am I patronizing the admin?

A reader writes:

I work in a small office. Fergus and I are at the same level, working under the boss, Wakeen. We have a support staff of a dozen or so — mostly analysts, whose work Fergus and I direct and oversee, plus our receptionist and admin assistant, Sansa. Sansa is new to our office and to the workforce, and she’s doing a great job so far. She and I are the only women in the office, but I’m a decade her senior. She can be a bit shy and tentative, especially around Wakeen. This hasn’t affected her performance that I’m aware of.

Wakeen is a kind person and never speaks harshly or aggressively, but he is also very formal, much older, and projects an air of gruffness and authority. When giving direction to Sansa, I’ve found myself acting as a kind of a buffer against my perception that he intimidates her. For example, today I was not on-site, and I needed her to ask everyone in the office if they had a hard copy of something lying around to deliver to the marzipan division. I said, “Make sure to check with Wakeen on that, too. If you don’t feel comfortable, you can tell him I said to ask him.”

I’ve done the “it’s okay to tell him I made you ask/do the thing” thing a bunch, now that I’m aware of it. Was I out of line? I thought I was being helpful, but now I’m thinking it could come off as patronizing. I suppose I’m projecting a lot of unfair gender and age stuff onto both Wakeen and Sansa.

If it helps, in our workplace culture, Sansa is expected to do anything office-related that Wakeen, Fergus, and I ask of her. (I’m adding this because I’ve seen it hotly debated on AAM before – I’m thinking in particular about the question regarding whether it’s kosher to ask a receptionist to screen your calls. Our office leans heavily toward the “of course it’s her job to screen calls for you in whatever way you like and not push back” end of the spectrum.)

Yeah, I’d stop doing that.

It’s not the worst thing in the world, but by saying that type of thing more than once, you risk undermining both Sansa and Wakeen.

You’re unintentionally signaling that Sansa should be tentative around Wakeen, and that she needs to borrow your authority because her own competence in her role isn’t enough. And if she was was feeling perfectly comfortable around Wakeen, it might be coming across as a little patronizing that you’re assuming that she doesn’t.

To be clear, it’s totally fine to talk about this kind of thing when you’re setting a new person up at the start (“when you’re checking with Fergus or Wakeen about something I’ve asked you to find out about it, it’s fine to say that the request is from me”) or if you notice that the person seems nervous about dealing with someone. But that would be a more explicit conversation framed either as “things you need to know about your new job” or “a thing I’ve noticed and want to reassure you about.” It’s the casual and repeated mention that isn’t tied to one of those things that I think is more problematic.

It might be worth saying to her, “Hey, I’ve realized that a few times I’ve suggested that you can attribute things to me if you’re uncomfortable talking to Wakeen about something. I don’t know why I’ve done that, and it occurred to me that I might have unintentionally signaled that Wakeen is intimidating or difficult. He’s actually very kind and easy to work with. It’s always fine if you want to explain that a particular request came from me, but I want to make sure that I haven’t made you think that you’ll need to.”

{ 92 comments… read them below }

  1. Moonsaults*

    I think Allison hit it on the head in the ending of her response. I’ve worked with bosses who have a gruff exterior my entire career up until recently. When handing off my previous job, I made it clear that Bossman was not to be feared. When you do that to someone new, it empowers and helps them out. Then you don’t need to feel like you have to protect them if they’re shy about communication with the “big boss”.

    1. Folklorist*

      Seriously, I was terrified of our Big Boss for nearly a year! Then, when I finished my first HUGE project, he wrote a personal, two-line note to me about what a great job I did. It really meant a lot, and I started feeling more at ease around him AND more comfortable in my role at the company. It took me a while to realize that he’s not standoffish–even though he’s the Big Cheese, he’s socially awkward and has a hard time talking to people, even though he wants to! Those little things of reaching out and bridging the gap really help.

  2. Marisol*

    Also OP, don’t forget that if you focus too much on the needs of the admin, or get too chummy with her, you risk people associating the two of you, which can lead to a loss of status for you.

      1. SL #2*

        Yeah, I should hope my boss doesn’t get looked down on for being kind and thoughtful to me (or to anyone else more junior to her, for that matter). I can see Marisol’s point being valid in a company with a very rigid hierarchy, but that just seems so old-fashioned to me and also demeaning to the admin in question.

        1. Lynne*

          I agree. I think it is sort of nasty sentiment. If you make sure to have good relationships at your own level and do good work, I wouldn’t think associating with ~the admin~ would cost you too much ground.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      Would you please elaborate what you mean about loss of status? I really hope I’m reading your context incorrectly.

      1. fposte*

        I think it’s complicated, but I can see where Marisol was going. You want to make sure that you have solid bonds with colleagues at your own level, not just with the only other woman, and if the support staff reports to everybody, it’s wise to be aware of the possible cost of being perceived as the office manager if you’re the one who seems to have taken on their case all on your own.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          Right. You don’t want it to turn into “us girls” on one side and “Wakeen and the guys” on the other.

          1. ThisLW*

            It’s a pretty hierarchical org in general, so I’m not concerned about an “us girls” perception, although that’s a great point. To add another layer of hierarchy, this is a FedGov/contractor relationship. I don’t know whether Alison has ever had a guest post about this topic, but it’s its own fascinating (to me, anyway) little universe.

        2. Lily in NYC*

          The “loss of status” comment is really sticking in my craw. I guess I should be honored that the people in our president’s office deign to socialize with me in public even though there’s a risk they will lose status for associating with the peasants.

          1. Lynne*

            I think it’s gross.

            We have had many discussions around here about how admins are stigmatized and how administrative work should be valued (around the admin professionals day). Why would you want to further ghettoize the position and risk alienating a good employee over worried about association? Like, just make friends and be nice to everyone!

            1. Marisol*

              I agree that you should be nice to everyone. Courtesy is a hallmark of professionalism. Being friends with everyone is a different matter, and depending on how you define “friends,” it could be problematic at work.

            2. Babs*

              Thank you Lynne! that ghettoize the position is spot on. I think we’ve all worked with someone like Marisol who is always keeping score of top dog. (If only in her head.)

              1. Marisol*

                Every single man on the planet has a sense of his own status vis a vis his peers. So if you’re ever had a male coworker, then you surely did work with someone who was keeping score in their head. As far as working with someone like *me* goes, you don’t know me from Adam. I am an admin myself. I am looking beyond my own ego needs to give frank advice to another woman in the workforce, in order to serve the greater good of feminism. If you don’t like that sort of thing, well, ok, but don’t impugn my character.

          2. bridget*

            It’s a weird/kind of demeaning way to put it, but I kind of get it.

            At a previous law firm, I was the only female associate in office A, and a friend of mine was the only female associate in office B. Although I was always perfectly nice and friendly with the staff in my office (overwhelmingly women), I did most of my work socializing (lunch, etc.) with people in my peer department – other associates. Sometimes it was awkward because they were all men who could sometimes be weird about me being there, but whatever.

            My friend in office B was in a pretty sexist dynamic, where she was pointedly not included in lunch or any work socializing because she was a woman. Seriously – once a case team left a hearing where they had all been in together in court, and the partner literally told her the rest of them were going to lunch to celebrate the victory (including more junior male associates), and they’d see her back at the office. She was only friendly with the other women in the office (all staff), which further cemented their perception of her as not in their league.

            Long winded way of saying that in some male dominated fields, it can be worth making an effort to establish yourself as belonging to your professional group regardless of gender, rather than banding together with the other women who aren’t in the peer group, because it can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing an outsider status.

            1. fposte*

              It’s also related to the “don’t be the one to clean the kitchen if you’re the only female/don’t be relegated to being the permanent notetaker” stuff. “Don’t be the one to make the admin your special project” is in that family.

              1. Lynne*

                Who exactly should be helping the admin, other than her boss? It is clear that the admin either reports to the OP or Fergus. It’s ridiculous to be hesitant to give your direct report advise, because shes the admin and then you might lose status.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  That’s referring to cases where you’re not the admin’s direct manager, and where she’s the admin supporting a group of people (per fposte’s comment a couple up about “if the support staff reports to everybody”).

                2. fposte*

                  Yes, I read the post as Sansa reporting to Fergus *and* the OP, not just the OP

                  In some offices, everybody the support staff reports to is equally thoughtful about them and there’s nothing gendered. And that’s great. But in some offices, there’s a drift for women to take on the housekeeping/emotional management tasks while men at the same level don’t, and that’s something to keep an eye on. It’s not because admins don’t deserve friendship; it’s because you can end up perpetuating a bigger problem by trying to solve a smaller one.

            2. Marisol*

              Thank you for giving an example of how the dynamic I mention could play out. People are shooting the messenger, but I think I am just describing an observable phenomenon. I didn’t say I like it; only that it would be a mistake to ignore it.

              To your point about being demeaning, I think I’m just being straightforward and unemotional. People may *feel* demeaned, but that doesn’t actually mean I have erred. Admin work is important, but as a rule it does not carry as much status as positions higher on the org chart do.

          3. EA*

            Uhh. This whole comment thread bothers me. I think it’s sad that people really think they should associate with coworkers by class. Like I get it if you just focus on support staff and not on making friends at your own level, but I don’t think that is what everyone is talking about. Like how are the admins supposed to form relationships with coworkers and have career development, if everyone is afraid of making then ‘their project’.

          4. JB (not in Houston)*

            Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in the legal field in a conservative area, but I’ve seen that this is a thing that can happen. When there’s only one woman attorney and she gets chummier with a female admin than with the other attorneys, the male attorneys start viewing her as not quite their equal. It doesn’t happen in every environment. It doesn’t happen where I work now. But I’ve definitely seen it.

            1. JB (not in Houston)*

              I see that bridget said the same thing. I get why voicing this makes some people uncomfortable, and absolutely you should not, as a woman, have to shun the company of other women in the office just to be treated equally. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are places where you have to make that choice.

              1. EA*

                It is very true it could be field specific. FWIW- I have not had issues being close with people of different levels and roles, but I also don’t work in a male-dominated area.

                1. bridget*

                  Another contributing factor might be that law firms, in my experience, have a pretty strong dividing line between attorneys and staff (totally kind/professional interactions, of course, but people tend to stay in their lane with social stuff). It’s not exactly a “hierarchy” (pretty sure the office manager could fire me if she were so inclined, and I have no such direct power over staff, other than providing feedback to their managers), but it’s a definite separation, and especially as a woman, it really does matter that I’m considered to be part of the lawyer group.

              2. Morning Glory*

                I can understand how this could be a detriment to women who have established themselves in their careers and need to be conscious of how they are perceived. But it’s still a pretty horrible thing for an assistant to have to read.

                The worry of stigma that’s preventing senior-level women from taking an interest in junior-level women does not prevent senior-level men from taking an interest in junior-level men, which strongly benefits them in their careers – they get advice on professionalism, job leads, recommendations, special projects, etc. from having extra face-time with senior-level people.

                Today, a lot of assistants are junior-level women took any job they could find in their field after graduation, but who want career advancement. But then we can’t, because we’re “admins,” and that’s a position it’s disproportionately hard to move up from, which isn’t something they told us before we took the job.

                So basically, I get what you all are saying, but it really sucks.

                1. Marisol*

                  You can take an interest in the career of, and be a mentor to, an admin or other junior work associate without making the kinds of mistakes I was alluding to. Sitting in the conference room having a discussion, or meeting occasionally outside of work for coffee to give advice, is not the same thing as, say, helping the admin with a xerox job, or lingering in front of the her desk giggling about hairstyles.

                  As to the advice about professionalism, etc. that men get that women don’t get–that’s absolutely true, women aren’t groomed for success in the way that men are–but the advice I gave is exactly the kind of grooming women are in need of, namely, how to negotiate hierarchies, something that men are taught since they are small boys playing little league. And from time to time I make a comment like that, and then get a bunch of flak from…other women. Which is not to say you are giving me flak, but only to point out for whatever it’s worth that there is some risk of playing the role of mentor. Women have to be open to receiving help to get help.

                  I am an executive assistant, a women, a graduate of a quality liberal arts college, and a top earner in my field. I attribute my career success in large part to my ability to read political landscapes. I think when we fail to understand, or when we ignore outright, the power dynamics at play in the office, we risk falling victim to them, or at the very least, we lose the opportunity to benefit by them. Disheartening though it may be, I think it is always better to understand, and face unflinchingly, a situation as it is, rather than as we wish it were. By understanding the social hierarchy, I move gracefully through it, and that allows me to build social/political capital in my office, which translates to the chance to have more responsibility and a better salary. It may feel like it sucks, but I would encourage you to embrace the truth of your position and work with it as best you can. I don’t know what the best move is for you of course, but I know that in my case, should I ever decide to switch fields (as I have certainly considered doing) I will only benefit by having assiduously studied, and adhered to, the rules of the corporate political mileu. It’s something that I can apply to any work situation, and if I were to resist doing that and instead be a bratty idealist (see Lynn’s post above: “like, just make friends and be nice to everyone!”) I’d miss out on a lot of useful knowledge.

                  I’m 43 years old; the OP appears to be in her early 30’s, you sound like you might be younger that me…my comment was made because I think I might have some useful insight given my age and experience, but take my advice for whatever you think it’s worth.

                2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Hey, I hear you, but it’s not right/kind to call someone a bratty idealist.

                3. nutella fitzgerald*


                  “And from time to time I make a comment like that, and then get a bunch of flak from…other women. Which is not to say you are giving me flak, but only to point out for whatever it’s worth that there is some risk of playing the role of mentor. Women have to be open to receiving help to get help.”

                  Women are not the problem here.

          5. Marisol*

            Don’t interpret what I have said so narrowly. Depending on who you assist, the “people in your president’s office,” whoever they are, may be increasing their status by socializing with you. Do you assist the president? If so, that could be some good political capital.

      2. Marisol*

        fposte has done a great explanation of what I am getting at and I thank her for that. Lily, I can’t say whether or not you are reading my comment incorrectly as you haven’t posted your thoughts on the matter, but my guess is, you are understanding my comment exactly as I meant it. I am an executive assistant, and a woman. I don’t want to see another woman bring her status down because she feels a need to bond with the other woman in the office. Historically, there has been a real danger of this happening, and while things get better with time, it is still something for women to keep in mind. I’m not telling the OP to be mean, just to maintain professional boundaries.

        1. Rat Racer*

          I still don’t get it. I do not understand why advocating for an administrative assistant in any way diminishes my standing within my department. My standing is based on my reputation, my skills and my seat in the org chart. In my mind, there is a vast chasm between helping the administrative assistant clean the conference room vs. telling her she can use my name as political capital to get a job done. Something isn’t connecting for me here.

          1. Marisol*

            It was just a caution for the OP not to go overboard. I said not to “focus too much on the needs of the admin, or get too chummy with her.” By that I didn’t mean don’t be friendly or kind. I just wanted to caution her against overfunctioning. Advocating is fine, and I don’t really have an opinion about her original question, to be honest, (although I’m sure Alison is correct as usual) but if the OP’s sense of responsibility increases to the point where she is, for example, considering cleaning the conference room to help the admin, then that would be a problem. I don’t get a sense that this is an issue for the OP; I just think it’s a good thing to keep on the radar. If it doesn’t apply she can disregard it.

          1. EA*

            You know Lily, I think its an important nuanced conversation. I don’t agree with how it was presented at all. I just couldn’t engage anymore after someone was called a bratty idealist.

            1. Jaguar*

              It doesn’t really matter. I don’t think anyone is going to avoid forming friendships because of some convoluted argument they read on the Internet.

          2. Marisol*

            Lily it was not my intention to offend you or anyone else, and my comment was certainly not directed *at* you.

      3. emma2*

        Oooh, this is difficult. I think Marisol is concerned that because women are frequently undermined in the workplace (by being given lower value tasks and such), and because the OP and the admin are the only two women, the rest of the team will just lump them into the ‘lower status’ category (admin.)

        That being said, there are a lot of assumptions in that observation. First of all, the OP is supposed to interact with the admin as one of her direct reports. Also, hopefully the people in this office are not bass ackwards in their way of thinking.

  3. Snarkus Aurelius*

    “If you don’t feel comfortable, you can tell him I said to ask him.”

    Is there any reason you don’t think Sansa could have thought of it herself? That’s where patronizing could come in. If you didn’t say that and Wakeen got huffy, Sansa saying that would be plain common sense.

    1. caryatis*

      Yeah…it would never occur to me that I had to ask permission in order to mention who a request came from. “OP asked me to track down the file” isn’t classified information. Probably.

  4. Delta Delta*

    I have nothing constructive to add except to say that I’d love to work somewhere that has a marzipan division.

      1. Althea*

        Someday if Alison needs to make some extra cash, she should have a design contest for, then print and sell “Wakeen’s Chocolate Teapots, Inc” t-shirts. Maybe it could also say, “Spout Department” or “Marzipan Division” on it.

        Then people would run into each other and get the joke, and know they are fellow AAM readers.

        Now that I am musing about all this, I’m wondering if there should be AAM meetups. T-shirts worn. Teapots and chocolate. Work war stories.

        AAM live show, like podcasters sometimes do!

  5. Morning Glory*

    Yeah, I might be annoyed by that. Particularly because it feels pretty natural to me to say “OP’s looking for this” “Fergus asked me to grab that” as context to the person knows where it’s going. If I’d already been planning on mentioning the OP was the one that needed that info, and then the OP told me I *could* say that *if* I felt uncomfortable, then I’d start worrying that I *shouldn’t* say that because it may make people think I’m uncomfortable.

  6. Jessesgirl72*

    Patronizing or not, it seems so unnecessary.

    I make several of those kind of requests a week of our AA. In fact, I’m more likely to send her a request of something I need from our manager than anyone else.

    I pretty much assume she uses the same script, regardless if she’s asking the grandboss or the most Jr person: “Jessesgirl needs to know if you have a hard copy of the marzipan specs”

    Giving her *permission* to tell the boss that she’s doing so on your behalf would make me think you’re the one with the control issues, not Wakeen, and whether or not you expect her to not disclose that part if you don’t give her express permission to do so. That’s just weird, so please stop!

  7. SometimesALurker*

    So often, when the letter writer is the one causing a problem, they start with “I got this feedback and I don’t agree” or “I got this feedback and I don’t know what to do with it.” It’s so great that OP apparently noticed the potential problem on her own and sought advice!

    1. Justanotherthought*

      This is exactly what I was coming to say!!!

      OP – it speaks highly of you that you recognized this. I agree with Allison it might be nice to say something to the admin, both to show her that you realized you might have inadvertently been patronizing and also that you are an introspective person and a thoughtful boss. I think it would leave the door open for her to realize that she can ask you about these kinds of things if she feels the need to.

      1. Working Mom*

        I was thinking the exact same thing. As I finished reading Alison’s advice, in my head I thought, “Kudos to you for recognizing it, and fixing it!” Well done, OP.

  8. TCO*

    If you do truly sense that Sansa is uncomfortable, a better strategy could be to provide some helpful insight on how to best work with other intimidating/difficult people in the office. For instance, “Bob is a really nice guy, but sometimes he might seem annoyed if you interrupt him. It’s not personal; he’s just a really focused worker. He does truly care about being helpful, though. E-mailing him is usually the best way to get what you need.”

    That kind of insight can really help a new person (at any level!) feel comfortable in the office and know the best ways to work with someone.

    1. chocolate tort*

      Yes! When I was starting a (term) position, my predecessor told me that my boss often made this face that he was bored/confused and just to keep talking because he actually was listening, and similar advice along those lines. Well, I still was pretty intimidated by him but her advice really helped me push past my instinct to trail off nervously when I saw him do that. She was totally right about the bored/confused face!

  9. Rusty Shackelford*

    Yeah, to me this smacks of “Wakeen is a big meanie and might not help you if he thinks it’s just for YOU,” or maybe even “You’re not important enough to ask for this on your own, so use my name if you need some authority.” I know neither of those is what you’re trying to say, and I applaud you for what you’re trying to do, but I don’t think this accomplishes it. Nor is it necessary, probably.

  10. NonProfit Nancy*

    It sounds like you’re overthinking it. Sympathies from a fellow overthinker. Just tell the admin what you need by when, and expect that she’ll handle her own feelings and relationships with coworkers or ask for help if she needs it. It’s good to be sensitive to people, but it can be taken too far if you’re making a lot of assumptions.

  11. krysb*

    I absolutely agree with this advice, it is amusing me because it reminds me of dog training advice. You know, when you soothe your fearful dog during a thunderstorm, the dog may become more fearful because your reaction solidifies the idea that there is something to fear.

  12. ThisLW*

    Hi, this is the OP. First, thank you so much to Alison and the lovely commenters. Second, the example I cited was kind of weird, but I used it to convey that the situation was a favor to another department, not business as usual. It’s in those informal “hey let’s ask around” circumstances where Sansa seems even more visibly uncomfortable approaching Wakeen. And she is visibly uncomfortable. I’m going to put a stop to this whole borrowed authority thing and focus on building a good working relationship with Sansa. I will use Alison’s script only if it becomes necessary, i.e. Sansa leaves something incomplete rather than deal with Wakeen.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That makes perfect sense.

      For what it’s worth, if someone in that context looked visibly uncomfortable, I’d likely just say, “You look somewhat unsure about this. But am I misreading you?” because I’d want to just get whatever was going on out into the open and address it head-on. (There’s an argument for waiting a bit and seeing it if continues to happen, but definitely if it’s a regular thing I’d just name it and ask about it.)

      1. Rachel Green*

        I really like this wording as I feel like we all have a tendency to misread others. Better to ask than assume.

      2. Ultraviolet*

        I think that this is a great way to bring it up, especially the word “unsure” rather than “hesitant” or “shy.” There are explanations for her discomfort that are much less unflattering than shyness, so I really like not leaping to that right away. Like maybe she has the impression that the higher-level bosses like Wakeen shouldn’t be interrupted without a really good reason. And that could actually be exacerbated by LW’s attempts to lend her authority, unfortunately, so there might be a cycle going now. So with this wording, everything could be cleared up without Sansa feeling too defensive. (And I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who’d be pretty angry and humiliated if my boss attributed my behavior to shyness rather than a misunderstanding like the hypothetical one I just described.)

    2. Malibu Stacey*

      I’m an admin and I agree with AAM because you aren’t doing Sansa any favors by giving in to her discomfort. I had an admin counterpart who was in her 50’s and hadn’t learned to hide or at least deal with her discomfort about having to do essential parts of her job that had to be done. It was really exhausting to deal with. You would do her a great service to address it head-on.

      1. Marisol*

        When I was about 30, working as an office manager, I had to supervise a temp in our office who was in her late 50’s or maybe even early 60’s, and whenever she came to me with a question–me, the office manager, not the CEO–she was timid and uncertain and seemed so reluctant to interrupt me. I was like, “it’s fine, how can I help?” and she’d stammer out her question. We didn’t work together long enough for me to address it, but it made me sad to see someone who hadn’t, sort of “claimed her authority” in life for lack of a better expression. I agree, it’s better to learn this sooner rather than later.

    3. Moonsaults*

      I really feel for her because that was me for many years, not with my boss specifically but talking to our production staff who are all kinds of colorful personalities jumbled together to sum it up. It was a personal issue and if someone said “I see you’re uncomfortable…” I would have been even more mortified.

      You’re coming from a kind spot and I lean the same way frequently now that I’m comfortable in my career. Be nice to her, give her chances to increase her knowledge and that’ll be the most powerful way to help her feel comfortable in the work place!

    4. CM*

      Hi OP, I was coming to say that it seems like overkill to give the admin a speech about how you didn’t mean to signal that Wakeen is bad, etc. — it seems like it would be sufficient to just stop talking about it. It sounds like you’re already there. I think it was reasonable to do that when they first started working together, and now that she’s used to the office, it’s reasonable to stop.

  13. Critter*

    I don’t think it’s patronizing so much as it’s unnecessary. You seem to have taken it upon yourself to help manage the working relationship between two other people, and it doesn’t seem like something happened to warrant it. It’s not necessarily your job to do that. Let it be :)

  14. Rachel Green*

    ” She can be a bit shy and tentative, especially around Wakeen.”

    Are you projecting your own feelings about Wakeen onto the Admin? It’s likely that she isn’t feeling this way about Wakeen at all, or if she is, she could be reading some tentativeness from your end. I am a quiet person who is often labelled “shy” when I’m really not uncomfortable or intimidated. I was once in the middle of a pleasant small-talk type conversation with a colleague when she stops and says that she “could tell I was nervous” and that’s why she started the conversation in the first place. I was really confused because I wasn’t at all nervous. Don’t ever assume that you know what someone else is feeling.

    1. ThisLW*

      You’re absolutely right that I should never assume what others are feeling. This was a good reminder.

      Sansa isn’t picking up on any of these vibes from me – I’ve known Wakeen professionally for as long as I’ve been working in the field, back when we were both employed by different entities. Government regulation around chocolate teapots is a small world. I like and respect him very much.

  15. Blue Anne*

    I’ve been saying something like this to one of our interns who has kind of adopted me as his office mom. What happens is that he’ll be working on a project for someone, and if he has a technical question and they’re not available, he’ll come to me. So we’ll have things like:

    “Blue Anne, I’m working on Sansa’s client and I think that this weird charge here looks like it’s a refund on a teapot spout order, but it’s been recorded as income and I think it should be decreasing the spout expense?”

    “Hmm, no, that looks like it’s actually a small incentive payment from the spout manufacturer for always paying on time. You should move it over to miscellaneous income, and if Sansa yells at you, you can say it’s my fault!’

    It’s kind of jokey, but I genuinely do want him to be able to think “Okay, my butt is covered” and not worry about this stuff, because he’s smart but still gaining confidence. I dunno, is that condescending? I can see how it might be…. hm.

    1. Emac*

      I think this is a little different. First, he’s asking you something that he would probably ask Sansa if she were around because he’s still learning and doesn’t know the answer. Second, it sounds like you’re telling him to change something that Sansa (or someone else?) did, which I think would be strange for an intern to do on his own without checking with anyone.

    2. Jessesgirl72*

      I don’t think that is the same. The OP’s example is just ordinary Admin type stuff, that she should be able to do on her own authority.

      Your example is more “Because you really don’t have the authority to make this change (because he’s an Intern), if someone yells at you for this, blame me. ” Making that call isn’t something an intern should be doing on his own. Asking if someone has a report is within Sansa’s normal duties and authority.

    3. TootsNYC*

      Here’s how I reply to those sorts of workers–in my case copyeditors who have a more substantive query that could conceivably be overstepping their bounds.

      “You are right–that’s a good catch. But we need to loop in the editor. Would you explain it to her? And if you get any pushback, which you might/might not with this editor/issue, tell her that I agree with you.”

      Or, “If you end up needing to, you should tell her that I agree with you.”

  16. HR Caligula*

    I recall getting this same type of instruction as a young supervisor and it always felt awkward to me, as if I don’t use it then it’s not okay to ask? Good on you for recognizing the potential awkwardness it creates.

    Also, can we schedule an informational interview? I’d love to learn more about your Marzipan Division.

  17. Mookie*

    That Sansa is new to the workforce and young are key features, for me. You’re setting her up to be overly deferent / hesitant when doing her job when there is no need for deference / hesitation when admins are providing support to higher staff. Admins, after a certain amount of training, need to show initiative and independence when taking care of behind-the-scenes work; after a certain while, they shouldn’t be asking permission or “checking in” for normal tasks, because that eats up staff’s time and mental energy, and they should learn to collect / distribute data in an unobtrusive way. Unobtrusive is not the same as obsequious.

    The nerves you’re perceiving are likely to do with the novelty of work, itself, and negotiating completing competing tasks and managing time efficiently. Intersecting that is all of the (often incorrect and incomplete) wisdom Sansa has heretofore absorbed in her life about how support staff are supposed to operate, like valets or servants, so she may be trying to perform her role in a fashion she expects admins to evince; she needs to be discouraged from doing so rather than having that kind of enculturation reinforced by another woman suggesting she needs to constantly cite authority figures while performing normal job duties. As others have said, repeatedly doing this when interacting with Wakeen is going to make her look incapable and unprofessional and won’t help her nerves or self-esteem.

    On the other hand, she may be, like Wakeen, a quiet and self-contained person in general. Mistaking that quietness in a woman for meekness or helplessness is obviously the last thing you want to be doing. Also, Wakeen is likely aware of the manner in which you are interacting with and “coaching” Sansa, and it may not reflect well on you, either.

    1. Mookie*

      Also, the majority of young, inexperienced people will naturally and inevitably hesitate (or take an extra second or two to think prior to acting) when completing new or unfamiliar tasks, particularly the first dozen times and particularly if they’re being observed — this is a good instinct, because it demonstrates thoughtfulness and a desire not to make errors — especially if it involves heavy interaction with more experienced, mature people. People don’t like to be judged as young, inadequate, or incapable, and those fears are so very, very common-place. It’s important not to project onto Sansa, or interpret what would natural in any young hire, as something gendered. How are you treating Fergus when / if he behaves like this? Customizing mentoring is, of course, very important, because no two people are alike, but it’s probably useful to decide whether you’re making exceptions for Sansa that will inhibit rather than enable for performance. The end result should be that everybody performs up to par and meets the expectations of senior staff they’re supporting.

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