even if that’s not your intention, or that you don’t understand professional boundaries.

That means that stuff like texting your friend to see where your boss — her mother — is off-limits. Employees who aren’t friends with the daughter can’t do that, and thus you shouldn’t be doing it either. That’s treating your boss like your friend’s mom, rather than as your boss — which is what she is to you now, especially when you’re at work and especially when it concerns work-related issues. (Plus, if you think about it, it’s a little rude; it’s highly unlikely that there was an emergency that required that you go to those lengths to track down your boss. You’ll find her when you find her, like everyone else at work. You probably wouldn’t want coworkers texting your relatives to find you, right?)

Similarly, you shouldn’t mention your friend to your boss while you’re at work. Doing that takes your interactions and relationship from professional (where it belongs) to personal (where it doesn’t belong now). You’re blurring professional/personal boundaries in a way that’s going to make people uncomfortable.

While you’re at work, you basically need to forget that you know the boss outside of work, or that you know her daughter. You’re an employee, and you’ve got to leave all the rest of the relationship and personal knowledge outside. So: no contacting the daughter about her mom, no talking to your boss about her daughter, no talking to your boss the way you’d talk to a friend’s mom, and no talking about any of it to other coworkers. Pretend to yourself that you met your boss for the first time when you started this internship, and behave the way you would in that context.

Also: Don’t beat yourself up too much over this. For the most part, no one really teaches you professional norms; you’re just expected to pick them up as you go. (That’s one big reason for internships; it’s far better to figure this stuff out as an intern than not until you’re an employee.) So you got this one wrong, but now you know and you can correct it going forward.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. UKAnon*

    I was essentially going to post Alison’s last paragraph; learning this sort of thing is exactly what internships are for, so do make efforts to start drawing lines (as a chronic oversharer, I feel your pain!) but don’t dwell on this; it’s all part of the learning curve.

    1. nona*

      +1 And the people you work with probably understand that you’re still learning about this.

  2. Dawn*

    Yeah definitely don’t mention the connection thing, it always seems to backfire horribly no matter how tenuous the connection.

    Case in point: my last boss, Shirley, went to elementary school with Bob who was pretty high up in my department. She hadn’t seen him in like 15 years or whatever until she started working at my last company as a contractor (and her position was loosely connected with what Bob did, as in they worked together but she didn’t report to him or anything). At some point Bob said something about them having gone to elementary school together and from that point forward there were a couple of blowhards that didn’t like Shirley who would bring it up *all the time* as evidence that she got special treatment from Bob and from the company and it obviously was the only reason she was hired and blah blah blah. NONE of which was true, and Shirley was amazing on her own and definitely didn’t need Bob’s help at all.

    The plural of anecdote is not data, I know, but I definitely think that relationships outside of work should be kept extremely close to the chest.

    1. UKAnon*

      I think it’s fine to respond honestly when asked. If somebody asked whether that wasn’t Maisie’s daughter in the picture on your desk it’s definitely best just to explain that you went to school together and are good friends. It’s volunteering that information outside of appropriate situations (and in a way which OP makes sound wasn’t just unsolicited but, in the second instance, meant changing the conversation to bring it up) that gives the wrong impression.

      I don’t blame Bob at all in your scenario, given the limited information. It’s the douchebags he works with who are a problem.

      (p.s. I am stealing “the plural of anecdote is not data”. That’s such a good way of ending an argument!)

      1. Artemesia*

        I would not put this picture on the desk — in fact lots of personal pictures in work space that is not private is IMHO not terribly appropriate, but particularly not a picture of oneself with the boss’s daughter. The number of ways the OP managed to work this relationship into conversations at work is sort of amazing as is the idea of texting the daughter to find the boss — well past time to put a halt on this.

          1. Just Another Techie*

            All of my interns have brought a photo or two to put on their desk and I would honestly find it weird if they didn’t.

            1. Lily in NYC*

              It depends on the culture, but where I work it would be considered very odd for an intern to have personal photos, especially a “bunch” like OP mentioned. It wouldn’t matter at all in the scheme of things, but it would definitely be seen as a bit immature to have photos yourself with different friends (but I admit I work at a place where very few people display personal photos).

              1. NYC*

                The only personal pictures I have at work is one of my dog and a shadow picture of me & my friends. Which now that I am looking at it is not really appropriate.

                1. Lily in NYC*

                  I’d be way more interested in seeing photos of people’s dogs than photos of their family members!

            2. Green*

              Yeah, it’s a go-with-the-culture thing,ut I would also be more likely to bring in a few photos for a permanent job than for a few months. And even if I did bring pictures, if there was a picture that I thought could cause some awkwardness I’d rather avoid (i.e., of me and my boss’s child), I’d probably choose to leave those at home.

      2. The IT Manager*

        Acknowledging that you’re oversharing is the first step to stopping it.

        A photo of your bestie mixed in with other photos not a problem. Answering a question honestly that “yes that is Maize’s daughter. She’s a good friend.” is fine. Specifically pointing out the photo, that it includes your best friend Maize’s daughter is oversharing. Honestly if you said that I would assume your purpose is to point out to me that you and Maize have a personal relationship. From your letter I guess it’s because it’s something on your mind as a concern, but bring up this information unasked is oversharing so you need to stop it.

        And I agree with Alison that you haven’t hurt yourself yet. You’re an intern there to learn, but from now on you need to learn to treat your boss as a separate person from your friend’s mom so don’t talk about your friend to her Mom at work and don’t mention to co-workers when you talk about your friend that she is your boss’s child.

        1. Sadsack*

          I think I have to disagree about the photo of the friend on the desk. I wonder how the boss feels about seeing the photo there, if it makes her feel awkward at all, especially since she has already acted a bit bothered by some of OP’s comments. I think maybe OP should consider removing it. I think having photos of friends at work is a bit, I don’t know, juvenile? Unprofessional? I just wouldn’t want OP to be perceived that way. I have really only ever seen photos of pets, spouses, and children in any office where I have worked. I think it was an excellent decision for OP to write in and hope that she continues to come here!

          1. anonanonanon*

            I’m not a fan of pictures at work, but I think it’s a bit much to limit pictures to only children, spouses, or pets because you’re setting different standards for people who are married, have children, or own pets. Some people don’t have any of those in their lives, but they should still be allowed to bring in pictures if they want. I see nothing wrong with someone who wants to have a few pictures of a good friend or a sibling.

            1. Sadsack*

              I think you’re right! I was going by what I have seen as the norm, but I agree that shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all. Thanks for pointing that out.

              1. Sadsack*

                But I still think OP should consider moving that particular photo — just consider it among all the other advice she is getting here.

          2. bridget*

            I think it would be fine if it were a group photo, like OP, friend, and other friends at summer camp or whatever. If it’s just OP and friend, or just friend, it will look to other people like the OP is putting it up on purpose to make a point.

  3. Mrs. Badcrumble*

    Two jobs ago (back in my misspent 20’s), I worked in an analytics department where the director was a woman not much older than myself and one of the programmers was her mother. I think I was there at least a month before someone told me they were related. They just had a really great working relationship, behaved professionally, and no one thought anything of it. It can be done, and you can do it, too, OP; your internship is a great place to learn the “soft-skills” of working in an office and it’s good that you’re asking these kinds of questions.

    1. SevenSixOne*

      There were three generations of the same family (grandmother, mother, son, and sometimes nephew) working together at my first full-time job.

      It’s still the most harmonious workplace I’ve ever had, but it definitely gave me some unrealistic expectations about what family businesses are usually like.

    2. HB*

      My first internship was at my mother’s company. I was in a completely different department, but still, we shared an (uncommon) last name. I was always pleasantly surprised when people made the connection (in a “wait, you are related? I had no idea!” sense) as it made me feel I’d done a decent job appearing professional.
      That said, we all learn a lot at those first internships and jobs – soft skills are important!

      1. HB*

        (just to clarify I meant the company my mother worked for, not the company my mother OWNED… calling it “my mother’s company” may not have been clear).

      2. INFJ*

        My favorite was whenever someone new would start, seeing how long it would take before they knew that my mother was my mother. One coworker actually said to her, “She’s your daughter? I guess I need to watch what I say.”

        1. MM*

          My sister and I have worked at the same organization for over 20 years. We are both managers in different departments. If we are going to have regular contact with someone (a new employee or contractor) we usually try to find a way to casually let them know we are sisters so they don’t say something that would embarrass everyone. It’s never been a problem for us and people frequently call us by the other sisters’ name.

    3. Oryx*

      Oh, yes. At my last job we hired this new guy and it was probably six months before someone had to point out to me that our other co-worker was his mother-in-law.

    4. Lucky*

      At a former job, our file clerk was the daughter of a partner, though I didn’t know that for a few weeks in (very common last name) because she referred to and addressed partner by his first name during the work day. About two weeks in, I was working late when the two of them walked by my office on their way out to dinner. He said something teasing to her and I thought “Wha?! is he flirting with a subordinate less than half his age? Cad!” and then she punched him on the arm with an exasperated “Dad!” I was very glad it was Dad and not Cad.

      1. Elsajeni*

        Aaaah! I work with my dad and this is my greatest fear! (Happily, he’s worked here for my entire life, so a lot of his (now our) colleagues already know me as his daughter — BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ONES WHO DON’T.)

    5. Catherine in Canada*

      It can be done. My husband “got me my job” here. There was an opening for a writer, he told me about it, I applied and got it.
      But because we didn’t want me to be seen as the “wifey tagalong” or give the impression of any favoritism, we kept all our professional interactions, well, professional. That’s not entering the building together, not eating together, him calling me Catherine instead of my nickname and so on.
      It was about a year before most people knew we were married. Usually they’d ask about our last names being the same and I’d reply, “Well, he’s not my brother.”

  4. some1*

    Not to nitpick the LW but as an intern it’s kind of odd to decorate your workspace with tons of pics of family and friends in the first place. It send the signal that you are going to be there for the long haul, which an internship usually isn’t. It’s like showing up for a dinner party with a sleeping bag.

    1. danr*

      I wouldn’t attach too much importance to this. Some people put personal pictures on their desks and some don’t. It doesn’t mean much.

      1. Adam*

        Agreed. If she’s allowed to and it’s not cluttering up her space I don’t think anyone would care. My first post-college job (different from intern, granted) I didn’t put ANY personal up in my workspace for like the first six months and my director finally came to me and asked with honest concern “So do you like it here? You don’t have anything up in your cubicle and it makes me afraid your going to want to leave soon.”

        I finally tore a couple random pictures out of an old calendar of mine and stuck them to the wall. It was (privately) hilarious how much she enjoyed that when she noticed the change.

        1. S*

          My predecessor had been here for many years and left a couple knick-knacks behind… I kept those because I liked them, but other than that, I didn’t bring anything in until a couple weeks into the job, and my team was so delighted over the 2 photo strips and a foam penguin (the kind you can glue onto a sheet of paper).

          Of course, 2 months in now, I’ve amassed a small collection of “odd stress toys” (a mushroom, a stoplight… you get the idea) and some stuff from my alma mater. But I’ve always chuckled a little at how excited my team got over my 3 measly decorations.

      2. Just Another Techie*

        Agreed. A couple pictures in small frames fit in a backpack or messenger back and it takes two minutes to set them out.

    2. Christy*

      That struck me as strange as well, but I suppose different offices have different norms. In my office, there’s typically only a few pictures, if any, and usually they’re only of your kids. (I’m about to bring in a framed picture of me with my girlfriend, but that’s mostly about intentionally outing myself as gay so that my new coworkers know.)

      1. The IT Manager*

        :) I don’t have kids. I do have nephews so I brought photos of them into my office when I needed to brighten it. Not because I felt the need to have their picture nearby but because I just needed other than the walls to look at and they are cute and pictures of children are not uncommon in the office. It led to a few “are those your kids?” conversations, but I have no problem saying that I don’t have children myself.

    3. The IT Manager*

      I think it depends on workplace culture. All new employees including interns shouldn’t show up at work the first day with a box of photos and personal effects, but once you’ve seen your desk and everyone else’s, it’s fine to follow the workplace norms. (And as a new person fall in the middle of the norms don’t take them to the extreme by having more decorations than anyone else). As a short term intern specifically you shouldn’t haul in a huge heavy box, but it’s easy to bring in photos and stick them up with push pins. That said the photos should be reasonably professional and skip the drinking, scantily clad, wild and crazy photos which would be fine in a student’s locker or dorm.

      I think I recall a post/comment here about a college intern who over decorated her desk like one would a dorm room. Don’t do that!

      But I specifically brought some photos in to my dreary office which had high gray cubical walls just to give me something to look at in the office. Once we moved to an office with windows all around they were unnecessary because I had a lovely cityscape to rest my eyes on.

      1. anonanonanon*

        I’d also advise interns or new employees to NOT use the company printer to print out photos. One of the interns at my old company did that and used up all the color ink. People were not pleased.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          I didn’t use up all the ink! I did it on the color laser printer so I wouldn’t use up any ink!


          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            Ha. This was professors and not interns, but some of them would print funny posters on the color laser printer to hang on their office doors, changing them out every week or so. The dean started complaining that color laser printing was $0.50/sheet, so then some of them started taping two quarters to their printed posters.

      2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        My first job was a place where *everyone* decorated their cubes/offices/desks. We had half-wall cubes and people’s walls were completely lined with photos. We also had a lot of toys, knickknacks, and other things.

        My current job? People have maybe one photo and my sole decorations are the Cafe Dumond coffee can I use as a pen cup and certificates from work. Many of us travel between multiple locations and out of office meetings, so I think it’s a bit of the idea that our desk is just another desk!

    4. i need to find a name*

      I was thinking the same thing! Aside from one or two people, most people in my office don’t have pictures up, but most of our company’s interns decorate their entire workspace with pictures as if it’s their personal facebook or instagram. What’s worse is when anyone stops by, some of them like to point out the pictures and explain what’s going on in them even if they weren’t asked about. Stop doing that. Most people don’t care and only ask out of politeness.

      1. some1*

        Yeah, it wouldn’t seem nearly as weird to bring in a couple of photos for the internship, but the whole cubicle space is too much to think you can’t live without seeing these 80 photos every day for three weeks.

      2. Ad Astra*

        Could be a generational thing. I grew up decorating my locker, my binders, my laptops, my desk at home, etc. My parents didn’t have typical office jobs but all the professional people in TV and movies had family photos on their desks, so that’s what I assumed every office looked like. I was surprised to find that knickknacks and huge stacks of paper were more common than family photos or keepsakes. And at my current office, some people have nothing on their desks outside of the company-provided plant, notepad, and nameplate.

    5. Katie the Fed*

      I don’t think it’s weird at all. She’s an employee there for the summer – she can decorate her desk as appropriate.

      1. fposte*

        I was going to agree, and then I remembered this is somebody brand new to the workplace. So I’d say she can decorate her desk as appropriate as long as she’s checked out how other people decorate their desks and gauges “appropriate” from that.

        If it’s a covered-with-photographs workplace, she’s good. If it’s one where a single austere diploma is considered decor, it’s inadvisable to buck the trend.

      2. some1*

        Something being allowed isn’t the same thing as “some coworkers might think this is odd or out of step with the culture here”. If there was an intern or temp who decorated their cubicle with multiple pictures or decorations, vs a few, I wouldn’t tell them to take them down or anything, but I would find it strange.

        1. Green*

          Also might want to be sure that, as an intern, you’re taking your cues from people in the type of job you want to have. Some places have weird cultures where only administrative assistants have their pictures up or something (or they dress more casually, etc.).

    6. S*

      I didn’t have a cubicle when I was interning at a certain company, but I did have my own desk (in a very, very public and external-facing area) and even with everyone’s guests coming in and out of the office, I was encouraged to bring in appropriate decorations to make my desk my own even if I was there for just a semester. I ended up bringing a small stuffed toy (it was relevant to our industry, our city, and the company itself) and it was the hit of the office. I think it really depends on workplace norms, and that’s something you can ask your supervisor about if you’re really not sure.

    7. Ad Astra*

      This probably depends on the office. If the other interns have decorated their desks or brought in personal photos, I wouldn’t worry about it. If the OP is the only intern who did this, it might be smart to gradually and quietly take some things home.

      Like the issues Allison outlines, this is one of those things that might be inadvisable but likely isn’t a huge deal.

  5. bridget*

    Between the ages of about 14 and 24, I was also a talkative oversharer who often put her foot in her mouth. Honestly, I still do it from time to time, but I am much better because I realized why I was putting myself in mildly awkward/embarrassing positions and not presenting myself as well as I could, and really focused on fixing it, at least at work at school. I started being VERY strict with myself. Think that you always have to fill a silence? Nope! Literally bite your tongue when you feel like you might be saying anything even remotely in the gray area. It will feel crazy awkward and uncomfortable for you, but it won’t for other people, and it’s good practice. After a few hours, when the urge to say that thing in that moment has worn away, I’m almost always happier because of it. It also cuts down on the regret that you expressed – “I know I shouldn’t have said that, but I just wasn’t thinking.” Force yourself to take a few beats and think. Once you get in the habit of toning it down, you’ll feel so much more comfortable.

    1. some1*

      I have a close family member and a coworker like this. Actually, they are more like overcontributors than oversharers; when they are in large group settings (think 20+ people), they respond to *every* comment and question like they are the only person there – reading our comment was helpful to see reasons why some people are like this.

      1. bridget*

        I think a lot of it has to do with maturity and a growing sense of self-awareness, which is probably why I started consciously trying to turn the tide in my early 20s. It sounds like OP is in the beginning of that process, recognizing that she has a tendency to volunteer more personal information than other people are comfortable with, and that it’s not always appropriate.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I’ve been gingerly working with my 18-year-old daughter on this same habit, mostly just by pointing out occasionally in private (or giving her “the look” if we’re in a group) that she needs to think about giving others a chance to respond to things. I don’t by any means point out every instance, but I do try to point out the need for her to be aware of herself and of the people that she’s interacting with, just as a matter of politeness. I think hers is mainly immaturity and eagerness to contribute to the conversation, but it does get tiresome when one person has to be the first responder — and chatter at length about — every part of the conversation.

        1. Velociraptor Attack*

          When I’m doing a training I like to institute a “step forward, step back” mindset. Contribute, answer questions, step forward, absolutely but also do not monopolize the conversation. Acknowledge when you’ve been doing more talking and step back to let others have a say.

          I tend to utilize it in my day to day interactions personal and professional as well.

  6. themmases*

    I got one of my first jobs through a professional connection of my mother’s. My mother had run their professional organization for many years– there are members, thankfully not coworkers of mine, who know stories about me from kindergarten– and is very well loved, so when she was catching up with someone at a conference and mentioned I was job hunting, they said “send her to me”.

    There were people in that office who’d known my mother for ages and didn’t realize I was her daughter for over 2 years. That’s what you want! When you have a personal connection at a job, your goal should be to build a strong reputation as an individual so when people finally find out they shrug and think, ” small world”. (A related goal is to do so well at this job that you’re not ashamed to mention the connection because you know you earned it after the fact through your work.) Doing otherwise reflects poorly on your connection too, not just on you.

    1. Bwmn*

      My first internship/volunteer gig was within a small department where my mother was the overall director (not a family business by a long shot). She wasn’t my boss, but still. After volunteering one summer, I was eventually brought on as a paid temporary employee and then as a direct hire. By the time that happened, even though everyone knew – I had also worked my way up slowly and proven worthy of the hire.

      That being said, I would avoid thinking that you didn’t get the job because she knew you personally. I think it’s more helpful to think “my connections helped get me in the door, now I need to prove I really deserve to be here”. Working somewhat underneath your mother, there’s absolutely no escaping the nepotism aspect – but I also think it helped push me to be even more professional because the initial presumption was that I was there as the director’s brat. So while the OP’s situation wasn’t nepotism exactly, I think perhaps having a different attitude towards nepotism/favoritism can be helpful.

  7. Adam*

    Yep definitely don’t ask your friend where your boss/her mom is in a work context. If it were me not only would I probably not know (or care), but I’d probably find it kind of irritating regardless of the state of my relationship with either you or my mom, and especially so if our relationship was strained! You’ll figure it out. The fact that you were questioning how you were going about things already shows that you are very self-aware and conscientious which is awesome.

    …Sorry. This is probably the Mr. Grumpypants Magoo in me coming out but I’ve been realizing lately that I have a bit of a bug in my ear when it comes to excessive (and pointless) texting. Back to the drawing board.

    1. Adam*

      *Also what what I PERCEIVE as excessive (and pointless )texting. I’m having trouble figuring out where that line is lately.

    2. bridget*

      Genuinely curious – is “bug in my ear” also an idiom for a pet peeve, or is it an eggcorn of “bugbear”?

      1. Chairs*

        I personally have heard of “bug in my ear” for a pet peeve/ongoing annoyance, but have never heard of “bugbear”.

          1. literateliz*

            But what’s an eggcorn?! (No real burning need to know, but this thread is cracking me up.)

            1. Natalie*

              A misheard turn of phrase. Think “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes” (the actual phrase).

              And a bugbear is apparently a mythical creature used to scare children, a la the boogie man

            2. Elsajeni*

              And the name “eggcorn” is itself an eggcorn of “acorn,” I believe. (They’re kind of egg-shaped, they’re kind of corn-kernel-like… I can see how someone who’d heard the word but not seen it written could arrive at “eggcorn.”)

  8. fposte*

    Agreeing that this is stuff that you learn by just learning it, so it’s not a big deal to screw it up. But, OP, you also mention “too trusting” in your letter, so be clear that this has nothing to do with that–it’s not that you’re inappropriately trusting people who are going to take advantage of this information, it’s that you’re inappropriately bringing in to the workplace in the first place.

    You were very smart to ask, and if you keep those antennae for “maybe this isn’t right” at the ready, that’s going to help you a lot in developing your awareness of professional norms.

    1. some1*

      “it’s not that you’re inappropriately trusting people who are going to take advantage of this information, it’s that you’re inappropriately bringing in to the workplace in the first place.”


  9. Mary*

    I employed the daughter of a friend for a short contract. I needed someone quickly and I knew she was looking for work. It can work fine but I would not have expected her to discuss her mum with me in any context during work hours. I would not expect her to involve her mother in any aspect of her working life. And equally if I met her outside of work during a social occasion with her mother I would not bring up that I was currently her boss or even say “see you Monday”

  10. Natalie*

    Nothing really to add, just want to reiterate that professional norms are not inherent or automatic, they are learned. Honestly, if I was your boss I would have outlined this stuff for you at the outset since you’re an intern, and *by definition* new to the office environment, but sometimes adults forget that they weren’t born knowing this stuff. That’s when we start yelling about kids on our lawns.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      Yes. It would have been ideal to address upfront. I said this the other day, but I have struggled at time when articulating this kind of stuff to interns – I’m (unnecessarily) afraid that I’m being patronizing and telling them things they know. But they don’t know, and I have to say it.

      I also find that interns don’t pick up on the nonverbal forms of communication that are common between offices. For example, most people seem to automatically understand that if a door is closed, you don’t knock on it just to say “Hi! I’m’ thinking about getting a burger for lunch next Thursday. Want to come with me?”. Interns do not understand this, and we need to tell them specifically what a closed door means (don’t interrupt me unless you really need to). Closed door + note on door that says “please do not disturb” means this better be a 911-level emergency.

      1. Ad Astra*

        The closed door thing is something I had to learn in the working world. In almost every non-professional context, a closed door just means “knock if you need me.” Your parents knock on your bedroom door to tell you dinner’s ready, you knock on the bathroom door to see if anyone’s in there, you knock on your friend’s dorm room door when there’s a big game of frisbee happening at the quad, etc. Even some of my professors and advisors kept their doors shut so you’d have to knock if you had an appointment.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I had my office door closed once with a big sign saying “Working on XYZ Report” which everyone knew I was frantically trying to finish before the deadline. My coworker, who is in her fifties and has worked here for 20 years (i.e. not an unschooled intern), knocked on my door to ask me — I kid you not — “So, Mallory, what are you so busy with?” Grrr.

  11. Green*

    This sounds like one of these situations:
    Internal Monologue: “Don’t talk about X; don’t talk about X; don’t talk about X!”
    External Monologue: “Let’s talk about X!”

    Not ideal, but it is what it is and already happened.

    1. Saurs*

      Yep. Anxious over-sharers who find silence uncomfortable and who wish to overcome natural introvertedness by being A Cool Chatty Person (me me me me me) dig the worst, most unnecessary holes for themselves. Save that spade for when you really need it. As bridget mentions above, it’s wonderful and very freeing, once you’ve got the hang of it, keeping your cards close to your chest and no longer feeling that you need to explain and justify personal, non work-related aspects of your life.

  12. Another HRPro*

    One of the biggest benefits of being an intern is the ability to observe and learn how others behave. In this case, you should be taking cues from your friend’s mother at work. I assume she isn’t running around telling everyone you are friends with her daughter or calling her daughter looking for you regarding work topics.

  13. anonanonanon*

    Maybe it’s because her office door is open, or maybe because she just tries to mix home and work as little as she possibly can. I have theories on that last one, because her relationship with her daughter is pretty strained at times, but that’s irrelevant.

    Yes, this is irrelevant. Within the workplace, your boss’s relationship with her daughter is none of your business. You shouldn’t even be thinking about it during interactions with her, let alone making assumptions on how she acts based on your own theories. That’s actually a pretty dangerous road to tread down.

    Honestly, you’ve acknowledged you may have crossed a line, which is a good start, but I’d also recommend just pretending like you don’t have a personal connection outside of work. You don’t have to deny you’re friends with your boss’s daughter if someone asks, but don’t bring it up, especially if it’s not relevant to the conversation. Don’t talk to your boss about your friend/her daughter unless she brings it up first. If she’s uncomfortable talking about her daughter with you during work hours, it’s not your place to wonder why she’s uncomfortable, but it is professional and courteous to stop talking about it.

    1. The IT Manager*

      +1 Great points.

      LW, I’m betting that the circumstances of her relationship with her daughter is irrelevant to the fact that she doesn’t discuss her home life at work. That’s just being professional. She is signaling to you what she considers appropriate for the office. Follow her lead and don’t bring it up either.

      1. some1*

        To add to that: your boss probably doesn’t talk about your friend or anyone in her family to anyone, or only does rarely and in context, “Hi Boss, did you have a nice weekend?” “Yes, I went shopping with my daughter.”. It’s not a strategy she’d adopted specifically for interacting with you.

  14. LC*

    At my last job, my cousin ended up coming to work for the firm, in a different department. The firm was huge and I had nothing to do with getting her the job (she didn’t realize I worked there until after they called her for an interview). She never used our relationship to her advantage, but one of her colleagues did, and it drove me nuts. I would get urgent phone calls asking me where my cousin was, and I would reply with, “I don’t know? I don’t check in with her regularly. Did she not show up today or something?” and this person would say, “No, she just stepped away from her desk and I can’t find her.” The same person would also relay any concerns about my cousin to me, which I shut down immediately, although she would continue to try. She was my cousin’s peer, not her manager, but it was still inappropriate.

    In that case, my cousin and I always acted professionally towards each other, but I wish we hadn’t mentioned our relationship to someone like this person, who thought that I was an extra avenue to contact my cousin.

  15. KT*

    Semi-related story…

    I was hired by a major Fortune 500 company. I really hesitated about taking it, because my dad worked there. I had heard horror stories about family members or friends working together, worried about getting put down because they would assume I was “So and so’s daughter”.

    My dad convinced me that since this campus had over 5,000 people at it, it wouldn’t be a big deal. We’d be in separate buildings, no one would ever know we were related!

    I went to great pains to make sure no one ever new to keep things as professional as possible. My dad was in IT, and no matter how bad our IT woes got that I knew my dad could solve, I never contacted him or ever mentioned it. When people complained about IT, I kept my mouth shut. I went a whole year before anyone caught on.

    One day, a coworker came into a meeting and told me she had just met my husband. Confused, because I only had a boyfriend at the time, I asked her where/what the heck she was talking about. She responded, “Silly! I just met him in the cafeteria! You like them tall, huh?”

    Yup, she was talking about my dad. One of the most awkward and hilarious moments ever. After that, coworker was so amused she told everyone about meeting my dad, and that was the end of times.

    1. the gold digger*

      no matter how bad our IT woes got that I knew my dad could solve, I never contacted him or ever mentioned it.

      I would totally have used that relationship to get my IT problems solved. All’s fair in love and IT.

      1. KT*

        Well, I never said my IT woes weren’t addressed–just not my department’s. People were always amazed how my laptop always worked or upgrades magically came to me first…

      2. TheLazyB*

        I started a new job in June. The IT help desk is contracted out but with some staff on site who are employed by my org. It’s taken till today to meet an IT guy who would deal with a couple of minor queries that I’d logged but which had fallen into a black hole. He fixed something in like ten seconds that I called about last week.

        I am really excited but also I’m all like “don’t scare off the IT guy!! Cultivate it!! Give him cookies!!!”

    2. Yeah*

      That’s hilarious! I could’ve worked for the same company as my Dad, but not on the same campus, but I never did. As a young person, sometimes it’s nice to be able to have your own space outside of parent and parent-circle spaces. Though I’ve had similar experiences to yours just going out to dinner with him. It’s like, “Can you not see how alike we look?” Yuck! :-P

    3. Oryx*

      I was at a social function with my dad once and someone he knew thought I was his wife. Awkward, but hey, props to my dad if people think he can score a younger woman LOL

  16. literateliz*

    I don’t really know why I’m sharing this story, other than hoping that the letter writer will read it and get to feel some schadenfreude at my expense (and realize that her mistake wasn’t so bad!), but someone in the comments used my old boss’s name in an anecdote and it made me think of it.

    I got my first office job through my college boyfriend’s mother; she was my boss’s boss and the head of the department I would be working in. She told me to lie and say that I had seen the job listing on campus, because another department had been trying to get approval to hire an assistant for a while and they would be mad that our department got one instead, so it was better to pretend that we didn’t know each other…?! God, typing this out makes me wonder why I didn’t run screaming from the job AND the boyfriend. Anyway, I did what she said because I was young and stupid and the job paid $16/hour, and that went well for about four hours, until her son (my boyfriend’s brother, who also worked there, in a different building) stopped by at lunch to chat with his mom and on his way out said “Hey, Lizzy! Are you coming to our house for Thanksgiving this year?”

    My boss came over afterward and was like “I didn’t realize you were THAT Lizzy!” and I sheepishly mumbled something about how I hadn’t wanted to mention it, and everything was fine, but way to put me in the position of having obviously lied to my boss about something stupid on my first day of work, lady. Ugh.

  17. BananaPants*

    This is a learning experience for you, LW. Your colleagues should never have found out about the personal connection you have with your boss. Nepotism is a real thing in some workplaces and there are a lot of experienced workers who have been subjected to serious cases of it. They’re not going to magically think you’re any different, especially when you purposely draw attention to the personal relationship. Find a way to stop oversharing and it will serve you well in the long term.

    Last summer my husband had a seasonal job working for a family friends’ business. The business owners are like my aunt and uncle (moreso than my actual relatives), their daughter was a bridesmaid in our wedding and is godmother to our kids, their sons work in the business as well, etc. At work they kept it extremely professional. On the weekend when they came to one of our kids’ birthday parties or we went to a barbecue at their house there was no talk about work, and in the workplace there was very little discussion of personal matters. It was best for all parties to keep a wall between personal and professional spheres.

    Also, take a cue from others in your workplace re: desk/cube decoration. I don’t think an intern’s cube should be bare but you’re a temporary employee and you want to present a professional image. It’s the norm here for full time employees to have 1-2 framed personal photos and maybe a fun calendar or a potted cactus at their desks. Our summer intern is standing out – and not in a good way – with many photos of spring break in Cabo and printing out/posting what he thinks are witty web comics (they’re not) and then drawing everyone’s attention to them. All it does is emphasize his immaturity and apparent inability to recognize the professional norms in our workplace.

  18. Decorating*

    When I was filling in one summer before school, I did hang some pictures up. But, everyone did, and it would’ve been strange if I hadn’t. Though, my pictures were photos of nature, nothing that would’ve caused any kind of a stir. They were thumbtacked to the pegboard cubicle wall, so when it came time to take them down, it was all easily done and fit in my purse. Tasteful and personal, but sparse enough and temporary enough to convey you know what’s up.

  19. Ms. FS*

    Yes, agreed personal sharing is just not a thing you do at work when close relatives are involved. We had an employee who was the son of the top government official who oversaw our work. I NEVER asked him what was going on with his dad or what his dad thought about our work or anything we did. We all pretended as if the relationship didn’t exist in the first place. This was to prevent him feeling uncomfortable and to avoid conflicts of interest of any kind. When we interviewed him, we didn’t know he was the top guy’s son until after we extended on offer to him. It took the top guy to mention he was his son for us to figure it out in the first place. So I think it goes all ways!

  20. Beezus*

    I have a coworker in her 40’s who gets this wrong…routinely. She grew up in this relatively small area, her family owns a prominent local business (not our workplace), and her kids are in high school sports. She namedrops her high level connections via community/family ties constantly, mostly in the context of getting away with things because of it, or getting special access. “I’ve known VP since grade school/he’s best friends with my sibling/his kids play sports with my kids, so I don’t care about being professional around him/my opinion carries extra sway/I’m going to lobby for my proposal tonight at the ballpark.”

    From what I’ve seen, she mostly uses her connections as an excuse to speak without a filter and ignore chain of command. She seems to think it gives her a big advantage, but I don’t think she realizes how much any advantage is offset by people questioning her judgement over using it and being so outspoken about it. The exchange rate to turn social collateral into professional collateral appears to be pretty high.

    You’re figuring this out really early, and you did it and then realized it was a bad idea…you’re going to be okay. :) Don’t beat yourself up too bad.

  21. Mena*

    “I don’t think for one second that I’ve been hired simply because I know the head of the department”

    Then why are you reinforcing the closeness of your relationship with this senior person to those around you? And goodness, don’t text her daughter when you can’t find her!!!

    Act like she is the boss and not your friend’s mother and you likely won’t have a problem. (thus far, you’re acting like she is your friend’s mother and thus creating the problem you are concerned about)

  22. PennyLane*

    I was in this exact situation–one of my best friends’ moms asked her to mention an internship in their office at my college, which was also in my major’s field. On top of that, my best friend was also an intern in their office, but reported to someone different. My two supervisors were my best friend’s mom, and the mother of one of my sorority sisters (can you tell that everyone sent their kids to the college they worked for?!).

    Alison’s advice is on point. I called her “Louise” in the office and “Mrs. HoffenSnoffen” outside the office. I would sometimes be at her house socially on a weekly basis, but we never discussed work then, or discussed things outside work at the office. Everyone knew I was her daughter’s friend (especially since she also worked in the office, though doing something different), but by the end of the year, all the interns were friends, and I was hired because of my major and my experience.

    Long story short, it worked out well, but you have to have a wall between your work persona and your personal life persona. Louise is now a professional reference for me, and honestly we get along so well because we work in the same field and respect each other professionally.

  23. Jill*

    I also worked as a legislative aide to my best friend’s dad, who was a local politician. People knew that I knew him since I was a kid, our families went to the same church, etc.

    The best way to avoid the awkwardness is to be a standout employee. No one will accuse you of trying to win favor with the boss if you are a solid worker and ethically above board. Use your internship for what you should – learn new things, volunteer for extra assignments, seek out mentors within the office (who are not your boss), and so on. Your record will stand for itself and people will forget that your Boss Lady’s kid’s friend.

  24. FiveWheels*

    These boundary issues are interesting to me largely because in my location and industry they would be impossible to enforce. It’s normal for married couples to work together, adult children to work for their parents’ firms, and the same person to be a client, vendor, and personal friend (and sometimes employee, too).

    The webs can get very tangled!

  25. Ad Astra*

    The OP should absolutely take all of Allison’s advice, but the final paragraph is important. This situation is definitely salvageable. It’s possible her coworkers haven’t yet noticed these behaviors, or they’ve noticed them but haven’t been terribly bothered. As long as they don’t continue, I think she’ll be fine.

    The OP should also make sure she’s doing her absolute best work at this internship. If the OP acts like a slacker or otherwise screws up big time, this could eventually strain her relationship with the daughter. There’s no indication in the letter that the OP isn’t doing good work, but I thought I’d throw that out there as something to be conscious of.

  26. Original Poster*

    Things seem much more normal now. I’ve been here 6 weeks and am finally learning how to joke and converse with my boss more easily. I think I found her extra intimidating at first because I worry more about impressing people I know and respect vs total strangers, and she was sort of a line in between. On the day when I was looking for my boss, half of my team was missing from the office and the one guy who was here didn’t know where they were either. I hadn’t yet received access to her personal calendar, so I texted her daughter to see if she might have stayed home that day. She’s where I get the majority of my workload from, and nothing else seemed to be going on that day. My bad on mentioning that out loud.

    As to the people asking about the pictures, the dress code is standard business but the environment is very open and chatty. People repeatedly commented during my first week that my cubicle looked stark and depressing, devoid of personality, and everyone else has pictures, so I’ve displayed some on my wall in a creative pattern. I might have one too many up there, but everyone seems to like the arrangement and think they’re cute and ask questions. I am fortunate enough to have the previous intern in my place as one of my supervisors, so I base my space off of hers to some extent. But her pictures were stapled to a piece of colored construction paper and mine have actual frames, so I don’t know. No one has given me the impression that they are inappropriate so far and they cheer me up a lot when things are stressful.

    1. LBK*

      Sounds like you’re getting more into the swing of things, although I’m still a little concerned about the texting thing – it’s not that you shouldn’t have told your coworkers that you did it, it’s that you shouldn’t have done it at all. Presumably there is an appropriate business channel through which to track your manager down, because no one else in your office would be able to text her daughter. That’s what you should’ve used. I know it can be a little awkward as an intern that might genuinely have nothing to do if your boss isn’t there to give you work, but I’d start with asking a coworker if there’s any way you can help them out and if not, frankly I wouldn’t see a problem with you reading the news (or AAM!) on your computer or something until someone who can give you work shows up.

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