my employee keeps telling me what to do

A reader writes:

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

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

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 121 comments… read them below }

  1. Shirley Feeny-Meeny*

    Acknowledge her statements as suggestions. “Thanks for the suggestion, Carol, but I’m good on my end.”
    “Oh thanks, but I’ve got a plan, no suggestions needed Carol!”
    If she gets aggressive or demanding in her statements, you can jovially ask her “Is that a suggestion Carol, or an order” and if she says it is an order, then you can then go over the lines of authority.

    1. Kiwi*

      Honestly, I think that this is too indirect. If someone is so oblivious that they are repeatedly giving their boss directives, they’re going to be too oblivious to pick up on subtext embedded in “Thanks for the suggestion, but I’m good.” Plus something like “No suggestions needed” could read as, “I don’t need help,” it doesn’t necessarily read as “Do not give me suggestions.”

    2. Anonymity*

      Too indirect. She needs to respect her boss’s authority. “I’ve got this handled”. And no cutesy or apologetic tone.

  2. WorkIsADarkComedy*

    A snarky comeback (which I am definitely not recommending) would be “You know, you’re doing that correcting the boss thing all wrong. Instead, start by assuming I know what I’m doing…”

    1. Wired Wolf*

      Ha, I’ve said similar on occasion to a dimwit greenhorn “supervisor” who just likes to throw his weight around (even if he’s dead wrong and everyone knows it he wants to force us to go to the manager in hopes the manager will take his side). It goes right over his head but it’s fun to do. Ironically, going strictly by time served I’m the most senior/experienced person in the entire store.

      1. Mac*

        I have to disagree with this advice. I had this happen to me and what happened is my boss started hearing it and thinking I didnt have my job under control and questioning everything I did. I ended up quitting partly due to being undermined by my employee and because my bosses were crazy. The sweet revenge is my employee got my job then started doing this to my bosses and they got a taste of her shenanigans and finally fired her. Allison’s advice here is some I totally disagree with something needs to be said to make this employee stop bossing her boss around

        1. Mac*

          Idk why my comment appeared under wired wolfs comment it was suppose to be a standalone. Sorry!

  3. Jedi Squirrel*

    It is so refreshing to read these old letters from when the world was normal. Or at least, less abnormal.

  4. Myrin*

    Alison, this is one of the very first times I find myself strongly disagreeing at least with part of your answer (and on an old letter, no less!) – I’m really surprised your first instinct would be to tell OP to ignore this behaviour, because it seems pretty egregious to me and I’m already exasperated just reading about it!

    Of course the employee could have all kinds of reasons for doing this – a strange tick, maybe, nervousness, a feeling of lack of control in her life in general – but while I’d have all of that in mind, I can guarantee that it would come across as some kind of power play to me every single time she did this. This might be totally unlikely given that OP describes her relationship with this employee as very good, but on the off-chance that it’s true, I really don’t think OP would do herself any favours by doing anything other than having a clear conversation about it from the get-go.

    Ideally, yes, this would solve itself with the natural reactions you’re proposing but honestly, if someone is either brazen or oblivious enough to keep doing this, I don’t think that’s going to help a lot.

    1. PollyQ*

      The other reason to call it out is that she’s almost certainly doing it to other coworkers, and it’ll be just as annoying to them, but they may not feel as empowered to call it out, or may think she legitimately has authority to be issuing orders when she doesn’t.

    2. fposte*

      Heh, I was also feeling a lot more interventionist on this, because it would drive me crazy. I don’t mind the occasional directive, because sometimes other people know something about the bathroom situation I don’t and I generally have a wide latitude in communication with colleagues and staff. But constantly telling me what to do? I think it’d be three strikes and then a conversation about that stopping. I’d lean on the great employee thing–she’s a great employee, and a great employee doesn’t want to communicate in a way that chafes. I don’t know I’d necessarily see it as a power play, and I have a lot of time for the kind of thoroughness and initiative that can be behind this kind of behavior; it just needs to be expressed differently.

    3. Krombopulos Michael*

      I had a similar issue with someone in my department. I am a junior Teapot Designer and we had a Teapot Support Assistant who would make similar comments or do things that came across as minor power plays. I let them all go because I thought that I was keeping the peace and didn’t want to appear as particularly dramatic in the department, or like I was reading into things that weren’t there.

      The instant I gave him some minor feedback (“Do you have the Teapot Report? I asked for it by X date and you haven’t sent it yet. Can you let me know where it is, or let me know if you’re swamped and we can discuss a better deadline with Fergus?”) he fired back a missive several paragraphs long, that made it very clear he didn’t think that I should be tasking him at all. I may be overly paranoid but I tend to assume that there’s something else lurking below the surface when this sort of thing happens.

      1. Anonymity*

        Keeping the peace is overrated. Being direct, polite and professional when a repeat problem occurs is the way to solve issues. Not hiding. I agree with you.

    4. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      Yep. It would be bad enough if the person was an equal, but OP is the head of the department which makes it even worse. I go with a generic “I’ve got it thanks” every time she gave me instruction, and after a bit if it continued I’d have a direct conversation with them. I do agree with Alison to approach a conversation as if you’re missing something, but all in all they need to be direct and tell them in a civilized and professional tone to knock it off.

    5. TimeCat*

      I think that’s crucial. If she’s doing this to other people you need to shut her down immediately.

    6. Amaranth*

      What troubles me the most is, if other employees – or LWs boss! – are overhearing all this direction, could it be leaving the impression that LW has some kind of insecurities about how to do her job? Or, at least, is a bit of a doormat?

      1. John Boy Walton*

        Yes it’s a power play at best and meant to be disparaging and to humiliate at worst.

        1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

          In my opinion, the best interpretation is that OP’s employee isn’t aware of what they’re doing and how it comes across. The whole “don’t assume maliciousness when incompetence or ignorance is available” idea.

  5. Emilitron*

    Another response that’s in my playbook for this type of scenario is the chirpy congratulatory like a teacher uses when a student gives the right answer: “yes, that’s right! We always tell Fergus when to expect our reports!” “Good call, that’s the correct folder to use for this project!” – but in many situations that is needlessly snarky and condescending, so I’m not surprised Allison didn’t suggest it. Makes some sense when the person in question has recently been on a learning curve, but less so otherwise.

  6. Colin Robinson, DayWalker*

    My first question is the employee older than OP? I’ve been at jobs where older employees feel that they need to “manage” their younger boss or create a parent/child model with their younger bosses. Sometimes older employees don’t realize what their doing because that’s how they treat all younger coworkers/boss and they think they’re being helpful, when it comes off as frustrating and patronizing.

    Just a thought

    1. SLAS*

      This was my first thought as well. I had a similar situation at my last job, and it got to the point that I was so frustrated it was part of what made me quit. I couldn’t do anything to curb the behavior because the most egregious offender was also a volunteer, but it was so frustrating because there was also a considerable amount of telling me how it was 15 years ago as if that’s always and forever the correct thing to do, and any newfangled things I might implement are, of course, WRONG.

      1. Colin Robinson, DayWalker*

        I’ve encountered that mentality too, “but we’ve ALWAYS done it that way!”

        I experienced this too with a coworker in my younger days (about a hundred years ago), a nice guy, but he had a “helper” personality. I finally had to sit him down and politely tell him, while I appreciated his help, that at times it made me feel like I wasn’t trusted to do my job or gave me anxiety that I must be doing something wrong, because of his constant instructions.

        He apologized, he thought he was being helpful. After that he would wait for me to ask for his help, before stepping in. He wasn’t a bad guy or anything, just someone who didn’t want to see younger coworkers struggling.

        1. lonestarbrooklyn*

          This sounds so much like my husband, he just wants to help but he forgets to suggest things and issues them more as orders. Or says “why don’t you just…?” and doesn’t understand why that’s inherently a criticism instead of a genuine inquiry. “Just” assume that I have a plan and wait to offer anything until asked.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      That’s an interesting twist and observation!

      I’ve always been one of the youngest and the bosses are regularly my parents age and they teach me to follow up, remind them and constantly badger them in a lot of situations, lol.

      1. Colin Robinson, DayWalker*

        Many times older employees are asked to train their new boss/coworkers, so they just get use to giving new people instructions to help them adjust to their new work environment.

        I’d tell OP to talk to their employee first and have a frank discussion on boundaries and to wait until OP asks for help instead of constantly give OP unsolicited advice.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I think you’re incorrectly associating this with AGE and not the fact that the setup is a report is training their boss, no matter what age the boss is at any given time.

          But it’s all about establishing the communication you desire as the boss, so they do need to speak to the employee about the directives being an issue. But really, it has nothing to do with age in the end and I’d discourage thinking about people in terms of age, as it’s headed directly towards discrimination.

          1. Colin Robinson, DayWalker*

            I’m not trying to bring up anything discriminatory, just what I’ve seen in my many years of working. Some of us just have more experience and seen more of these types of scenarios play out.

            Unfortunately, I don’t run everything I post through the old PC filter before I comment or assume that everyone has bad intentions when making a simple comment. I give people the benefit of the doubt before accusing someone of wrong doing.

            So give an old timer a break….

          2. Jennifer Thneed*

            > Many times older employees are asked to train their new boss/coworkers

            I read this is: many times, employees who have been in the company longer are asked to train their new boss or co-workers. In other words, they are older as employees, rather than as people.

    3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      IMO that makes it even more irritating. And I really hate excusing this type of behavior all because someone “means well”. Someone may think they’re helping, but telling someone how to do the basics of their job, when they neither ask you a question or look like they may need assistance is judgmental and condescending, ESPECIALLY if they’re above you in hierarchy.

      1. Colin Robinson, DayWalker*

        That’s why I suggested that OP have a frank discussion with their employee about the issue

    4. TootsNYC*

      It can be such a habit for people–so many people don’t have a good set of “work” paradigms.
      They have parent-child paradigms, teacher-student paradigms, principal-student paradigms.

      But not work ones.

    1. Saberise*

      Not an update as far as I can tell but I read through the original post and the LW did add some comments though.

      I can’t post links for some reason but if you search for “my employee keeps giving me instructions” you can find it. Was from 2015 and the LW posted are under OP*

  7. Clorinda*

    “I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job, thank you.”
    I don’t know. Maybe working from home has destroyed my interpersonal skills. It’s going to be a rough re-entry for some of us.

    1. SweetestCin*

      My thoughts too. I’ve gone from construction site back to office and back to a site multiple times in my career, and its always….interesting, to say the least!

      I’m in an industry with already questionable interpersonal skills. The language was already quite colorful – now it just seems as though its getting more creatively colorful!

    2. TootsNYC*

      that’s a little harsh-though I did say that to a colleague once at a new job; she was supposedly “training” me, and she sort of outranked me the tiniest bit. It caused a huge problem for a little while. I don’t say that sort of thing easily, but it was weeks, and she was telling me about parts of my job that I didn’t need training on. Like, when you get a new “map” of the issue, which story goes on which page, you throw the old one out–ripping or folding it so there’s no question it’s trash. “You shouldn’t do that–you need to keep them!” That was about the 12th thing like that.)

      But I think I might say, to ones that are procedure related, “I know these things already, Charlene. I am the boss/I made up the procedures.” and then just keep walking–no big conversation, just that comment with no heat, and no lecture, etc.

      And I’d be pulling back on the “being friends” part. We can be friendly, but I’d be creating just a little distance.

    3. Eukomos*

      That would come off as way too hostile in response to a suggestion about which shredder is best, though. Then you end up with an employee who still has the same bad habit, but is also telling people about how you bit her head off when she was just trying to help.

    4. Tate Can't Wait*

      My company just laid off 1/3 of its employees two weeks ago. We lost some good people for sure, but we lost all of the people who spoke the way you’re suggesting, and I don’t think it was accidental.

    5. Alex in Marketing*

      I would think a firm, “If I need help with something, I will ask you.” Would be appropriate here.

      I had someone who acted similarly in a past job and it drove me insane. She was always butting in on things she had no business to. Being direct and firm with her really did the trick. She was surly for a few days, but that faded with time.

  8. Seeking Second Childhood*

    I’d hope OP kept an open mind on procedural corrections — sometimes managers & supervisors forget or change procedures. If that is not done consciously, and the entire group brought over to the new procedures 100%, it can cause cascading problems.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yessssss, I had to break really bad procedures in the past and retrain people to more efficient ways. Including stopping things like adding unnecessary directives because I’m like “I know where it goes from here.” and you know what, they know I do because I set the procedure. Unlike when I started and was still assessing the situation and did indeed need to know “What is your standard procedure for this at this time? Oh…I do what? Mhm. [To myself, that’s so extra, I’ll see if that’s truly necessary.]”

      Or I’ve seen it when people have their own procedures in place and don’t have standard operating procedures in place for everyone. This has been my HELL the last couple years flushing out of a very much hodgepodge of people just duct taping procedures together.

  9. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    My first response would be to ask if you inherited this employee…

    I have had bosses that want this kind of directive so I don’t find it that egregious or weird, tbh. But everyone is different and I make a point to cultivate a relationship with my boss directly, not based on past relationships with bosses, so I’m thankfully ahead of that curve! Others aren’t so lucky I’ve learned over the years.

    Really it’s all about creating individual relationships on some level with your employees. If they do something you don’t like or isn’t with your methods, you should correct them and let them know the commentary isn’t welcome. It is something you have to practice doing, you’re the boss, you’re in charge, you set the tone and change the tone!

    1. I'm just here for the cats*

      I was thinking along the same lines. Is the OP relatively new to this position or did the employee come to her from another area. She may think she’s being helpful and this behavior is normal because past bosses have asked her to remind them on certain things, like saving documents or assignment deadlines.
      I thought that the shredder thing was just being nice. Like, maybe the one she was going to use only takes 1 piece of paper at a time while the other one is more industrial and takes 5 pieces.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Yeah, I wondered about the shredder. What makes one better than another? Maybe, between floor layout and elevator location, the shredder on another floor is actually closer than the shredder on this floor. Who’s to day? “Better” is so very subjective. It’s useful to say WHY something is better, because if it’s just that the local shredder needs repair or replacement, well, that’s good information to have!

    2. Saberise*

      No the LW had been there for a decade and had hired the person a year prior. The LW is 6 years older than the other woman.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Great point. Some bosses want their employees to remind them to tie their shoes and comb their hair.

      OP could be muddying the waters by actually accepting some of the pointers from time to time. All it takes is a reminder that the bathroom on this floor still isn’t working or whatever that OP responds positively to and that will encourage the employee to keep saying things.

      I think it is fine to say to an employee what is and what is NOT helpful. Actually, it’s probably a relief to the employee in some ways. OP could point out times where she wants to be reminded.

      I have worked with some folks who were uncertain when to speak up and when not to speak up. Their solution was NOT to speak up. Ugh. So I told them to start by saying, “NSNR, you said I should remind you….” In giving me back my own words, they had a bit of a crutch to lean on to open the conversation.
      But this can be helpful the other way, also. Employee can learn the types of things that are actually helpful reminders to OP.

      I have also used the visual side of the story: “If you see me walking out the door with out the widget I need to bring to the meeting it is fine to point that out to me.” Here the person has to wait until they actually see that I do need the reminder.

      I remember chasing one boss down the hall way because he missed a few details. He was about to proceed and act on the scant info he had. I could tell by what he had said that he was missing serious pieces of the story. I ran after him. He did thank me for stopping him. In that case, I had verbal cues that all was NOT well, I knew I had to step in.

  10. Geneva*

    Her behavior could be an annoying (but well intentioned) tick. Or, the result of poor conditioning. E.g., at my job, everyone is encouraged to give each other feedback all the time. As a result, you have entry level employees, publicly critiquing senior employees for things like using the Oxford comma. And when this happens, it’s taboo to respond with anything other than enthusiastic gratitude for being called out. Point is, someone could’ve trained her to add her two cents to everything as a means of demonstrating leadership.

    My professional advice is to respond with curiosity in the moment like, “Hey, I notice you do X, just want to reassure you the expectation is Y.” My personal advice is ignore it. Don’t nod, say thank you or react in anyway that could communicate to her that you appreciate her “tips.”

    1. Jean*

      LOL, I love a good malicious compliance. Management pushes for constant feedback? OK, management, here you go: you’re not using Oxford commas properly!

      My workplace has just started a “cultural initiative” to ramp up feedback as well, and I cringed during the rollout presentation. I get that it’s well-intentioned, but it never gets the results they want.

    2. Jennifer Thneed*

      So, do people enthusiastically thank either other for criticism and then ignore it? That would certainly be my response, at least to things like Oxford comma comments. (I have very strong opinions about Oxford commas, along the lines of “and we used to not even use capital letters or periods for sentence. Punctuation is here to help us”.)

      1. Geneva*

        If you ignore it, you risk having that person going to your boss to “hold you accountable.” For instance, an employee once complained to my supervisor that I never updated a weekly report on time. She, a person with 10 months of experience, positioned it as me, a person with 9 years of experience, having a time management issue. But the REAL issue was that she expected me to respond to her 6 a.m. – 7 a.m. requests that I add/remove info which I updated the night before.

        I had to tell her no, I cannot and will not update a PowerPoint while I’m reasonably asleep or driving into work. But what I can do is work on the report a day earlier so you have 24hrs to nitpick away.

  11. Jean*

    Return awkwardness to sender. This kind of thing usually just gets a blank look and a “hmmm…” from me. Either they get the point right away and stop, or they get uncomfortable and give a butt-hurt “I was just trying to help,” or they just act like they didn’t hear you. Don’t spend your emotional energy trying to figure out a “nice” way to handle this crap. They know what they’re doing.

  12. Kno-it-all Ned*

    I have a direct report who does this to me ALL THE TIME. Not just me, but to her peers, to people in other departments and to people in other similar companies. It has created a serious conflict between her and, well, everyone. No one wants to work with her because she’s a condescending jerk. She is brilliant and consequently thinks everyone else is a complete moron. I’ve been treating it as a performance issue: unless you are a supervisor, you are not to give people commands. Its noted with increasing importance on her quarterly performance evaluations. This will be the first year that she gets a “below expectations” on her annual evaluation. I anticipate there will be serous push back, but if she cannot keep from alienating the people she needs to work alongside closely, then I will push for termination.

    1. hbc*

      I wouldn’t even let this go if it was my direct report telling her employees what to do. There’s directions, and there’s “We’ve hired competent adults who can figure out if the best shredder is worth the walk upstairs.”

  13. Important Moi*

    How about if the person in question is a friend who is most certainly feeling out of control with aspects of their life? What are words I could use?

    How do I avoid saying things like “I know your life is out of control, but you don’t get to control me to make up for it. Save that energy for your situation.” I have not actually said, but there moments when I can feel it bubbling up.

    1. DarthVelma*

      How about “stop it”? Or “I know your life is out of control, but you don’t get to control me to make up for it. Save that energy for your situation.”

      Seriously. There’s nothing wrong with the way you worded it as long as you aren’t screaming it at them.

    2. fposte*

      A friend is a whole different calculus than an employee. I also wouldn’t go into whether you felt she was doing it out of a need to control or not, because that’s a whole nother discussion that really doesn’t need to happen in association with you wanting her to stop this one thing. Does it bug you too much to let it go? Then just say “Hey, could you not?” when she does it.

    3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I definitely wouldn’t make any comment about their life feeling out of control, I would just call them out in the moment with a simple “I’m going to need you to stop doing that.” If they ask what you mean, “I’m not sure if you realize it, but you’re telling me how to do things that I know how to do and I need you to stop.”

    4. hbc*

      So much easier with a friend. Some of it depends on your normal friendship patterns, but I would go with an obviously friendly/joking sarcasm. Like if she tells you that you shouldn’t be going to book club this week, “Wow, thanks, that was a close one. I was just going to ignore the state order and kiss everyone on the lips until you said something.”

      1. Renata Ricotta*

        I have a friend who occasionally does this and I have successfully told her, in a joking but clear manner, “you’re not the boss of me,” or “thanks mom” and she gets it and knocks it off.

    5. Important Moi*

      Thanks to those who replied. I waited until the end of my day to see if I’d get any responses.

      I know the friend relationship isn’t a co-worker relationship. Also, snark and sarcasm are things no matter how gentle, I can handle with great ease, my friend cannot.

      I do like this answer:
      “I’m not sure if you realize it, but you’re telling me how to do things that I know how to do and I need you to stop.”

    6. TootsNYC*

      “You give me directions on the most unimportant things. Please stop. It feels like you are trying to control me, and that would be really disrespectful. This could really damage our friendship, and I don’t want that to happen.”

  14. Zona the Great*

    I like this even when a stranger in public corrects me or “helps” me: “Oh I must have given you the wrong impression. I wasn’t seeking your advice/help/opinion.”

    1. fposte*

      But that’s not how you want to talk to a valued employee; that would be really condescending from a boss. This isn’t somebody who needs to be crushed–she’s a great employee with an annoying habit.

      1. Zona the Great*

        I don’t agree that this is even close to crushing but I do hear what you’re saying. I think people take way too much personally at work.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          No, that’s a really cold statement. Completely appropriate for strangers or slight acquaintances, but with people who know you, that type of response will become part of what they know about you.

        2. Kiwi*

          The sentiment itself, that you’re not seeking input from a subordinate, isn’t crushing. But if my boss *literally* said “Oh I must have given you the wrong impression. I wasn’t seeking your advice/help/opinion” that would be extremely abrupt and out of place in most places, I would think.

          If I said something like “Use the printer downstairs,” and she said something like “Oh, I don’t need assistance with printing” or if I said “This template is better than that one for the letter,” and she said “Thank you but I’ve got the rest of this covered/I’ll handle it/I’ll decide about the template when I have a minute” it would still convey the same message.

        3. CL Cox*

          As someone who has been spoken to like this, it is rude and demoralizing. And you might be wrong – in my case, I’m trying to explain to her that procedures have changed since the last time she was a Teapot Director, 15+ years ago, and our Accounting department will absolutely not allow what she wants to do. And I’m looking for a different job, despite getting high reviews and enjoying my job and the other people.

    2. Eukomos*

      Yikes, that sounds like a slogan from a Hot Topic t-shirt. I realize Alison often recommends feigning confusion when someone behaves inappropriately, but I think you have to deliver it more earnestly or you come off like a sassy teenager trying to assert their independence.

  15. Robert in SF*

    I would certainly keep some notes on specific times/dates/circumstances/statements for examples to discuss with the employee.
    And if these directions/corrections are in front of anyone else, I would definitely have this conversation, no matter how uncomfortable, to confront them on the issue *soon*.
    I would sit down with them and explain that I wanted to better understand something I had noticed especially over the last few days/weeks. “You have provided me with some instructions and direction that typically don’t come from an employee to their manager. For example, ….[2 or 3 examples of specifics, with clear communication of your expectations of how they *should* have handled any input to you instead of what they said/did]. Can you help me understand why you took the approach you did, instead of how I have described my expectations?”

    Then I would be quiet and let them answer….don’t fill in any reasons or guess or otherwise lead them at all in their response. Trust them to answer why they do it that way, maybe prompt for more information if it’s not clear by asking them to elaborate or tell you more about [unclear reason or background].

    I would not immediately disagree or argue or otherwise offer any choices on what they mean. I would just listen and digest.
    But presuming they didn’t offer some revelation about the issue that completely changes everything I thought I knew about what was going on and it turns out I was wrong (!) about it, I would just say, “Well, I think I understand now. Thank you for explaining. Now I want to make sure you have the same clarity about this issue going forward. Do not correct me or provide work direction to me about my job unless there is some circumstance I am clearly not aware of. It came come off disrespectful to some, and I want to avoid you having that reputation. I have the experience and knowledge to do this job, and I often times will have a bigger picture or longer view than you on some work and may tackle some work in ways that you won’t understand. If you do doubt that I have all the right information, please do come to me in private to help me out. But do not do this again. I understand breaking a habit can be difficult, so we can review how you are doing in the short term, and take it one day at a time. But I cannot accept if this behavior continues, especially now that we have had this conversation. Do you have any questions?”

    1. valentine*

      I would certainly keep some notes on specific times/dates/circumstances/statements for examples to discuss with the employee.
      This is better corrected in the moment, and there’s no good reason not to do so. OP never said there was anything wrong, so saving it up and reciting a list to the employee is weird. It’s more what you might do with a superior.

  16. LGC*


    So, to be serious…I actually have a bit of the same tendency as the employee. I definitely have had direct reports that have had this tendency. And I’m in agreement that the problem is really more of a messaging thing – by all means, I often appreciate it when an employee follows up about something or flags something for me (I mean, I’m the boss, but that doesn’t mean I’m right about everything), but I can imagine being peeved about the employee delivering commands or otherwise being overly persistent. I’ve both been annoyed by that and stepped on a few toes myself doing the same thing.

    (Part of this is company culture rewards dropping everything to work on the next shiny thing, so people expect instant gratification. I’ve pushed against this with limited success – mostly because upper management doesn’t really have boundaries.)

    I also agree that it would have been good for LW to check their assumptions. The letter read a bit like LW was offended that the employee would think they didn’t know how to do their job, but…like, sometimes I’ve had bad experiences with my boss dropping the ball on things, and then I’ll push more forcefully the next time. I had an employee get really pushy about a change to schedule time off last week (it would have been a simple change, but things are just not that simple), but I know from personal experience that you do need to follow up with a lot of things.

    (Probably not multiple times in one day with me alone, plus a couple of times with another supervisor and maybe with our manager in the same day. But maybe the next day?)

    Did the LW ever write back?

    1. LGC*

      (And by “pushing more forcefully,” I mean…”I asked my boss to do something that was pretty important that I couldn’t do myself, it didn’t get done, and then the next time I’m in that situation I’ll remember to follow up because I remember the goat rodeo that happened the last time.”)

    2. Renata Ricotta*

      I agree that this could mostly be a phrasing/semantic difference. I occasionally have to remind myself to explicitly phrase suggestions as such (even though I sometimes think it should be obvious that it’s just a suggestion if I am delivering it to someone with more authority than me). So when redlining a document, I say in the cover email “attached are some proposed suggested changes for your consideration” instead of “here are my edits,” so it doesn’t come off as a mandate or like I am insisting they incorporate them.

      This doesn’t apply of course if there really is only one way to do things (like where to save a file)–then an instruction comes off as just condescending and pointless.

      1. hbc*

        Or a matter of preference. Unless the local shredder literally won’t get through paper, maybe I’m okay with it taking 10-50% longer.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          And if that’s true, well, it’s no longer a shredder, right? It’s just scrap metal with a power cord and needs to be replaced.

      2. LGC*

        I actually think that applies to a lot of things in both directions! (If I’m asking my team for suggestions, I need to phrase it very carefully to make it clear I’m open to suggestions, and often they don’t pick up on that anyway.) And that’s a good point about how you think it should be obvious that it’s a suggestion if you’re providing it to someone higher up on the org chart.

        I think there’s kind of a balance, too – and the tricky thing is it really depends on the person you’re talking to! Some people I can be a little more direct with, and then others I need to be more deferential. This was a long learning process, and sometimes I slip up and then follow up with a “sorry if that came off too harsh, I meant that as a suggestion.”

    3. I relate*

      I also feel that I am sometimes that employee, because my past two bosses have both been very absent-minded and did not have great attention to detail. They were “big picture” type people, and my job was to intimately manage the projects they assigned me, so I would fall into the role of saying things like “Remember to put X document in Y folder” or “Remember to email John back since he has been waiting two weeks for a response.” I think it can be hard to find the line between helpful reminders and obnoxious instructions.

      1. valentine*

        OP wasn’t forgetful, though, and the order for OP to tell the tasker that OP will complete the work by deadline is the weirdest bit.

    4. Saberise*

      She did a minor update in comments on the original thread “my employee keeps giving me instructions” from 2015 under OP*

  17. Oh So Anon*

    This is particularly tricky to deal with if if you have good reason to believe that it isn’t a power play. If OP is dealing with an employee who has a verbal tic of using imperative and declarative statements more than most people would, they may not understand why OP is responding the way they are. In fact, they would probably be more likely to feel extremely put off and punished if OP does bring it up.

    Maybe they’re not working in their native language – it’s not unusual for peoples’ semantic language use to be slightly off in their non-native languages. Maybe they have some condition that affects “typical” language use. If they’re doing this with everyone, including peers, and there’s no other indication of them being the type to over-step, there may be other issues at play. It doesn’t make this behaviour any less annoying, but if the person isn’t being malicious or officious, sometimes the best thing to do is ignore, reframe, and count the days until you two are no longer working closely together.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      You suggest a lot of reasons why a person might have this conversational habit, but none of these is a good reason to ignore the behavior. Instead, they’re all reasons to address the behavior really explicitly. Non-native speaker, neuro-atypical, just can’t take a hint — these are all conditions where it is very much a good thing to calmly point out more socially-acceptable ways to do things.

      1. Oh So Anon*

        That’s fair, yet it’s a good idea to be prepared for the possibility that the person really is not capable of consistently changing their behaviour. If you have reasons to assume good intent, then you just have to let it slide as annoying as it may be. At the end of the day, it’s the person who recognized the annoyance who’s most likely to be professionally penalized down the line, especially if everyone else avoids dealing with it directly.

        1. valentine*

          If you have reasons to assume good intent, then you just have to let it slide as annoying as it may be.
          Not if you can fire her. She should be spending her time otherwise.

          And none of those issues applied.

    2. Steveo*

      If it’s an issue of language it should be addressed as well. More than likely they are doing this to everyone in the org, not just their direct manager, and at some point will run into someone that really doesn’t like it, like a VP (for example).

  18. I'm just here for the cats*

    So I have a few thoughts on this. 1. With the shredder or other similar things she may be trying to be helpful.. especially if the other shredder is known to have issues she may be just trying to save you the hassle of dealing with frustrating equipment.
    2. For the documents: is this something that she works with too, or that she would get feed back from other employees about? Perhaps there is an issue with documents being saved in wrong files. Or if there is a certain format that works better for her job. For example, 2020-01-15 may be easier to search for than Jan. 15 20.
    Or has she gotten feedback, even informal conversations with other employees, about having issues with shared documents.
    3. With the reminders about assignments, I wonder if she has worked for a boss, or the previous boss, needed those types of reminders and she is just in the habit. The OP doesn’t mention how long theyve been in the roll, or the employee. Some of these situations sounds like something that would happen when someone is in a new roll, or new to this area.

    1. Massmatt*

      I think you are trying to address various symptoms at the cost of ignoring the cause. The employee is trying to tell the manager what to do, it is adding zero value and annoying the manager. The reasons WHY she does it are beside the point, OP wants the behavior to stop.

      1. I'm just here for the cats*

        I understand that the OP wants this to stop. I think she needs to take a step back and Consider why this is happening, or maybe she’s ready g to much I to it.

        I just found the part with the shredder really odd. Like if I knew that there was a better shredder and my boss had a bunch of stuff to shred I would of course tell my boss that the other shredder is much better. That would be like if the fax machine wasn’t working and boss was going to use it. It would be pretty mean to not say something and make her wall all the way to the machine only to find out it didn’t work.

          1. valentine*

            OP can choose her own shredder. If it were broken, sure, say something, though a sign would be better. But I would no more tell someone a shredder is better than I would tell them to use a different bathroom just because I prefer it.

          2. Massmatt*

            This is exactly what I meant about getting caught up in the details of the particular examples and missing the Forrest for the tree. LW mentioned several instances in which the employee is telling her )the manager) what to do. Getting into this “well, WHY does she do that?” discussion does nothing to help the LW.

        1. leapingLemur*

          It might be more about how it’s being phrased or how much better the other is. If a shredder isn’t working, I might say to a boss “The shredder on this floor isn’t working, but the shredder on floor x is.” If the shredder is just not as good and has been like this for a long time, I’d assume that the boss already knew.

  19. MistOrMister*

    I assist someone (they are not my boss but are above me in the hierarchy) who does this kind of thing and it is hugely annoying. If they want me to make changes to a document, all they need to say is, after all the bullet point numbers, add a comma. Ok, easy peasy, I’ll get it back to you in a minute. Nope. They will then tell me HOW to add the commas (i.e. dont search the document for numbers, go through manually and input the commas). Just….WTF?? First, who in God’s name would do a document search in this instance and second, who cares HOW I do it, so long as it gets done correctly?? There are other things they’ve tried to talk me through and it makes me want to tear my hair out. Them: use this tool to do X. Me: I actually dont like the tool, I find it to not be accurate so I do this manually, but regardless I will have it to you soon. Them: what? No! The tool is safest, use the tool!! And I’m just like, please stop and let me do my job!! I know what I’m doing and either way is acceptable per our office procedures. Drives. Me. Nuts….

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      Them: Use tool X to do task Y.
      You: Okay, I’ll do task Y. When do you want that finished by?
      Them: 4pm, but use tool X!
      You: I actually don’t like that tool but I’ll have this to you before 4pm *and then you leave*

      In other words, don’t engage the thing that makes then go off. In your conversation, focus on the end result and ignore the specific method.

  20. Ms. Pessimistic*

    OMG this is my coworker! We are the same level, though she has been there longer. At first, I thought she was being overly helpful, then condescending, then realized she just is an over talk and she can’t help it. If you respond in a way that shuts it down (Yep, I do know where to save it!), she will back down and it doesn’t phase her one bit. She is nice and does genuinely want to help but SHE DRIVES ME BONKERS.

      1. catch-22*

        Can you though? Telling her to stop is ordering her around — the same thing that is the problem in the first place.

        1. Alex in Marketing*

          I think you can draw some boundaries in a respectful manor as this may become something that can be disruptive.

  21. Massmatt*

    IMO the advice here is a departure from Alison’s usual mantra to “use your words and be direct” and I would say not to let it go or to approach it so indirectly “I’ve got it, thanks” is not addressing the ongoing issue.

    So: Use your words, and be direct. “I notice that you frequently give me instructions on how to do my job. (Insert examples here). I am aware of where to save documents, the quality of various shredders, and how to delegate tasks, and your giving me these “instructions” is unnecessary, counterproductive, and frankly irritating. Perhaps you are not aware how often you do this, and I’m sure you have the best intentions, but I need you to stop. Can you do that moving forward”?

  22. Run Shaker*

    I understood from the letter that OP is head of her department, a manager, and her employee is telling her manager what to do. I think the behavior should be addressed. I wouldn’t make a huge deal out of it but if you’re the head of the department, that would be very irritating and I would think it could hurt the employee in the long term in reference to being promoted.

  23. Auntie Social*

    I would ask her if her last boss liked the “use paper in the printer” reminders. Then tell her you don’t need reminders and in fact find them offensive or officious or condescending. So from today forward she will need to wait until her opinion is requested. Unsolicited advice is a bad habit and she needs to break it.

  24. Buffy*

    I have an employee who does this and I can understand the feeling of annoyance. I usually just say Thanks! and let it pass. Reason is that he does Thing A, Thing B and Thing C but I do Thing A, Thing B, Thing C, Thing D, Thing E and Thing F. So he’s more into the detail of the things he manages whereas I move across several things and don’t deal in the detail. So at worst, it’s an unnecessary reminder but there are times where it’s a necessary one because I might have forgotten. There’s also been times when I’ve asked him to confirm details for me so I’m sure he’s just anticipating that this will be something I’ll want detail confirmation on. I figure that the times that he reminds me of an important detail that I need is worth getting unnecessary reminders.

  25. Kella*

    I struggle with the kind of issue this employee is having (though typically not quite as direct) and the reason I developed the habit was that I had so many authority figures in my life that *could not handle* things without my prompting them, who actively *expected* me to prompt them, that I learned to do it all the time. I never intended it to be undermining or controlling, but to protect them and myself from the consequences of them messing up.

    My guess is that OP’s employee had a boss that needed this kind of constant prompting and she hasn’t unlearned the habit. It really helped me to get clear instructions about what was and wasn’t my responsibility to flag, and to hear that if something went wrong, I wouldn’t have to clean it up, my boss/partner/friend would handle the fall out themselves.

  26. Benefit*

    Does this employee answer to anyone else on a regular basis? It sounds like all of these could be things she received corrections on from someone else (especially if the warning came when someone else put the file in the wrong spot and it was her job to catch the mistake, or something), or she has to be the one to un-jam the shredder every time someone uses it… I agree this sounds annoying, and the most likely explanation is that it’s just a habit she’s gotten into. However, I think it’s easy to just get annoyed and not listen when you go to speak with the person about things like this, and if this employee is otherwise good and reasonable, make sure there isn’t more to the story.

    1. Benefit*

      I’d also like to add that even if there’s a real reason for the employee’s behavior, it doesn’t make it acceptable. It just might change how you approach the correction to get the best result.

  27. Steveo*

    I was going to somewhat sarcastically suggest that LW just put this person in charge of all shredding and make them reorganize the file server. As I thought this through I then realized that this may be the type of person who would love this option a bit too much. Within a few weeks there would be a 2 page “Shredding Request” form along with signage or perhaps a lock, and daily shredding status updates.

  28. Dust Bunny*

    This sounds annoying on both sides, to be honest. She sounds like one of those people who Always Has A Suggestion but I also think you’re taking it too personally and also that you need to make sure you don’t, in fact, need a little managing up. My supervisor is awesome but sometimes loses track of logistical things such as where we save certain documents, and it makes my life a lot harder when he needs something that he saved to the wrong place and now wants me to retrieve.

    Try gently calling her on it for awhile to see if it gets her to back off.

  29. CastIrony*

    Has the employee by any chance been there longer than OP? I’ve been working longer than most of the people at one of my jobs, and I’ve been known to tell people about a “better shredder” because it works faster, and efficiency is prized.

    Then again, they ask me most of the time.

  30. CheeseToastie*

    Is this person your assistant? If so, I think you should sit down and talk to her about it – just in case this is behaviour that was expected of her in the past. When I worked as an admin I had a couple of people who wanted me to babysit them like that and I had to shake myself out of the habit once I moved on.

  31. RC Rascal*

    I’m going to offer a counter perspective here:

    I have a former boss who could have written this letter. He was incompetent, couldn’t get out of his own way, and was constantly sabotaging his team. Stuff not put in the right place, deadlines to other departments not delivered on time. Then when the other department head got upset he would scapegoat his direct reports, who were mostly waiting on his approval before they could deliver information to someone else. And the approval request was on his desk, or in his email. (This boss did not read his CC email for years).

    So I ask–OP– are you the road block on your team? Is your employee reminding you of these things because YOU are the impediment to them getting their job done? It’s something to consider.

  32. AlmostRetired*

    I was a technical writer, the senior one of two, with 30 years of experience. My manager gave me assignments and I did them. She did the prioritizing and I did everything else. She added a business analyst to the team who seemed convinced that it was part of her job to assist the technical writers with unsolicited direction and advice. She’d stop by every few days with really basic instruction on how to do my job. I wish I had had some of these lines because all I ever managed was a perplexed or confused or I’m afraid even an offended stare.

  33. Hmmmmer Simpson*

    I’m late to the party, but I say the best course of action is to address the behavior directly. I suspect the employee may be used to a boss who appreciates this kind of behavior, and doesn’t know that OP doesn’t find it helpful. It sounds odd but I am adjusting working for a new boss who is so busy, he wants me to give correction/instructions. I could see it being difficult *not* to do that after working with someone who appreciates it for a while.

  34. Flabbernabbit*

    Speaking that way to your manager is a non starter. So is the subservient sounding “have I done something to make you think I don’t have my work under control?” recommended response. The OP sounds like she had an already good relationship with her employee. I’ve had success as a manager saying gently, warmly “Hey, hey, Carol, careful who you are ordering around. Now, what are you trying to ask me?” I’ve had managers take this tack with me as well, and I got the message to change my tone and still able to restate my point in a better way. It usually happens when employees or coworkers become too familiar and go a little too far. Being approachable and friendly does not mean you get to abandon business norms for respectful communication.

  35. Just call me sheldon*

    Wow. I have always communicated with my managers in phrases just like this. Happily employed for over 40 years in 3 different industries. However I always worked with factory workers, scientists and engineers. It never occurred to me that anyone would be annoyed by this. However, I was always working in large complex operations where everyone knew that procedures changed daily due to broken equipment or process adjustments. I hope everyone gives a much higher likelihood to “no harm meant – I am conveying information because we all see the standard process fail frequently ” than “I am trying to control you”

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