My Husband’s Assistant Is Trying To Stake Her Claim to Him

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an
administrative assistant who treats her boss’s wife discourteously. 

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Question:
My husband has had a new female assistant for a couple of months. For the way our life was structured I had to give up to my life and become a supportive wife and mother, a job I have carried out with dedication and passion. Our life situation has now forced me to live away from my husband to follow-up on the children’s education.

I went back home during the holiday and met his assistant for the first time. I was unhappy about the choice and would rather have had a man, however, I very kindly welcomed her. After a few days she seemed to be pushing me out of what she considers her territory. She said things I consider completely inappropriate. For example: I wished her a happy new year and she replied, “First thing, we are going to fix Peter’s health this year.” (As if she was part of his personal life and thought I wasn’t taking care of him as I should, as his wife.)

Another example: While I was outside my husband’s office waiting for him she came out and said, “I’ll go and tell him to take you home.” (As if he would only do it if she asked him to do it.) It can seem like she is taking pity on me, but bear in mind that at the time I did not know this person, never met her before and had never had a conversation with her.

She has done many more things I find completely inappropriate, such as sending my husband a message regarding a personal issue (not even about business) at 1:30 a.m. on January 1st after a party our family attended and she was also present.

After all these any distressful situations and after begging my husband to help to sort out the matter, I decided to confront her to make her realize that her behaviour was not acceptable. I talked to her in a very amicable way and told her I was sure she didn’t mean her actions in a bad way, but I was finding them offensive. I told I was there to clarify in order to get on in the most friendly way. She went straight to HR and took formal action against me.

This matter has created a big tension in between me and my husband. I would really like to know if I am right and what are the actions I should and could take.

Answer: 

Hello and thank you for sharing your workplace and personal issue. I will share some thoughts that might help you, but I think you should seek assistance from several resources in your immediate area, including from someone you trust who understands the entire situation.

You may have heard the concept of a “Work Wife”. It seems to apply here. A Work Wife is a female assistant or close co-worker, who takes on the psychological role of a wife to a man, usually an executive, manager or supervisor, while they are at work. In that role, the female is supportive, provides assistance and subtle guidance or direction. She may nag him about his eating habits, remind him of work he needs to do, be sympathetic and get angry on his behalf, stand up for him to others and do things to make life better for him at work—getting his favorite coffee, decorating his office, etc. Many female assistants to executives are viewed by employees as having almost as much power as the executive. Sometimes that relationship is romantic and sexual and sometimes not.

The key to the issue though is that the male executive nearly always is aware of the role being taken by the Work Wife and encourages it when it is convenient for him—but often resents it when it gets in his way or becomes excessive. The real wives of those executives sometimes become close to their husband’s assistant and laugh about the Work Wife role–but most react as you do. They resent the idea that a woman at work thinks of herself as being so intimate with the executive that she doesn’t have the role of a subordinate employee, she is like a wife or girlfriend.

Sometimes, if the assistant is older, she acts more like a mother or older sister to her boss, which can be equally irritating to those who have to deal with it!

Even the brief examples you provided give me reason to think you are justified in feeling angry and concerned. Your husband’s assistant clearly has implied that she has become very close to your husband, to the point that she will take care of him for you. She seems to want to let you know that she is a big part of his life now. However, I think there are so many other issues involved that you should be seeking much more effective counsel than we can give you.

Overall, I think you do have a very difficult problem right now. However, the solution will involve the relationship between you and your husband as much as it will involve his assistant. I think it also involves your entire marriage situation rather than just your husband’s working situation. It sounds as though you have put a lot of effort into raising your children and being supportive. That situation may have made you feel resentful and anxious. It also sounds as if you and your husband have not been able to be as close as you were before, in time and distance, as well as emotionally.

You and your husband need to work on this problem together. The first step will be for him to clarify with his assistant what her role should and should not be. At the same time he may have to apologize to her for pushing her into her current role or allowing it to happen. Apparently the company is large enough to have an HR and several levels of hierarchy. Maybe HR can assist him in reassigning her or replacing her. However, be prepared for the reaction that it is your husband’s fault this has developed—and he may find himself in trouble as well.

However, I don’t think you should expect that your husband will have a male assistant rather than a female one. The fact that you would prefer that may indicate a concern on your part that needs to be considered as you try to improve your relationship with your husband.

I also do not think you should have confronted your husband’s assistant about her behavior, as you apparently did. She is an employee and it is your husband’s responsibility to deal with the problem, not yours. She can’t complain to HR about you, because you’re not an employee there. But, her complaint to HR may certainly cause problems for your husband.

The time to have said something would have been when she made comments to you that you found offensive. I realize it’s hard to think of a response when you feel upset, but coming back later to talk to her about the situation probably seemed hostile to her. If she has been encouraged by your husband to have a strong role as his assistant, she probably felt unfairly attacked.

I wish I had a quick and certain answer for what you should do next. However, I can give you a certain answer that I think you are correct to be offended, irritated and hurt by the situation, as you describe it. However, I do think it needs to be handled between you and your husband, not by you inserting yourself into his workplace.

Best wishes to you as you work through this matter. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how it works out and what you found to be the most helpful as you found solutions.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors