my assistant thinks she’s my peer

A reader asks:

My assistant does her work well. However, we’re similar in age, and I think that makes her speak much more candidly with me than she otherwise might. She borders on rude in conversations, especially if I correct her on anything or ask her to do something differently, and she asserts herself in projects so much it seems that she forgets I’m the one with final say. It’s great that she has so many ideas, but she’s very new to this industry and very early in her career, so sometimes her ideas aren’t feasible or just wouldn’t work for our company. When I tell her that X won’t work and why and suggest something else, she usually argues with me or sends back terse responses that indicate she thinks it’s a terrible idea. She often oversteps by volunteering to do work on projects that no one has asked for, or phrasing her ideas as things we’re 100% going to do without asking for feedback.

I have an incredibly demanding workload, and going back and forth with her on projects is starting to create more work (and a lot of frustrations) for me. She’s generally a little clueless about how this industry works (and office etiquette in general), so maybe she doesn’t understand that usually assistants don’t get to be this argumentative for projects they’re helping with. But I have no idea how to tell someone they’re being too assertive for their position. How can I talk to her about how she communicates?

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.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. ecnaseener*

    I wish we could’ve had an update to this one, bc I can’t decide what I think is going on here! An attempt at gumption, genuine blindness to office norms, misunderstanding that “assistant to the [title]” is not the same thing as “assistant [title]” ?

  2. Sara without an H*

    I went back and looked at the original post (from October 17, 2017) — there’s a lot more detail there. Part of the problem, apparently, is that the OP was also very new in her position and the assistant didn’t actually report to her. (At least, as far as I could tell from the original post.)

    As I see it, the assistant was not clear on what her role actually was, and the OP wasn’t sure how to project authority appropriately. OP, if you’re out there, can you send us an update?

    1. Sara without an H*

      Correction: the original post was October 24, 2017. But if you paste the title of the post into the search box, it comes up easily.

      1. Katalyst*

        I think these 2 paragraphs sum up most of the additional context:
        I’m a (relatively) recent grad who has been working at my company for six months. After working here for around two months, my direct superior left, and I took over all of her work. This has been challenging, but I’ve enjoyed having so many responsibilities when I’m still new to the workforce. Because of the amount of work I’ve taken on, my boss hired an assistant specifically to help me with my workload. She’s an assistant to the entire office, but most of her job has her working with me. I’m not her manager, but she has a number of tasks that I oversee and sign off on and I’m a few rungs above her in the hierarchy

        I hate pulling rank, but it’s gotten to the point where after going back and forth about something and her not listening feedback, I basically say “Okay, well, this project is my wheelhouse and I think we need to go with *whatever my suggestion was.*” We’re having a meeting with my boss soon about the project, and I’m concerned this assistant is going to take over the meeting with her (frankly bad) ideas and make it look like I don’t know how to manage her, or that we don’t know how to communicate with one another. I also still have an incredibly demanding workload, and frankly going back and forth with her on projects is starting to create more work (and a lot of frustrations) for me. I know how annoying it is to be an assistant and feel like your ideas aren’t getting heard, but she really needs to learn her place in the company, or at least learn to communicate more respectfully.

        1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          “well, this project is my wheelhouse and I think we need to go with”
          Here’s the critical piece indeed.
          OP needs to state, “This is my project. We will be going with…” and then let assistant speak.
          If assistant has any new information, address it. If it is rehashing her previous suggestions and her opinion, thank her and shut it down.


          The edits make this letter a completely different situation. Like completely, completely different.

          Honestly, the additional context makes me think LW might be confused if the assistant was ever supposed to report to her, even on a project basis, or actually is supposed to be a partner on the work. I would bet dollars to donuts that LW has completely misread the situation and it was ultimately resolved by backfilling LW’s supervisor. To me this smells a lot like that letter where someone new to the workforce wanted to use the CEO’s EA as their assistant because they fundamentally didn’t understand or respect people in the operations or administrative bands. If LW is a recent grad I find the thing where they said they’re higher up on the extremely hierarchy suspect.

          1. Wisteria*

            “The edits make this letter a completely different situation. Like completely, completely different.”

            The answer was appropriate to the edited letter.

            “If LW is a recent grad I find the thing where they said they’re higher up on the hierarchy extremely suspect.”

            Well, a newly graduated Llama Groomer is still senior to an seasoned Llama Grooming Assistant.

          2. MCMonkeyBean*

            I don’t agree that it changes anything much at all. Whether or not the assistant reports to OP overall doesn’t matter; what matters is that OP is the one running the projects and no one assisting her on her project should be so insistent that their ideas should be the one that get used.

    2. Agency Life*

      This is kind of where I’m at.

      I worked in a role for a time where I was an account executive. We had account assistants. One person was brought on to support our largest client as an account assistant. The largest client was my client. So they were an AA for the agency as a whole and most of their work was for my client but they did not report to me and I would never say they were MY assistant.

      It feels to me from the original letter that this is what is happening and there’s some miscommunication. The assistant doesn’t seem to fully understand their role but I’m not so sure OP does either just by virtue of the fact that they say this person helps the whole office and the OP doesn’t supervise them.

      1. Green Tea*

        Yeah that stood out to me as well. We have assistants, and then very high-level execs get their own executive assistant who they also directly manage.

        It would be considered really rude and out-of-touch for me or anyone else to refer to a team assistant as ‘my assistant’ even if they were doing a lot of work with me. Like, make an enemy out of that assistant for life level of rude.

        This feels like two people who are both slightly in the wrong, and not just one.

        1. Myrin*

          In the original letter it says “Because of the amount of work I’ve taken on, my boss hired an assistant specifically to help me with my workload”, so while she’s not technically OP’s assistant, in effect, she was only ever hired because of OP and to assist OP with a side of “assisting the whole department if necessary”.
          But even apart from that, she’s argumentative and thinks she gets a say in OP’s decisions, which would not fly either way.

          1. ALLCAPSRESUME*

            There’s a big difference between someone being hired specifically to help with a type of work and someone being hired to be an assistant to someone performing the work, particularly if it is work being performed by someone who inherited it from their supervisor who left. Particularly if the person in lower job wasn’t actually promoted to the higher job. If the person had been promoted, they would have hired someone into their old job. That backfill really would have been specifically hired to assist the promoted person. Creating a new job that takes over part of the left over workload that specifically doesn’t report to the person who was not promoted is completely different and I don’t think LW gets it. If this person was supposed to be their assistant, they would be their assistant and would report to them.

            I’m very curious if the new person is really argumentative or just really frustrated that this person who is not their boss keeps acting like they’re the boss. People can be so demeaning and entitled to people in operations and administrative jobs without realizing they are doing anything wrong – particularly recent grads who don’t understand they’re the ones perceiving office norms incorrectly.

          2. hbc*

            But you can hire, say, a junior purchaser because a senior purchaser is overloaded, and that can be everything from “report to the senior purchaser and do everything they tell you” to “split the work with the senior purchaser based on what makes sense on skill level.” I can read that sentence about the boss’ hiring plan as anywhere on that spectrum. Which includes not necessarily “assisting OP” but maybe taking on 30 hours of X Project work per week so OP has a more manageable amount.

  3. Lost In Nonprofitland*

    Oof. Wish I had this advice 12 years ago, when I was in my first full-time job out of college and my unpaid intern was three years older than me. She was a decent intern for the first three weeks, and then as soon as she found out she was older than me, she just stopped doing anything and started to get WAY lax about her preset internship times. I wasn’t confident enough in my ability to manage to deal with the problem effectively for the next five weeks of her internship.

    1. ferrina*

      It’s a tough situation. I once had an assistant who I supervised who did this. There was no question on rank- I was team lead and set the standards and protocols for the team. But she declined to listen to me because I was “the same age as [her] granddaughter, and [she] won’t be bossed around be [her] granddaughter.”
      She would only do her job if I was literally watching her, and sometimes would stop because she didn’t like the process I set. I dealt with it as much as I could, then I escalated it to the managers (who were the only ones who could actually take disciplinary action or move her to another team). When they refused to do anything, I got a new job.

      1. ACL*

        I hired someone once, many years ago, as a receptionist. She overstepped, I called her into my office and said something about appreciating her intent, which was meant to be positive, but asked her to please run any similar ideas (which in this case was collecting some personal information from the other employees and how it was to be used) by me first. I would then run ideas past the manager, as I did with any policy things that I wanted to do.

        Boy was I shocked when she accused me of being prejudiced.

        I reported what happened to the manager, who basically put his tail between his legs, apparently frightened that she might sue. After a bit of this nonsense, of her not doing her job, not respecting me, I told the manager that either she goes or I go. I was giving him the chance to make a decision. He didn’t, so I did and I left. I heard that shortly after she was fired.

        1. Marcella*

          this is almost identical to an experience I had. It backfired badly because she was fired after I left and registered a blistering complaint against the person who protected her, who got put on the lay off list. People who refuse to address a barking dog are surprised when they get bitten.

  4. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    The original letter in 2017 had a lot more detail that changes my perspective on this whole scenario, but commenting on this edited version… “argumentative” communication is not really OK even among work peers, so that could be addressed specifically. The way to not go back and forth on projects is to just drop the rope on that one; the OP is the one with the power. When the assistant argues back, end the conversation and let her know that the decision is made — don’t try to explain, cajole, suggest, or tell her her ideas are “great, but just not now”…

  5. Chilipepper Attitude*

    I know it is an older letter, but I think an additional thing to address if you are in this situation is HOW and when you do want her to share ideas. Will you have weekly or daily meetings where she can share her ideas? During meetings to go over projects? Don’t just tell her what not to do, tell her what to do.

    1. Clemgo3165*

      This is a great comment. I’ve been in the assistant’s position – assisting the person but not a direct report. I found out that the person I was assisting in addition to my other duties didn’t think I was deferential enough to her. I could have used some clarity early on as to what deferential looked like to her. It would have saved a lot of time and difficulty for both of us.

      That said, some of us just need to drive the train, we’re not cut out to be assistants and that’s OK.

  6. HiHi*

    I think it’s also so important to address all the issues as they arise. My first job out of college, about three months in, I got pulled in by a supervisor and was told I had to improve or they would have to fire me. I was so blindsided cause no one ever told me I was doing anything wrong. How is one supposed to improve if they have no idea what they are doing wrong? When I asked what do I need to work on, she had no idea. My performance was “overall not enough.” I ended up asking on of my senior coworkers to work with me to identify what needed improving as the leadership didn’t know. It took about two weeks to identify opportunities of improvement and I started to nail all my assignments. But I was so close to being fired and had no idea.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Ouch. I think supervisor needed a talking to as well about how to supervise. Good on you for being proactive and succeeding from such a crap position.

    2. kiki*

      Yeah, I think this is something where people are trying to be nice but it doesn’t end up being kind. In a workplace setting, people do need to speak up when somebody is doing something wrong or not fulfilling their duties. Standing by and watching somebody do their job wrong doesn’t help anyone!

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      This seems like a gross misstatement of the situation. Someone being rude (especially in reaction to feedback) and trying to overstep their manager is a problem.

    2. Dorothea Vincy*

      If the assistant is rude and argumentative, then it doesn’t matter how great her ideas are; she’s still not expressing them in a way that’s likely to get them taken seriously. The OP doesn’t have to put up with rudeness in the name of “respecting” the assistant’s ideas.

    3. Mallory Janis Ian*

      But the ultimate responsibility for the projects belongs to the OP. The assistant is trying to wrest the decision-making power from her by just doing what she wants to do; that’s not how a support role works.

      I was an assistant for about fifteen years, and I would make suggestions or provide information that I thought my bosses might not have, but once I’d done that, the ball was in their court. Sometimes the information I provided caused them to modify their plans, and sometimes it didn’t, but I’d done my part by providing it; what they did with it was their decision.

      1. North Wind*

        ^^^ This.

        I’m consulting on a project, providing the technical know-how. In most projects, I also provide guidance on best practices and what to implement, not just technically how to. But for this particular project, there’s the client making the decisions, a UI create-the-wireframe consultant, a data consultant, and me.

        Decisions have been made that I feel so, so strongly are going to make the user experience murky and lead to lower adoption. I’ve floated my opinions and prior experience in meetings, but the client isn’t interested in my take on this; he is set on the direction he’s going. For me to continue raising the points or arguing back with him that what he’s doing is counter to his stated goals would not change his mind, and is not the role I was really hired for. So I am teaching them how to technically implement what they want to do, and that’s ok. That’s my role in this situation.

        We are so far apart philosophically on what is the right thing to do (and basic communication has been so challenging) that I won’t be working with this client after this project, but for the duration of this project I can see what my role is here and fulfill that just fine.

      2. Mizzmarymack*

        Having actively NOT APPLIED for my boss’ job I have a policy and a mantra for what I believe are stupid decisions:

        My policy: I will sit down and list out my concerns with the impact of this stupid decision. Anything that can possibly be seen as a difference in opinion is taken off the list. I will bring up the remaining items, usually in a multi person meeting about the issue ONCE. After that, it’s the bosses’ decision.

        My mantra: I am paid to implement other people’s stupid decisions.

        For example, a reporting tool I built was redesigned last spring. I was concerned about archiving and comparing to past months. I brought it up, in context of some reporting regulations we have to follow and was told that 1) it was no big deal, and 2) the stupidest thing I ever heard would allow us to comply. We have not had month over month reporting since they implemented the redesign, but I get the same salary if I spend an hour on manually entering in the month-over-month data or if I do something else. This was my bosses’ (three levels of them!) choice and I’m at peace with that.


      Allison edited the letter to the point that it’s a completely different situation here – like to the point that I don’t even think it counts as a real letter or a real situation anymore.

      In the original letter you find you that the person isn’t LW’s assistant and the situation is very “why does this person who doesn’t report to me and isn’t my assistant keep acting like they don’t report to me and are not my assistant?!”

      1. Wisteria*

        I wouldn’t put it that way. Both the original and the edited letter describe situations where an assistant is acting like a decision maker and is somewhat rude about it. Regardless of reporting chains and experience levels, assistants are not decision makers. Advice on how to respond to a non-decision maker giving input beyond their capacity is useful.

      2. No Longer Looking*

        My understanding is that sometimes when Alison is writing for one of her paid gigs she chooses to focus the letters, both for word count and because she believes that the refocus will be more useful to the intended audience of the writing. I figure as long as she continues to get paid to present that work, she is probably correct, and she has a lot more experience in that realm than I do. :)

    5. Nom*

      I think as written the letter isn’t about that but i did get the same feeling reading it… like there’s something the LW is hiding (it turns out this is due to the letter being edited (which is fine!)).

    6. blood orange*

      I completely hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think that’s what is happening here. What Jennifer Strange stated is accurate, and I’ve seen assistants who didn’t navigate giving feedback and then moving forward well.

      We had one for years who had developed an unhealthy work relationship with her boss (the CEO). They became so buddy-buddy that when it was time for him to just make a call and she disagreed it turned into a blow up, and she would be passive aggressive for days afterwards. Seemingly minor things, like how to clean the office, or where supplies would be stored. She once yelled at me in the middle of my office because I used paper plates she had purchased for our communal kitchen for a company picnic (there were ~500 plates for an office of 20. the supply was seriously fine.). This isn’t the same as OP’s situation, but it’s an example of out of balance boundaries.

  7. Marcella*

    I deal with this in marketing quite a bit. Last year I had a very junior support person who would interrupt me, contradict me, try to veto campaigns and get angry if his ideas weren’t chosen. Zero marketing experience but he thought he was a genius. I stressed over and over that while his ideas were welcome, his directives were not. He pulled the same attitude with DEI, got shut down, and let everyone know he was job hunting. Couldn’t land the position he thought he deserved and got a little more humble.

    I think some people feel they’re advocating for themselves or showing their strengths and being assertive with this behavior. Expressing your viewpoint while respecting someone’s authority is a valuable skill and sometimes it takes coaching.

  8. Poppy*

    I worked with a 21 year old who thought she was on the same level as the veterinarians and often asked to do things that were literally illegal without a vet license. She would pout when told no. She also showed up hungover regularly on Mondays and unfortunate my boss thought it was cute so he let it slide. He thought everything she did wrong was adorable and refused to let us put up any signage describing how to process blood after she ruined several samples (I had to redraw that blood for free).

    1. my flabber is gasted*

      Holy shit. Ignoring the legal implications, did your boss not realize how expensive/potentially stressful to the pets (& clients) it is to rerun bloodwork??

  9. Poppy*

    He would bend over absolutely backwards most times the office staff and assistants wanted anything. They were rarely on time to work and thought the vets should just answer calls until they bothered to show up. One person even would put the wrong pets on the schedule which was AWESOME when I asked a client about updating Fluffy’s vaccines and she had died two years before and they just never bothered to mark her deceased.
    He also tried to put one office staff member on unpaid leave for being pregnant so that was great. When you weren’t his favorite anymore (like you were pregnant and he didn’t want to bang you) it was bad.
    I stopped letting the hungover assistant process any blood after having to redo multiple patients’ worth. Unfortunately it just made my 10+ hour days even longer.

  10. TomThePoster*

    One thing I think about this is… that I’d hate to work in these sort of environments… and like the fact that my linne or work encourages autonomy and team work.

    That said, I can’t help but feel that maybe the “interface” to the assistant is wrong. It feels a bit like they might be getting dragged into “all the work” rather than having well defined things that that they can work on, have some sort of agency over and feel a sense of achievement for doing.

    Is there a subset of the work which can provide the assistant with genuine growth so she doesn’t have to trample on your work?

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