my boss keeps inviting me to family events

A reader writes:

My boss (co-owner of the company) is someone who is good to me professionally, but for whom I have very little respect after watching her work for eight years.

However, I am always polite and professional and work as hard as I can for her, her co-owner (who I like), and the company, and have done well.

She has repeatedly drawn me into conference rooms to confide in me about her private dilemmas, frequently breaking into tears. She seems genuinely grateful for this attention and, in return, feels like she’s returning the favor by inviting me to events she hosts for her family.

I don’t know her family. I’ve met her sons a few times. I don’t want to spend any time with this woman. I have my own family/friends I want to spend time with. I just got an invitation to her son’s wife’s baby shower. I don’t want to spend money on a gift and I don’t (and won’t) attend.

How do I put a fork in this for the last time? I ALWAYS refuse the invitations, citing something I need to do with my own family, knowing she won’t criticize that. But I’m tired of feeling like I have to buy her kids baby/wedding/shower gifts.

Ugh, your boss. Crying to you about her personal life and inviting you to family events?! She is not one for professional boundaries, I guess.

It’s never easy to tell someone “I don’t like you in that way and don’t want to be your friend.” But the fact that she’s your boss gives you an easier, less awkward way to do it than if she were someone outside of work: you can cite the work relationship as your reason.

Say this: “Jane, it’s kind of you to invite me to these kinds of things, but I want to be transparent with you that I wouldn’t feel comfortable attending a family event because you’re my boss. To me, it would blur the boundaries too much; I think it’s better for both of us if we keep boss/employee boundaries. I know not everyone does things that way, but it’s my way. Thank you for understanding!”

If she tells you that you’re being overly scrupulous and that it’s not big deal, just repeat this: “I hear you. I’m old-fashioned this way!” By calling yourself “old-fashioned” in this context, you’re reinforcing that professional boundaries are a long-established thing, not some crazy notion that you’ve come up with on your own.

At this point, she should stop with the invitations. But if for some reason they continue, you absolutely should not feel obligated to buy baby, wedding, or shower gifts for her family members. The fact that she’s your boss gets you out of any gift-giving obligations that you might otherwise feel; it would be incredibly unseemly for her to expect an employee to give gifts to her relatives. (Whether or not she does expect them isn’t really the point; the point is that it would be so unseemly that you can just proceed on the assumption that of course you’re not on the hook for those.)

{ 90 comments… read them below }

  1. Cantaloupe*

    I love your advice – it is a nice spin on “It’s not you, it’s me”.

    Considering she is crying about personal matters at work, I can only imagine what would happen if OP hurt her feelings.

    1. The Bimmer Guy*

      Yeah, I’ve found that works well. When you’re dealing with someone who insists upon flagrantly violating social / professional norms, sometimes the best thing you can do is extricate yourself from that person’s drama and blame it on a quirk of your own…even though the other person is the one acting weirdly. Of course, since it’s “you and not them,” that person will (often ignorantly) go on to do the same thing to other people, but that’s not your problem.

    1. The Kurgen*

      Love this! It seems nowadays that any invitation is a demand for gifts. So terrible when it comes from a boss!

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        If more people realized that, no matter if it was intended to be a demand, it’s not impolite to refuse, it might die off.

        But so many people do treat an invitation a combination of a Summons and an Invoice. The only thing good manners say you owe is a congratulatory message as you decline the invitation politely.

        Now, practically speaking, this becomes more sticky when it’s your boss, but it’s not a matter of good manners then, it’s a problem of having a bad boss. I wouldn’t remain working for someone who would penalize me at work for refusing to be shaken down for shower gifts for her children. Only the OP can make that decision for herself. I just wanted to point out to her (and everyone!) that the gifts aren’t required by etiquette!

      2. NK*

        I think this just depends on your perspective. In my family that’s certainly not the case. We invited many family members to our wedding who we knew would never come, because that’s what you do to be inclusive in my family. But no one in my family treats it as an invoice and most of those who did not attend did not send a gift.

        My husband’s family does see it this way though. His parents tried to get us to invite a bunch of non-relatives he didn’t even know well “because we gave their kids a gift”. Luckily my husband had no problem putting his foot down with that!

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        I’ve been using it so much and so long that I can’t quite remember if I stole it from Miss Manners or just started using it in her comments section. I believe I stole it.

        It sums up the issue pretty succinctly, though.

    2. MK*

      No, but it’s useless to deny that they are a message of “I want to be your friend” and declining all of them a message of “I would rather not”. It’s not rude to decline an invitation, but it states pretty clearly that you don’t want a closer relationship; which isn’t something I imagine would go down well with this woman.

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        She is already declining them all. She just thinks that when she declines them, she’s still obligated to send a gift.

        I’m betting that if she stopped sending the gifts, that would be the most effective way of stopping the invitations. I just don’t know what other impact that would have on her job. If the co-owner is reasonable, as the OP indicates, the impact might be negligible.

        1. ITSpouse*

          I’d also add “I don’t want people to draw the wrong conclusions about our relationship and accuse you of bias if you ever have to go to bat for me.”

          That way, she’s showing both that she’s the one with fuddy-duddy values (i.e., separating work and social) AND she’s concerned about her boss’ reputation.

  2. DragynAlly*

    Alison’s advice is so perfect. It’s ok to want boundaries at work. Especially when you don’t want to be BFF with your boss.

  3. AMG*

    I feel bad for your boss. She absolutely should not be doing this, but she also is confiding in someone that she considers a friend or family/friend and the sentiment is not reciprocated but she is oblivious. I am not suggesting you change your stance–I just feel really bad for her. She seems like a sad person. :(

    1. KR*

      Yeah this. Like it’s totally acceptable to not want to be this involved in her life, I just feel bad that she’s the one who doesn’t realize you’re not her friend.

    2. Coffee Ninja*

      I don’t think that the boss is necessarily oblivious or that sad. I had a boss that acted very, very similarly – all she wanted was a sounding board for her various issues (issues with her kids, wedding planning stress, drama with Big Boss, etc). We did hang out outside of work, though, but she cut me off cold turkey when I quit. Sadly :)

  4. Pari*

    Don’t be surprised if the relationship becomes colder if you turn her down. This is a weird thing with a lot of tiny businesses- if youre in good (which sounds like you are) you’re family. But as soon as you’re not family, watch out for your job.

    1. OhNo*

      I don’t think that we have enough information here to think that’s a likely response. But, if OP thinks it might be, it’s worth watching out for.

      I know Alison has offered advice before on how to maintain a good relationship with someone you don’t necessarily like, and that might serve the OP well. Offering a substitute for the more boundary-pushing interactions might be an option. Something like, “I prefer to keep the work/life boundary pretty firm, so I won’t be attending your family events, but I would be open to occasionally getting coffee while we chat about professional organizations/upcoming conferences/your opinions on my career trajectory.”

      People tend to get less offended if you make it clear that you’re not turning them as a person down, you’re turning down this specific type of interaction with them.

  5. Lily in NYC*

    Story time! My former boss invited me to her holiday party and when I got there, she brought me to the basement where her 5-year old son was watching tv and said “Look son, Lily is here to hang out with you”. Then she gave me her fake smile, said, HAVE FUN! and walked away. I waited 15 minutes, called a cab and left. I spent $30 on cabs (I took a cab to get there as well) just to babysit her kid for 15 minutes. And she had the nerve to ask me to bring 3 pounds of shrimp! At least I forgot the cocktail sauce; that was the only good thing about that night. And my coworkers were all there and horrified on my behalf. That woman had no shame.

        1. Amadeo*

          I like it, but even if I hated it I probably still would have picked up the dish and left with it just out of sheer ornery-ness.

    1. Thalia Al Ghul*

      I would have taken my shrimp on the way out. I think she deliberately set out to embarrass you. Watch out for that one.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        She really just wanted a babysitter and was very selfish and cheap. That’s all there is to it. She’s been out of my life for many years!

      1. anonderella*

        I… I second this. Please feed me lunch reading entertainment, this lady sounds like a doozy.

      2. Lily in NYC*

        Yes! She gave me a bad review because I made one mistake on a spreadsheet. One mistake for the entire year on something I produced weekly. And the only reason I made the mistake is because she gave me the wrong data. That was when I decided I was done trying with her.

        She did have a good sense of humor and used to joke around and tease everyone. I made a lighthearted comment about how she tapped on her car brakes too much after she had to take her car to the shop (I swear it made sense at the time). She called me into her office, shut the door, and told me that I wasn’t allowed to make any jokes and how offended she was for calling her a bad driver. I truly thought she was kidding and started laughing. Nope, she was actually upset.

        She threatened to fire me after I refused to give her my friend’s contact info (he the nephew of a very famous villain and we were journalists and they wanted to try to interview him).

        I wrote here a few days ago how she always expected me to babysit. She even used to call me in the middle of the night and say there was a work emergency and she needed me to come watch her kid (single mom). I fell for it twice until I found out she was really just going out partying. I was expected to take a cab to her house and she never paid me back for the cabs or paid me for watching him.

        I hated having to go anywhere with her because she never tipped cab drivers.

        I got promoted without her knowing it and it was one of the best days of my life when I got to tell her I was going to work for her arch-rival in a different dept. She was floored and told me that I betrayed her and that I was a disappointment.

        A month after I switched departments, she came to me and told me she needed me to babysit all weekend for her (she never asked, she just told me she needed me). When I told her I couldn’t because my long-distance boyfriend was visiting and I haven’t seen him for 3 months (total lie but I wasn’t ballsy enough to just say no without a reason), her response was that he could stay at her house with me while I babysat. That was the final straw. I said “Mary Anne (name NOT changed). Do you realize how selfish you are? I will never babysit for you again so please don’t bother asking”. She was pissed and complained to her buddy (one of our top bosses). Her friend told her that she’s surprised it took me so long and that she had no one to blame but herself for the way she treated me (the friend drank a lot and told me this when she was tipsy).
        I was so happy to leave her dept. because I loved working there and she was the only downside at that place. Sorry I wrote a novel! I needed to distract myself from my election obsession.

        1. Minister of Snark*

          I keep trying to think of which famous villain’s nephew you know and all I can come with us Voldemort. and now I’m picturing someone’s boss yelling, “Give me the contact information for Voldemort’s nephew!” Which is hilarious.

    2. OhNo*

      Wow. I can’t even process the amount of WTF involved here. I am really sorry you had to go through that, it sounds awful!

      Did she offer any explanation after the party? An excuse for basically seating you at the kids’ table? Anything?

      1. Lily in NYC*

        NO, she really sucked. She pretended it never happened. The only thing she ever said was that she had a ton of leftover shrimp. I should have told her to choke on them!

  6. Anonymous in the South*

    We often get company-wide invites to wedding/baby showers or retirement parties, etc. My rule of thumb is if I don’t know them, or if I do know them but do not speak/interact with them on a regular basis, I do not attend or send presents.

    We had one very pushy “organizer” who sent multiple emails requesting donations for a group gift. When that didn’t the response she expected, she walked around with a clipboard offering to take our “donation” because she would be going that night to pick up said present. When she got to me, I let her do her pitch and said “I RSVP’d to let you know I wouldn’t be attending”. She said “Oh, that’s fine if you can’t come but I still need your donation.”. I replied “I don’t know Jeanine Matthews so I won’t be contributing.” She just stood there for a good minute with the most confused look on her face and finally stalked off. We have over 200 employees, scattered over 6 locations. Why would I want to attend the wedding shower of the accountant I only talk to once or twice a year and have met maybe once? I’m not against showers for employees, but I don’t think you (or the organizer) should invite people the guest of honor doesn’t know and they certainly shouldn’t expect present from those people. What ever happened to 30 minute cake & punch in the breakroom showers?

    1. some1*

      Getting invited to a shower for your actual coworker (even if you don’t know them well) is totally different than being invited to a shower for your boss’s daughter-in-law.

      1. Anonymous in the South*

        True. However, when your coworker works across town and you never speak of anything but deposits and credit cards, yet you get invited to a shower and are repeatedly pressured to “donate” for a gift, it can be quite uncomfortable.

        I don’t understand inviting virtual strangers to wedding showers and expecting them to bring a gift. OP is a virtual stranger to boss’s daughter-in-law, she doesn’t want to go and she doesn’t want to spend money on a gift card. I think OP is worried that if she doesn’t attend and/or pony up for a gift, boss is going to get angry.

        1. MWKate*

          Agreed. I have more regular contact with the lady at the DD drive through than many of my coworkers. If you are going to insist on inviting the entire company (which I think is excessive) you can’t corner them and demand payment if they decline to come.

  7. Kai*

    I really needed to read this one today. At a “team-building” work event last Friday my immediate supervisor said she wanted to invite me over to her house for a little-girl style tea party — complete with tutus. She said she knew I would “get it” based only on (as far as I can tell) the fact that I complimented her phone case (which reminded her of her grandmother’s tea set) and that I thought it was cute that she has these tea parties with her young daughter. I was noncommittal in the moment and left the work event soon after, but I’ve been stressing about how to handle it in case she brings it up again or actually extends such an invitation. I have no idea why she would think I would enjoy having a dress-up tea party at my boss’s house!

    1. MWKate*

      What! This is just bizarre. I’m not sure I would have been able to come up with any kind of response to that on the spot.

      I would find it weird if someone I knew in my social life invited me for this, much less my boss.

    2. I'm not a lawyer, but ...*

      Hopefully she’ll mention the plan to her little girl and SHE will tell her it’s not appropriate LOL

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I suppose after enough long island ice teas, I could be coaxed into wearing a tutu. . .

      But seriously, that is weird. I know I would have said something in the moment, too, like, “Jane, I didn’t play tea party when I was 7 and I sure don’t think I’m going to start now.” That’s probably why I don’t have any friends.

    4. DragynAlly*

      I’m a Disney geek who loves getting dressed up and I find this incredibly weird and awkward. I would just tell her what AAM said. You like to keep work separate.

      1. Kai*

        I’m so glad Alison posted this answer today for that reason! It felt so bizarre to me. I don’t think I give the impression of being someone who would enjoy a tea party, and i thought she was definitely more the sort to keep work relationships separate and professional. But it was stressing me out because I’m still new here and she is my direct supervisor. I think this just means she likes me, which can be good, but Alison’s answer is perfect: it’s respectful and kind, but sets a really clear boundary.

        Then again, hopefully I won’t have to use it. Maybe she just had one glass of wine too many at the work event and will never bring it up again…

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If she brings this up again, it’s going to suck for you but will be great for the rest of us because you will have to tell us about it. It might need its own standalone post. (Is it possible for me to convince you to go and wear the tutu and then tell us all about it?)

          1. Kai*

            LOL. I will send in an update if she ever asks me again, but no promises that I’ll go, wear a tutu, drink tea, and eat Teddy Grahams drizzled with frosting (yes, that is the snack she described…).

            1. ReluctantBizOwner*

              Haha, oh dear. Yes, we definitely need an update, and I second it getting its own post! I’m trying to imagine this with my supervisor and I just…can’t even. I think I’d stand there gaping like a fish.

            2. Mookie*

              On the bright side, the spread she’s offering up is a pittance and doesn’t sound worth the price of a Party City tutu. Where are the minimum fifteen different kinds of carbs? The endless potted meat sandwiches? The Pimm’s, for lard’s sake?

  8. Geneva*

    How would you deal with a boss who doesn’t invite you to family events, but overshares about her family life in general? My boss tells me about her husband, kids, parents, doctor’s appointments….etc. Like one day she told me all about the mole she had removed at the dermatologist. I NEVER ask for these details and always do my best to bring the conversation back to work, for example, “Wow, that’s tough…so here’s the status on this project.” Is there anything else I can do to make it stop?

    1. Newby*

      A lot of times when people overshare, they are looking for sympathy. You can try not providing that. Instead just go with “Wow” or “Oh” or “Ok” and quickly change the subject, looking mildly confused or uncomfortable. That tends to make people stop since they are not getting the response they wanted.

  9. eplawyer*

    I have to wonder about the male-female ratio in the office. Presuming the LW is female, the boss might feel a kinship based on gender. I doubt the boss would overshare with a man. So it makes it doubly important to cut this off at that pass. Just because someone is another female, does not make that person your BFF that you share your whole life with. Boundaries are even more important to avoid the appearance of being unprofessional solely based on gender.

  10. Minister of Snark*

    There are people who, much like Michael Scott, genuinely can not differentiate between coworkers and family, to an almost dangerous degree. One former coworker of mine who came back from her maternity leave and gave us all the serious silent treatment. We could not figure out why she sat in the lunchroom silently seething at us all. It turned out she was FURIOUS at us because we didn’t show up at the hospital and spend her labor time in the waiting room, waiting to be informed of her delivery. And we didn’t visit her at home, which she also found very insulting. Apparently, the floral arrangement and gift certificate to a local place that delivered meals was impersonal and cold. She fully expected us to be as excited about her new baby as “any family member would be.” And refused to accept that there was a line between the intimacy of family and polite distance of coworkers.

    1. Kai*

      Yikes… that’s sometimes a lot to expect even when it IS your family. I didn’t sit in the waiting room while my sister (or my sister in law) were in labor with my own nieces and nephews. This did not damage our relationships at all, since they didn’t expect me to do that. That a coworker expected it is appalling!

      1. TootsNYC*

        Yeah, I’m kind of afraid my son is going to marry some woman who expects this sort of treatment, and he’ll have to explain that it’s an act of RESPECT that I don’t show up at the waiting room, but wait to be alerted and invited to visit at the hospital.

    2. Jane D'oh!*

      I can just imagine: your entire staff clogging up the waiting room, grumpily hunched over laptops, while your empty office echoes with the chime of the never-answered phones and the crackle of rolling tumbleweeds.

    3. Snarkus Aurelius*

      That’s literally what happened on The Office. Is that where she got the idea? It doesn’t matter anyway because that’s a highly unrealistic expectation. (When I saw that episode, I couldn’t stop wondering why and how a business that relies on dashes can shut down for an unspecified amount of time during the business day.)

      Did this woman not have a lot of friends or family to support her?

      1. Minister of Snark*

        No, she had parents and a sister, but not a lot of friends. Maybe that was it? It was also her first “professional” office job, and I don’t think she understood that it wasn’t like college where everybody lives in each other’s pockets and is involved every detail of each other’s lives. She was a bit like that with her wedding, too. She really expected us to be fascinated by every decision and detail, like it was our own ceremony. Maybe she was just super self-involved.

        (PS, I remember Pam actively trying to keep her coworkers from coming to the hospital when she was in labor on The Office. Am I remembering wrong?)

        1. Mookie*

          I had a new co-worker, literally only a week or two, who tried badgering me into being her bridesmaid because she had no friends or female relatives. I still cringe just thinking about this.

    4. New Bee*

      I am going into labor any day now and find this both horrifying and hilarious. (For the record, my husband is the only one allowed in labor and delivery, and one of my coworkers showing up sounds less like “family” and more like the beginning of a Lifetime thriller.)

    5. ket*

      That’s particularly funny because I’ve recently gotten briefly obsessed with trainwreck family stories on Babycenter’s forums — and a primary starting point for many trainwreck family stories is, “And she/he sat in the waiting room for hours and then TRIED TO COME IN! Why does she/he think I’d want her/him seeing my hoo-ha? It just went downhill from there…”

    6. Anon for this one*

      I had a coworker show up while I was in labor. He was drunk. It was early afternoon. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. (The drunk part.)

  11. Anon for this*

    I had a boss who was way too familiar on some levels and a (mean) micro-manager on other levels. All her relationships with other people were 1:1 and she went back and forth between proclaiming to be your friend, demanding that you go to lunch, inquiring (sometimes thoughtfully and sometimes just because she had to know everything about everything) about your own family and personal life. If you didn’t play ball, she froze you out and made you generally miserable. It was a very effective manipulation technique for controlling people and her environment. I have never ever been so stressed out in my life and the only fix was to leave the job. This situation sounds like boundaries gone bad but be aware that there are manipulators out there who use that crossing of boundaries to feed their own need for control.

  12. anonymous for now*

    In my first job out of college, I had a boss who would invite me and my boyfriend to spend the night at his house with him and his family. I always said no, of course. After the third or fourth time, I said, “Why would we do that?” He stuttered a bit, then said something about how some college kid he was “mentoring” would come over sometimes to get away from his parents, and he thought we might want to get away sometime too. I told him, “I live alone. You know that. If my boyfriend and I want to get away, we can go to my apartment.” Thankfully after that, he never mentioned it again, although he did continue to be a creep.

        1. Mookie*

          I’m going to guess the goal was a nice, long quack quack, a Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice-style romp, an exchanging of keys, if you will.

  13. Rebecca*

    Oh my gosh, my former “manager” was a complete over sharer and felt that her employees were her family, and acted accordingly, just like a Mom with a favorite child (her friend). We were treated to her sister’s toe amputation aftermath, complete with her sister coming in to show us her foot, minus toes. She talked about going to her financial planner, and proudly announced how much money she’s have per year when she retired, which was more than we make…but at the same time, she said we made enough money and were well paid. And then there were the tirades when people went on job interviews at other companies. Families don’t do that to families, being a traitor, etc. And her husband’s colonoscopy prep. I tried to tune her out as often as possible.

    It was awful and I’m so glad to have escaped.

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