Dear Margo: Keep Reminding Yourself: You're the Boss

My staff at work are behaving like children and treating me like their care-taker. Margo Howard’s advice

Keep Reminding Yourself: You’re the Boss

Dear Margo: I’m in a big mess. Last year I started a new job that was a huge step up for me. It has provided enough stability to allow my husband to go back to school. But now, almost a year in, the job has become very stressful. (I am a student adviser at a college.)

The administrative staff (the politically correct term for “secretaries”) decided they don’t like me, and they are very often nasty. They get aggressive with me if I say I am too busy for a student walk-in, even though we don’t normally take walk-ins. They make things up about me to tell the boss, such as my not returning phone calls or emailing students back. One of the admins, as we call them, is now giving me the silent treatment. Some of my students have even complained about their treatment by my staff.

When I tried to talk to my boss about this, he said only vague things about “finding balance” and “getting along.” This is very hard for me, but it’s also bad for our office. I need to make this job work until my husband is done with school two years from now. Can you help me figure out how to handle it? — Distressed in Denver

Dear Dis: You really must take up this matter with your boss — again. I would suggest documentation, even if you have to reconstruct various episodes. Tell him that “finding balance” and “getting along” is advice he needs to give the admins. When you, as the boss, and students, who are the “clients,” think there is something wrong with your staff, there is something wrong with your staff.

As a prelude, however, to returning to the airy-fairy Zen master who is the boss, have a sit-down with the admins and tell them things have reached a critical mass, with both you and the students finding them unhelpful. Ask what the real problem is. (Perhaps they were attached to your predecessor, or maybe they walked all over her, too.) I would listen carefully, and if there is anything they have to say that has validity, make it a point to say you are happy to know this and will work on it. Often an admission of deficiency can go a long way to placating complainers.

If Mr. “Finding Balance and Getting Along” is still vague about what he can do, I would recommend going one step higher. There is no reason you need be held hostage by recalcitrant “admins.” — Margo, remedially

Jumping Back In

Dear Margo: After a marriage of 20-some years, I am about to dive into the middle-aged dating pool. I suspect it will be very different the second time around, but part of me thinks it may be just like picking up where I left off. Friends tell me, however, that it’s a whole new ballgame and difficult. You seem like the perfect person to ask because I know you know about this, no offense. — Bella

Dear Bel: None taken. The similarity with then and now is that when dating someone new, there’s an effort on both sides to sell oneself so as to be seen in an appealing light. The big difference is that with mid-life dating, both parties have quite a bit of personal history behind them. There’s a catching-up dynamic with middle-aged people that I call “And what did YOU major in?” You will wind up telling a potential boyfriend about your education, kids, maybe grandchildren, the ex, and a million little details that did not figure into dating the first time around. But … chins up. The men you will be seeing are just as nervous as you are, and I’m here to tell you that you will get the hang of it. — Margo, optimistically

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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56 Responses so far.

  1. avatar mayma says:

    Just a thought, but maybe some condescension is spilling out from LW1, and that’s what her staff resents. I mean, “admins, as we call them”? They haven’t been called secretaries since, oh I dunno, 1970? Why the eye-roll about that? Maybe they can sense that. Respect goes both ways.

    I have no idea, since maybe LW1’s sneer started after the bad treatment, but it’s a thought. Hard to tell what’s happening there.

    • avatar James says:

      Exactly my reaction.

      Also, I get no sense from her that she would enjoy the work even if everyone were pleasant to her. If she took the position just because it provides “stability” and is counting the days until she can quit once her husband finishes school, that could affect the morale of her subordinates. Working for someone who gives the impression of wanting to be elsewhere is a drag.

    • avatar Lisa Cornell says:

      I don’t read any condescension in the writer’s letter, but what I read is someone who has not nipped this in the bud but rather has allowed the situation to get the upper hand. In a nutshell, she has detailed how both she and her admins have all gone to the boss with their various issues. It sounds as though the admins don’t respect her as a manager because she has no confidence in herself. She is fretting about whether they like her or not. Who cares. It is not her job to be liked, it is her job to be respected. She is neither liked nor respected. The first thing she needs to do is realize that she has people working for her that are sabotaging her success. She needs to gather them in a meeting, speak bluntly, give them the opportunity to identify their grievances and establish a working plan. She will find that she will be able to quickly turn things around. If she finds she still has someone who is not working well within the team, she needs to bring that person in and have a one-on-one. Trust me, there is always someone who is the driving force behind these little office contretemps. If that doesn’t work, that person needs to be moved to another department or terminated. Unfortunately for the letter writer a year has gone by. This is what should have happened as soon as this nonsense started to rear it’s ugly head.

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      “Admin”is what they’re called, unless you want to go back to “secretary”.

      I’ve seen this dynamic happen several times. Twice, an admin decided to “get rid” of her new boss because the boss was younger than they were. There were financial shenanigans, messages deliberately misplaced and e-mails tampered with, among other things. Both of these women were “shocked” when they were fired without notice.

      The job of an admin is to make the office run and make their bosses job easier. That’s all. “Old” staffers that get new bosses frequently resent any kind of change. They might have been slacking or doing things that weren’t sanctioned. In one case, an admin had been sleeping with her boss for years.

      Why these people do what they do doesn’t count. They need to re-read their job descriptions and be reminded that in this economy, people who would do their jobs well and pleasantly are a dime a dozen. They can be replaced in less than a day.

      • avatar lisakitty says:

        I have never seen what you describe.  That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it seems pretty far fetched to me that this could happen often.   Any boss who gets manipulated like you describe by an admin is not much of a boss.

        I agree that an admin is very easy to replace.  Strike that.  A bad admin is easy to replace, a good one is like gold and should be treated well.  

        • avatar sstank says:

          The minute I read this lady’s letter I recognized it.  Commonplace at the University in my hometown for this exact scenario to happen.  I suspect she will get NOTHING from her superior, because he is likely a part of it.  I hope I am wrong, but this is not a new thing to me.

          • avatar chuck alien says:

            seriously… problem #1: you work in academia.

            no one there cares, no one really wants to be there, they are lazy, and they will never get fired.

            welcome to education.

          • avatar A R says:

            How do you know all this, Chuck? You aren’t about to tell me you worked years and years in higher education, are you?

      • avatar georgi says:

        I agree, LW1 should not have used the term “secretary”, however, men do it all the time.  I have been in this young woman’s shoes.  I am an attorney and have had my share of administrative assistants who resented me for nothing more than the fact that I am a woman.  It is pretty commonplace in a lot of law offices.  And before you decide I am an elitist b**ch, I started out as an administrative assistant.  I truly appreciate the stress of the job.  The unfortunate truth, as seen in a number of studies, is that women don’t necessarily support the success of other woman.  And it doesn’t necessarily get better with age.  I was a VP in my last corporate position.  I had over 20 years experience, but the bosses administrative assistant insisted on calling me the “associate” for years.  She sabatoged me every chance she got.  It got to the point where other administrative assistants from other departments came to me to warn me of her plans to get me fired.  Since she had been with my boss for 15 years and acted like a substitute wife for him, he was loathe to believe anything bad about her.  No, they were not sleeping together, but she did keep his checkbook, run to his house to wait for the plumber etc.  The head of HR tried to interviene but it did no good.  I finally just quit and I am much happier for it.  To this young woman, I would say go to HR and get their help.  To the administrative assistants, I would ask you to please not disregard this young woman’s problem just because she used an offensive term.

    • avatar D C says:

      I happen to be one of these pathetic little “admins” as you call them, and can really feel the condescension dripping all over me.  Geez… where is a towel?  I need to wipe this slimy stuff OFF! 

      Ahem… where was I?  Oh yes.  I have worked for younger people … more now as I get older.  I think LW #1 is projecting her generational issues.  She needs to stand up and declare herself The Boss with the support staff, or go slick back into her closet being ineffective like’s she’s been since she got there. 

      One way to engratiate herself with an established hen pen is to sit down and have an idea sharing session.  See what they have to offer that you might learn from. 

      I do this job because I’m good at it, and because I really enjoy lifting others up.  My job, the way I see it, is to help my boss do his/her job the best they can.  Call me crazy, but I enjoy that stuff.  But if I’m working for someone who thinks I have nothing to offer and discounts my intelligence and my experience, then I might be shutting down too, like your staff seems to have done. 

      I also suggest you might spend at little time learning all that a secretary does, since you think so lowly of them.  Honey, we make the world work. 

      • avatar mayma says:

        Wait, just to be clear, I am calling LW1 out for not wanting to call the staff by their proper titles. I am saying that her disdain is evident because she chafes at even that — the most basic, modern acknowledgment of respect — which naturally will provoke a reaction in the staff. This isn’t Mad Men, lady.

        Throwing that in, because I’m not sure whether my original comment has been misinterpreted by a couple of folks.

    • avatar Eileen Heath says:

      80’s actually. I remember the huffiness secretaries got around the time of Secretary Day when it wasn’t Administrator’s Day.
      Honestly it doesn’t matter if both sides are to blame or LW1 is the devil with the chalk. The Boss failed by trying to keep his head down mumbling about “Balance”.

      • avatar D C says:

        I have been doing this kind of work for 30 years.  I have been titled Secretary, Office Clerk, Administrative Assistant, Executive Assistant, and Office Assistant.  And it’s all pretty much the same work. 

        Regarding that day in April, I honestly don’t want you to send me flowers, but if you do, that’s really nice, because I like flowers.  But for heaven’s sake, please DO NOT take me to lunch, unless we usually have lunch once in a while, because I know you, and I know you’re doing something because Hallmark said you should, and not because you want to, and it’s really, really awkward. 

        I really, really hate that day.

  2. avatar Violet says:

    I think the elephant in the room for middle age dating is that men her age who are newly single are usually looking for a significantly younger partner. 25 year old men want to date 25 year old women and desirable middle aged men want to date 25 year old women. Of course individuals vary but it is tough out there.

    I wouldn’t give up but if she thinks she’s going to pick up where she left off, she’s in for a rude awakening.

    • avatar cleanslate says:

      Exactly! PLUS, many of the age appropriate men that she will find will be adverse to any kind of serious relationship. They will want to keep it casual, and will swear that they will NEVER re-marry.

    • avatar Xander Taylor says:

      Agreed! I have been divorced 6 years am nearing 50 & men my age are generally not interested in me. Men is their 60’s are another matter altogether.

  3. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW#1: Follow Margo’s recommendation to the letter. And document, document, document. Obviously, if they’re making up nonsense about you not returning e-mails that can easily be shown as a lie. 

    (Yes, “admin” is has become the trendy word for secretary in recent decades. Whatever you call them, secretaries should not be the tails wagging the dogs.

  4. avatar Lila says:

    I agree with Mayma that it is hard to tell what is really happening with LW1. If the boss just gives you the “let’s all get along” mumble, it’s possible he sees you as part of the problem… or he just does not want to be bothered or deal with a confrontation. More: when you go to your boss with a problem, don’t expect him to solve it for you. That tells him you’re not boss material, yourself. Whenever you present a problem bring your solution along with it.

    So here’s one possible solution (judge this against your particular circumstances). Uncomfortable though it may be, there needs to be a thorough clearing of the air, and soon. Passive-aggressive garbage or the silent treatment are totally unacceptable at work. Ever. So tell your boss that you have a plan:

    First, set aside some time to meet with both admins and lay out concrete specifics about your observations. Do NOT talk about your feelings, only about standards and how, very specifically, they are failing to meet them. Have your points ready in advance, be swift, be cool and calm, tell them what you expect starting right now, and be done. DO NOT allow them to snipe at you and lose control of your meeting. Finish on an upbeat note and show them some respect: you are all a team, you depend on their experience to keep things running smoothly and to serve the students.

    Now for some homework: if you are the boss, don’t you write their evaluations, and aren’t their pay raises tied to that? It’s not like you don’t have ammo if they aren’t performing. Normally, aren’t you required to set down job descriptions and performance expectations, and to meet periodically with each employee to discuss how well they are doing, or what adjustments might need to be made to either expectations or performance? If you haven’t done this, now is the time. Go to HR and get whatever forms they use for this. Don’t air your thoughts at HR, just get the forms for initial performance expectations as part of the evaluation process. All routine, nothing to see here…

    But that process is one good way to document your observations, and give them a chance to change course. If the behavior improves, mission accomplished and hopefully by the time evaluations come due, all of this will just be a rough patch in the past and no need to mention it.

    • avatar mmht says:

      I agree with you! Also, I would tell her to not point fingers, lay blame, etc. Don’t say “Student X told me that you, Susie, said this to him.” Instead, just say you’ve observed some things on a whole and have received some complaints from students that need to be addressed and changed. Also, is it possible for her to discretely record the meeting? I don’t know if you legally can, but if you can then I would. These people seem pretty set on trying to get her fired and I wouldn’t put it past them to band together and claim she said something that she didn’t. Just a thought but overall I think you gave excellent advice.

    • avatar ann penn says:

      The “admins” may work for more that just LW1, and it may be her boss who is giving them their performance evaluations. He may not want to “rock the boat” and may see it all as a problem of “women just can’t get along.” Also, in academia, the staff’s salaries may be set by policy/unions/whatever and performance raises may not apply. They may also have job security that is not easy to reverse. One of my children attended a university where the staff did little to aid the students, but their union kept them employed. Another offspring attended a larger institution (both were state universities in the same state) where the staff was wonderful.

  5. avatar been there2 says:

    first of all, ever consider “admins” is just short for administrative staff?  sheesh, seriously…
    LW1 has my complete sympathy because I had to put up with that from my staff for years.  any time there was a conflict, because there were several of them to back each other up and only one of me I was always the one in the wrong and got the same kind of wishy-washy response from my boss.  I could knock myself out silly trying to be nice to these people and it never worked (and quite frankly, I had a whole other job of my own to do other than doing their jobs for them when they were out sick (a lot), shooting the sh*t in another office, or just didn’t feel like working that hard on any given day).  It took a year of someone else supervising them before other people finally began to see how catty they were and inadequate in their work performance.  felt a little vindicated when I was given the team back to supervise.  now that I have moved up and and have a manager that I helped pick in between them (one person left but others rose up and took her place in the chain since bitchy spreads like a virus) and me, they treat her the same way even though they were all friends with her before she became their manager.  so yeah, don’t expect these people to be your friends but they do have to respect your role as their supervisor. as Lila said, document, document, document – passive-aggressive bitchiness is a slippery eel to catch and it will take a lot of cold, hard facts in place before you can prove what is going on and make a case for firing them.  have patience and keep the faith in karma coming back around your way eventually.  good luck.

  6. avatar been there2 says:

    and one other other thing, there is nothing wrong with taking a job because it provides stability for her family.  maybe she’d like her job just fine if she had subordinates that were more interested in assisting her properly than in giving her attitude.  i’ve been in my job for more than a decade – I love what I do and the organization I work for but there were plenty of days I wanted to hang it all up because I was sick and tired of dealing with the bs of people who constantly felt put-upon and entitled to more than their positions allowed for.  there are plenty of people like that out there.

  7. avatar Jennifer juniper says:

    Wow- listen to all the ‘just the secretaries’ crap coming out of this lot. Missing getting your own f’ing coffee are you?

    • avatar Anais P says:

      NO ONE expects administrative assistants, secretaries or whatever you want to call them to get the non-admins coffee anymore. How demeaning! What IS expected is for them to do their jobs! That’s because when they don’t, the whole office deteriorates because everyone’s else’s job depends on the administrative assistants doing their work properly. What a gift is a good administrative assistant. I was fortunate enough to work with two GREAT ones in as a supervisor. The trick is to actually have a hand in the hiring, and a specific job description. These two women, I am telling you, were just wonderful, doing wonderful work and in a cheerful, fun fashion. They followed an absolutely awful woman who refused to do one vital task that was frustrating when the others in the office depended on that task being done to do their jobs in turn. This is not “secretaries’ crap,” it is what she did NOT DO! Fortunately, this awful woman finally left after leaving the office a disaster, a better job description was drawn up, I had a hand in interviewing candidates and we never had that problem again. 

  8. avatar K Coldiron says:

    There’s some great advice here for LW1 from Lila and beenthere2. I really want to hear about a follow-up on this one, if the LW gives one to Margo.

  9. avatar lisakitty says:

    LW1:  I have been both an admin and now a boss and here’s my advice on this situation.

    First of all, when you meet with the admin staff, do it outside of the office.  Do NOT summon them to your office for this little “chat”.  I would suggest someplace like a quiet restaurant (take them to lunch?).  Before you meet with them, write out in bullet points what you want to address, memorize that and then leave that paper back at the office.  The reasons for doing these things?  You want to change the dynamic of your relationship with these people.  You could even meet with them 1:1 for these (preferred) so they can’t gang up on you, but if you want to meet them together, just try to make it more casual.  Start by asking these people about their lives.  Do you know if they have chidlren?  How THEY take their coffee?  Do they like (fill in your favorite show)?  Get to know them, be NICE.  Get on the same human level as they are.

    Then when you are all relaxed, ask them sincerely, if you have done anything to offend them.  Be prepared for them to deny they treat you badly, then hit them with the examples of the behavior that you wrote and memorized before you left the office.  Be specific.  REALLY specific.  Steer clear of saying things like “you are always mean to me”.  Say something more like “Remember when Suzy Student wanted to meet with me and I was too busy and you insisted I wasn’t too busy to see her?  Well, maybe you didn’t know but that day I had to grade 30 papers and was really behind.  When I say I’m busy, it’s because I am, not because I’m trying to avoid students.”

    What I found when I made the switch from admin to manager was that many admins don’t have VISIBILITY into the manager’s role.  The way I got out of administrative work was I had a boss who cared enough about me and who had faith in my ability to show me what was going on.  I literally followed him around for two years, every meeting he went to I went to, every decision he made, I saw why.  When I finally left him to work for another company as a manager, noone was prouder of me than him.

    Now, as a manager myself, I make it my first job to get to know all of my staff first. 1:1s happen with my team on a weekly basis.  Make sure that you clear it with whoever is the administrative staff’s formal manager to do that and pick a time that is not a busy time to do this.  With my team, I do 1:1s at 7 in the morning (we are all early people) and often meet at coffee shops.  I also make it a point to treat them well, cards on their birthdays and holidays, I often bring them chocolates or something, little stuff.

    Bottom line, LW?  Administrative people are the hardest working lowest paid people in any company. They also know where all the bodies are buried and if you befriend them, you can learn a LOT.  You got off on the wrong foot with these admins, and until you set it right, you are crippling your chances to succeed at your job.  Try to correct it with them first by building some kind of rapport.  If all else fails, then yes, you will have to loop in your management.  Again, be specific.  REALLY specific.  Do not whine.  As a manager, you are expected to rise above personality conflicts.  The fact that you are allowing this to bother you so much shows you’re new to your increased role, and that’s why your manager is telling you to find balance.

  10. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Wow. :-( I know how it can be in offices. Will defer relating one particular story of my own. Obviously your boss (let me guess, MALE?) doesn’t want to handle it. Brush it under the rug, turn a blind eye. Not unlike family relationships, wherein husband usually WIMPS OUT if his female kin hate the wife and make life miserable for her. Let the womenfolk fight it out (then they’re “bitches” and ha ha ha women just can’t get along!). I would reapproach him first. Tell him about STUDENT complaints about the secretaries; how the STUDENTS see a problem (you know, $tudent$). If that doesn’t work, try the talk with the secs. And if that doesn’t work, I’d go one higher up from your boss. Wish you the best of luck with this. Too bad more people can’t behave like rat