Employee Texts Us After Hours and Is Effusively Complimentary–Especially to My Husband.

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: What to do about an employee
who is excessive in her flattery and texting? 

Question:
My husband and I own a small business with four employees. We live in a very small town and we run the business out of our home. Our secretary continues to text both my husband and myself after hours with subjects totally unrelated to work. She will constantly give compliments to my spouse and myself about what a great boss he is, how he is the “rock” for the team. She will also provide nutritional supplements for his “stress”, etc. We have attempted to discuss these issues with her and she is great for a time, but then falls into the same habit. I don’t want to lose a productive employee, but this invading our time after hours is getting old quickly. Any suggestions – before we end this work relationship?

Answer:
Dr. Gordon, the founding Workplace Doctor, thinks your employee may be trying to be like an Office Wife to your husband, making herself seem to be necessary for his well-being and showing him how important she is to him. You probably have insights into that. Does it seem she is more interested in communicating with your husband than with you—and only includes you to make it not appear so obvious? Or, are you certain she is encroaching on both of you equally?

If she is trying to establish a relationship with your husband—even if it is not a romantic one—he should take the lead in stopping her texts and extra attention, although you will want to be part of the effort as well. More about that in moment. However, it isn’t fair to her for your husband to encourage her to her face, then complain about her behind her back. So, make sure he is as solid in his efforts as you are.

If both of you have talked to the employee before and she continues to text after hours and be overly effusive about compliments during working times, perhaps she is a person who is needy emotionally and having a away-from-work relationship makes her feel important. I am concerned that if you are put in a position where you have to fire her, she will continue to call or to be a nuisance or even a threat in some other way.

Or, your employee may think you three are friends or almost like family and her over-the-top communication is her normal interaction with friends. In the last few years I have noticed a lot of what I refer to as Facebook Fawning. On Facebook, some people, almost always women, compliment other people effusively as a way to show they are generous, kind and loving—and to get compliments in return. I just now reviewed a few of them with which I’m familiar and almost gagged. Essentially, “WOW!!! Julie, you’re so awesome!! That photo is great! What a smile!! You’re such an inspiration! Love you, girlfriend!!!!”

Or, someone will post a cryptic note, “Having a tough day today”. And twenty or thirty women write back, “Praying for you, girl!” “Hang in there, you’re a great person!” “We love you, don’t let others get you down!” Etc. etc. etc. Then the first person posts, “I don’t know what I did to deserve such wonderful friends. You made my day!” Then the friends post back, “Just you being you is enough.” “I’m always here for you!” Etc. etc. etc. etc.

Or this one, a real one, posted Monday: “I read one of my favorite blogs about how to have a tidier desk. HA! By the time I lug in two dozen of my famous cinnamon rolls, set up the break room and get my coworkers full of rolls and coffee, while dealing with Monday morning emails, my desk is already a disaster! Oh well, I guess I’ll never be blog-worthy.” To which all her friends wrote gushing notes about what a great friend she is and she shouldn’t worry about some stupid blog-writer. None of the commenters were her coworkers, who probably would be happy to do without the hoopla of her “famous” cinnamon rolls.

So, it may be that your secretary over-communicates with many people and is encouraged to do so by their responses—and thinks you enjoy hearing from her, even if you have hinted otherwise. She may also think the other excessive things she does are appreciated, especially if she has never been told to stop.

1. The first step is to put distance between the two roles of boss and secretary. In a small town with a small business, it is likely that she knows everything that is going on in your business and maybe even your family. Try to reduce that closeness. You and your husband should not share personal information with her or let her into your life to such an extent that she feels part ownership. Even casual comments about home and family can give some people the idea that they are being purposely included. It may sound elitist, but the truth is that employers rarely pick employees to be their close friends and confidantes—and when they do, they invariably regret it at some point.

2. You and your husband should never accept anything the employee gives you—such as the supplements or food or anything else. Share everything with the entire staff or tell her that you cannot use the item and she should return it and get her money back. Or, give her the money and tell her to keep the product. It’s a shame to have to do it that way, but it’s reality and you’ll be better off in the long run.

A manager told me about his former administrative assistant, who brought various items to him—favorite magazines, a deck of cards from his favorite casino, food items or candy, etc. One day when he finally told her she needed to get to work on time, the first thing she said was, “I can’t believe, after the friendship we’ve had, that you’re treating me like a lowly servant and you’re the king of the castle.” He never thought of her as a friend and had never exchanged gifts with her, but she obviously read more into it than he did. So, if you and your husband don’t want to be close friends with the company secretary, don’t let her feel so close. You can be friendly and courteous, without being close.

3. Reduce the use of the cell phone for calls or text messages to or from your secretary. Many workplaces use text messages in place of face to face communication or email, because it is more immediate. Unfortunately, the high level of communication increases messages—with many of them being unnecessary. Start noticing how that happens with everyone. If you send an email, they reply, then you reply, then they reply briefly, then you reply with one line, then they reply to say goodbye, then finally the communication is over. Send one text, asking a question, and it takes five or six before the conversation is done.

In addition, for many people there is an emotionally addictive aspect to text messaging. It seems a bit intimate to get a text message—like a secret chat, even though it is about business. Even the alert sounds different than a plain old phone call. As a young woman with a crush on her boss told me, “When we text back and forth, it’s like quick kisses.” Oh my!

So, step one is to reduce or eliminate text messages, even during working hours. If she texts you about work during working hours, respond with a phone call or email, not a text message. Your husband should never text her. Tell him to forward texts to you and you can respond for him about work matters. Just say he’s busy and asked you to handle it. Or, he can email her back, instead of texting. He is probably going to have to do more than you to reduce the feeling of closeness she seems to have.

3. Tell her to stop texting either of you after work hours. I don’t think trying to have a discussion to appeal to her good judgment will help at this point, because she has shown she doesn’t use good judgment. A reasonable person does not text her bosses after hours. Keep that in mind—other employers are not getting texts or calls after hours, except in dire emergencies.

You already have a history of hinting or suggesting or talking to her about not contacting you after hours, so it won’t be news to her that you don’t like it. You don’t need to feel guilty or extreme to be more blunt. The added benefit is that you will never need to feel that you weren’t clear enough.

Here are two options for handling the next text. You can soften or strengthen the language, based on how firm you have been in the past:

Option One: Don’t respond when she texts. The next morning your husband (preferably) or you, can say something like, “Good morning Barb. We noticed that you texted last night, but as we’ve talked about before, we don’t like to read or respond to texts after work hours. What was it about?” After she explains it and you respond, say, “That could have waited until work hours, so I’m glad we didn’t read it when we got it. Barb, please don’t send us texts after hours. I mean it, please don’t do that anymore. I don’t know how to be more clear than that. Don’t do it. OK?”

Don’t go into some long explanation about why or the exceptions or anything else, just say you don’t want to get texts, calls or emails after hours. And say you didn’t read it, so she won’t have the satisfaction of thinking that you did.

Option Two: Your husband (preferably) or you can text back at the time, without referring to her specific text, “Barb, work can wait until work hours. No texts or calls after hours. Thanks!”

If she continues to do it, it will be an indicator that she can’t control herself and you will have to stop it by firing her. That will be a tough situation, but she can’t say it was unexpected.

4. Through all of this, if the employee is now productive, you want to keep the productivity if you are going to keep her as an employee. Put the focus on the most productive work for right now and be appropriately but not excessively appreciative. It sounds terrible to advise to not encourage extra work, but for a while at least, your employee should just do daily, productive work, without the feeling that she is responsible for making sure the business succeeds or that her role is to be a cheerleader.

Make sure you are commending other employees, so that no one is the Super Star. Consider expanding your business network more, so you are interacting with new people and talking about others in positive ways.

The bottom line is that you may have to put some effort into getting things back to boss-employee relationships, but it can be done and you can still have a small-business, appropriately friendly feel.

Best wishes to you with this interesting situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let me know how it works out and what was ultimately successful.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors