my assistant keeps mothering me — and calls us “her kids”

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talked to a guest whose assistant mothers her in a way she’s uncomfortable with — and some gender dynamics are making it weirder. Here’s the letter:

I am a young(ish) female who works in a department with two slightly older men and one female administrative assistant. The “boss” is younger than the administrative assistant by approximately 25 years. The next “highest” up the chain of command is a few years younger than the boss. I am the youngest and approximately 10 years younger than second in command (This becomes relevant, I promise.)

Our administrative assistant (let’s call her Betty) has two sons of her own who are actually a little younger than me. Our office is relaxed and we all (the men included) talk about her families and our children. Betty is definitely a “mother hen” type and constantly calls myself and the two men we work with “her kids.” (She even goes as far as to call us her “oldest, middle, and youngest” when talking about us with other people in our company or to compare us with her actual children.) I find this a little odd, but honestly, I don’t care about it too much. As I said, she has a very mothering personality and I’ve just come to expect it I suppose. I don’t think she means any harm by it. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to bother either of the men I work with at all. In fact, they joke about Betty’s overly motherly tendencies quite frequently — sometimes even to her face which she takes as good-natured teasing by “her children.”

That said, Betty is driving me crazy with her constant “mothering requests” and check-ins. For instance, each time she gets up from her desk to go to the break room or restroom, she’ll come around and ask all of us if we need anything while she is up. And if you decline, she’ll just keep asking: “Coffee? Water? Tea? A snack?” To which, I’ll just politely say “No thank you” once again. I think this persists, in part, because the men I work with do have her get them coffee or perform other personal tasks fairly regularly. I’m not sure if they do because she just keeps asking them or if perhaps, they are just men from a different generation than I. Either way, they do use play into her mothering nature.

I however, have never had Betty do the same for me. In fact, I’ve specifically told her (on numerous occasions) that I particularly enjoy getting up myself and going to the break room for my own refreshments because it allows me an opportunity to get out from behind my desk. She’ll acknowledge this every time I say it to her (Usually by saying, “That’s good! Stretch your legs!”), but then the next time she gets up, she asks again. She’ll even go as far as to knock on my glass wall when my door is shut and mouth her inquiries while pointing to an empty coffee cup or bottle of water. Also, more than once, I’ve said: “Betty, you don’t have to ask me about that. I’ve told you before that I enjoy a chance to get up and stretch my legs. I appreciate it but you can stop.” Spoiler: She doesn’t.

Additionally, if Betty leaves the office mid-day for say, a doctor’s appointment, she always texts while she is out to inquire if she needs to pick up food for anyone despite usually being told before she leaves that we are all covered for lunch. Most of the time, these group texts from Betty just go completely unanswered by all three of her “kids.”

I know she doesn’t mean any harm by all of it and even that the men I work with enjoy (or expect) this kind of mothering from an administrative assistant. I however, do not. I hate having to look up from my work multiple times a day to tell her for the millionth time that I can get my own water or coffee. Is there anyway to cut out this behavior without coming across as a horribly unappreciative person? Or do I just need to suck it up and keep telling her “No thank you.”

The show is 24 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

If you’d like to come on the show yourself, email your question to podcast@askamanager.org … or if you don’t want to be on the show but want to hear me answer your question, record it on the show voicemail at 855-426-WORK (855-426-9675).

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You can get a transcript of last week’s episode here.

{ 164 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago

    One thing I’m curious about is how other assistants in this company are. Like, is it company culture for assistants to ask the people they support if they want a drink or snack or whatever? Or is this just Betty.

    1. grey

      I was wondering something similar. Some of these tasks can very well fall under the “Admin” responsibilities and isn’t being a mother hen.

      1. Allison

        Getting those things is definitely an admin task, but if I’m someone assistant and they’ve asked me to please stop offering, and that they’d prefer to get it themselves and/or they’ll ask if they want me to get it, I’d respect that.

    2. Lil Fidget

      The fact that she’s *so determined* to keep asking could suggest she gets pressure from somewhere else to keep this behavior up.

      1. Falling Diphthong

        FWIW, I’ve heard of people who have literally been married for decades to a spouse who does not want ice in their water, but they always ask. Because to not ask would be rude. Like, they have latched onto the formal expression of social rules “always ask if someone wants ice” or “always ask if you can get something while you’re up” and no amount of someone always saying no will deviate them from the ritual.

    3. irritable vowel

      I totally missed that Betty was the admin assistant, because calling someone your “kids” seems like such a patronizing (matronizing?) thing to do, I guess I assumed Betty was actually in the position of power. If this person is your subordinate and she’s doing things that irritate you and being disrespectful, and will not stop after you’ve told her directly, then it needs to be escalated to a performance issue. It’s not clear whether she is your direct employee or if admins at your company report to an admin manager, but someone needs to make this more of a problem that she’s invested in fixing.

      1. hayling

        It feels to me like she is uncomfortable having someone “above” her be so much younger, so she is trying to subvert that by constantly reminding them how young they are.

        1. AnnaBananna

          I read it totally different. It sounds like she’s an empty nester and really misses taking care of her ‘boys’ at home, so she does it at work. That’s my ‘armchair diagnosis’, anyway.

          1. Coyote Tango

            Eh, all the admins at our job jokingly refer to our doctors as “kids” because of their general helplessness. They range in age from 25 to 65, childless and grandparents, male and female. Not everything is kooky old women desperately trying to hang on to kids :\

    4. AdminX2

      Good question. I know I’m all about water, snacks, and drinks and keep them freely available (closer to managers but I never turn away anyone) because those little comforts can save a lot of time and stress and just feel more supported.
      That being said, I maintain a strict sense of workmanship and if I do use general titles it is “ladies and gentleman” to highlight the formality and respect involved.
      But the real kicker is an admin must be highly adaptable- one person may adore morning meetings and one person may hate them. It’s a pretty big sin IMO to have someone tell you they don’t want you interrupting and then keep doing it. Although OP doesn’t say she has ever said “I don’t like being called a kid or asked about drinks.” so I would say time for that.

    5. Michelle

      I’m an admin and I have never asked if anyone wants a drink or snack beyond something like “I’m making a fresh pot of coffee if you want some ” or “Are there any particular snacks or drinks you want stocked for the meeting?”.

      O

      1. Emily

        Same. I’m a personal assistant to the company owner and office admin to the office and other than “I’m running to Target for paper towels, anyone need/want anything?” I don’t ask anyone if they need a drink or a snack. If someone wants something, they will ask.

    6. Tau

      Company culture can definitely vary on this front – my first job, everybody who left their desks to get a drink was expected to ask their neighbours if they wanted anything. It would have been the height of rudeness to simply go make yourself a cup of tea.

      That said, the fact that OP has asked her to stop and she hasn’t is not OK, regardless of whether it’s part of admin duties or company culture.

      1. Specialk9

        There was a fascinating thread about the British process for having to make all one’s co-workers tea, on a rotating basis. There were lists posted of preferred tea combos and strengths. I was croggled at the idea, but in a really interested way.

        1. Tau

          This was in the UK, so yeah, it might be a UK thing! And we also had a spreadsheet of people’s mugs and tea/coffee preferences printed out and hanging in the kitchen – I always figured this was the tech company optimising the process so we didn’t have to remember four different combinations when going for tea. (HR was in charge of the spreadsheet, so this also meant that the HR intake form for new employees had a field for tea preference. I found this delightful.)

            1. Jennifer Thneed

              Ahh, this sounds like an environment where nobody would poke me for drinking a lot of coffee. And it’s not like A LOT of coffee. It’s just… 3 cups each morning? Plus the one at home? And all with delicious nutritious cream in them. (I’m not joking about that bit, honest.) But that was only at a workplace with exceptionally good coffee. Because that’s why I drink it. People ask, and I say “It’s a delicious beverage,” and then take another sip.

              Sadly, once it’s noon, no more coffee for me.

              1. Jennifer Juniper

                I am the opposite. I’ve had people look at me like I grew a third eye or say “I’m so sorry,” when I told them I’m allergic to coffee. (Nope, it’s not the caffeine. I can have Coke, tea, and chocolate with no problem.) Since coffee tastes like how cigarettes smell to me, I don’t miss it at all.

  2. JSPA

    It…can’t take 25 minutes to say, ” you don’t have to ask me about that” and “I appreciate it but you can stop” need to be rephrased as an actual request / command.

    “I appreciate you so much, but I don’t appreciate your offers. I’m someone who really needs to concentrate. Every time you tap and ask, my train of thought derails. I have not said anything because I hoped I’d get used to it. And because you’re such a dear person. And because habits are hard to break. But please, from now on, don’t ask me if I need anything. Not coffee, not water, not food. I’ll appreciate you ten times as much, if days go by, and you never ask. It may take a few days to change old habits, but I’m sure we can make this work!”

    1. Snark

      I agree, but this is too much of a lecture.

      “Betty, I really appreciate all you do for me. But when you come to my desk unprompted to ask me if I need a snack, it just knocks my train of thought right off the tracks. Moving forward, please don’t ask me if I need anything when you’re up and around. I’ll be sure to tell you if I do. Thanks so much!”

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      By 25 minutes, you’re referencing the length of the show, right? She’s already said the things you suggested and it hasn’t changed anything, and there are weird gender dynamics to deal with too.

    3. Astrid

      It’s definitely worth a listen! I love how Alison and the OP reached completely different conclusions about one of her suggestions and the phrase “weaponize her mothering” is going to stick with me for a good while. :)

    4. Jennifer Thneed

      Are you complaining about the length of the podcast? Have you listened to one? They’re a conversation, with back-and-forth, which I really appreciate. I’ve gotten to hear LW’s tell Alison that her phrasing won’t work in their setting, and why, and then they discuss how to make it work in that person’s actual setting. I’ve heard people go from, “Gee, I dunno…” to “Yes, that will work!” as they work together to tweak a message.

      I’ll be listening soon, or reading the transcript in a week. Can’t wait.

  3. grey

    I’ve been in the situation where all of my co-workers were women with children around my age. That was *not* fun and very frustrating. Then I had to coworker who decided to nickname me “Poopy Baby” because that’s what she called her grand-daughter.

    1. Baby Fishmouth

      What what what? Who thinks it’s okay to call a coworker that? Or even a granddaughter (at least after infancy)?

      1. grey

        Right?! I hated it and I know she knew I didn’t like it because my face does not hide my emotions. I was also still just a bit too young to know how to stand up for myself.

      2. whingedrinking

        Right?! I don’t know if I’d even call a *pet* that on the regular, and that’s an entity whose actual poop I would have to deal with!

    2. Not All Who Wander

      oh my. My reaction to something like that would have been so strong as to pretty much assured that she never even THOUGHT that phrase in any context again without trembling. That is so far beyond unacceptable that the mind boggles.

    3. Foreign Octopus

      Oh my god, a world of no! What the actual fork?

      Please tell me how this was resolved!

    4. LGC

      Then I had to coworker who decided to nickname me “Poopy Baby” because that’s what she called her grand-daughter.

      Thanks, I think I just made all the dogs in a half mile radius of my parents’ apartment LOSE THEIR MINDS from the high-pitched noises that just came out of my body.

  4. KD

    I had a co-worker who was also much older than me, and she wasn’t overbearing about it like the OP’s co-worker, but eventually as she kept asking I would always answer with “Yes, I’d like a pony please” and one day she brought me a very small toy pony :)

    1. Aleta

      Hah! One time when I was going on a family vacation to Japan, my friend asked me to get her a Japanese man. I brought her a small wooden toy of a man. I absolutely didn’t register it as a joke about getting her a boyfriend at the time (clueless ace here), but she wasn’t actually expecting to get anything at all and she LOVED it, so all was good.

  5. Autumnheart

    The check-ins and “Can I get you anything?” are one thing, but the whole “her kids” dynamic is really infantilizing. I would put a stop to that right quick. You’re not her kids, she’s not your mother, and she isn’t there to parent you, she’s there to assist you. Talking to other people in the company while referring to you as “her kids” is super double plus inappropriate.

      1. BananaRama

        I disagree. Depending on the age of the OP, it could be something that does impact the perception of their maturity or experience to be constantly called a kid. OP is not a child, this person’s child, or a lost gosling in need of saving or aid. Nicknames or informal titles can become confused with the truth and becomes the person’s new persona, whether intended that way or not.

        AAM has dealt before with people being pigeon-holed in the “office mom” category due to a nickname or perception (or the one LW who was being called mom by her subordinate). Not wanting to be called a child in a workplace setting is on the same level.

      2. MLB

        Nope not at all. Calling them her kids, and essentially treating them like they need her help with everything is demeaning. She may not have any ill will behind her doing these things, but it’s very inappropriate at work.

        At the very least, LW needs to tell her that when her door is closed, she’s not to be disturbed unless it’s an emergency, and that getting me a cup of coffee or a snack does not constitute an emergency. If my door is closed I’m busy and don’t have time for random drop ins.

      3. JustaTech

        I disagree. I had a coworker who discovered I was the same age as his daughter and felt the need to bring it up about once a week. I was also the person in charge of a large portion of our lab, so I needed him to come to me and *ask* about some of our supplies and equipment before doing experiments, and I needed him to listen and respect when I said “no, you can’t use that thing that day, it’s not ready”.

        It was substantially harder to get him to listen to my legally-required instructions after he decided I was exactly the same as his daughter.

          1. JustaTech

            I can’t even imagine. Or she just learned to tune him out.

            If Twitter had been a thing when I worked with that guy we would have turned him into a lab version of Sh*t My Dad Says. He was something else.

        1. EddieSherbert

          Yeah, I disagree. Being seen as literally someone’s child and being referred to as a kid CAN be damaging when you’re a young professional.

          in my first job after college, I was hired to create training materials for a software. We hired a new customer service rep, and when she started on phones, they placed me by her to help walk her through her first calls. She quickly realized I was her kid’s age and wrote off everything I said. Like, she double-checked EVERY SINGLE ANSWER I gave her with the one guy her age who sat by her, who told her multiple times my answers were right.

          (she was gone within 6 months of starting there)

          1. EddieSherbert

            I might be extra sensitive though – I recently turned 30 and, more recently, was mistaken for a high school student (I was selling alcohol at a fundraiser and someone asked me to get another volunteer because “you have to be at least 18 to sell that!”). Everyone has been telling for like 15 years that some day I’ll appreciate looking young. I’m still waiting for that day…

  6. ENFP in Texas

    Next time she knocks on your wall when the door is shut, tell her “If my door is closed, please do not knock on the glass or interrupt me unless it’s something urgent.” That’s a reasonable request, and hopefully she’ll get that.

    Other than that, I’d go with “No, I’m good, thanks” to all offers. Rinse and repeat. No explanations, no extraneous words.

    1. Lil Fidget

      I agree, that specific behavior is the one thing I think is completely actionable, clear and defensible. You may never change her overall approach – especially if it works for others in the department – but that you should be able to put an end to once and for all.

    1. Clorinda

      Some people take four or five minutes to get back on track and into their flow after being interrupted. Ten interruptions a day, or even five, represents a serious bite out of their productivity.

      1. soon 2be former fed

        Really? A 30 second interruption can cause a 5 minute derail? Office life is full of interruptions though, and if a given task requires total uninterrupted focus it might be best to use a conference room or work at home.

        1. Helena

          She’s using her personal office, with the door closed! That should be private enough.

          If she was in an open plan office I would agree with you but she is already in a room in her own with the door shut, she shouldn’t have to work from home to stop her assistant interrupting her multiple times with non-urgent stuff.

        2. media monkey

          i read some research recently that it takes most people 20 minutes to get back on track after any interruption.

          1. EddieSherbert

            I read the book ‘Deep Work’ recently. A lot of it was pretty common sense in my opinion, but it was good and definitely went into how interruptions (no matter how brief) DO cause us to take longer and produce less quality work than when we’re totally focused.

        3. Jennifer Thneed

          Really? You’re questioning other people’s lived experiences because “Office life is full of interruptions”? In fact, that’s a thing people here are constantly complaining about: office life is full of interruption (when you’re working in cubes or an open floor) and that’s a bad thing.

          > if a given task requires total uninterrupted focus
          ….it might be best to have a door you can close. (Like LW does.) Unless other people knock on your window all the time! (Like this admin does.)

  7. Lisa the ingrate

    I’m picturing a small sign on a stick, “Nope, I’m fine, thank you”, that you just hold up every single time. Eventually she should get the point. If she doesn’t, then attach that same sign to your (closed) door.

    1. Khlovia

      On the door:

      Building on fire? Y/N
      Armed robbers invading? Y/N
      Heart attack? Y/N
      If Y, please call my attention to it.
      If N, scram.

  8. I prefer tea

    I’d be concerned that even if you get her to stop checking in with you about snacks, she’ll find another way to “help” you. Because now she’s showing favoritism to her two other “children”, and not to you. That upends her balance as “mom”. She might suddenly show up with your favorite candy bar or other random treat so that she’s not leaving you out.

    Also, if you do try to weaponize her mothering (not a phrase I thought I’d ever type) by saying you’re having problems with staying focused and really need her help, that could backfire – badly. It might send her mothering into overdrive because her “youngest” has a problem with all of these adult obligations, and of course, needs her help. Look for her to check in with you frequently about how the problem is going. Worst case, she lets your boss know about your “distraction problem.”

    Have you ever asked the two men how they feel about this? Not sure how that conversation would go, but it might provide other insight that could help.

    1. SheLooksFamiliar

      I have a sneaking suspicion the men might actually like the mother-hen treatment. I’ve worked with older men who accept this treatment as normal. Familiar gender dynamics, or they just like being mothered, whatever. They’re not rude or condescending, but they don’t ask the mother hen to stop. I’ve also worked with younger men – interns, recent grads – who like being mothered because their own mothers did/still do those kind things for them. It’s familiar, if not appropriate (IMO) for the workplace. To be fair, I’ve also seen women of all ages appreciate this kind of treatment, but not nearly as much.

      1. Workerbee

        I admit the thought crossed my mind that OP should start saying, “No thanks, I’m not as lazy or entitled as Kid Bob and Kid Joe! Guess I have to grow into that!” or some other job-detonating phrase.

        I wonder what would happen if OP put up a sign on her door/window? Around here, when there’s a closed office door, managers tape up signs with lists and checkboxes such as:
        “Feel free to knock even though door is closed”
        “Please do not disturb/please send an email if you need something”

        Mind you, when you’re up against a person who thinks the message doesn’t also mean them, this doesn’t work either.

  9. McWhadden

    The kids stuff is really annoying. And nope to knocking no the glass. But I get that with the asking if you need anything she is in the weird position of doing that for the men. And she doesn’t want to be perceived as leaving someone out. And, while it’s definitely being phased out, those were once traditional duties of admins. I am not so sure this is all conflated in the “mother” issue.

  10. AKchic

    I loathe the workplace mother.
    Find out if her job description includes bringing drinks and snacks. If she’s hourly, she doesn’t need to be texting while out doing personal things (like doctor appointments!).

    Then, when she pulls the “can I get you anything” routine, be blunt. No more “no thanks” but “I’m an adult. I can get my own drinks and snacks. I’ve asked you to stop asking. Stop asking me.”
    When she calls you her child be blunt “I’m not your child. Stop infantilizing me/us. We can do these things on our own.”

    Really make it a group thing, both to shut her down, and to guilt your coworkers into realizing that being babied is ridiculous and they can stand on their own two feet and be independent.

    Also, if she taps on the glass – ignore her. If she persists, then be blunt again “if it’s not an emergency, I need to not be interrupted. I’ve repeatedly asked you not to bring me snacks/drinks, and asked you to stop interrupting me to offer because I am an adult and not only can, but *like* to get my own. You need to stop now.”

    Stop being soft about it.

    1. MartinaD

      I totally agree with you. I think too many people are overly concerned about being polite. I don’t think this “mother” is being very polite by ignoring repeated requests to stop asking to bring stuff. So if politeness doesn’t work, now is the time to be abrupt / blunt or just ignore her.

    2. McWhadden

      “Guilting” her co-workers or anyone else into going along with her would be completely inappropriate. Far more inappropriate than anything the admin is doing.

      1. DArcy

        Indeed. The OP is entitled to her preferences and it is unprofessional for the assistant to ignore her wishes when they have been clearly and consistently articulated, but the co-workers are likewise entitled to their own preferences. Bullying them into doing things OP’s way is grossly unacceptable.

      2. AKchic

        My concern is that once she is less than polite and stops using soft language, there will be push-back. The “but the boys don’t mind” routine. And I’m sure she’ll call them “the boys”, thus infantilizing them in order to continue being “helpful” and “needed” in that capacity.

        Betty’s desire to mother/nanny/gopher does not trump everyone’s right to be independently functioning adults.
        Betty’s urge to play mother hen to a bunch of adult chicks does not get to override common sense, or healthy boundaries.
        I am disappointed (but not surprised) that the men in the office allow Betty to play doting mommy to bedridden children when it comes to snacks/drinks.

        1. McWhadden

          Getting snacks and drinks was once considered an admin function. And it’s not at all insane that this admin happens to continue thinking that’s one of her duties. If the men in the office like it and the admin doesn’t mind it’s frankly none of the OP’s business what she does for them.

          But it doesn’t matter. The OP doesn’t get to bully someone else to make her path easier.

          1. Clarice Fitzpatrick

            +1

            I agree that the other guys enabling her mothering habits isn’t great, but given that the situation is mostly grabbing snacks and refreshments, it’d be a poor hill to die on to try to make everyone else basically lose a “benefit” based on a principle that clearly the coworker strongly won’t get. Now if it was something more boundary-crossing and inappropriate (like the picking up kids example OP mentioned), then I’d agree that would need intervention.

            1. Tex

              It’s not “mothering habits,” it’s getting refreshments. Which is part of this assistant’s JOB. If OP doesn’t want her assistant to bring refreshments, so be it, but how’s about AKChic cut the “I’m an adult” routine, m’kay?

    3. Marthooh

      The thing is, though, I don’t see where the OP has told the admin to stop making these offers. The phrase she used was “You don’t have to”, which is polite and all, but not an actual request.

      1. Jennifer Thneed

        Totes agree, especially with people who are a little clueless about “reading the room”, which it sounds like might be the case with this admin.

        “Oh, I know I don’t have to but I don’t really mind.”

      2. Khlovia

        Yep. This OP is so many thousands of times more patient than I would have been. Months ago the tap on the door would have been getting the impatiently-waving-away hand with fretful scowl and no eye contact. Possibly preceded, at some non-stressed moment, by a little chat at her desk: “Based on past experience, what do you think I’m going to say the next time you interrupt my train of thought to ask if I want you to fetch something for me that I have given no indication of wanting or needing? Think back. Have I ever said yes? Even once? No? Do you draw any conclusions from that?”

        Confession time: non-work-related experience with a much more toxic individual who made an art form of constantly demanding “Pay attention to me! Pay attention to me! Pay attention to me!” in various ways. So I may be a little sensitized in that area; but that’s what this feels like to me.

        Also, I am mean.

        1. Khlovia

          Also: “Since we are not blood-related, and since I am legal to drive, vote, and drink, I am in no sense any child of yours; please stop categorizing me as such.”

    4. Valerie

      AKchic nails it.

      One has to be direct with these people or they won’t get it. Ever. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.

      I don’t like to shrink people, but it seems mother hen types have such low self-esteems they rely on everyone else to ensure a constant supply, and they won’t leave you alone until you participate.

      It’s a subtle aggression, and it must stop. Unfortuately, enablers like your male co-workers don’t make it easy, and only add to Mother Hen’s notions that her self-esteem is other people’s responsibility.

      Given my own experiences, I find this to be a sorely under-addressed workplace dysfunction.

  11. Engineer Girl

    I think the important thing to emphasize is the loss of concentration that occurs when you are interrupted. That takes care of the more egregious issues.
    Have a serious talk with her. “I need to ask for your help with my work. I need to concentrate, and need chunks of time where I’m not disturbed.”
    Let her know that when she pops into your office or knocks on the door that she distracts you and keeps you from getting your work done. Also let her know that it takes time to get back to concentration. That’s the reason you get your own coffee – it’s at a time when you are between concentration tasks.
    Ask her to help in this. Also let her know that she has your permission to tell higher ups that is the reason she is not interacting with you. You have specifically requested this behavior so you can do your job better.
    One caveat. She may then try to keep others from talking to you. Let her know that you expect interruptions from your other coworkers. Your goal is to minimize interruptions not directly related to the work at hand.

  12. KR

    This would drive me up the wall!!! Also OP I love your southern accent. Very pleasing to the ears.

    1. Khlovia

      Yeah, I was trying to pin it down. I don’t think she’s *deep* South. Tennessee? Kentucky?

  13. Bea

    This is worse than “work spouse”. At least spouses are supposed to be a team.

    My old bosses were very much similar to another set of parents but the difference is it was unspoken. I would sooner eat my own fist then call them “mom” and “dad”. Just yikes.

  14. gk

    The executive assistant at my old job was like this. I found out that she was specifically recruited because the VP of Marketing constantly complained about having no one pick up after her, run ‘errands’, or make her coffee in the morning -_-

    Anyway, the exec assistant was super sweet and tried to see if there was anything she could do for me. I told her “No thank you. You don’t have to do anything like that for me but I really appreciate you offering!”

    She listened and we had a good working relationship. She took care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves and respected the wishes of those that could!

    It could very well be that the admin was told to help you all as much as she can and you haven’t been direct enough with her yet with your personal preferences. Seems to just be doing her job!

    1. Elspeth

      Nope. OP HAS told her and the EA is still interrupting her. I’ve worked as an Admin Assistant before and I’d never act like I was my coworkers’ mom. Certainly, if I was told to stop interrupting someone because they prefer to get up and get their own water, I would not keep asking them about it.

    2. Bea

      I’ve been a quasi EA for someone who wanted the whole “hospitality” as part of my role as well.

      But like your EA, I knew when to turn it off and leave anyone alone if they said it wasn’t necessary behaviour. In this case, the assistant isn’t adjusting her routine which is a problem.

      Unless she’s being unfairly told she can’t take no as an answer. Some executives would be pissed if you didn’t ask even if the person tried to perma opt out..sigh.

    3. Janie Hobbs

      OMG, I am an admin assist and fell into the role inadvertently. I absolutely abhor all the guys in my office who expect me to move their dirty oatmeal mugs/coffee cups/peanut butter knives from the counter or sink into the dishwasher. I am ready to quit over them requiring me to pick up after them! I am not that person!

      1. AdminX2

        Here’s a few things that have helped in the past:
        1) NEVER do it alone. If you do have some dishes to clean, ALWAYS ask someone to help out for a few minutes.
        2) Make a sign with eyes on it, eyes make people more likely to follow what you want
        3) Bring it up at staff meetings as part of the admin update reminders
        4) Schedule on a rotation once a week for there to be a “clean out kitchen” meeting, literally put it on their calendars

        I clean up after meetings, I clean up after events, I clean up after company business. I do NOT clean up after someone decides to bring in donuts or leaves oatmeal bowls.

      2. Tex

        In your office, the role of PA involves sraightening up executives’ workspace. That’s what they’ve hired the PA to do. If you don’t like it, quit or find another internal role. But there’s nothing a prior wrong about it.

  15. AnotherAlison

    I can’t really listen to the podcast at work, but I wondered if the assistant was newer to the workforce. (As in, maybe she is in her 50s and only started working once her children graduated college or something.) My mother treats us like that (me, my sister, our spouses, my grown/near grown kids.) My 14 y.o. went on a trip with my parents recently, and he complained about grandma asking if he needed to go to the bathroom every 2 hrs. I know she doesn’t treat her coworkers that way (she’s worked for 32 yrs), but I can see someone who was similar in personality but had not been working acting this way. It’s (possibly) the only way they know how to interact with people younger than them. My mom won’t stop, either. If I say something, I just get a cutesy response back, like, “I know, but you’ll always be my baby.”

    I hope the OP can get her to behave.

    1. Anonymosity

      Either that or she started working when that was a thing. Or it could just be her. I’m in my 50s and work as an admin and I don’t infantilize my coworkers.

    2. AKchic

      My mom still does this to our bosses and she’s worked the majority of my life.
      She is a people-pleaser by nature and it is a compulsion for her to do things for people so they will like her. She bakes “treats” for the “boys” (some are older than she is), she brings them snacks, “refreshes” their drinks if she’s up… essentially plays a hostess. The woman is in a nominally supervisory administrative role. She also says things like “I’m going to go eat my sammy now, so let me know if you need anything!” when she is taking her lunch. In front of corporate bigwigs.
      Trying to explain to her that she undermines herself/her credibility does me no good. She sees herself as indispensable. Who else is going to bake them “yummy treats” like she does? Who else is going to take care of them? Then she gets mad when they won’t take her seriously.

      But I am the one that needs to dress more professionally and not get any more tattoos (none of my tattoos are visible, and I do wear professional clothing – it’s just not what *she* finds “appropriate” because she didn’t pick it out, and it’s not “Mommyish” enough).
      Some days are better than others when working with my mother.

      1. Tex

        Lookit, some organizations have a culture where the PA refreshes drinks and such. That’s legitimate. If someone doesn’t want “yummy treats,” by all means, ask to opt out, but that person doesn’t get to speak for the entire office. It does indeed sound like your mother has boundary issues in your own relationship with her, but that doesn’t automatically mean her workplace behavior is inappropriate.

    3. MLB

      Regardless of the WHY, the OP has repeatedly asked her to stop. She needs to stop worrying about being polite to the Admin, because the Admin is not being polite to OP. It may not be intentional on the Admin’s part, but she’s clearly crossing boundaries and needs to be stopped. If the “boys” like the way she coddles them that’s their deal, but the OP needs to be blunt.

    4. Jennifer Thneed

      You really could get your mom to stop, but it might take a bigger stick than you want to deploy. Captain Awkward is very good with scripts for that situation.

  16. voyager1

    AAM,
    Why do you feel “icky” about “weaponizing” the kindness of the admin assistant. Honestly I got the impression from the LW that the admin assistant would probably be mortified she inconvenienced the LW. That second solution would be the first thing I would have went too. However it might start endless apologizing by the admin though LOL.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Interestingly, it turned out to be the solution that the OP thought would be most effective! My initial hesitation when I first suggested it was that I worried it felt manipulative. But I think it’s actually just tailoring the approach to fit the situation.

      1. voyager1

        Gotcha, I can understand that.

        I was looking at it, if she really is one of those people with a helpful disposition the idea of her actually being a bother would probably mortify her… hence why I came to that solution first and was surprised that it came up so late in the pod.

        That being said, the window tapping would drive me nuts too.

      2. Belle8bete

        Coming from a southern family with some serious mama birds in it (LW sounded Southern) this “use language and framework that makes sense to Betty” seems like an excellent next step. LW can always go back later and say something more blunt/potentially tough later if this doesn’t work.

        Smart! So smart! Realistic too. I don’t think Betty would (or maybe could) change up her perspective at this point, so this seems like a brilliant path to take.

        Also- it’s gotta be hard for someone who has been a mom a long time to not be that person day in day out. Folks can get judgemental that someone might put so much into this caretaking aspect of herself—and we shouldn’t judge that (not saying it happened in the podcast but it does happen when folks think someone isn’t empowered in the way they think is best).

  17. Anonymosity

    She’s “getting fulfillment from it,” but she’s completely oblivious to the needs of her coworkers. That’s not good admin work. Part of being a good admin is knowing when to leave the people you’re supporting alone. This isn’t about you; it’s all about her. I’ve seen this kind of servile martyr complex before and it’s super annoying.

    Alison, the idea of using the mothering instinct against her is purely Machiavellian and I LOVE IT.

  18. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws

    “Coffee? Water? Tea? A snack?”

    I cannot be the only person who imagined Frau Blucher, right? “Would the doctor care for a brandy before retiring? … some warm milk, perhaps? … Ovaltine!”

    1. Book Badger

      I was picturing the mom from Mean Girls, myself. “Can I get you guys anything? Some snacks? A condom? Let me know! Oh, God love ya.”

  19. Ellex

    At a former job I worked in an office with a temp receptionist/admin assistant who tried the mothering thing on me. She seemed to be having “empty nest” issues as her oldest was about to leave for college and her youngest was about to start high school, and she hadn’t worked since her first child was born.

    It was odd that she zeroed in on me, however, as I was in my late 30’s and was the office manager, and was the oldest person in the office (not including our boss) by a good 5 years. Hindsight makes me wonder if her problem was less “empty nest syndrome” and more “power play/authority issues”.

    She got really overbearing one day when I had a bad headache and tried to hug me. She’d only been there a few weeks and I’d gently, then not-so-gently, shut down all her previous attempts to “mother” me, and the attempted hug startled me badly, so I responded with “Don’t touch me!”

    Her reaction was to get angry with me and quit!

    No great loss – she claimed to be a computer expert (she wasn’t) and apparently couldn’t grasp our not-terribly-difficult filing schema. It took longer than she’d worked there to get everything she did wrong sorted out.

  20. Adlib

    Is there an update from OP? It sounds like a daily occurrence so I would love to hear if she’s had a chance to apply this advice! I assume OP is a member of the comment section here so please update us when you can. :)

  21. OlympiasEpiriot

    I’m with Engineer Girl above.

    I can’t help thinking while listening to this that this is also terrible behaviour for an actual parent. I mean, a big part of my assignment as a parent is to raise someone who can function without me and doesn’t go looking for someone else to lean on. This kind of fussing seems like far more than this person’s ‘love language’.

  22. Myrin

    Thanks for continuing to do these podcasts! I’m definitely not a podcast/story-you-need-to-take-in-by-listening-to-it type of person but I’m finding that I’m really enjoying the AAM podcasts. This one in particular was surprisingly funny! OP seemed like such a good-humoured person (especially for someone who’s being annoyed on a daily basis!) but I absolutely cracked up at this part:

    Alison: “As I’m saying it, I don’t like it at all.”
    OP: “Actually, as you’re saying that, I LOVE that.”

    1. Foreign Octopus

      That made me laugh out loud as well!

      It’s why I love these podcasts – solutions that might not work well on paper can actually work when more information is given through the discussion. It’s great.

      1. Harvey P. Carr

        I think GiantPanda’s solution will work for me, for which (and to whom) I extend my thanks. But just to answer your question, Alison, what I do is download podcasts onto my computer and then copy the audio files to my MP3 player (which is a Creative Zen).

        1. Jennifer Thneed

          I’ve had several podcast players, and they all allow you to download. I never stream things because I hate the “burps” when the stream pauses. Recently I was using Podcast Addict but it was greedy with storage space. Now I use Pocket Casts.

          Gah, I just realized you said “MP3 player” and not “smart phone”. So maybe this was totally unhelpful, and I’m sorry.

  23. e271828

    The introductory paragraph is like one of those word problems and we just need to know which of them has red hair and which likes ice-cream more than pie.

  24. Angela Ziegler

    Anyone else think of Ms. Doyle badgering Father Ted to drink tea?

    “Oh, go on! Go ooon! Go on go on! Go on go on go on go on go on go on go on-“

    1. tea obsessed (but not that much)

      We have an admin who makes ridiculous amounts of tea. I am a person who many people would think drinks ridiculous amounts of tea left to my own devices I drink 6-8 cups of tea a day. Yet even I cannot physically drink the amount of tea this admin tries to get us to drink.

    2. an infinite number of monkeys

      And if you ever find yourself hosting an unhappy sheep, there’s sheep tea! What a world we live in.

  25. Ashlee

    Does she maybe not have enough to do and uses this to fill her day? The part about not letting coworkers take their items to the shredder made me think this might be the issue.

  26. ElinorD

    I am faculty in higher ed and my supervisor calls our students, “our babies.” I *hate* it. I’ve caught her calling us, the faculty who report to her, “her babies.”
    I’m older than her by almost 10 years and our students are adults and expected to act that way.
    Just venting/commiserating.

    1. Thursday Next

      While I know for some academics, the job supersedes (or sometimes replaces or precludes) family, this is still extremely inappropriate. I’d be irked, too.

  27. Mark2

    This would drive me over the edge. I second that it’s worse than “work spouses” which always strikes me as incredibly juvenile. Mercifully, I’ve never worked anywhere that this sort of mothering went on. Sweet as this person may be I’d probably eventuallh slip and say “I had a mother. Digger was great but I don’t need another one.”

  28. soon 2be former fed

    I have to say this. The woman is trying to be nice. Many posters come here with issues caused by decidedly un-nice people that need to be corrected. But can’t some minor irritations be overlooked? Is there any workplace behavior that doesn’t need to be corrected because we don’t care for it but it is not harmful? I would stop asking anybody if they wanted anything if I got the reaction some of you are suggesting here. Cut people some slack.

    1. Ex-Academic, Future Accountant

      From what the LW said, this is happening multiple times a day. That plus the weird optics makes for more than just a “minor irritation”. While listening, I wondered what the rest of the organization thinks of the LW’s department — isn’t it possible that the infantilizing behavior could be undermining all of them?

      If the woman is trying to be nice, then once the LW tells her she’d rather get her own coffee*, she should respect that. Paying attention to people’s individual preferences is part of being nice, after all.

      (*She kind of already has, to no avail. But maybe when she really just says it straight out, it will work.)

    2. hbc

      Intent matters so far as how you approach someone about their behavior, but has nothing to do with whether you need to let the behavior continue. If I’m a client and hear someone call my rep her child, I’m not thinking what a sweet old lady she is. I’m thinking some combo of “Wow, this lady is unprofessional, I wonder what’s going on with the rest of the org,” “Did I just walk into a small family-owned business?”, “Is she calling the rep a child because she’s less experienced than I thought?”, and “Not looking forward to also being treated like a child when I come here.”

      If you don’t like the firm, strong reactions that people are giving here, then don’t ignore the many times they give a softer indication that you’re being unprofessional and/or bugging them.

    3. MLB

      Her intent may be nice, but when she’s repeatedly told to stop asking, yet continues to do it, it’s crossing a boundary. If I’m being interrupted multiple times a day to be asked if I need anything, after I’ve explained several times that I don’t need your help, you’re keeping from getting my work done and breaking my concentration. The intent is irrelevant, because she’s doing more harm than good.

    4. Jennifer Thneed

      > I would stop asking anybody if they wanted anything if I got the reaction some of you are suggesting here.

      Well, since the OP wants the admin to stop making offers, it sounds just right.

    5. UKCoffeeLover

      I have experienced a similar dynamic in an office and the person was using this superficially nice behaviour to manipulate others, and work as little as possible. From my experience I run a mile from nice people in the office who impose themselves on you!

  29. chickaletta

    Am I the only one who thinks the LW should take up the assistant’s offers? At least occasionally like once or twice a day?? Here’s my reasoning:
    – It might be kinda nice to have a drink brought to you, especially if you’re in the middle of something and having it brought to you actually would be convenient
    – It’s only water/coffee/snacks, so it can’t be messed up that much if that’s what the LW is worried about (and I bet she could communicate to the assistant how she takes her coffee, if she prefers ice with her water, etc).
    – Most importantly, I think it would be empowering instead of infantilizing (as suggested in previous comments) because that’s what the older male bosses do and therefore it has strong potential for creating the optics that LW onto a similar plane as them. Also – is it a female thing to think of accepting help as infantilizing while males view it as empowering? Especially in a context like this? So why not try out the male perspective on this and accept the assistant’s offer for help?!? And can someone explain to me how accepting the assistant’s offers would be taking advantage of her? (And I could get into American culture and individualism but I’ll stop here)

    1. Pibble

      Uh, this woman is LITERALLY calling professional adults (who are her superiors!) her children. There is no way in which that is empowering. Plus, OP states the assistant seems to not take her seriously because of her age. If assistant were taking OP seriously, she wouldn’t keep asking after being told OP doesn’t want her to offer drinks/etc. By accepting the undesired offers, OP would be saying that her “I would like you to stop asking” isn’t serious, and therefore OP doesn’t need to be treated as a competent adult who is in a position of authority over the assistant.

      Furthermore, this is a job, not a social situation where humoring this lady would be reasonable. The company is paying this woman to support OP in a way that OP finds helpful. The assistant is not only failing to do her job, but is actively costing the company by wasting her time asking OP for things and wasting OP’s time by interrupting her after being directly asked not to.

      1. UKCoffeeLover

        I totally agree with Pibble. This behaviour is very undermining, and has to be properly addressed.
        I’ve been in a similar situation and people like this make it very difficult for their managers as it looks as if the manager is being ungrateful as offering to fetch them a drink is only polite, isn’t it? If I was the op I would talk to the others in the office and let them know how you feel about this and tell them what you will be doing.
        Then, sit down in a confidential space and let the admin assistant know it is not to continue.
        I would also be looking at her work to see what she is covering up with the behaviour.

    2. AdminX2

      1) But it’s not, the person says it isn’t. She knows it isn’t. She doesn’t want it.
      2) It doesn’t matter how small an issue, she never even mentioned preferences other than she doesn’t want to be called a kid and doesn’t want to be interrupted and asked to fetch drinks. THAT is what is being messed up and it’s being messed up pretty badly. Do you also tell kids they have to let people hug them because it’s “not that bad” even when they don’t want to be touched?
      3) Enabling a dysfunctional power system is not empowering, it just reinforces the dysfunction. There’s nothing mentioned about not accepting admin help. But help is only help when it’s helpful. When you’ve been clearly told preferences to stop it’s no longer help and all ego.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

      Yeah, no. Right now, the assistant sees OP as an oddly defiant child who does not want to be brought snacks.

      If OP starts accepting once or twice a day, the assistant will change her view of OP to one of a confused child who cannot even figure out from one minute to another if she wants a snack or not. Nothing good will come out of this new dynamics. I am not sure how empowerment even begins to factor in here.

    4. Valerie

      >It might be kinda nice to have a drink brought to you

      Ugh.

      The only things missing from the tone of this line are the bib and highchair.

  30. Not Elizabeth

    I heard a lot of tiptoeing around the assistant’s feelings, as though she can’t be expected to take feedback from a supervisor. And I think that’s part of the mom/kids dynamic that has come up here. She’s taking direction from people who are younger than she is, and that may be a bit awkward for her (and she may even resent it a little), so she gets them to treat her like a mom. And it’s natural to worry about hurting your mom’s feelings if you have to tell her she’s getting on your nerves. But she’s not the OP’s mom; she’s her assistant, and the OP needs to be able to set expectations. It may be time to say flat out, “I have a mom, and you are not her. Our relationship needs to be professional going forward.” And as to the break room trips, “Please don’t interrupt me to offer me drinks or snacks; if I want you to bring me anything like that, I’ll ask you.” (And if she does it again, which she probably will, “We’ve talked about this, and I’ve asked you not to interrupt me.”)

    1. Jennifer Thneed

      Totally agree. Partly because some people are obtuse enough to take the first statement literally (“Oh, I know I don’t have to but I want to”), instead of hearing it as the soft “no” that it really is.

      1. AdminX2

        Yes, my go-to when I hear this is “Oh ok do you not want me to do that anymore?”

        Some people yes they mean that are relieved to hear it from my side first. Some people mean no, they actually do want me to ask but felt awkward accepting. Either way- clarity!

        I genuinely don’t care about preferences, my job is to support you, not decide you have too much diet coke. You want it, you get it. You don’t want it, you don’t get it.

  31. Moonbeam Malone

    Knocking when the door is closed is the thing I think you could try politely shutting down, but I would lean toward letting the other offers slide, particularly since she’s offering this to the others in the office, and being taken up on it by some. I do wonder if, consciously or otherwise, the admin feels a bit icky about the idea of fetching things only for the men in the office, while leaving her female coworker out. I definitely could be reading into that, though!

  32. Belle8bete

    I love this episode.

    The LW sounds southern, and I am from a southern family who constantly has lived in non-southern locations. My southern mama could have easily become this lady (actually my Midwest MIL too). Neither ever go this far, but they suffer from empty nesting. It’s hard! I know it can impede professionalism at times, but it’s worth noting that after decades of being Mom, it can be real hard to not be Mom Day in/day out. People belittle empty nesters, saying things like “she should have more to her than this…she should be more empowered” and frankly that’s judgemental and stinky to say.

    I would also opt to play this like the LW. The first approach is going to cause an issue, the second one will make the admin happy, and the issue may resolve. If more issues come up, then it may be time to deal with them in a different way and risk hurt feelings.

    However, it’s REAL unlikely this lady will change after this long (I got the impression she has been there a long time, but even if not, at least we can assume she has had her sense of self as helpful mom bird for a long time). And folks who insist on a confrontation “for the sake of being right” (Alison, this isn’t you, you often dissuade folks from doing that) sometimes aren’t being realistic—you will continue to be around these people a lot! Try not to cause a problem if you can find other ways (obviously things like harassment and criminal activity are not included here). More importantly, the end result is really important in situations * like this* (ie no harm to humans, no crime, no harassment etc) and the process less so.

    In short, the first approach might not even work—she is likely unwilling and maybe unable to change that mama framework up without extensive inner turmoil (and many could argue that, well “that’s just so and so, she’s like that…it’s who she is and not our place to judge”). So instead, use her language, work inside her framework. Hopefully everyone gets what they need. Win win.

  33. UKCoffeeLover

    I’m in the UK and not every office has a drinks list nor do we expect someone to make us drinks each time they make their own. Indeed, I was in a situation where I hired a woman slightly older than me (we both have grown up children). She quickly noticed I like to make cafetière coffee and bought a larger one so she could make us both a cup at the same time. She would get into work before me and leave me a cup on my desk, which would be cold when I arrived (I loath cold or luke warm coffee!).
    This started to annoy me intensely, so I asked her not to. She stopped doing the early morn8ng coffee but continued mak8ng me coffee and started joining others into the “coffee club”. I tolerated this for a while and made sure I also make a round so it was not all about her. Eventually I realised she was manipulating me as her manager by currying favour so I would not notice she was massaging her working hours and not pulling her weight in the team. There is a lot more to this story and it did not end well, for me!

    I consider this type of behaviour to be very manipulative and would always questions someone’s motives after the experience I had.

    Ps. It was noticeable she only offered managers coffee, not staff who were below her grade!

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