my boss won’t stop calling my dogs my children, hiring the boss’s girlfriend, and more — Ask a Manager

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It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My boss won’t stop calling my dogs my children

My boss, who is an intelligent and competent person otherwise, will not stop referring to my dogs as my children. I am a woman in my late 30s who, for medical reasons, is unable to have children, so her essentially pointing out that I have pets rather than children, is especially painful. She has not always been my boss at this company and prior to this reporting change, we were personally friendly so she knows the reason I do not have children is that I can’t.

I’ve tried telling her I’d rather keep our check-ins professional, I’ve tried just ignoring and moving on with my agenda, but she does it EVERY WEEK. When I’ve asked her to stop, she’ll stop for that meeting but do it again the next time. It makes me dread our meetings and, honestly, when more jobs open up in my industry as the pandemic situation improves, I’ll probably look for a new job; I just hate reporting to her that much. I loved my job before this reorg. Is there anything else I can do?

What on earth — it’s one thing for her to make this stumble initially, but to keep doing it after you’ve asked her to stop?

When you’ve told her to stop, how explicit was your wording? If it was on the softer end of things — like “oh, I’d rather not talk about my dogs that way” — it’s possible (even likely) that you would get better results by being more explicit. For example:
* “Please stop calling my dogs my children. I find it painful.”
* “You keep saying that after I’ve asked you not to. I’d really like you to stop.”
* “It feels awful when you say that. Please stop, not just for this meeting but all the time.”

If she doesn’t stop after you’re that clear and direct, something is very off with your boss.

2. My husband’s boss wants him to hire the boss’s girlfriend

My husband’s boss wants my husband to consider hiring his girlfriend to work in my husband’s team. My husband knows the girlfriend since they all worked on an assignment before at a different company. My husband thinks he can get a better candidate, but the boss talks as if it’s a done deal and the girlfriend will be the one selected for the position. Also, the boss doesn’t want to be up-front with HR about this to make sure there are no rules prohibiting this; he says he will tell them when they get married, maybe in a year he said, and by that time he is considering moving on to another company.

My husband is worried that if he doesn’t hire her, his position is jeopardized; he is currently a manager and being promised a director position in the future.

Your husband should not hire his boss’s girlfriend; that is likely to be a management nightmare. What if he needs to give her feedback she doesn’t like? What if he has to fire her? What if she ignores him and goes over his head to his boss whenever she wants — for the projects she wants, or exceptions to rules, or blah blah blah? What about the perception of bias that will be in play whether or not it’s warranted, if people know she’s dating her boss’s boss? (None of this is a slam against the girlfriend or to imply she would deliberately use her relationship in inappropriate ways; it’s just that it’s human nature to talk to your significant other about work, especially when you work at the same place, and it is very, very hard to have a firewall on this stuff.)

Beyond all that, what about the legal liability to the company? There’s a reason most companies prohibit dating in your chain of command. It opens them up to allegations of harassment down the road. It’s a terrible idea.

Your husband should talk to HR about what’s going on and ask for help shutting this down — and for help in ensuring the boss doesn’t retaliate against him. (If he wants, he can tell his boss ahead of time that he feels obligated to clear it with HR.)

3. Saying “I” instead of “we” in job interviews

I’m currently a graduate student and I recently had a job interview where I fell into academic language norms in a bad way. It was for a research position so I think my interviewer understood where I was coming from, but every time I was discussing a project I led, I defaulted to “we.”

When giving conference presentations, this is fine because it generally is a team effort and it’s rude to not acknowledge that, even if I’m leading the work. But when it comes to a job interview, I heard myself doing it and cringed! I was the one who made the analytic plan, did all the programming and coding, generated the results and graphs, and published the manuscript! I’m listed as first author on multiple papers (which is the currency in my field, and generally indicates I indeed did all these things), but I still worry I didn’t properly describe my skills. I caught myself during the interview and clarified, “I realize I’m using ‘we’ a lot, but actually I was the one who made the decision to go that direction and did all the coding and writing for that,” and the interviewer laughed and did say they were wondering how much I was doing vs. others were doing in my lab. I tried to correct myself moving forward, but these habits are hard to break. I briefly clarified again in my follow-up thank-you note just in case.

Any suggestions? It’s such a huge norm, especially as a grad student, to be deferential and humble about the work, but I know this will undercut me as I go on the job market in earnest this summer. I’ll need to heavily code switch — it’d be a major faux pas if I say “I” in an academic setting, so I want to develop the skill but keep these parts of my brain separate. For what it’s worth, I’m a fem transgender person of color and I know there’s a lot of gendered and racialized layers to this habit too.

Would it help to mentally reword the interviewer’s questions into, “Tell me what you personally did/achieved on this project/in this situation?”

It’s not that interviewers aren’t interested in the broader context — sometimes they are — but ultimately they’re looking for an understanding of what you contributed and how you operated. That doesn’t mean you need to strike the word “we” from your vocabulary in interviews; you shouldn’t. But at some point in each answer, make sure you’re clarifying specifically what you did.

To complicate this further, the opposite of this can also be off-putting. A candidate who only says “I” and never says “we,” even in cases where clearly a “we” was in play, can come across as problematic too. The point is to get the balance right — to acknowledge your team where it’s relevant, while still being clear about the role you played.

4. People keep booking “getting to know you” meetings with me

I’ve been with my rapidly-growing company for quite awhile now. We have lots of new folks joining constantly. Somehow I seem to have made it on to other managers’ lists of “people to book coffee with” when new employees onboard, I’m guessing because of my historical context. Random people from all over the company will just … put time in my calendar to “get to know you,” even if their teams or projects have absolutely nothing to do with mine and we’ll never work together.

I want to say no to these requests, I really do. They do me absolutely no good, and I feel pretty confident these new hires just forget our conversation in the deluge of onboarding context anyway! Am I being selfish? Should I just suck it up and donate the time? If not, how can I say no in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a(s much of a) jerk? (It’s about 1-2 requests every two weeks, and each meeting takes 30 minutes.)

This is not selfish! If it were, like, one request every few months, that would be one thing — but 1-2 a week?! That’s a huge amount of time.

When people try to schedule these meetings, it should be fine to say, “I’m sorry, I’ve had a lot of these requests lately and I’m having to say no to them because my plate is really full. I know Jane probably suggested it, so I’ll let her know the situation. That said, welcome to the company and I hope we get a chance to talk at some point!”

Then, talk to the managers who you think are behind all this and explain the situation — “In theory I’d love to do it, but I’m getting multiple requests a week for it and realistically I can’t do this many. Since I’m having to turn them down, could you direct new hires to someone else? Thank you!” (I bet each manager thinks they’re the only one who’s thought of this and has no idea you’re being deluged by others too.)

5. Who owns my work?

I work as a coordinator for a small medical office. I wear many hats and one is as a social media manager. The issue with this part of the role is that I was told I would be signing an NDA so that all social media videos, posts, etc. I made would be the property of my boss. This is fine except that I haven’t done this and I’ve been at the job since December.

Does this mean the work is mine? I use my personal account on media planning sites to make the videos, etc. so it’s never under my boss’ name or the office’s name.

No. Assuming you’re an employee and not an independent contractor, what you’re doing is considered “work for hire” — meaning your employer has hired you to do that work and they own it.

An NDA — non-disclosure agreement — wouldn’t have any relevance here; NDAs are about keeping things you learn in the course of your work confidential. They don’t govern who owns what. People mix up legal terms all the time though, so maybe they meant something else? But there’s nothing you need to sign to assign ownership of your work to your employer, assuming that you’re an employee and the work is part of your job for them.

It would be different if you were, say, an accountant and were writing a book in your downtime. Your employer wouldn’t own the book because it’s not part of what they hired you to do. But part of your job is to manage their social media, and the law considers the employer to own “work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.”

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