my boss asked me to do her kid’s homework, written up for spitting, and more — Ask a Manager

I’m on vacation. Here are some past letters that I’m making new again, rather than leaving them to wilt in the archives.

1. My boss asked me to do her kid’s homework

I’m a receptionist, and although I have a cordial relationship with my supervisor, it’s pretty strictly professional. The other day, she came to me at reception during working hours and basically asked if I would do part of her sons’s homework assignment for him. I think it’s because she knows I have a design background and the part of his project she was asking me to do was to create a logo. While she was technically asking me, her approach was the same as when she asks if I have enough downtime to take on admin tasks for the office, and although it was not explicit, I felt pressure to accept it like a work assignment.

I declined as politely as I could (mostly because I don’t think it’s right to do a child’s homework for them), using an admin task as a cover excuse. She did let it drop, but am I wrong to feel it was inappropriate of her to ask, homework ethics aside?

What! No, you are not wrong — that’s entirely inappropriate on multiple levels. She was asking you to do something that wasn’t work-related when there’s a power dynamic that she should have known would make you feel awkward about saying no, and the particular thing she was asking you to do was in itself inappropriate (her kid’s homework! WTF!). I am not a big believer in shame, but really, how does someone ask that with no shame?

You handled it really well — you declined in a way that minimized awkwardness for both of you but allowed you to say no, and while reinforcing that you have actual work to do. Some people might advocate for addressing it more directly, but unless it’s part of a pattern of inappropriate requests from her, I don’t think you need to do that. If it happens again, then yes — but for now, I’d consider it handled.


2. My coworker is being greedy about office supplies and snacks

I am in charge of ordering office supplies and snacks for the office. I feel one employee is asking for too many things. First she asked for some pens, so I got her a set of different colors. A few months later, one ran out of ink so she mentioned it had run out, but I just brushed off her hinting — colorful pens are not essential, she can buy her own or use the standard office stuff. Then she asked for a humidifier “for the office” and when I pointed out it wouldn’t work so well for our open plan office, she then pivoted to “there are desktop models” and I thought to myself that then it wouldn’t really be “for the office.” In this case I told her it probably would not be approved as an expense and did not pursue it further.

Lately she has been asking to order more snacks for the office. I do supply snacks; we are not restricted as to budget but I don’t want to abuse the perk, so I comparison shop and buy occasionally, and I have bought her things she liked in the past. But she has asked three or four times in the last couple weeks for purchases of different snacks. Maybe I am on a high horse, but I don’t want everyone to think that just because there are snacks available, it is a never-ending free-for-all, nor do I want them to think that just because they ask for stuff, that they get it no questions asked. We get plenty of free things — coffees, sodas, snacks, lunches, weekly breakfast, etc.

No other employee asks for so much so constantly. How do I make it clear to her that she is asking for too much, and to stop pestering me to get her stuff that ostensibly is for the whole office, but she really means just for herself? If she wants more snacks than the company offers, or a humidifier or special pens, she can get them herself. I don’t want her to be treating the office account like her personal Amazon. She’s been an intern here for six months and has transitioned into a full-time employee so I expect I will be dealing with her behavior long term.

You sound pretty frustrated with her, but you’ve just been hinting and hoping she’ll pick up on your hints. Before you get more frustrated, you need to tell her directly what you can and can’t do, and what she should and shouldn’t expect. If she asks for special pens, then you say, “We just provide the standard pens in the supply closet, and people provide their own if they want something special.” If she asks for more or different snacks, you can say, “I was happy to buy you some specific snacks a few times as a favor, but typically that’s not something I do — with so many people here, I can’t really take everyone’s individual orders.” And if she asks for something special for her desk like a humidifier, just say, “That’s not something the company provides, but you could of course bring one in yourself if you want to.”

In other words, just be matter-of-fact and explain the situation. I think you’re expecting her to figure it out on her own (and you’re right that most people do), but since she’s not, you can probably solve this by spelling it out for her.


3. Going into business with my boyfriend’s family

I have been with my boyfriend for six years now, and lived with him for five. I’m extremely close with his family, especially because my own family lives across the country, to the point that I’ve been invited to holiday events even when my boyfriend was unable to attend, and generally feel treated the same as him and his siblings.

Recently, his sister has come up with a business idea that springboards off the current brick-and-mortar store that she and her mom (same as boyfriend’s mom) run together. The plan is for it to be much less of a small-business thing, but it will still be a family-run thing as it’s a website and my boyfriend and his brother are web developers, I have some particularly helpful experience, and their father has run a larger business.

They are super enthusiastic about the skills I can bring to the business and naturally have already slotted out a place for me. I’m really enthusiastic about helping them and being part of the business (however inadvisable that might seem) but I want to raise the subject of the fact that I’m just attached by girlfriend status, but in a much nicer way.

My boyfriend is not likely going to scoff at my mentioning this sort of thing. We talk about “would one of us be able to handle the rent on our own?” every time we move into a new apartment, and I’m not at all worried that his family would suddenly try to edge me out if my boyfriend and I were to break up. But I’d like to discuss how we’d handle it if we wanted our space from each other after a possible break-up and if we no longer wanted to work together. I’m not sure if I ought to stress that we’re doing well as a couple and I’ve no plans on breaking up, or how to word this properly or even if it’s something I should just leave it alone and think “we’ll deal with it when we get there” due to how long we’ve been together happily.

You should absolutely talk about this and, depending on what’s decided, you might need to get something in writing about it.

When things are good, it’s very easy to think, “Even if we broke up, we’d handle things amicably. We love each other and we’re good people, so we’ll be able to figure it out.” But life can throw curveballs that you can’t predict, and plenty of people who thought they’d have kind, healthy break-ups instead have hostile ones. So it’s pretty important that before you get entwined with this family business, you lay out plans for what you’d do in a worst-case scenario — because as much as you feel like family right now, if things do go south, that can change pretty quickly.

You could say it this way: “I love that y’all make me feel like family, but to protect everyone, I want to recognize that I don’t have the same family ties that you do, legally or otherwise, and figure out how we’d handle things if Percival and I ever weren’t together. Obviously I hope that won’t happen and there’s no reason to fear that it will, but if we’re going to go into business together, I want to make sure we’ve thought through how we’d handle things if that ever changed.”

One potentially clean way to do it would be for you not to be a partner in the business, but instead to provide your services as a contractor. That’s an easier relationship to break off if you ever need to.


4. Offering to take an interviewer on a tour of my current company

I work in a highly technical field — design and installation off large IT infrastructures, like server rooms. I have had an interview with several SVP’s at a new company two weeks ago, but nothing seems to be moving forward.

As the job is all about systems engineering, what about inviting one of the interviewers to my current company for a tour and to show examples of my work? It may sound awkward, but the new company actually is an on-site customer of my current company, so seeing new company people in the our building is completely normal. And there would be absolutely no suspicion from my current management. My goal here is to further impress the new company by showing physical examples of my work. What do you think of this out-of-the-box approach?

No, don’t do it. That’s a misuse of your current company’s trust in you — and the prospective employer is likely to see it that same way.

Two weeks ago seems like a long time when you’re waiting to hear back about a job, but on the employer side, it’s not that long. Give them time to do whatever they’re doing. If they want more information from you, they’ll come back and ask.


5. Can I be written up for spitting?

I work in a small IMO insurance firm as a marketer and graphic designer. Today while outside smoking (I spit when I smoke), my boss came to me and told me that if he ever found me spitting on the walk way again he would write me up. We rent the building we are in and there is nothing in the lease (according to my office manager) about the condition the walk way is left if we should move to a new building. My question is: Can he really write me up for spitting out of habit?

I don’t see why not. That’s disgusting.


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