transcript of “My Coworkers Say My Boss is in Love with Me” This is a transcript of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “My coworkers say my boss is in love with me.” Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Today I’m going to answer a bunch of shorter questions from people. The first question today is from someone who has a warm, friendly relationship with her manager and other people don’t like it – and she’s not sure about it either. Caller 1: Hi, I have a question. I work in an office, there are about five other individuals in my division that report to the same manager. This manager is several years younger than me (I’m in my mid-thirties), and he is about twenty years younger than my colleagues. My colleagues have, and continue to, question his authority due to his age and relative inexperience in the industry. My manager and I get along fairly well and although we aren’t friends, we’re friendly. I assume that a lot of this has to do with our age, in that we’re going through similar life experiences – we’re both newly married and have young children. I realize that he’s my manager, and I keep him at a friendly distance, but I fear that more and more frequently he’s coming to me as a friend to chat, almost on a daily basis. So, two questions: how do I keep my relationship with my manager friendly, but make it clear that I don’t want it to cross over into legitimate friend territory? It’s not my intention to be his friend, but I feel that keeping an open, warm relationship with my manager and colleagues is essential to my happiness at work, due to the collaborative nature of my job. Secondly, how do I manage my relationship with my colleagues? I worry that if they see me and my manager being friendly, that they will start talking about me behind my back as well. What troubles me is that they’ve already started teasing me that our manager is “in love with me,” simply because we are friendly-ish and are of opposite genders. I don’t want that to get out of hand or make it up the tree to HR or to someone who doesn’t see it as a joke. How do I nip this on both fronts? Or should I just continue to maintain my friendly distance with my manager and ignore my colleagues’ comments? Thanks for any insight, I appreciate it. Alison: There’s a lot going on here! And your colleagues, who I think if I’m doing the math here correctly, are being really childish. First, let’s talk about how to keep the relationship with your manager friendly, but not friends. Having an open, warm relationship with your boss is a great thing, and you’re also right that at the same time you need to be thoughtful about making sure that it doesn’t start feeling more like actual friends … because that can cause all sorts of problems, like not getting objective feedback when you need to hear it, or the appearance of favoritism to others and people questioning if you’re getting special treatment, whether or not you really are. Plus, the power dynamics make it weird – like with a true friend, if you wanted to say no to plans or talk to them about something they did that upset you, you could do that – but when it’s your manager, the power dynamics can really complicate those things. Anyway, it sounds like you already know all this and you know you don’t want it to become a friendship, but I’m listing that all out for people listening who might be thinking, what’s the big deal? Okay, so how do you keep the boundary? I think it’s fine to talk about shared experiences, like both having young children, but you want to watch out for it getting too personal. Like, it’s fine to talk about how you’re handling sleep training or how weird those parent and child dance classes are, but you probably want to stay away from more emotionally intimate stuff, like how having kids has affected your relationship with your spouse or the way it’s making you revisit some hard stuff from your own childhood, or so forth. It’s the emotionally intimate stuff that you want to avoid. And I know in some ways that can suck, because being vulnerable can be such a powerful way to connect – but in this case, you’re trying to avoid that specific type of connection. The other thing I’d look at is how much the two of you are talking. If you’re routinely having hour-long conversations about non-work stuff, that’s too much. You absolutely can have real conversations about life with your boss, but put limits on it. 10 or 15 minutes here and there is completely fine. But when it’s frequently going longer than that, then you’re more in a problem zone. Now, you mentioned that more and more often, he’s coming to you to chat as a friend, almost daily. This is tricky, because power dynamics can make it weird to push back on that, and because he’s your boss, you probably worry that seeing chilly or standoffish could affect your work relationship too. (And this is one of the reasons that being friends with a boss is bad, by the way – because you shouldn’t have to worry that the way you manage a friendship will affect you professionally.) Anyway, I think you can take a light touch in setting boundaries, but still set them. So like, when he comes into chat, it’s okay to be on a deadline or about to need to make a phone call. You can say, “hey, can I catch you later, I’m about to jump on a call” or after talking for a little bit, “well, I better get back to this, I’ve got to finish it up before I leave today” or so forth. As long as your tone is warm and friendly during the conversation part, you should be able to do the “I’ve got to get back to this” part without seeming chilly. Now, let’s talk about the other part of your question: managing your relationship with your coworkers. They’ve started teasing you that your boss is in love with you – which is so incredibly inappropriate. This is a workplace, it’s not grade school, and they’re playing with people’s professional reputations here. It’s really not cool. I’m also not loving how they’re questioning his authority because of his age and his relative inexperience in your field. You said you’re in your mid 30s and he’s a few years younger – so he’s like, what, 30ish. It’s not like your company hired someone 22 and straight of college with no work experience to manage your team. So your coworkers sound like they’re being kind of awful. Now, if he really doesn’t have the expertise to manage the team, that’s a legitimate issue – but you didn’t mention that’s what’s going on, so I have the impression that your coworkers are not the greatest. Anyway, I think you absolutely have to put a stop to the comments about him being in love with you. In addition to being bizarrely juvenile and just inappropriate for work, that really does have the potential to affect his reputation and potentially even cause HR problems for him. So the next time you hear something like that, shut it down and do it in a pretty stern tone so it’s clear you’re not joking, because I’m worried that otherwise that will become part of the banter that they think they have going on – that they say it and you protest. So make it clear from your tone that you’re seriously. Say something like, “That’s really not funny. That could cause a lot of problems if someone hears that and didn’t know you were joking. Don’t say that again.” And if you get pushback on that, say, “I’m serious. You’re being really reckless with people’s professional reputations. Stop.” So, stern, serious, not joking around. And your colleagues are acting like children. Okay, I hope that helps! Here’s our next caller. Caller 2: Hi Alison, I’m loving the podcast. I’m actually a new listener, so I’m listening to the back catalogue, and I just listened to the episode on salary negotiation which I found super helpful. My question is, most of the job offers I’ve had in the last five years or so have come to me via email, in an attachment, something like that. I’m wondering how to broach the conversation when you’re not already talking to the manager, if that makes sense. In the examples that you gave on the podcast, you talked about when they make the offer, counter immediately with a “Are you flexible with the salary?” But when you’re receiving this in an email and you’re trying to get back to them, how do you start that conversation – especially if you’re not sitting at the desk or on the phone with them in that moment? I’d really appreciate your insight. Thank you so much. Alison: Ah! You want to get on the phone for this, if at all possible. So if the job offer comes in an email, you reply to the email and say, “I’m really excited to get this offer. Could we set up a time to talk by phone in the next day or two? I have a few questions that I wanted to talk through.” That’s it! And then when you get on the phone with them, you start by reiterating that you’re really excited for the offer – you say something like, “I was really glad to get the offer. I’m excited about this role and the work you do. Thanks for making the time to talk through some of my questions with me.” And then maybe here you ask something else here that you’re wondering about – like what kind of start date they’re looking for, or any other questions you have. If you have a list of eight questions, you don’t need to run through them all before salary, but I’d do one or two. And then say, “Do you have any flexibility on the salary?” … and then you go from there, with the negotiation advice from the episode you referenced. And for people looking for that episode, if you want to listen to it, it’s the episode from April 25, 2018, called “What Should Salary Negotiation Sound Like?” Caller 3: Hi, I have a question about when your boss, in a performance review, suddenly asks you if you have a problem with him. This just happened to me recently and I was floored. I didn’t know what to say, because there are things that I don’t particularly care that he does, but I felt like it was a trap and that he would just get defensive and angry. I tried to deflect any answer, but how do you handle something like that when you’re asked that point blank and you do have things that you don’t like about your boss, but you can’t just say, “I don’t like that you do this,” because they’re your boss? I would like to go back and answer the question, but I don’t know how to do that without generating defensiveness on his part. If you could give some advice on that type of question, it would be great. Thank you very much! Alison: So, my first question is, are you assuming he’ll get defensive and angry because he has a track record of getting defensive and angry? If so, this is someone who has forfeited any right to expect honest feedback from you. If managers want honest feedback, they need to create an environment where it’s clear that it’s safe for people to give it. That’s the price of having power. And really, even when a good manager does do the work to create the kind of environment where it’s clear that it’s safe to give feedback – where it’s clear that you won’t be penalized or responded to with anger or defensiveness – some people still won’t give their managers feedback. That’s just how it goes. And a reasonable manager should know that. Anyway, back to your boss. If he’s given you reason to believe he’ll react badly to candid feedback, I would go with a very bland answer. Like, “oh, hmmm, things are fine, there’s nothing in particular that comes to mind!” You might feel weird saying that – it’s hard to stomach saying things are fine when they aren’t – but if you have reason to believe that being honest will make life harder for you … well, that’s still a choice you might decide to make at some point, but it should be after a lot of thought, not on the spur of the moment because he happens to ask you about it. On the other hand, if your boss has a pretty good track record of being open to feedback and taking dissent well, then this is an opportunity to potentially improve your working relationship and benefit both of you. You still don’t need to answer on the spot though! When he was doing your performance review, he had time to prepare and think about what he wanted to say and how he wanted to frame it, and there’s no reason you can’t have that same kind of time to reflect too, and make sure you’re framing things the way you want to. Because so often with high-sensitivity topics, when we just wing it without preparing or reflecting beforehand, it often comes out in a much less productive way than if you do have time to prepare beforehand, which is why good managers don’t do performance evaluations on the fly, and you shouldn’t have to do the equivalent of a boss evaluation on the fly either. It’s fine to say, “Can I give that some thought and come back to you in the next few days or talk about it at our next meeting?” Now, in this case, your boss wasn’t just asking for feedback, he asked if you had a problem with him. That’s a more specific thing, and it sounds like he’s gotten the impression that maybe you do have a problem with him! So the first thing I’d want to understand in your shoes is why he thinks that. So I’d use a tone that expresses a little concern about him having that impression, and see what else you can find out. So this is what you would have done in the moment if we could go back in time, which unfortunately we cannot. So ideally you would have said something on the spot like, “Oh my goodness, have I given you that impression? I certainly wouldn’t want you to think that.” Or you could even say, “I do have some things that worry me, but I’m concerned that I’ve given you the impression that I have a problem with you. Can you tell me more about what’s concerning you?” Anyway, it sounds like in the moment you deflected, which is fine – we do that, we’re human – but now you want to go back and answer. If you know him to be someone who will handle that kind of conversation well, you could say, “I’ve been thinking about your question the other day about whether I have concerns about our work relationship.” And let’s use some examples here, let’s say … let me think of an example … let’s say you feel he changes his mind a lot after your work is already underway, and it’s frustrating and causes you to waste time because you’re having to go back and change your work a lot. So you could say, “I’ve been thinking about your question the other day about whether I have concerns about our work relationship. I do think that we could benefit from a better way of figuring out parameters of projects before I’m too far into them. Like with the X project, I’d put in a fair amount of work before hearing that you actually wanted me to do Y instead. I wonder if there’s a better way for us to draw those kinds of details out before I’ve put in a lot time. It would probably be less frustrating for each of us and save both of us time.” Now, the tone there is collaborative. It’s not venting, it’s not “ech, I’m so relieved to finally have an outlet to express my frustration with you.” It’s constructive, it’s collaborative, it’s curious, is there a better way, can we mull this over? Now, note in the language here, you’re not just saying “I don’t like that you do X.” You’re saying “I wonder if there’s a better way for us to handle X.” So it’s not just a complaint – it’s more forward-looking, like “can we figure out a better way to approach this?” That framing can sometimes help if you’re worried about someone feeling defensive. But again, if this is someone who gets defensive and angry, all bets are off and I’d proceed with extreme caution. Okay, here’s our next caller. Caller 4: I am a recent college graduate in my first “real” job post-college. I work for a fantastic company with a great culture, and I was even paired with a mentor early on as some of us work remotely, so that I had an additional point of contact with my company. My team has 6 people in it (myself and 3 other project managers, 1 support member, and our director). My project happens to be the smallest on the team. My boss, who is really great, has given me a lot of autonomy in my work, but recently has started canceling and rescheduling our weekly 1:1s. I get feedback that I am doing a good job – keeping myself organized and right on track. However, recently my client has been pushing back against my work and making suggestions which make it difficult for me to maximize my KPIs. How do I tell my boss I am frustrated? And how do I tell her without sounding like I can’t man my own ship? Alison: Okay, first of all, for people who are like “what is a KPI?” it’s stands for Key Performance Indicator and it’s a metric of well you’re achieving the goals of your job. You’re not going to sound like you can’t man your own ship just because you want some contact with your boss! And that’s especially true because you’re right out of college in your first professional job. No one is going to find it weird that you want some contact with your boss and some guidance from your boss! That’s totally normal. In fact, what is a problem is when someone early in their career doesn’t want that or doesn’t think they need it – that causes problems. This is just you being conscientious. So, I would say this to your boss: “Could we try to get back to meeting regularly? I’d found that really helpful when we do, and now that we’re not meeting so often, I’m finding that I have questions and things I need guidance on.” That’s it! That’s a perfectly reasonable request and it’s completely okay to ask. And then, in those meetings, let her know what’s happening with your client, and ask for her advice on how to navigate it. That’s exactly the sort of thing that one-on-ones are for, and you should use her as a resource when you’re running into any weirdness or frustrations with clients. It is true that there’s a point in your career where you’ll be expected to do more of that problem solving on your own, but that point is many, many years away. I mean, you’re a new grad! It makes sense that you want and need help with this stuff. So just be explicit with your boss that you want it. Caller 5: I’m calling about the issue of tardiness in offices, especially in New York City. I’ve heard mixed things from different friends, and I’ve had various experiences with what’s expected and what’s acceptable in terms of the trains being late or something unexpected happening during your commute. The place where I work, my commute is about 40 minutes, and I always give myself a cushion of about 20 minutes, and that usually works out pretty well. Sometimes I get there in 40, sometimes it takes closer to an hour, depending on if there’s a delay or a sick passenger etc. I always do the best that I can to let my boss know that I am going to be late – as soon as I know, I send him a text – and it’s never more than 10 minutes. However, if I’m even two minutes late, he often sends what I perceive to be a passive-aggressive text message. This morning he sent me one… I was five minutes late this morning, I let him know three minutes before. He sent me a text that said, “You really need to plan ahead for this!” And kind of went on a little mini text rant about it. He does the exact same thing every time this happens – and it doesn’t happen very often with me. I consider myself a very good employee, I always meet my deadlines, I’m rarely, rarely late – and when I am, it makes me mad. It’s even worse to get to work and have my boss be passive-aggressive with me about it, because it kind of seems like, aren’t we adults? Can’t we just have an understanding that sometimes things happen, and if you’re five minutes late, when you’re not late for a meeting or something… I don’t know. I’m not trying to question the rules. I’m just wondering how I can move forward at this job where I feel shamed for being five minutes late when I feel that I’ve done everything I can do. And I’m getting all my work done, and I’m getting accolades for my work, and I’m generally well-liked at work. This is really the only issue – my boss is often moody about certain topics, and I never really know when he will be moody. I do try to handle this with professionalism and just respond, but is it rude of me, when he says, “you really need to plan ahead for this”, is it rude of me to then respond and say, “I did plan ahead, today was just a particularly rough day, sorry about that.” I feel like the more it happens, the more it gets under his skin – but I feel that things are going to happen, and it might happen once every couple of months. Alison: Okay, I don’t like the answer I’m going to give here. You’re not going to like it either. I think maybe you need to leave 10 minutes earlier. The reason I don’t like this answer is that I agree with you. In most jobs, being 5 minutes late just should not be a big deal. Obviously there are jobs where it is a big deal, like if you have to cover phones or work at the front desk or other jobs where coverage is really important. But for a ton of jobs, and I’m assuming this is the case with your, being 5 minutes late really shouldn’t matter. But there are definitely bosses who think that it does, and it sounds like you have one of them. He’s going to chastise you for it every time it happens and send you irate texts and maybe he’s going to think you’re less reliable because of it, which is incredibly unfair and unwarranted, but it’s the reality that you’ve got to work with. It’s a stupid reality, but there it is. Given that reality, I think the way to solve this is probably to leave 10 minutes earlier. That will mean that on days when you don’t need that buffer, you will you get there earlier than you need to, and that’s just how this stuff goes. I get that that’s annoying. I would be annoyed. But when you’re telling your boss “I did plan ahead but the commute was unexpectedly bad,” he’s skeptical – because after it’s happened a few times, I’m very sure that what he’s thinking is that “planning ahead” means giving yourself a bigger buffer than you , and he’s thinking you should realize that. Again, this is stupid if it doesn’t happen much and doesn’t impact your job. But you’ve got a boss who thinks it’s a big deal, so that is what I’d advise, annoying as it is. I will say that my advice would be different if we weren’t talking about 10 minutes. If you were going to have to leave, like 45 minutes earlier than you are now, or an hour earlier, just to keep this from happening a couple of times a year, I’d say that was unreasonable enough that you shouldn’t do it. But if just 10 minutes will solve it, that’s what I’d try. The other option is to try to sit down and talk to him about it. I’m skeptical from the way you described his responses previously, I’m skeptical that this will work, but you could give it a shot. You could sit down and you could say, “Hey, you’ve made it clear that you don’t want this to happen, but public transportation here can be really unreliable. I’m leaving myself a substantial buffer and it’s usually enough, but very occasionally it’s not. I think I do good work and am highly reliable, and so I’m asking if there’s a way for us to agree that as long as it’s not happening regularly, it’s part of the way the trains work in our city.” He may say yes, he may say no, but it could be worth having the conversation, if you feel like you have the capital to spare for it. Capital in this case meaning that you’re otherwise in good standing, he likes your work, you haven’t just asked for a bunch of other exceptions to things, and so forth. We’ve got time for one more quick question. Caller 6: Hi Alison, long time listener and fan of Ask a Manager. Many years ago, one of my first positions was at a small nonprofit, and long story short, I looked it up and the non-profit has changed its name and no longer has the same title. Additionally, all of my former coworkers have since moved on. What do I do in terms of this spot on my resume? Do I mention that it’s updated? Do I take it off? I was there for a year, so I don’t want to leave that off. And I can’t even put anyone down as a reference – no one is there anymore that I used to know. What should I do for this spot on my resume? Thanks. Alison: There’s a very easy solution here! On your resume, for the name of this employer, put the name of the organization that it had when you worked there, and then in parentheses put the new name. So like if the organization used to be called Tea Drinkers of America, and now it’s called Tea For All (Tea For All is the organization I dream of running one day), you’d write “Tea Drinkers of America (now Tea For All). That’s it! On the question of references, just because your former coworkers aren’t still there, that doesn’t mean they can’t still serve as a reference. It’s really normal for someone to be a reference even after they’ve moved on to another job. If the issue is that you can’t track them down, I would try LinkedIn. But the other thing is, you said this was many years ago, so you probably don’t need references from a job that was many years ago for only one year. In fact, depending on how long ago it was, you might not even need it on your resume at all, as long as you have 10-15 years of your most recent experience. If this was before that, you could leave it off altogether. Well, that’s our show for today! If you’d like to hear your question answered on a future episode, you can record it on the show voicemail by calling (855) 426-WORK. That’s 855-426-9675. Or, you can email a sound file of your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s it for today! I’ll be back next time with more questions. You can see past podcast transcripts here.