Get Ask a Boss delivered every week.
I was hired into my current job about nine months ago. Good job, great fit, clear-cut responsibilities, all the good things. People are personable and chatty without generally being too pushy or intrusive, which I love. About six months ago, we hired someone I’ll call Fergus — an older gentleman of the managerial persuasion, though it wasn’t immediately obvious what his role was, who was integrated into my team.
It’s a family-oriented office, with lots of parents of all ages, and it’s a pretty common question as I get to know people: “Oh, do you and your husband have kids?” In response I always laugh lightly and say something along the lines of “Nope, not for us. We love our dog though!” Everyone else takes this for what it is — small talk — and then will ask about the dog or change the topic or show me baby pictures, except for Fergus.
Fergus has, at least three or four times, stated that it’s “sad” I’m not having kids, that I’ll regret it, or harrumphed in some way, which I have internally rolled my eyes at and kind of moved on. Except yesterday, he was promoted. He is now a VP here and I report to him directly. He will be in charge of my one-on-ones, job responsibilities, reviews, and raises.
I am dreading more of these comments now that we’re no longer peers. It’s inevitable it will come up again (even if I don’t bring it up or comment on it), and I really wish I could say something along the lines of “It’s really inappropriate to comment on this when you’re my boss,” or even point out that for all he knows, he could be pushing on the sorest of subjects for no reason. (Maybe I’m infertile. Maybe my husband is. Maybe we tried for years before giving up. Maybe someone has a genetic disorder we’re afraid to pass on. None of these things are true in my case, but he doesn’t know that!)
So, if it does come up, what’s the best path here? Something in the moment? A more direct conversation in a one-on-one? Should I wince internally each time and change the subject? I already axed the Most Sarcastic Rejoinders Ever, sadly, because they’re not professional even if I’d be really good at them.
And agggghh to all the other people who think that it’s okay to comment on the reproductive plans of colleagues, which is a bizarrely widespread phenomenon. It’s also decidedly one-way; there are very few people urging colleagues not to reproduce (although they might think it silently) or telling them how “sad” it will be if they do have children. But for some reason a not-insignificant swath of the population finds it perfectly okay to tell people who don’t plan to raise kids how wrong they are and how deeply they’ll regret it.
Now throw in the fact that Fergus is your boss and it gets additionally weird, because the power dynamics in the relationship mean that there’s built-in pressure for you to be polite, even when he’s being rude. (This is one reason why managers should be especially thoughtful about boundaries with their staff members. They can’t necessarily rely on getting the “butt out” cues that they’d get from people in other areas of their lives.)
Of course, if Fergus were a peer, you could be pretty direct about telling him to cut it out — as in, “Please stop commenting on my reproductive plans. They’re not up for discussion.” And who knows, you may develop the kind of relationship where you can say that to him too. But with a new boss, it’s not the approach I’d start with, especially since you may be able to get the outcome you want a different way.
Instead, I’d at least start out more softly. That doesn’t mean you can’t still convey that he needs to chill out with the comments, though. You can, and you should.
The next time he makes another comment about your intentions for your uterus, say something like this: “I really don’t want to keep talking about my plans in this area. Thanks for understanding.” Given the new managerial relationship, and because it’s the first time you’re telling him to cut it out, say it fairly cheerfully. You’ll still be delivering a clear message even if you don’t accompany it with the more cutting tone that he frankly deserves.
It sounds like you haven’t been that direct about shutting it down in the past, and so it’s possible that doing it now will get him to cut it out.
But if it doesn’t and his remarks continue, then it’s time to get more serious about it, which would mean saying something like this: “Now that you’re my boss, I want to ask you to stop commenting about me having kids. Those comments feel too personal in any work situation, but especially from someone with authority over me, which I’m sure you can understand.”
If he’s pretty receptive to that, you could also add something like, “I know you mean well, but those comments can be really painful for people, especially people who are struggling with infertility or miscarriages. I really would recommend avoiding them altogether, because you just never know someone’s situation.”
You will be doing all of society a favor if you point this out to him. And actually, you’ll be doing him a favor too, because he’s inadvertently pissing people off — and possibly deeply upsetting them — when he probably doesn’t intend to. If this is the first time he’s gotten push-back on his baby meddling — and especially if it’s the first time he’s heard an explanation of why it’s inappropriate — it might actually be eye-opening for him.
Either way, that approach will probably take care of it. But if for some reason his comments continue, it’s perfectly reasonable to shut down any further comments in the moment. You can do that by saying, “As you know, my plans in that area aren’t up for discussion. So moving on to [insert work-related topic here] … ”
(And hey, with Thanksgiving approaching, if you have any relatives who suffer from the same affliction as Fergus, they might provide ample opportunity to practice these tactics before you have to deploy them at work.)
Get Ask a Boss delivered every week.
Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to email@example.com.