Three months after I started a new job as an executive assistant, my position was eliminated. Fortunately, the company offered me a 12-month contract in another department, which would help me out financially while I looked for a permanent position.
When I met my new boss, “Carrie,” I instantly got the vibe that she would be a difficult person to work for, and that was confirmed when I watched her interactions with other staff. So I’ve tried to make a point of ensuring I stay on her good side.
This seemed to work! As time went on, Carrie was appreciative of my work and gave me constant positive feedback. She fought for an extension of my contract and a pay increase, and so I felt awkwardly indebted to her.
But soon it became clear that there was a price to pay for how well she treated me. She expected loyalty at all costs. If she had a screaming match with another staff member, she expected me to spring to her defense, regardless of whether or not she was in the wrong. I have always avoided office gossip and office politics, but I felt dragged into all my boss’s drama-filled exchanges with staff, which usually ended with her crying in the HR office.
I’d also often have to feign interest as she spat venom about all the people in her life. I’d disingenuously offer sympathy, because what else could I do? I need the job until I can find a new one.
I also noticed other staff trying to avoid Carrie socially. They would awkwardly make up weak excuses when she tried to invite herself over to their houses for dinner or for the weekend. Sometimes they couldn’t avoid it because she would keep suggesting alternative dates. It was sad to watch. Obviously she is very lonely, and part of me felt sorry for her — but not sorry enough to invite her to my house! Still, she broke me down, and eventually I gave in and let her come for dinner once.
Then I ended up having major complications from what should have been a simple surgery and had to spend two months recovering at home. My boss insisted on visiting me in the hospital, and when I was out, she invited herself over for dinner on the pretext that she had a “pamper pack” she wanted to give me. How could I reject her when she was being so thoughtful? She ended up staying overnight and hung around the next day (because she had drank too much alcohol and couldn’t drive her car). My husband didn’t like her and wanted me to get rid of her. I wanted to get rid of her as much as he did, but I fear that if I set boundaries with her, she will turn on me. And I need to use her for a reference to find a new job, so I need to keep being nice to her.
But this keeps happening. My phone pinged again this morning. It was my boss saying, “Hey, lovely lady. I miss you! It’s about time we had a catch-up. How about dinner at your place on Saturday?”
I still haven’t found a new job, so I guess she will be coming over for dinner! Unless there’s a way out of this?
Carrie’s behavior here is … highly problematic. The fact that she’s regularly abusive to people (screaming matches?!) is the biggest problem, but using the implicit threat of professional consequences to pressure her employees to fulfill her social needs is a pretty close second. It sounds like everyone around her is afraid of her, and she’s either oblivious to that or, on some level, taking full advantage of it.
There’s also a special flavor of WTF to someone who’s mean and difficult to those around her but then thinks those same people will want to socialize with her outside of work. In their own homes. Overnight. (Shudder.) Even if Carrie were a lovely person, it would be inappropriate for her to invite herself over to her employees’ homes (let alone get drunk and crash there). Most people do not want to host their boss in their homes — and if they do, they’ll issue the invitation themselves. Carrie is abusing her power by trying to force herself on people socially.
And it’s understandable that you feel you need to cater to Carrie’s whims. She’s volatile and punitive, and your income depends on staying in her good graces. It sounds like you’ve been remarkably successful in managing her thus far — she likes you and has even gone to bat for you, and that’s probably because you’re friendly to her and willing to pretend she’s behaving like a normal person when she’s not. (People who are this willing to violate social norms love it when people around them act like they’re behaving normally; it gives them cover and lets them avoid dealing with whatever’s driving their behavior.)
But staying in Carrie’s good graces doesn’t mean that you need to invite her to your home or hang out socially! You can be kind, and even friendly, but still preserve some boundaries.
Conveniently, the fact that we’re in a pandemic right now makes this easier. You can fall back on, “Because of COVID, we’re being really strict about not socializing right now.” If she’ll think that’s odd because you didn’t say that earlier, you can explain that, too: “We had a COVID scare in our family recently, so we’re being a lot more careful now.” (Frankly, this would be a good idea even if Carrie weren’t a nightmare!)
Even without citing the pandemic, though, you can set boundaries. If she were a more reasonable boss, I’d suggest just being straightforward about it: “It’s so kind of you to suggest, but I’m really old-fashioned about keeping boundaries with my boss! Maybe we could grab coffee one afternoon during work instead?” And who knows, maybe this would work with Carrie; it’s still warm and friendly, after all, and that might be enough to soothe her. But there are other options, too, if you don’t want to be that direct.
One of the easiest options is to just be busy. You suddenly have a lot of commitments outside of work — family things, a class you’re studying for, a months-long intensive cleanup of your basement, whatever you feel you can credibly say. Then when Carrie tries to invite herself over, you simply say, “My schedule is awful right now! All my out-of-work time is going to X, and when I’m not doing that, I’m pretty much just collapsed on the couch. I’m not even seeing family right now!” (It helps to follow this with an immediate subject change, ideally work related — “By the way, do we have edits back yet on the Z report?”)
Alternately, you should feel free to make your husband the fall guy. It sounds like he’d be fine with that, and it’s one of the benefits of marriage (or any roommate, really). If you think Carrie will try to steamroll over your objections, try instead saying, “Mark has been wanting to keep the weekends just for ourselves lately.” I’m not normally a fan of blaming others for your own boundaries, but with a boss who’s this pushy, you use what works.
Because you’re concerned about repercussions from Carrie, the key with all of this is to keep your tone warm and friendly. Your tone can communicate “What a lovely thought, but unfortunately I can’t,” even while your brain is thinking, Hell no. Tone counts for a ton in most interactions, especially when you’re declining someone’s overture, so lean heavily on it to keep things feeling harmonious.
Your job security may require you to be friendly to Carrie for now, but you truly can confine that to work. You don’t need to welcome her into your home.
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 email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.