I work as an event planner who runs trainings and conferences and supports two facilitators, one of whom is my direct supervisor (Anne). I work with another woman (Barbara) in my same role. Together we support my supervisor.
Anne is a single mom to a 10-year-old son with medical needs, “Jake.” Anne has issues finding reliable child care for Jake when he is out of school and on weekends. Unfortunately, this means that she has brought him to trainings and conferences. She expects him to entertain himself, but he’s only 10, so he will get bored and find me or my co-worker to entertain him. Furthermore, she will ask us to remind him to take his medicine and go to the bathroom.
At the last training, Jake got bored and began to shove things into the elevator to get the door stuck open, he karate-chopped me in the chest and stomach, and tried to steal my phone and drop it in a sewer. I told him to stop and ignored some of the behavior. He also climbed onto a table where I was setting up lunch for conference attendees. When Anne came back, Jake hit her. I told her that he had hit me as well, and she laughed it off.
When I told another colleague about this, she told me that the department chair had wanted to fire Barbara for poor performance a couple years ago when Anne first started. But Anne intervened after Barbara provided child care for her son at a weekend conference. Being new to the organization, I thought providing child care was a coincidence (it happened twice), but given this new information, I believe that Anne has a pattern of using us for child care.
How do I tell Anne that (a) I’m not comfortable taking care of her child, especially when (b) he has medical needs and (c) he hits people? I would ask Barbara to push back along with me since she gets saddled with this too, but she enjoys taking care of the kid. For what it’s worth, I do have downtime during the training and experience with child care, but we do not work with children.
We can all agree that working parents need more support, but it’s not okay for your manager to enlist her employees in babysitting her child. That’s not how your employer expects your time to be used at work, and it’s not the work you signed on to do. Most important, though, the power dynamics inherent in the situation mean that you likely feel an obligation to say yes — and worry about the repercussions to your relationship with your boss if you say no. That means that she’s abusing her power, whether she intends to or not. (And that would be true even if Jake were a perfectly behaved child who never tried to karate-chop you or destroy your phone.)
Your boss is also claiming for herself a benefit that I imagine isn’t available to you and Barbara. If you both had your own caretaking responsibilities (kids, elderly parents, or so forth) and wanted to bring dependents to work with you and have co-workers watch them, I suspect that quickly would become a problem.
That’s not to say that it’s never appropriate for a parent to bring their kid to work in an emergency situation. Life happens, and employers should be flexible with people (and not just with parents, but with everyone — we all need more flexibility in our work lives). And we should recognize that there are huge structural barriers for women who are trying to juggle child care and careers, and in general they deserve empathy and support.
But it’s not okay for a manager to ignore the power dynamics here.
Additionally, this setup is made way more problematic if it’s true that Anne changes the way she treats people when they provide her with child care. I’m assuming her protection of Barbara when the chair wanted to fire her wasn’t an explicit trade — it probably wasn’t “If you watch my kid, I’ll save your job.” Anne might not even have consciously realized she was influenced by Barbara’s help. But if Anne favors people who babysit for her, that’s a huge problem — for your employer and for other people who work for Anne.
To be fair, it sounds like it’s not 100 percent clear that this is what happened, but even the appearance of it is cause for real alarm. In fact, perception problems like this are yet another reason managers shouldn’t indulge in these arrangements. Even if Anne didn’t give Barbara any special treatment, it’s bad for everyone if people think she did. And it leaves colleagues like you having to wonder whether you’re at a professional disadvantage if you opt out of child care and Barbara keeps doing it. That’s not acceptable.
But even if you have those worries, you still should opt out of it. You weren’t hired to provide child care, and you’re allowed to tell Anne that you’re not up for doing it any longer. One option is to just tell her directly by saying something like this: “I don’t feel comfortable watching Jake when you’re not around. I’m not able to give him my full attention, and it’s been pulling me away from work I need to focus on. I wanted to let you know so you don’t count on me to keep an eye on him when you bring him in.” (If you don’t think you can credibly say it’s pulling you away from work, just leave that part out. You can also mention that he’s been hitting you and messing with office equipment and you don’t feel comfortable disciplining someone else’s child.)
You might worry you’ll get pulled back into watching Jake regardless, if Anne keeps bringing him in and wandering off to meetings — even if she doesn’t explicitly leave him in your care. If that happens, it’s reasonable to find her and say, “I think Jake needs you to watch him more closely; he’s been hitting me and climbing on tables.” Do that a few times, and Anne will probably realize she needs a child-care plan that isn’t you.
A safer option, though, might be to speak with your HR department. Let it know what’s been happening, including that you’ve heard at least one rumor about Anne overlooking poor work after someone babysat for her (because, again, that rumor is a problem whether or not it’s true, and HR should know it’s out there). Explain that you’re worried about repercussions if you flatly refuse to watch Jake, and ask HR to intervene. It should, since in addition to all the reasons we’ve already discussed about why this is bad for your employer, there’s also legal liability to your company if something goes wrong while Jake is roaming your workspace. If your company is at all functional, HR’s going to want to intercede.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.