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Our New Assistant Doesn’t Have Boundaries

But she’s pleasant and efficient. Should I say something?

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BY Alison Green - 05 Dec 2017

Our New Assistant Doesn't Have Boundaries

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

My company last year acquired another company in the same industry, and we've finally merged offices. The acquired companies offices were larger and less expensive, so we moved in with them. As a senior team member in our old place, I had my own office. But we went from 10 team members to 60 when we moved, so now I have a little cubicle. I'm not bothered at all by the change. As long as I have an electrical outlet and wifi, I can work from anywhere.

In our new office, we have an administrative assistant who is amazing. She makes coffee, orders food, sets up for meetings, cleans common areas, orders supplies, liaises with the building manager, and makes sure things like cable and phones stay on. At my old office, all of those responsibilities were divided up among my few colleagues and me, in addition to our client work, so I feel especially grateful to have this woman around in our new space.

However, she may have some boundary issues. I came in earlier this week to find she had added a lamp to my area (lamps aren't standard issue, this one was just sitting around unused). She said when she saw me, "I left a gift on your desk." I just let it go. Things on my shelves have been moved, and I have a space heater that automatically turns off for safety and energy efficiency and I came in to find a company-wide email from this admin demanding space heaters be turned off, and mine had been unplugged, presumably by her.

In fact, this company-wide email approach is common with her. The other day I was in a hurry to get a client settled into a meeting and I grabbed two used glasses off the conference table, ran to put them in the kitchen sink and ran back to welcome the client. When our meeting was done, there was a company-wide email in my inbox demanding that glasses not be left in the sink.

I try to be very direct with people, so I can't help feeling like this approach of email blasting every time you don't like something is both distracting and unprofessional. First, it doesn't solve anything (if it did, she wouldn't have to send so many of them repeatedly). Second, it creates an environment of suspicion and uncertainty, and opens the door for gossip (Coworker 1: "Do you know who she was talking about?" Coworker 2: "I bet it was _____, she's so messy."). Also, she's not anyone's supervisor, so she really has no business asserting authority over people via email.

Am I off base? How should I approach her about it without making her feel like I don't appreciate her?

Yeah, a little off-base, I think. A lot of this is standard stuff for admins.

Giving you a lamp isn't really a boundary violation. If you don't want it there, say no thanks and that you're not a lamp person, but you appreciate her thinking of you.

The space heater -- well, some companies have space heater policies that they take very seriously because they can start fires. It's not uncommon that they'd unplug yours -- and that the office admin would be the face of that policy (or its executioner).

Rearranging your stuff? That's legitimately annoying. But you could simply say, "Hey Jane, I appreciate how much work you do to make our space look nice. Would you not rearrange the stuff on my shelves though, since it makes it harder for me to find things?"

As for the company-wide emails ... sure, they're annoying if they're generated every other day. But in the scheme of things, they're pretty minor. If this coworker is otherwise pleasant, efficient, helpful, and good at her job -- and it sounds like she is -- I would write this off to "no one is 100% perfect, but she's pretty damn good" and just let it go. (And I don't think your coworkers are really going to get into heavy gossip about who prompted the email about the glasses in the sink. If they do, it's more about them, because that's an awfully boring topic for gossip.)

More broadly, it's appropriate -- in most offices, at least -- for admins to to assert authority over the general office area. Not over the people in it, but over the space itself. Within reason, of course, and not in such a way that process becomes an obstacle to people getting their jobs done, and it's appropriate for people to push back if the admin's governance of the space causes issues for them. But when you question whether it's appropriate for her to be issuing edicts on the kitchen sink in the first place, the answer is: Yes, it's probably part of her job.

Of course, if you ever feel like the company-wide emails are being spurred by you, there's no reason you can't just address it with her straightforwardly. For instance, right after receiving that "no glasses in the sink" email, say something like, "I think I might be the cause of that email about leaving things in the sink. I left some glasses there earlier today because they were in a conference room I needed to quickly prepare for clients. Sorry about that!" (Note that in this case, you can say "sorry about that" and still do the exact same thing again if you need to in similar circumstances, because it was reasonable in that context.) In other words, be direct, be cheerful, and be unbothered.

Overall, though, it sounds like you have an awesome admin, and that's where I'd focus. That's not to say that you can't ever ask a generally awesome person to do something differently -- you absolutely can -- but you should pay them the respect of being straightforward about it and not stewing. And conveniently, part of being a generally awesome person is that they'll usually strongly prefer that.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.