my employee keeps giving me instructions

A reader writes:

I have been working for a small department of two in a large firm for nearly a decade now. The second member was hired about one year ago, after I requested it, since my workload was too much for one person.

She is a wonderful person, conscientious and careful with her work. My senior manager – along with the rest of the firm – has actually congratulated me for my choice (I was part of the interview process).

We get along very well, but there is something that is driving me crazy: she regularly gives me instructions as to how to proceed on tasks for which I neither ask nor need advice. I’ll go to the shredder and she’ll say “use the one on the first floor, it’s better.” I’ll get an assigment, and she’ll say, “Tell [the person making the assigment] it’ll be ready by then.” Or “save the document in such and such folder.” It’s all imperatives, no “maybe you should”s or “it would be better if”s or “if I were you, I would”s.

How do I communicate to her, in the most polite of ways, that while we do get along fine and like each other very much, I am the head of the department and it’s really annoying to be given such instructions on a daily basis and on things that are part of set procedures and that I really really know how to do?

My original impulse when reading this was to tell you to let it go, but the reality is, it’s a weird thing for her to be doing and it’s okay for you to let her know that. But having a major conversation about it, or at least starting there, would be overkill, I think. You’re better off just giving her your natural reaction in the moment when she does it. That natural reaction might be “I’ve got it,” “yeah, of course,” or “what’s going on that you’re asking me that?” — and all of those are appropriate to respond with.

For example:

Employee: “Use the shredder on the first floor; it’s better.”
You: “I’m fine, thanks.”

Employee: “Save the document in the shared folder.”
You: “Yeah, of course … have you had trouble finding documents I’m putting on the server or something?”

Employee: “Don’t forget to tell Fergus the work he just assigned you will be ready by Monday.”
You (giving her a strange look): “Well, of course — is there some reason you think I wouldn’t?”

If she’s not entirely oblivious, a few repetitions of this will make her realize she’s giving you unnecessary instruction.

But if she doesn’t, at that point you could ask her what’s going on. For example: “Jane, I’ve noticed you’ve been giving me a lot of instruction on things that I have under control and that I’d expect you would assume I have covered, like where to save documents or reminders to let Fergus know a document I’m working on is coming by the deadline. I’m wondering what’s going on — have I done something to make you think I don’t have my work under control?”

In broaching this, be open to hearing that there really is something going on here that you don’t realize — for instance, that she’s noticed you not doing things that you should be doing (or that she thinks you should be doing) and she’s trying to manage you from below. That still wouldn’t make it appropriate for her to say some of this stuff, but it would at least give you some insight into what’s going on.

Alternately, she might just have a busybody instinct that’s running out of control, in which case calling her attention to it and asking her to stop should take care of most of it.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 137 comments… read them below }

  1. Kelly L.*

    I think at least some of it is bad phrasing more than anything else. “Use the shredder on the first floor, it’s better” isn’t an order so much as it’s…I’ll call it a friendly tip, like if you’re at the pub with your friends and you say “Use the bathroom on the right, the other one’s out of TP” or whatever. The other examples are weirder, though.

    1. Splishy*

      I’m laughing at your TP example, because that was a real issue at a previous workplace and my co-workers and I kept each other apprised of the situation!

      I agree that things like the shredder example are probably badly phrased rather than an order. I’d probably thank her for the tip on something like that.

      1. Lanya*

        Off-topic, but I always make a nice big bow tie of toilet paper on the handle of the door of an empty-paper stall. It’s a kind way to communicate “something is different about this stall” to other people who enter after you do and perhaps wouldn’t have checked to see if there was paper.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, that’s clever. Even if you don’t know what it means you’ll be ?ing and will probably notice the lack when you might not otherwise.

    2. Lily in NYC*

      Yeah, I really feel like this is a ham-handed attempt at being helpful and not really “giving instructions”. But I get why it’s annoying.

    3. A Bug!*

      All readers in need of a silly chuckle, please kindly re-read Kelly L’s TP example, with Bad Moon Rising prominently in mind.

        1. some1*

          “Quick, somebody perform CPR!!”

          “Oh! I see a bad moon rising . . .”

          “No, Homer! That’s C*C*R!”

  2. Cucumberzucchini*

    Was she a manager in a previous role – or needed to manage up in a previous role? Maybe it’s a habit she’s gotten into. Still absolutely annoying if you’ve got it all under control and rather presumptuous.

    1. Scotty_Smalls*

      That’s what I think might be the issue too. Maybe her previous boss needed to be reminded things and she hasn’t lost the habit.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I had to train myself out of this for my new boss. I worked for my previous boss for six years, and he didn’t store information in his own head; he stored it in my head, and I was expected to manage his time and prioritize his day for him.

        Fortunately, my predecessor in this job is still around, just in a promoted position, so I was able to ask her about the amount of reminding, prodding, and/or nagging I would need to do for my current boss, so I haven’t inadvertently overstepped any boundaries or been overly presumptuous with him. It is a wonderfully light and carefree feeling to know that my boss has his domain under control and that [mostly] all I need to worry about is myself.

    2. Manders*

      Yes, that was my first thought. I have to do this in my current job and I’m sure that I’ll have to train myself out of this habit in a future role. It sounds like she was hired as an assistant for this role and might have been an assistant in the past as well, and quite a few people do expect their assistants to be in charge of reminding clients about deadlines, where files go on the shared drive, etc.

      1. CodeWench*

        Yes! These comments sound very administrative assistant-y to me. When I used to do that sort of thing, the people I worked for really did need this level of reminding and expected me to do it.

    3. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      I’ve been a little guilty of something similar. I’m an elementary school teacher, and sometimes instinctively give too-detailed instructions to adults (especially my husband) because I’ve gotten into the habit of giving detailed instructions to children. I’d say things like, “Remember to put the eggshells in the compost after you break the eggs.” He was rightfully annoyed because it felt pretty patronizing, and he let me know that… and I do it much less now!

      1. Ad Astra*

        My mother-in-law is a flight attendant, used to being syrupy sweet to people who are rude, stupid, or both. She once spent 5 minutes explaining to me and my husband how to use the washer and dryer at her house. And she taped a diagram to it for reference. There was nothing unusual about this washer/dryer set.

      2. LeahS*

        This is very off-topic, but I’m a sub and the first thing I thought was “Her sub plans are probably awesome!”. I love too-detailed plans. When you’re in different places every day, it’s super comforting to know exactly what the teacher wants and expects :)

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Because of “life” type stuff, I found myself compulsively over-explaining things. I got TOLD about it in no uncertain terms. I heard:
        “You are working with a fellow adult, you do realize that, right?”
        “Just let me do my work.”
        “If I want your help, I will ask.”

        It took a couple people saying the same thing before I realized what I was doing. I am not sure if you tell her nicely, that she will get it, OP. I honestly did not understand what I was doing and I needed a bit of a shocker to stop me. I was more of a worrier in those days, my worry pushed my behavior like you would not believe. So if you have continuing problems even after speaking to her, I would suggest talking to her about worry. This might be rooted in excessive worrying on her part.

      4. Ruffingit*

        My mother lives with my husband and me and she does this all the time. She is so used to having to instruct children (she had three of her own and raised two that were other people’s) that she continues to do it now without even thinking about it. I’ve developed a deadpan “I know” in response and she quickly apologizes and realizes what she is doing.

        Examples: I help her shower due to her health issues. She took her jeans off and handed them to me and said they were dirty. I said OK and she said “They need to go in the laundry basket.” Yeah mom, I know. That’s usually where dirty clothes go :)

        We get out of the car and she says to me “Don’t forget my cane” (which is usually in the backseat with me). Seriously mom? I know you need it and will not forget it. Also, yes, I did bring a jacket because it’s cold. LOL!

        I think the best one ever though was when we were driving and I mentioned that I needed to stop and get gas. She says “Oh, do you need money?” “No mom, I’m good.” “Are you sure?” “Mom? I have a job.”

        My mom is awesome and has gotten much better about this and I have a good sense of humor about it so that helps. Sometimes I will tease her and say “Thank God you instructed me that I need to get a new towel for the shower. I might have used this one until it molded.” :)

    4. Stranger than fiction*

      This, or is she significantly older than Op and therefore feels a bit motherly or senior to her?

    5. Sleepless if Chicago*

      I absolutely understand how frustrating your direct report actions are. However, I would caution about the response. If you “upset” your direct reports, they might go and complain to HR about your “dismissive” behavior. I have had this happen to me. Oh how I wish I went to HR and complained about my new direct report that has turned out to be a nightmare for me to deal with. She did not hesitate twice; got a bucket of unsubstantiated complaints about me like “micromanagement, disrespectful, condescending, dismissive tone of voice, speaking loudly on the phone” , etc. HR took her side of the story, without even investigating. Ouch! So before making a decision on how to respond, think about the possible negative consequences. Maybe a possible answer to her might be” Sounds interesting. Let me think about it”.

  3. Muriel Heslop*

    I have a subordinate that does this and it seems to be about control. She has a lot going on her personal life and it seems that exerting control over small, inconsequential parts of my day brings her comfort. I’ve addressed it with her in the manner Alison suggested, and she wasn’t really even aware she was doing it. After I asked her if she was concerned I was unable to execute small tasks successfully, she realized what she was doing and it’s improved.

    Good luck, OP!

    1. MMM*

      This was my thought too. It may not be about the OP but rather about the employee’s emotional need (whatever variant that might be). For some people who struggle with control, once a thought enters their minds it has to come out of their mouths just on the off-off-off chance that you might not know this thing they have to tell you. Not saying that thing would be like not scratching an itch.

      I think I would adapt Allison’s response to a single phrase used every time, like, “Under control” or “Thanks, I got it.” This saves you from actually engaging in the conversation (less wear on your nerves) while addressing the concerns (irrational as they may be) of the employee. Perhaps over time, she might even relax a little. I have an employee who is like this, and she is one of our top performers. When she starts stating the obvious, we just nod and say “yep, got it” a few times till she takes a deep breath and reminds herself that we are all on the same page.

      1. simonthegrey*

        My dad’s one of those kinds of people. We use the old CB radio expression “ten-four” to remind him that we understand what he’s telling us, and since it’s not just the usual expression that sounds like we are ignoring him, he “gets it.”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Great advice here, OP. I agree about the control issues, it could be that her life is out of control or it could be that she has a person in her life that needs this remedial level of help. But yes, making her realize that it sounds like she thinks you can’t carry out the simplest of tasks might be the route you have to use.

  4. LBK*

    I think the phrasing is the weirdest part – if they were said as suggestions or double-checks, I don’t think it would be as odd, even saying it to a manager. I’ve said stuff like “Do you mind saving that file in the Teapot Reporting folder?” or “Can you respond to Jane’s email to let her know I’ll have the numbers on Monday?” I would never issue it as a directive (although I wouldn’t do that even if I were the manager – phrasing things as questions feels more natural to me).

    1. fposte*

      I was thinking about that. My staff do a lot of tactful managing up, and I can see them weighing in on many of these things but not using that phraseology. “We think that shredder sucks so we always use the upstairs one” or “Could you save it in the Failures folder so it’ll be with the rest of them?” would be the likeliest ways. The OP’s employee seems really directive in her phraseology rather than informative, and I can see that that might be a thing for me too.

      1. Nom d' Pixel*

        My first thought was that she was trying to manage up. The thing is that managing up is really hard to do right. It has to be done tactfully like you said. Also, it has to be earned. The new person doesn’t just get to come in start with it. You have to prove that you can do your job before you start telling your boss how to do hers.

        I have one direct report who I let manage up. She is very competent and I know that if she does it she is trying to keep things running smoothly. Plus, she is respectful about it.

      2. LBK*

        What’s interesting is I wouldn’t even consider the examples I gave “managing up” – maybe the one about following up with Jane (although in reality I’d probably tack “or I can do it if you want” on the end of the request). Asking a manager to do a simple administrative thing that I need in order to do my job like saving a file doesn’t seem like “managing” to me. I’m not sure what the right word is, though. Collaborating? Speaking to them like a human?

        1. fposte*

          Oh, good thought. I’m currently behind on stuff and being nicely reminded by my staff so I perhaps was thinking more along those reminder lines, but in general “The upstairs shredder is the only one in the building that works” isn’t managing. On the other hand, I might have thought about it in those terms because it sounds like the OP feels the staffer *is* trying to manage her, and in fact is micromanaging on stuff the OP knows how to do perfectly well, so isn’t doing a good job.

      3. Hush42*

        I’ve realized that I’ve started managing up in the last few months (I’ve been here in a year and a half) because my manager is really good at the big things and really really bad at remembering the little things. Unless I was really frustrated (i.e. I had asked and reminded him about it several times already) I would never issue an order though. I don’t think he really minds, he’s aware of how bad he is at remembering the little things.

    2. A Bug!*

      In light of this comment, I wonder if this employee has previously been in situations which required a significant amount of managing up and she just does it without thinking now. It may not be that she actually thinks the boss needs the instruction, but that she’s just habitually specific.

  5. UsedToDoSupport*

    I think for some people it’s a conversational style. I work with someone like that, and for her it’s really just making conversation. I probed a little to find out about her home life, and she’s from a big family that is very vocal. She said the movie “Moonstruck” was HER family. I come from super quiet conservative stiff upper-lip Scandinavian stock, so this was different for me. She doesn’t mean anything by it, and finds my manner equally off-putting at times. We figured it out and work well together. She has this super annoying thing though where she tells every story three times…

    1. Koko*

      Only 3 times? I have a friend who has told me the same 8 stories about once a month since I met her years ago.

      1. UsedToDoSupport*

        No three times in succession. It’s so odd! First time, then she pauses so you can express amazement. Then she repeats it since obviously you were amazed. Then once more time, just for emphasis. I find myself counting the repeats now. When I get to three, I sigh out loud because it’s finally over. It would be different if the stories were actually interesting. lol

        1. Elizabeth West*

          I had a boss who would do that–if he told you something, he would have to say it three times. If you said, “I got it,” after the first or second time, he got mad because “I’m not finished!”

          1. Anna*

            I think it’s a difference between verbal processors and mental processors (I don’t know what it’s called). I process verbally usually so if my husband responds before I think I’m done, I get irritated even if the next thing out of my mouth is, “Anyway, that’s what I was thinking.” I just have it all worked out and need to finish my thought in its entirety.

        2. Jillociraptor*

          That IS so odd! My boyfriend had a classmate who did what we called the “Chloe Loop” — she would tell one story but it always seemed to loop back on itself and start over repeatedly.

          “I went to the store and I saw Wakeen there. You know Wakeen, I used to work with him at Chocolate Teapots? Wakeen makes this great macaroni and cheese, which is what I was making when I ran out of milk, so I went to the store and I saw Wakeen there. You know Wakeen…”

          Just…forever. The first couple of times it happened I was convinced that I had missed something or was having deja vu.

          1. Cath in Canada*

            I know someone who does this kind of loop, too! Her sister doesn’t, but starts with waaaaay too much detail. Like, if the story was that she saw Prince William, she’d start with the origins of the House of Windsor. I always wondered how their parents tell stories…

            1. Jillociraptor*

              Yes! Wouldn’t it be hysterical though if both parents were prose-economical to the extreme?

          2. Bailey Quarters*

            I had a boss like that. I wanted to beat myself over the head with my own shoe to make it stop.

        3. mander*

          I have an aunt who does this, except it’s usually just the “punch line” or the main point of the story. For instance, there’s a boring tale involving a sandwich that she likes to tell, and she’ll say “smoked salmon! I just couldn’t believe it!” about five or six times after she’s told the story.*

          *For the record, she did not like the salmon and can’t believe anyone could eat such a thing. I rather like it, so this tale annoys me on multiple levels.

          1. Becky B*

            That’s funny (except for the part where it’s happening to you)! A friend of mine will tell everything BUT the punch line because he always forgets. Always. Like, why even bother starting the story. Maybe the two of them can get together.

          2. UsedToDoSupport*

            That’s funny! I wouldn’t mind just the punch line getting repeated…she does the whole story. As in, her weird dream last night from start to finish. Hence my sigh when I finally have managed to live through the third telling. That aside though, she’s otherwise a responsible and good employee. I can live with this little quirk.

        4. Koko*

          Ah, yes. That variety of repetitiveness is phone calls with my mom. I sometimes worry she’s developing Alzheimer’s. I’ve tried heartily agreeing with her after the first or second telling to see if that preempts the need for her to repeat her point, but alas.

  6. Charityb*

    Sometimes people who are really detail-oriented and conscientious never want to leave things up to chance. They tend to assume that if they don’t tell someone how to do something the other person will do it wrong. I bet she never lets anyone wash their dishes or do laundry at home unsupervised either…

    (It’s kind of the polar opposite of the more common personality type that we see here, the kind of person who will never speak up no matter how bad something is because they don’t want to ‘rock the boat’.)

    It’s definitely worth having a quick chat as Allison suggests, not a, “You are in trouble!!” but more of, “I can handle it, you can trust me!” thing. Hopefully it’s something that she doesn’t even notice she’s doing all the time and having it pointed out will help her learn to bite her tongue.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I read this letter as her being way too detail-oriented.
      Yeah, I get how that can be annoying, but I do it as well sometimes because I know if I don’t, I will typically get more questions down the road and I want the task to be a once and done kind of thing. But that’s just for things like where to save files and such (or logins, or other computer-related stuff) and not paper shredding!

    2. Ama*

      Yeah, that’s how I read this, too. I had a coworker at a previous job who was the very first admin hire in our relatively new division and had worked her way up to budget manager. She was really detail-oriented (which was why she was very good at being a budget manager), but absolutely incapable of seeing any way of tackling a problem other than the one she thought of. We butted heads several times when my way of handling something wasn’t how she would do it (our mutual boss had to step in a couple of times to tell her to back off and let me handle my projects my way).

      It wasn’t until I was talking to her about a completely inconsequential thing in my personal life (I think it was how I got to the airport) and she just could not wrap her head around why I would take the bus because she always had someone drop her off that I finally got that it didn’t have anything to do with her need to control me personally — she really didn’t seem to be able to understand that people could do things differently than how she would do them and have that be fine.

    3. SherryD*

      Yeah, I agree that it could be s personality thing. I’m pretty detailed oriented, and at OldJob, my manager had to gently remind me to trust others to do their jobs, and not always be giving reminders or checking in. I think I was much better after it was pointed out to me. It seems silly in retrospect, but, honestly, I hadn’t realized that could be annoying.

    4. Mallory Janis Ian*

      I have a coworker who is very detail-oriented and has such a high degree of certitude that her way is the right way that it’s as if she never considers that there could be an equally-valid, different way. I don’t think she realizes how pushy she comes across, or how exhausting it can be to have someone else question such minutiae as my choice to use staples versus paperclips (just to name one example of her concern for things that are my business).

    5. DMented Kitty*

      I don’t really give unsolicited advice to others too often, but I am quite detail-oriented. My mind is always calculating the most efficient way of getting as much tasks done with one pass – like every morning I make sure I put last night’s dry dishes away, grab the recycling items that are also drying in the sink, drop them into the recycling bin in the pantry, at the same time grabbing my lunch bag from the shelf so I can take it straight back to the kitchen.

      I guess this trait works very well when documenting IT stuff – my guides are full of screen shots and clear step-by-step instructions, which helps me learn newly transitioned systems fairly quickly without bothering the previous owner of the process too much.

    1. Ad Astra*

      That was my first thought, too. This may be a weird manifestation of her processing things verbally. When she encounters a procedure she’s mastered, even if it’s something small like saving the document in the shared folder, she has to blurt out the answer.

      Whatever the cause, I can very much imagine how annoying it must be.

  7. insert pun here*

    I used to work for someone who was very, very forgetful (and otherwise really, really good at his job.) We had a friendly relationship, and this person was very aware of his forgetfulness, so I would just… tell him what to do, sometimes. It worked for us (2 person team, essentially), but I could see where importing that attitude into a different working relationship would be a complete disaster. So, OP, I think you should be prepared for two responses, if you do confront this person. The first is she realizes that she’s doing this because she used to do it in an old job, and that it’s no longer necessary here. The second is that she tells you that you’re dropping the ball on things that are minor to you but hold her up or impede her ability to do work. I guess there is a third possibility as well, which is that this is just her one obnoxious thing (everyone has one), which, you know, good luck.

  8. just laura*

    My reaction is that she’s trying to show herself as valuable. As in, “I’ve got helpful info to contribute!” It seems unconscious to me– but I can see how it’d add up to be annoying.

  9. Lra*

    Are you above her, or on the same level? I work with someone in a similar position (i am newer hire, she has long tenure, and was in the interview) who is much older but on the same level as me who gets very irritated with me asking things of her (which mainly relate to what i have been requested to manage by the boss) and tries to act like my manager when she is not. I would check your input first. It could be she either thinks she is being friendly and is trying to help, is managing a project that she needs something from you on, or is mirroring your own behaviour towards herself back to you if you are wrongly acting like her manager (which is what i have resorted to doing at my job given how patronising it feels).

    1. Charityb*

      The title is “my employee”, so I kind of assumed that the coworker was her direct report. You make a good point though, although the details that the OP cites do seem like micro-management regardless of which level either party is on.

      1. Lra*

        Yes, which plays to my original point – if new person was hired to fill a gap where old person was overloaded, IF new person and old person are on the same level (and particularly if new person is good at their job), old person may subconciously be being really patronising due to think new person “needs help” and/or acting pushy with new person as a result of subconciously being threatened by new person, so new person is trying to push back by mirroring in hope that old person will see how patronising and irritating behaviour is.

        Could be a different situation though! The question is if this person is the new person’s manager.

      2. Koko*

        She also says in the letter that she’s the department head. Although I’m having fond memories of when the Janitor made JD Co-Head Resident and Elliott remained simply Head Resident so everybody kept going to her with issues, it’s unlikely in this situation that there are Co-Department Heads.

    2. Allison*

      I’m in a similar situation, and it drives me batty, but I’m a young woman and my coworker is older, so I wonder if the age/experience difference in my case leads her to see me as an intern or admin rather than a relatively intelligent and competent young professional who knows her stuff. It also could be, as Another Opinion points out, because she has a little girl at home and thus can’t quite get out of “mommy mode” when she comes to work.

    3. Bostonian*

      This is an interesting point. Is it possible that she doesn’t quite get that you are her manager and not a team lead or more experienced peer?

      Lack of clarity on management structure can definitely happen. I started one job thinking I reported to the CEO of our tiny nonprofit. I found out *months* later that I reported to both the CEO and one of the VPs, which explained why the VP had been giving me her receipts so that I could do her expense reports. The office culture and type of work meant that I thought we were collaborating when she was really assigning me work. It’s entirely possible that I didn’t always communicate with her in quite the right ways for the situation. (More than possible, probable. She and I had the most diametrically opposite working styles that I’ve ever experienced, and working with her drove me a little nutty.)

  10. Another Opinion*

    Is she a parent of young children? It’s easy to pick up these kinds of habits when you spend the day aroud kisds.

    1. Cambridge Comma*

      A friend claims that a colleague once left their office saying “Daddy’s just going for a wee-wee” so perhaps parent autopilot is a thing. He was mortified, apparently.

      1. I'm older than I look!*

        My brother in law is a cop. He said some of the other guys on his team have trouble switching from kid-talk to cop-talk.
        “Get your hiney on the ground” isn’t very effective when you’re dealing with an aggressive suspect.

        1. Lizzie*

          I got detained at a protest (not arrested, mind you! Just detained!) by a guy who did this. We just looked at each other for a long second and he looked like he wanted the sidewalk to swallow him. I just asked “so … sit down, yes?”

          (Admittedly I was not aggressive, just filming the police doing their jobs. But still.)

        1. Sarah*

          A friend of mine and her husband use “Beep beep” at home when they need the kids to move – she says she spent months saying it around the office without even realizing it. Whoops!

  11. Busybody Linguist*

    I respectfully disagree with Alison on this one, actually. Assuming that the OP hasn’t changed the coworker’s gender for anonymity purposes in the letter, I see this as a bias that a lot of folks in the business world have about women’s language use. Women – especially in positions of less authority, but really also across the board – are expected to ‘soften’ their language by making commands into suggestions or using phrases like “if it isn’t too much trouble” or “if you don’t mind” when asking someone to do something. I suspect that if a male colleague were giving the commands that the OP’s colleague has been giving, it would stand out less as abnormal behavior. While I can see why the OP is rubbed the wrong way by being given instructions by her less-experienced employee, I don’t know that I would go as far as to call her out on her language use unless it comes across as disrespectful in a client-facing situation or otherwise disrupts the work of her team.

    1. LBK*

      I completely disagree that that applies in this situation. She’s not in a position to give directives; if this were a manager being described as brusque or abrasive in the way she told people to do things I’d agree, but I think this behavior would be inappropriate from an employee to a superior with any combinations of genders.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Yes, exactly. In this context, gender isn’t relevant. I get angry when people are criticized for something that wouldn’t be thought twice of when done by someone of another gender. But that’s not the issue here. The coworker is in no position to be giving orders, whether softened or direct.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      While the kind of sexism you describe certainly exists and is prevalent, I’ve encountered this same situation with a male co-worker, and it was just as annoying (he did not get a pass for it for being male). What the OP describes does need softening, regardless of the gender of the employee. The general phenomenon you describe doesn’t necessarily apply in this specific case.

    3. Ad Astra*

      People absolutely do expect women to soften their language when they wouldn’t expect men to, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. The specific examples all sound like things that really should be phrased as suggestions or reminders, not commands. I would bristle at a man saying “Save the document in such and such folder” instead of “Hey, will you save the document in such and such folder for me?”

      It’s not clear if the OP is this woman’s manager or if they’re more like peers, but either way she’s not the boss and shouldn’t be using the imperative like that.

    4. Not So Sunny*

      Women – especially in positions of less authority, but really also across the board – are expected to ‘soften’ their language by making commands into suggestions or using phrases like “if it isn’t too much trouble” or “if you don’t mind” when asking someone to do something.

      I take exception to this claim. Courteous and polite communications are expected from everyone at any company. “Could you check the so-and-so?” vs. “Check the so-and-so.” “Can you be sure this gets out today please?” vs. “Be sure this gets out.” Unless it’s an extreme environment (hospital setting where every second counts), I expect the same from a male as from a female.

      1. LBK*

        Well, I think it’s expected from everyone but it’s noticed more when women don’t do it. I think it’s also more noticeable and applicable as you move up the chain of command – at the first few levels of hierarchy it’s pretty even, but as you approach C-levels I would absolutely say men tend to be more directive, whereas women still tend to use the couched phrasing you’d expect from a lower level manager.

    5. Charityb*

      I get where you’re coming from, but I can see someone being irritated at being constantly given directions on how to do really simple routine tasks. I think it would come across as overbearing and nitpicky from a man too, and I’d be surprised if most people would see it differently. There is a lot of gendered criticism and feedback given only to women in the workplace but I’m not sure if that’s what’s happening here.

    6. hbc*

      Well, women (and men) who aren’t in positions of authority *should* soften their commands because they shouldn’t be giving commands–their positions don’t give them that power. And I could argue that, if the OP is a woman, expecting her not to correct that language and just absorb it (because it’s not bothering anyone else on their team of two) is also a gendered issue.

    7. fposte*

      It’s a staffer telling her boss to do stuff that the boss already knows how to do. I don’t think gender is the issue here. Even if it were, I think it’s off-base to assume that tolerating this from a male worker would be the good thing to try to aspire to–in general, it’s bad form to micromanage your boss.

      1. LBK*

        This is a great point – fixing the double standard in this case should mean being more strict about policing male tone, not less strict about female tone, because ideally you wouldn’t let anyone get away with being abrasive.

      2. Charityb*

        Agreed. The tone argument might even be a bit of a sideshow though — honestly some of the comments that the coworker is making are kind of annoying and shouldn’t be said at all in any tone of voice, by people of any gender.

  12. hbc*

    If the comment is about something obvious, I’d probably go with some sarcastic comment. “You mean the folder where we always save these types of things and where I’ve been saving them for years? Yeah, surprisingly, that was my initial plan.” Said with a smile, it’s a friendly nudge.

    But if she’s giving directions about things that are optional or debatable, I wouldn’t be able to hold back on a little instruction that her opinion isn’t the only valid one. “It still shreds, right? I’d rather spend an extra 30 seconds forcing papers through the shredder here than traipsing all over the building for a 10% decrease in shredding time.” Or “Jane and I have our own way of working. She knows it’ll be on time unless I tell her otherwise.” She’ll either make her case (“no, it’s actually broken”) or be stymied, because it’s not like she can pull rank and force you to comply.

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      I’ve done what you said when my boss was giving me directions on how to do something that I’d done for the past five years and actually trained him on how to do. It worked well and he didn’t do that particular thing again. (There’s a whole other list…)

      But I think it’s a good tactic.

  13. some1*

    I have a coworker who does this. The worst part is that 99% of our communciation is written because we work in different locations. I finally responded, “Thanks, Sue, I know how to do TPS Reports* [smiley face]. I’m using the vanilla teapot cover sheet because of reason X, but you are correct that normally we would use chocolate.” It seems to have really helped!

    *I trained *her* how to use TPS reports.

    1. Leah*

      The worst is when its someone who is not in your department and does not have seniority… “I want a red teapot, a blue teapot, a green teapot, a teapot with a modern feel, and a big close-up of each teapot and I want it to be inscribed with this quote from the client and what we did after. Oh and could put a fancy lid on it.” (Fyi I’m a designer. I follow the creative brief I’m given, but due to the time-constraints and volume of work I only give our sales the basics for presentations from the same template. This coworker wanted all the bells and whistles.) I wanted to tell this sales-trainee that not even full sales get a fancy lid!

  14. Anna*

    I would be annoyed by this, but it really wouldn’t be anything I would ever think to have a conversation about. It doesn’t seem to register as a problem, really, just a weird quirk you find bothersome. I find myself in situations where I think of using the suggestions Alison gave that I just don’t because in reality it’s innocuous. It doesn’t impact how you’re doing your job and responding in a somewhat snide way will just make you look small. In other words, I don’t agree that this needs to even be addressed.

    1. McDerp*


      My first thought was “Really?”

      I get it, I do. I’m pretty on top of things almost all of the time and it gets under my skin a bit when someone tells me how to do something I know quite well how to do. But what does it really achieve to make a big deal out of it? I roll with it in the moment and then come home and gripe for a few minutes to my husband about how so-and-so must assume I’m incompetent, blow off that steam and get on with it.

      I also think there may come a day when OP is going to screw up and wish nagging employee (who was probably on top of it but kept quiet) had said something ahead of time. We’re all forgetful from time and time and an extra reminder doesn’t hurt anyone.

  15. Rae*

    I semi-disagree with Alison on this one. I think that there are some points that are simply helpful (eg location of a working office item). I also think that it can be a big fat hint for management to do the right thing and get a decent shredder for both floors.

    When it comes to the folders and saving items. You’re the manager. Your subordinate shouldn’t be telling you this. My inclination is that others, but also perhaps you, are a bit haphazard in file storage or name creation metrics. This should be something set in stone. “Folders” “Share-drive” “Requisition Requests” Filename–>JonesRQteapotcozy10.06.15unfufilled. It’s long but worth it. (This one is done Lastname.type of file.object in

    About the inneroffice communication-again you’re the manager. Your employee is highlighting for you something that seems obvious…is it really important that you make sure that communication lines are being adhered to before addressing her. You say you didn’t ask for or need advice, however, you didn’t say if that advice was something that as actually needed in the scope of “this office is chaotic and not everyone is keeping standards but I know what I’m doing.”

  16. Jerzy*

    This seems to me to be a case of someone trying to be helpful and failing.

    Honestly, my husband does this to me, reminding me to not only do something that *of course* I’m going to do, but that happens to be something that he forgets to do far more often than I.

    In his case, I think it’s a way he reminds himself to do things, but it certainly gets under my skin from time to time. I think if I didn’t love someone, my fuse would be even shorter on this

    1. Amber Rose*

      I’ve snapped at my husband for the same things. It usually comes out when I’m driving (“stop at this stop sign” kind of thing) and it pushes every one of my buttons. I’ve told him to f*** off a few times, and I love him. I’m not sure how I’d manage with a coworker pulling that crap.

      1. fposte*

        Oh, God, driving. My father was the worst with that. I finally lost it one day and did in fact change lanes when he told me to, and we then sat quietly for a while behind the parked car in that lane.

        1. afiendishthingy*

          The last time my mother rode in my car I took a sip of my beverage from a can in the cup holder, and she gasped “Are you drinking a BEER?” Oh yeah, Mom, when you’re not here I do it ALL THE TIME, is that a problem? It was seltzer! She also always tel me to slow down before a stop sign when I am already slowing down.

          1. Allison*

            “She also always tel me to slow down before a stop sign when I am already slowing down.”

            My mom did the same thing! I do not miss driving with my parents in the car, especially my mom. I love them both but they had a tendency to freak out over every little thing when I was behind the wheel.

      2. Shannon*

        Same here. This is why my husband does 95% of the driving when we are going somewhere together. We had several pointed conversations about how the driver controls where the car is going and that unless he genuinely felt that there was threat to life or property, he needed to keep his mouth shut. Then again, we’re diametrically opposed as driving personalities; he thinks that more than 5 cars on the road is bad traffic, but Atlanta rush hour doesn’t phase me.

        1. Amber Rose*

          The worst part is, my husband doesn’t even have a driver’s license. He doesn’t know how to drive, but he tries to shoulder check for me, and interprets me not immediately changing lanes as me forgetting where I need to go. He even used to set my parking brake until I slapped his hand like a child reaching for a cookie.

          It’s got a bit better lately since I’ve started bluntly telling him to shut up unless he wants me to stop allowing him in the car.

          1. fposte*

            Ha. I had a friend like that. To make things worse, she had legally impaired vision that could never be corrected well enough to drive, so I was always wondering why the heck she thought I’d believe her when she said things were clear on her side.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        I threatened one family member that I would go to the toy store and buy a toy steering wheel. I would duct tape it to the dash so that family member could help steer the car.

        Since I said it through clenched teeth the family member wisely decided not to mess with me any more. That person’s daughter used to read every. single. road sign we passed. I never did find a remedy for that one, but at least I understood why she was that way.

      4. nonegiven*

        I would have already told this woman off, if she hadn’t stopped after a few hints and a couple of direct ‘knock it off, I’m the boss, here.”
        Doesn’t matter why she does it, it’s a challenge to OP’s authority. I’d write her up and put it in her file for her performance review, if nothing else helped.

    2. afiendishthingy*

      Yeah, that was my read on the situation too. I bet the coworker doesn’t even realize she’s doing it and will be mortified to have it pointed out, but then will hopefully stop without a big fuss. Probably will still need some reminders, but I think it will be ok. Depending on their working relationship – which it sounds like it is mostly good – this could be a time when humor could be the way to go (in contrast to yesterday’s creepy controlling Sue). With most of my coworkers, if they were telling me to do something I’d been doing for years, I could say “Oh, so print it on cardstock? So the same paper we have always printed these materials? Brilliant!” or “Wait, the shredder on the SECOND floor? in this building where I’ve worked for 10 years? Could you draw me a map?” Written down it looks terrible, but if both share similar senses of humor – which has to include being somewhat self-deprecating – and you say it laughingly, I think you can gently point out the coworker’s behavior without making them feel too bad. But obviously it’s a Know Your Coworkers thing.

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, I know what you’re talking about, and I could see that working. “I was going to print it on my leftover coffee filters–are you sure that won’t work?”

        It’s interesting to think about this one for me, because I have a bit of both people in me on this one. I did get from my dad the “advising on the obvious” tendency; it’s just I don’t regularly work with higher-ups that I could annoy in this way.

  17. NJ Anon*

    I was at Oldjob for 11 years. The last year I was there, a new person on my same level was hired. She was constantly telling me when things were due. I just kept repeating, ” I know Fergus, I have been doing it for 10 years.” At some point she finally stopped. Really annoying.

  18. Bostonian*

    It’s really interesting to see the range of reactions in the comments on this one: she could be trying to manage up, or process the information and remind herself of procedures, or maybe she had a forgetful manager in a previous job, or maybe there’s a lack of clarity around the management structure here, or she’s pushing back because she feels the OP is being patronizing, or maybe she’s trying to be helpful and it’s just her communication style. This letter seems like more of a Rorschach test than most, where people are seeing lots of possible explanations based on their own experiences.

    I hope the OP chimes in, because it would be interesting to get more details and OP’s reaction about which of the many possible explanations might be correct.

  19. LawBee*

    I see a couple of possible things. One, she’s just in the habit from a previous boss, and the OP hasn’t made it clear that it’s not necessary (unless IT IS, dum dum DUUUUUUUM). Also, maybe in her view, she and the OP are nominally employee/supervisor, but really they’re collaborators because it’s such a small office, and she’s not giving orders as much as she’s just saying things that she would say to a peer.

  20. I'm older than I look!*

    I am in a similar position as the woman referenced in the letter. My manager could easily be the OP. My manager has so much on his plate, it’s easy to ‘forget’ things – our department has to do the work of about 6 people with 2. I try my best to tactfully manage up and usually it seems he appreciates it, and doesn’t even notice that I’m managing up.

    However, once he did have to fuss at me a bit. We were on a big deadline and I was compiling a presentation. The final piece was from him and his manager. I sent a reminder email 12 hours before the deadline saying “hey I’m going to bed, we have until 9 am, I’ll be back on at 7 to finish this” and got chewed out a little bit because the deadline had been pushed to 9 pm (I wasn’t copied on that email and my manager mistakenly thought he’d forwarded it).

    After the deadline passed, my manager apologized profusely for the chew-out and attributed it to stress from the deadline (it was a sincere apology). But, we were able to have a frank conversation about my occasional managing-up and it really helped to clear the air. This was almost 3 years ago, when I was pretty new, and we’ve had no issues since. He also is better at remembering to forward me emails that are applicable to me, and our corporate team is better about copying me on initial emails that are applicable to me.

  21. Alternative*

    I personally would respond by pausing, and then saying “Okay. Is there a reason you are telling me that?” In a nice tone of voice.

    That should tell you if she thinks she’s in charge, or thinks she is just being helpful, or whatever. And this gives you a chance to clarify, that yes, you already know where to save things, and how to meet deadlines.

    I would be curious to hear an update from the LW, after you have a chance to address this.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      As far as I can tell, it’s not so much what the employee is saying but how she’s saying it (more of an order than an ask or advice).

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I like this response. It makes the employee think about what she is saying and why.

  22. WLE*

    I used to work with a co-worker that did this AS A NEW HIRE. It drove me and everyone else absolutely bananas. Then I found out that he had Aspergers Syndrome.

  23. Merry and Bright*

    Maybe it’s the employee’s off key way of showing how efficient and on-the-ball she is.

  24. Nerd patrol*

    I can totally see how this would be annoying, and as a manager, I might be annoyed, but then I’d have to ask myself what might be the underlying issue. I’ve been in situations where I was hired to this type of role because the manager was completely disorganized. Is there a reason why the OP was not able to handle all their work? maybe the assistant feels there roll is to assist and organize the department. Maybe the OP is taking it the wrong way, and rather than be insulted, she could be grateful, and if she prefers the suggestions be phrased a different way or are not necessary, then have that conversation and set clear instruction and job duties so there is no confusion.

  25. Simplytea*

    When it comes to the small things that annoy the crap out of you, I think it’s always worth it to say something IF that person is your colleague or subordinate. One time I was working as an assistant for a lawyer for over a year and someone literally told me she preferred paperclips–I got this inkling suspicion that it was not the case, as everything came back stapled. I ended up asking her once and she was like I HATE PAPERCLIPS. We had a good laugh about that. A small thing, but over time can lead to extreme frustration which manifests itself in different ways.

    That being said, I’m guilty of doings this but framing it in a helpful, non-demandy way. I’m an assistant, and I think sometimes the reason we’re assistants is to remind people of things that fall through the cracks. I have, however, been told to lay off a bit (which I’ve been trying to do) as the people I currently work with are, in general, more competent than the people I used to support. Working with others is a learning process!

  26. Wehaf*

    I disagree with Alison a bit on this one; I would not try to use individual responses to address the bigger problem. I would address the whole issue head-on, but in a low-key way. The next time she gives you a command, I would give her a funny look, and use a shortened version of Alison’s script, something like “I’ve noticed that you frequently give me instructions on pretty basic things – is there a reason you keep doing this?”

    Also, some commenters have wondered if there is confusion about the hierarchy – is she clear on the fact that, as department head, you are her boss? If not, clarification on this point could go a long way towards addressing the problem.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I would want to address it head on, also. If I were on the receiving end of those individual responses, I would not get the over all message. I would just learn, “don’t mention the paper shredder” or other specific. I would not get that I was making too many obvious statements.

  27. Shannon*

    I’m seeing a bunch of communication fails on behalf of the employee.

    Example One: Okay, she’s trying to be helpful. Just brush it off.

    Example Two: I like Alison’s response.

    Example Three: I’d just straight up ask, as neutrally as possible, “Why do you say that?” I don’t like Alison’s response, because it implies that the employee has any control over her boss’s work. Is the employee saying it because she doesn’t understand her role in the organization? Did Fergus ask her to remind her boss? Is the boss collaborating with the employee on the work?

  28. Kat A.*

    Does she understand that she’s your assistant? Maybe she thinks you two are equal colleagues.

  29. Rocky*

    Oh, I have a lovely, well-intentioned, but over-helpful colleague, who just got promoted to manager. He’s *extremely* excited to be a manager. This week we had to move floors, just ten days before I will be leaving the organisation permanently. He helpfully suggested that I could take the opportunity of the move to start clearing out any un-needed documents. Then he gave me examples of the sort of documents I could throw away. He just can’t seem to stop himself :-)

  30. SunnyLibrarian*

    I always feel a well placed, “Thanks” is better than my thought of “yeah, no shit.” If the coworker is smart, they get it immediately.

    One particular manager at my work tells me stuff that is sort of obvious (which is a bit different, because he’s a manager), but I don’t take it personally because I know he has to tell a lot of other people this stuff.

  31. OP*

    OP here,

    First of all, thank you all for the comments! I’ll try to answer as much of your questions as I can. So, here it goes: I have been working for a large (by non US-standards) firm for about 10 years; I have built the department I’m in from scratch. When I was hired, my role was supportive but it now is not: its fee-earning, people come to me for input/feedback etc. I needed to hire another person; we did. We are both women, I’m 6 years older than her (so no power-play here), her work experience is good but basic (so I’m training her, too) and yes, I am her manager, which she knows, because I was part of the hiring process from the start and explained all about the job from the start, she comes to me for approval for days off, advice on how to deal with stuff at work, etc.

    What some of the commenters noted here makes sense, though. Before coming here, she was at an admin post at a doctor’s office, and from what I have gathered the doctor was forgetful and she did have to remind him of stuff.

    However, at this job we have procedures for everything, much of which has been set up by me, so you see how what she’s doing grates my nerves. So far, I have been doing as Alison just suggested, which is “I got it, thanks” with a serious tone, or Her: “Do such and such” Me: “(silence)” or “I am” (very curtly). She does seem to have backed off; if it continues, I’ll just pass to “Why are you suggesting this? Am I doing something wrong?” and see if it puts a stop to it.

    Again, thank you, Allison and commenters!

    1. Wanna-Alp*

      For such an instruction as “use the one on the first floor, it’s better.” I would be very tempted to go with a response of “Why is it better? Does it dispense cookies? Oooo goody! I hope they’re chocolate chip! No? No cookies? Oh I’m disappointed now (sad face)”

      The idea is that the positive tone keeps it positive and the weirdness gives the instruction-giver pause for thought next time. Works better if you’re a slightly off-beat person in the first place.

      1. Lindz*

        See, I would be pissed if my manager said something like that to me. That’s beyond sarcasm, that’s totally condescending.

  32. OP*

    Lindz, I too believe that saying something like that would not be good; to me, it sounds passive-aggressive and it’s not what I’m going for here: I really like this person, we work well together and she is very competent. I don’t want to alienate her, just bring to her attention the fact that there is no reason for her to be doing what she’s doing and that it’s a tiny bit disrespectful (and I suspect that if she ever works for a manager who is territorial, it’s likely that this kind of comment will create a bad atmosphere).

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