advice

Ask a Boss: Everyone Thinks I’m an Assistant!

Welcome to the Cut’s new advice column on office life: Alison Green, who runs the site Ask a Manager, will be answering your questions about work weirdness every Tuesday afternoon.

Dear Boss,

I recently started with a firm as an HR analyst, an entry-level HR role. I actually do a lot of meaningful work. Of course, because this is a junior position, I do some administrative work like helping to manage my boss’s schedule, which overlaps closely with mine since I shadow him, and arranging candidate travel to our office. My boss is the head of HR, and I am the only other HR employee.

I have no problem with administrative tasks and enjoy them. However, my boss is extremely disorganized, and his lack of responsiveness has resulted in a lot of people turning to me to submit receipts from travel we booked on his card or to get an answer from him on a date for a meeting, etc. I think because I have sort of become the HR point person, and because I am young (23), a woman, and new to the firm and HR, some colleagues are beginning to think I am my boss’s assistant. I’ve now had two different employees from other offices reach out to me for things like expense reports or calendar management, and both began their email with “since I understand you’re Elwyn’s assistant …” 

I politely corrected both people. Is there a way for me to avoid being confused for my manager’s assistant? I am hoping to eventually be promoted to a management role as our firm continues to grow, and I feel that it’s not ideal for people to assume I am a general administrative employee and not an HR specialist.

Well, you’re in a junior role in a two-person department, booking travel, and managing your boss’s schedule, which is pretty much a perfect storm for people assuming that you’re an assistant. In fact, based on what you’ve described, it sounds like part of your role is being your boss’s assistant. And that’s okay – there’s no shame in that. Junior roles when you’re just starting out usually do include some assistant-type duties.

But it’s not your whole role! And that’s the part to emphasize when you talk to people outside your department. So, for example, when someone says, “I heard you’re Elwyn’s assistant,” you can reply back, “I’m actually not his assistant – I do benefits and compensation (or whatever your main non-admin responsibilities are) – but I can get this taken care of for you.”

For the record, if those sorts of admin tasks weren’t actually part of your role, I’d tell you to push back on those requests. There’s still an annoying thing where people tend to assume that women, especially younger women, are the natural repositories of the office admin work, and so they ask them to do things that they don’t ask of those women’s male peers, like taking notes at meetings, ordering lunch, or scheduling appointments. When that’s not your job, it’s often smart to push back against those requests because, if you agree in order to be helpful, you can find that you’re increasingly doing admin work while your male colleagues get to spend their time on more substantive projects.

In your case, though, it sounds like the admin work actually is part of your role, so it makes sense to continue doing it cheerfully. But the key will be to make a point of being especially awesome at the non-admin parts of the job. When it comes to deciding where to put the majority of your energy, those are the pieces to go all-out on. (Get the admin stuff done competently, of course, but try to blow their minds on the non-admin stuff.) Put thought, too, into ways to make that non-admin work visible outside of your department, so that people come to know you as something more than the person handling Elwyn’s schedule.

The more you become known for being stellar at Substantive Project A or Meaningful Project B, the less sense it will make for your employer to have you spend your time assisting others, and the more likely you are to get loaded up with the non-admin work that you’re most interested in.

Dear Boss,

I just accepted a new job (yay!). Since I have this fresh start, I really want to work on one thing that has been bothering me lately … that I always become friends with my bosses. If it matters, my past three bosses have all been female and about my age, very late 20s or early 30s (I made a late career shift, which is why my bosses are my age).

I really try to avoid things that clearly cross the line into friendship territory. For example, I avoid becoming Facebook friends with my superiors. (I tell them is “a rule” I have for myself.) But no matter how hard I try, so many other small “normal” boss-employee interactions tend to bleed into personal territory, and then I give in.

Something as simple as them asking about my weekend often results in us talking about shared mutual interests: music events, weekend fitness activities, movie preferences, etc. Then come the invitations (and no, it’s not a work thing — I’m usually the only employee invited). I’ve been to girls nights, jewelry and/or makeup and/or handbag sales parties, birthday parties, football-game-watching get-togethers, etc. I’ve even been invited on a group cruise (said no to that one)!

This weird “sort of friendship” makes me feel awkward when asking for a raise or giving notice or dealing with a difficult situation at the office. So, I’d really like to draw the line this time. Besides turning down requests to socialize, is there something I can do to discourage friendship? Should I not be sharing so much about my personal life at work? Should I try to seem less friendly? What can I do to be seen as professional?

I think you’re right to want to create different boundaries, for all the reasons you mentioned. Your boss, no matter how much you enjoy her company, is the person who’s charged with assessing your performance, giving you feedback, navigating it when your interests are in conflict with your employer’s interests, and even potentially needing to lay you off or fire you someday. That unequal footing makes a real friendship pretty impossible. And when people ignore that, it usually leads to problems later on. It’s hard under the best of circumstances to, for example, tell someone that her work isn’t good enough or to be on the receiving end of that message. It’s downright excruciating when you just got back from a cruise with the other person.

All that said, I do think it’s fine – and, frankly, nice – to have shared interests with your manager and to chat about non-work topics, as long as you don’t let it get too heavily into your personal life or hers. It’s one thing to talk about books and movies, but you’re really upping the intimacy quotient if you talk about the relationship problems you’re having with your partner or the issues you worked on with your therapist last week. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever mention your partner or share a funny story about your mom or vent for a minute about your annoying neighbor; you absolutely can, because this isn’t about becoming a robot. But if you sense the conversation moving more deeply into more personal issues, that’s a flag that you’re veering into friendship zone. If that happens, cut yourself off by remembering that you have a project you’ve got to get back to, a deadline that’s looming, a call you need to make, or any of the other dozens of legitimate distractions that work supplies.

As for the invitations, it’s okay to be pretty transparent about why you’re saying no. Your managers obviously like you and have good will toward you, so I bet you could pull off saying something like, “If we didn’t work together, I’d love to! I have a terrible pattern of becoming outside-of-work friends with managers, and I’ve vowed to have better boundaries.” The alternative to being direct like this would be to have to make vague excuses every time they issue you an invitation, and that’s more awkward in the long-term than just being honest about your preferences.

You might think, too, about how and whether you’re connecting to managers on social media – particularly Facebook. While it can make sense to connect with your boss on sites like Twitter that might make up part of your professional persona, sites like Facebook tend to reveal more personal information, often without you realizing it – including things like your politics or your health that you might not want lodging in your boss’s head. Especially in a situation where you’re trying to establish better boundaries, it makes sense not to fling open the door to that part of your non-work life.

Ultimately, though, I think this is about getting clarity in your own mind about what kind of relationship you do and don’t want with your boss, and then committing to it. It’s a real benefit to have managers whom you click with and like talking to, and you can still enjoy that; just don’t lose sight of what the relationship needs to be at its core in order for you both to get what you need from it. Think “friendly, but not friends.

Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss@nymag.com.

Ask a Boss: Everyone Thinks I’m an Assistant!