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 rational adults.

    L #2: My sister (48-1/2) and sis-in-law (50) could better provide some feedback than I. Both have not had a great deal of luck getting back into the dating game after 2 divorces. The biggest problem (speaking generally, based on what I’ve heard) seems to be selfishness and a fear of getting hurt again, or this time “getting the upper hand” over the potential future partner. Margo’s right about “lots of baggage.” We all have it of course, and some people don’t deal too well with other peoples’ baggage (much less their own). Keep your eyes as wide open as your heart (and keep thinking with your brain, not your emotions). In all honesty, if my husband (of nearly 20 years) should pass before I do, I likely would not begin dating; that’s based on all the tribulations and tears my sis and sis-in-law (and others) have related. Be careful and best wishes.

    • avatar lisakitty says:

      I disagree with you, Cindy, completely on LW2.

      “The biggest problem (speaking generally, based on what I’ve heard) seems to be selfishness and a fear of getting hurt again, or this time “getting the upper hand” over the potential future partner”.  You’ve admitted you aren’t in that situation, so to say something so harsh is pretty irresponsible.  

      I began dating a few years ago after a divorce and I have never even come close to thinking of that.  I’m going to post my own thoughts on L2 later on today, but just had to say that comment hit me as unkind and judgemental.  I hope you never find yourself in the position that we are in, dating again when we didn’t think we’d have to.   

      • avatar Deeliteful says:


        Dating again is not something anyone has to do. It is a choice. Cindy said she probably wouldn’t date if her husband dies before she does because of experiences of others. I think that is a valid reason.

        I have been single again for 10 years. During that time I’ve had many married women tell me “I can’t believe you haven’t married again. You’re so pretty, smart, funny, kind..etc.” I have asked each one “What would you do if your hubby died/left you?” Without exception the response is “Oh, I wouldn’t get married again.” BINGO!

        I know LW is asking about dating, not marriage. I have dated many men, even had a couple of long term relationships in the past decade. I have no desire to remarry and dating can be so exhausting. I haven’t had a date in over a year because I choose not to date and no one has tried to force me to go on one.

        I don’t think Cindy was being unkind or judgemental, just offering her opinion.

    • avatar mayma says:

      What in the world does gender have to do with this scenario? (“Let me guess, MALE?… husband usually WIMPS OUT… let the womenfolk fight it out”) I sincerely don’t understand adding that layer of complication/resentment to the issue.

      Also, they really are not “secretaries.”

  11. avatar Jane H says:

    Reading these letters and comments I find myself immensley, intensely grateful for our admins who are the grease to the wheel, the ones who ‘paddle like hell’ under the water to make above water smooth and seamless. I have the job of working with clients all day, which is not always easy, but our admins are there no matter what to make sure that we have what we need to take the best possible care of our clients. No work place is perfect, but I’ve found one that cares.

    And… ‘keep your chins up’… ha! I doubt I’ll date again, and am not unhappy about that at all… but I’ll remember to keep them up in whatever situation I find myself.

    Happy New Year….

  12. avatar Jean B says:

    LW1: You’re the boss, you set the tone. You need to gain control of the situation, something you should have done from day 1. Your condescending tone towards the “admin” staff is appalling. Did you not take any management classes? Or did you think you were above them, too?
    LW2: There has been at least one suggestion that middle aged men are looking for 20-somethings these days. When you do come across one like that, he is not looking for a partner. Rather, he is looking for a groupie and is not someone you want to be with anyway. I’m sure you will do fine. As Margo said, the men are just as nervous as you are. The most sure fire way to “find someone” is not to even look. Go about your life, get involved in the community, start a hobby that requires you get out of the house and around other people if you don’t already have one. It will happen when it’s meant to be and you will make a lot of new friends in the meantime.

    • avatar Jean B says:

      PS to LW2-My mother told me long ago one of the worst places to meet someone was a bar. Now that I am 40-something I think she was right.

  13. avatar L T says:

    I’m getting the “condescension” vibe from LW#1 as well. Sounds like she’s made it very clear that she doesn’t want to be associated with the mere “secretaries”, no matter what she’s forced to call them.

    I’ve been on both sides of the desk, and it’s essential to realize that (1.) the boss can’t really do his or her job well without good support, and (2.) most bosses, while skilled at their own work, would be unable to manage the job. (I kept wondering why one guy insisted upon spending more time walking a ways past the fax machine and bringing outgoing faxes to my desk when it would have been quicker to just send it — then I realized he didn’t have any clue how to work the fax.)

    Think about it, LW — you’ve made it clear the admins, as you grudgingly call them, aren’t worth scraping off the bottom of your shoe. If they have a choice between going out of their way to save you some trouble or hanging you out to dry while fulfilling their job duties, which do you think they’re going to pick? I’d say it’s time to find out if any of the criticisms are valid and you’ve just been ignoring their opinions because you think you’re better than them.

  14. avatar trlain says:

    If I only typed,I would be  a secretary; if  I only answered phones, booked appointments and greeted clients, I would be a receptionist; if I  only did payables, receivables and payroll, I would be a bookkeeper;  as I do all of this, plus keep my supervisor organized, current and on time, I am an Administrative Professional, and you may call me an Admin.  My job is to make my supervisor look good.

    What I get from Letter #1 is a distinct lack of respect from both the admins and the letterwriter.  The staff has, for reasons known only to them, decided that they don’t respect their supervisor and from the letter, it is apparent she does not respect them either.  What the writer should realize is that when she makes complaints to her boss (funny how she has a boss, but herself is a supervisor) and they are followed up on, her staff may end up with the upper hand, especially if they form a united front.

    I agree with the comments that encourage the writer to get to know her staff. I don’t think you need to know their entire personal history, but appearing interested, even if you don’t actually care and must fake it, will go a long way in building a better rapport with your staff.  Occassional treats, or even a special dress up or dress down day goes along way for staff morale, and who knows they may all be surprised to find what they have in common.

    On a last ‘me’ note:  At one of my previous positions I ended up working for a supervisor I could not stand, or respect.  After I made a couple of grievences against her, the management group made it clear to me that it was easier to replace me than my supervisor and if I didn’t like it I could attempt to find work elseware.  Because I truly enjoyed my job and the stakeholders I ultimately worked for, it was a very difficult decision for me to leave, but I did shortly there after.  6 months later I was contacted by my previous employer as they discovered that in addition to passing my work off as her own, and being dishonest in her hiring practices, she was also putting the company at risks for public lawsuits and criminal charges.   Oh, and they offered me her job, which I declined because I was enjoying my new position at another company.

    • avatar trlain says:

      Also, perhaps the writer should consider taking some continuing education management courses if she doesn’t already have some.  They may make her more confident.

    • avatar lisakitty says:

      Excellent post.  I would add another word of caution to the LW.  Beware of who you step on while you’re trying to get to the top.  I have an old boss who now reports to ME.  Fortunately for me, we loved working together and he suggested it, but it does happen that it’s not voluntary.  You never know in any environment what is going on behind the scenes either:  I remember one job I was in, I complained about a temp worker to HR because that worker was extremely rude to me.  Nothing got done.  I found out later that the guy I had complained about was the HR person’s boyfriend.  That’s why noone had complained before and why nothing got done, but I didn’t know because I was new and life was made so uncomfortable for me that I left.  Months later that whole dysfunctional team was fired, I was back at the (major) company in a high level post with the CEO’s office, but at the time, it was like,, What? 

      Midlevel managers are extremely easy to replace, even easier than substandard admins.  Every company has a ready pool of sharks to move on up in management, and a new hire (like the LW) needs to play nice in order to keep her job. 

  15. avatar Michelles11 says:

    I’ve worked in a lot of offices and yeah, there were some pretty awful “bosses” and plenty of awful admin staff.  I’ve seen plenty of shenanigans from admin staff to know when to stay out of the fray.  I’m not sure LW1’s letter sounds condescending or not.  I’m guessing she’s pretty frustrated and probably doesn’t know why the staff doesn’t respect her.  I agree that she must set a new tone and meet with them, iron out issues with respect, and also start being a “boss” and learn how to command respect (not demand it).  She’s not getting what she needs from her boss…not even constructive criticism, so she needs to make it work and “get balance”.  I like Lisakitty’s advice.

  16. avatar Debbie Ciaravino says:

    LW #1, a couple of things came immediately to mind that I didn’t read in any other comments. If this job is a huge step up for you, did you come from the assistant pool, or are you an outsider with no previous managment experience? Before taking this role, have you had any type of Management training? Have you had any Management training since you’ve been in the job? If the answer is no to the training, maybe that’s what you should approach your boss about first. Tell him there is tension in your group that you have been unable to resolve on your own. Would he be willing to give you some Leadership training that could help you be more effective in your position. This will tell your Boss that you realize there is a problem in the group, you take some personal responsibility that it might not be “everyone else against you” and you offer a potential solution how to make it better.

       I see a few possible dynamics going on here. First, it is entirely possible that the admins are sticking together because you are viewed as the enemy. If someone in the group has been there a long time and felt they deserved the promotion instead of hiring an outsider, that could be where the anamosity is coming from.
       Second, if this is your first management position, then your weaknesses are showing. It’s very hard to work for and respect a boss when you believe you know more about how to do the job then they do.

       I have personal experience with both types, so let me put it into perspective for you. My first Management job was at a retail store. I had worked for several years with them and earned my promotion. I was transfered to a store that needed an assistant manager and was trained while on the job. One employee at the store hated me an I never could figure out why. After talking it over with him, I found out that he had tried for the promotion and didn’t get it. I immediately apologized to him and explained that I didn’t know anyone else in the store was interested when they offered me the open position. I explained that it wasn’t personal, I agreed to work with him in his deficient areas to help him be ready for the next opening and asked that he give me a chance and the respect I deserved as his boss. Our working relationship greatly improved once we understood where each other was coming from.
       6 months into the same job, I was sent for formal Management training. It turns out I am more of an analytical person. I believe in explaining how to do something and when I ask for something, I want it done now. Some employees who were more “people” persons were taken aback by my style. It took the formal training for me to realize that what I thought of as explaining, they saw as arrogance and mean. If I didn’t have the training, I might not have ever realized or been sensitive to the fact that there are different ways to address people as the boss. Student who come to you know basically nothing, that is why they are coming to you for answers. Your admin staff has been there before you and probably has valuable knowledge. You can’t address both groups of people the same way; and if you are, the admins are reacting to it. 

  17. avatar D L says:

    I agree with many of the posters here re: LW#1. The moment I read her letter, I was struck by how condescending she was. The administrative staff (the politically correct term for “secretaries”)… Was there really a need to say something like that? What are you trying to prove?
    If the staff is truly making up that you do not get back to your students, I would think that you have back-up to prove otherwise, especially if your students are also complaining about your staff. You mention how your staff becomes aggressive if you say you’re too busy to talk to a student. Is that all you say, that you’re too busy? Or do you say, I’m busy at the moment but if you could please schedule some time with the student and I will speak to them then? If you’re abrupt with them, that could be a point on contention.

    Yes, you are the boss. So act like one. And this doesn’t mean to just steamroll over your subordinates. Talk to them, see what the problem is and try to come up with some solutions.

  18. avatar Debbie Ciaravino says:

    LW #2, you are picking up where you left off. You still have to kiss a lot of toads before finding your prince. Only now, instead of a phone call, you will also get emails, instant messages and text messages. Instead of going to a night club to meet men, you have online dating as a resource too. Good luck!

  19. avatar Sadie BB says:

    Lw1- hmmm….when you took this job did they actually say you were to be the admins manager? Because my dad was a university professor for 40 years and based your letter you are NOT the boss. Your BOSS is the boss. And he would like his subordinates (that would be you and the admins) to resolve this without his intervention.
    In my position I hand out work, monitor progress and review quality but I am STILL not the boss. If there’s a problem I can’t work out with my fellow team member then I document it and take it to the boss. But usually I don’t have to because I have proven myself and everyone knows the boss will listen to me. Plus I do not let it get personal, can document the problem and always try to work it out before kicking it upstairs.
    That being said there is no reason to tolerate lies and sabotage. The great thing about emails is that they never disappear…even when deleted. So make those admins produce the ignored email. And if they get agressive…well, the iPhone has a record button and it’s perfectly legal in many states to record any conversation you are party to WITHOUT permission.
    Ask me how I know.

  20. avatar Kathy says:

    I’ve been in management for 25 years, and currently oversee a staff of 50 professionals.  During my first years as a “supervisor”, I wanted to be liked.  You realize with time that your staff members have enough friends, what they want is a leader.  Someone who is fair, consistent, decisive and supportive.  LW1 sounds young, and thoroughly uncommitted to being in management.  She took the job for the money.  So, does her staff know that?  You bet.  And that’s what she’s seeing – a staff who doesn’t respect her because she has never committed to the job she accepted.  She can commit by asking for leadership training, finding a mentor other than her boss, conducting feedback surveys of her staff and others, and then sit down with her boss and put together a plan to actually perform the job she took.  Management is so much more than a larger paycheck.  And a whole bunch of it is thankless.

  21. avatar Annie H says:

    As to LW #1 I didn’t take her description as condensending; I took as a description from someone who is extremely frustrated.  I have been/am in both sides as the admin staff and management from offices to restaurants.  Offices are the worst.  There are offices that just plain do not like new people period.  They have been there forever and do not like change or new people.  You could do everything right as a team member and as a supervisor and they still wouldn’t like you. 

    Being the boss, you have to set the tone as to what your expectations are and what you will tolerate.  I have been in situations that the team members will test you just because you are their new boss.  Let it be coming in late, attitude, or work production (or lack of).  All of these things you have to nip in the begining.  Your boss doesn’t want to hear about it; they have other fish to fry. 

    The letter writer needs to decide what type of boss/supervisor she wants to be and then be it.  After the decision, she needs to have a staff meeting and list her expectations, give job descriptions (if there are disagreements on what someone job is),what they should do when they have problems and, say what they can expect from her.  AND add now that we are all on the same page we can start fresh.  Reviews should be done and she needs to document the problems. 

    It can be so frustrating to try to get guidance from your boss and receive oh take care of it, etc.  But she is the boss and she needs to act like it.  When you are in the thick of things, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture.  Hopefully, she can focus and take charge..  

  22. avatar Briana Baran says:

    O, my o my. Reading the comments proceeding (with a few exceptions giving sensible advice) reminds me of exactly why I detested every office job I have ever had. I’ve had three…two were temporary (the first of these I was asked back to three times, the second, the company ended up being merged with another, very unexpectedly, just as I was making the transition to permanent employee)…and the third I quit after having my second son, only to be called and asked back…with a pay raise and increased benefits…four times. The reason I mention my success is that I have done every kind of office work, get along well with most people, and I do. my. job. well. I don’t gossip, slack, complain, talk on the phone…or give a damn what people call me (except “babe”…use my name, or don’t address me) or my position.

    So, just FYI, “secretaries” used to be entirely male…it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that federal law made it possible for women to work in that position…and it certainly wasn’t considered demeaning. B-movies, Bumble-Bee paperbacks, and bad porn were probably the start of the position of “secretary” having a bad reputation. My dad had secretaries, and he treated them with enormous respect and care (not condescension), and knew exactly what they were responsible for…not just dictation and typing…but organizing the entire office’s functioning. They knew everything, and woe to anyone who forgot it. The executive secretary’s position in many companies was a power position…whether today’s women want to accept this or not…and so many of those women were the ones who rose to CEO positions as equal rights took hold. They were the movers and shakers.

    But now “secretary” is a pejorative, like so many other words (did anyone know that “nimrod” which is defined as an incompetent moron today, was the Hun god of Hunters and War?). At some point, “assistant” will go the way of “secretary”. It’s a war of semantics. I don’t even know what my last job title was…I think it was Accounting Specialist. O, really? I collated and ran invoices, did data entry at 10,000 keystrokes per hour, did accounts receivables, matched checks to various invoices, helped our bill collector, filed, did the daily deposit, troubleshooting for our IT professional and the various freight station departments…looking for lost freight tickets, figuring out incorrectly billed rates, researching unpaid drivers, and occasionally dispatching. For freight stations in seven different states. Did I CARE what I was called? No, because I had too much to do ( I can’t stand sitting around watching the clock).

    I also worked with six other women, and I spent most of my time sequestered in my corner cube, hiding from all of the back-biting, bitching, whining and gossip. I am not pure as the driven snow by any means. I loathe people who are incompetent and lazy. I detest people who ask you to do all of their work (because they’re too busy on the phone with friends to concentrate and get it right) then take credit for it. I have OCD, so I get a little rattled when other peoples’ junk ends up dumped in my workspace. My bad habits? If I get stuck doing your job too many times, I’ll ask the boss to just give it to me. Dump your junk on my desk…it will end up in your chair…or circular file. Yak on the phone at top volume…I’ll tell the boss that there’s a noise factor and that the deadline is being held up (absolute truth) because your conversation about clubbing all night is so important.

    Which of course makes me the enemy, because at work, I work. I don’t like working with women, because it seems that you’re typically either for them, or against them. In their estimation…even if you’ve begged them a thousand times to just try a bit harder. To not take a thousand smoke breaks. With men, I’ve found a direct approach is best, and works wonders. Don’t touch my head-set. No, there is no hand set, I threw it out because YOU used it and gave me strep. Stay out of my files. I have a name, and it isn’t “Babe”. A note on the coffee-pot that says, “Bill, if you fill your giant cup…make coffee. Rinse pot. Fill with water to top line. Dump old grounds. One scoop of coffee from can right on table, put in filter basket. Pour water in top of machine…press red button. And there will be coffee. We aren’t here to serve you…and you’ll be without if you empty the pot”. No one else had ever thought of this…and it worked. Women are terribly offended by this methodology. They want you to hate the men, and be part of some clique.

    I don’t function that way. I don’t much care about labels, because ladies, I’ve heard them all. I am disgusted and amused by the battle of semantics. For so many of you to be so bent out of shape by the perceived notion that LW1 is a condescending bitch that you miss the entire point of her letter is absurd.

  23. avatar jpnlawyer says:

    At my previous law firm, we called them “secretaries” and no one had even blinked at the term. I was the youngest lawyer in the office for the first 2 years I was at the firm and staff was always very kind to me. My last secretary who was about 5 or so years older than me, treated me like a little sister and made sure I had water in my office, listened to my problems and always coordinated the most wonderful birthday surprises for me. I really loved the staff at that office. My last paralegal was even a bridesmaid at my wedding and my former boss’s secretary remains one of my close friends. However, there are definitely attorneys out there that treat staff like second-class citizens. I heard that staff in other offices were often quite surly due to this, but where I worked, the staff always managed this with grace and were always professional.

    I’d be interested to know what industry LW works in, as I think the right approach differs from industry to industry. In any case, I think many bosses really aren’t as nice to their staffers as they think they are, but there’s nothing in this letter that really lets me know one way or another.

    • avatar lisakitty says:

      Honestly, I am afraid for your clients.  Did you read the letter at all?  The LW clearly states in paragraph one “But now, almost a year in, the job has become very stressful. (I am a student adviser at a college.)”

      • avatar jpnlawyer says:

        My apologies there. I did read the original letter, but got distracted once everyone else’s comments. I really should have re-read it again afterward.

        (And I fortunately take my job more seriously than I take reading an advice column!)

  24. avatar Foodventures says:

    In response to LW1 – in addition to her insistence on calling them the much outdated secretaries, I’m surprised that as a student advisor she would not normally take walk-ins. Not that I think she should be an open door from 9-to-5, but really, not even a few office hours throughout the week?

  25. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – I think your boss was too timid to tell you that you come across as a condescending bitch. Yeah. You do. You need to sit down with your staff and say, “Whoa. I got off on the wrong foot. What can we do to make it better”? Then bite that steak knife tongue and listen….you’re not going to like what you hear and then try to solve the problem with their help. If you can’t do that then please find another job that does not involve humans.
    By the way, this is not your boss’s problem; it’s yours.

  26. avatar John Hlavaty says:

    I have a question – why are we replacing words such as secretary, steward and stewardess, garbage man, etc.  Is a waiter or waitress now a cuisine administrater?  I recognize that some words were archaic and needed updating, but I see no difference between an “admin” and a “secretary”.  In my world both have always been the same.

    With regards to the rude staff, it is still not too late to salvage the process.  The LW can simply state that now that she’s been here a year and observed how the place operates, she wants to sit down with staff to air grievances, find ways for improvements, etc.  For example, when the LW refuses to take a walk-in student, the staff may role their eyes feeling that the LW is lazy and playing video games all day.  In truth, the LW is probably very busy – which is why walk-ins aren’t usually accepted.  To showcase how busy she is, she must become more transparent.  Let her staff know what is critical, what their roles are, what she’s doing, how they can help her and even how she could help them.  Sometimes just knowing that you are willing and able to help your staff is enough to dispel some negativitiy.   I would also take the staff to an off-site location – perhaps a Dunkin’ Donuts or equivalent.  This may allow them to be open and free as they are outside the confines of work.  As Margo suggested, documentation is key.  Then, after all of this, if there still isn’t any improvement, continue documenting and go to your boss once more.  If that doesn’t help, document that and go to his superior.  Rude treatment of a boss is insubordination and can be grounds for dismissal.  But worse is rude treatment of the people they are there to serve – the students. 

    • avatar R Scott says:

      Because Administrative Assisstants rarely do what secretaries used to do. They have different skills sets and quite frankly some higher expectations. Also, she does not have staff of “secretaries” that assist her with her job. She has a staff that consists of people doing autonomous administrative duties. 

      By the way your post is great and I hope she sees it. She needs to start owning and managing this situation.