My Boss Is Too Friendly In Private

Question:

I have worked for this company almost five years. For four years my CEO never spoke or even looked at me. Last year when he fired my boss, he hired a consultant, and he started to talk highly about me and how smart I am.

Every time I meet him and it is just two of us, he always talks and touches my hand briefly and is very friendly with me.

On his birthday I gave him a card and a small gift. That day I met him in the mail room with another manager. The three of us were just talking normally. When the other manager left, there was just me and my CEO in the mail room. I started to get my mail and he asked me to give him a hug for his birthday. A couple of of weeks later, when I was in the break room by myself, he walked in and showed me a picture of him when he was younger, holding his baby, with both of them sleeping. I think he just wanted me to see him when he was younger. When I am around with others, he just ignores me. It’s only when we’re alone that he acts the other way. I shared this information with my supervisor, who is a close friend. He told me not to worry, that my CEO is only trying to make me feel comfortable. I feel very uncomfortable about all of this, especially since he is my boss. What do you think I should do?

Signed,

Confused


Answer:

Dear Confused:

There is no way of knowing what your CEO intends by the things he does that make you uncomfortable–but in 2007 most CEOs are well aware of the risks they take when they hug, touch hands, or when they single out an employee of the opposite gender for special friendship or even support. The fact that several people who know both of you, believe he is only interested in encouraging you to be more communicative, may or may not reflect his motives.

Your follow-up message indicates you may have inadvertently made your CEO think you appreciated and wanted special attention from him. Most people would find it flattering if a younger person seemed to enjoy chatting or joking with them. And, many bosses would enjoy showing that they were able to bring a shy employee around and help her be more involved in meetings and so forth. You may seem like a fragile, shy, sweet young woman who needs encouragement. Quite frankly, that would be very interesting and challenging for many men!

It may also be that others have said something to him that indicates you don’t contribute at the level that is most needed, but the CEO thinks you have a lot to contribute, and wants to bring that out of you. He may feel that he is helping make you feel like part of the team.

All of that is to say, I don’t think you should make the assumption that he is trying to establish a romantic or intimate relationship. On the other hand, I don’t think you should rule that out! The key issue is that no matter what your CEO intends, YOU are uncomfortable with his actions. And, his actions have been questionable enough that it is understandable that you’d feel confused and awkward about how to deal with the situation.

Some people are so black and white about this issue that they would advise you to get tough immediately and make a complaint about the hug or the hand touching or whatever. I think that’s unrealistic. You are starting out in the business world and over time will need to deal with a variety of situations that are uncomfortable. It is better to learn to deal with them now, on our own and in a confident way, than feeling powerless to help yourself, or thinking that making a formal complaint is the only way to deal with something.

The situation as you have described it is not a terrible one, it is simply awkward and you don’t want it to become worse for you. You can do that, you just need to stay focused on your goal.

Consider the following as you develop a plan of action:

1. Be sure to keep your own conversation and emails focused on business. Unfortunately, you will not be able to risk making joking or more personal remarks to your CEO, even though you might want to do that. If your CEO talks about personal things that seem inappropriate (more than talking about his family–maybe, talking about his personal feelings, thoughts of you, his personal preferences in women and so forth) make a strong effort to change the subject. If he insists, find a reason to leave. If that doesn’t work, simply tell him it is embarrassing to you to hear about people’s personal lives and you think it would sound bad if others knew of the conversation. At some point you may have to be very blunt and tell him you don’t like it when he talks that way, and to stop. CEO or not, you have the law on your side. I don’t think it will come to that, but it may.

If your CEO is generally a nice man who treats others with respect, you may find you will help save him from a lot of trouble if you don’t let this ever develop to the point of being severely inappropriate. In that way, you help both of you.

2. Try to avoid being alone with him in settings that might lead to more personal conversations. If you are with others and they leave, leave with them. Take care of business while they are there, so there is no reason for you to be left alone with your CEO. If you can’t avoid it, just keep your focus on work.

You can’t avoid friendly conversation of course. And you should be courteous as you would be to any executive in your company. But, you don’t need to be his daughter, special friend, student or little sister.

3. If he attempts to make a physical contact, like asking for a hug, taking your hand or putting his arm around your shoulder, move away and say something like, “Thank you for your friendship Mr. Anderson, but this makes me uncomfortable.” “Mr. Anderson, that would look really bad if someone came in the room.” Or, “My boyfriend wouldn’t like me to hug someone, and it would look bad to others anyway.” Or, “No, no. I appreciate your friendship Robert, but this would get us in trouble.” Or even, “No, we’d better not do that. I told my mother that you were always really nice to me and she said to be careful that I don’t do anything that would look wrong.” (There’s nothing like the mention of a watchful mother to put a man on guard!)

Whatever you say, you can say it without sounding angry. Just move away and show that you don’t want to participate. If he insists, THEN you can be angry! Say something like, “Stop! I’ve told you I don’t want to do that. I don’t feel comfortable with it. Stop now.”

4. If you feel you must do so, before anything else happens, you could send an email to your supervisor, to make it official, and say that you have thought about it and have decided that whatever the CEO’s motives, you don’t feel comfortable with his actions. Ask your supervisor to help you by trying to make sure you are not put in close contact with the CEO by yourself. And, tell your supervisor that if something else occurs you will be making a formal complaint to him.

That is a decision you will need to make anyway. At what point would it be so severe you would be willing to make a complaint to your HR section about the CEO? That’s a BIG step! I think before you ever do that, you should make sure you have another viewpoint about it, preferably from HR or from your supervisor or the Director. You are not obligated to keep working in an environment where you are uncomfortable. You can complain, even about a CEO. Or, you can quit and find a better place. But, I don’t think it will need to come to that.

If you feel personally threatened in any way, either physically or otherwise, of course you don’t need to hesitate to ask for help. But I don’t think it is likely that your CEO would try to overpower you physically or hurt you. I don’t even think he would harm your career in retaliation for you not responding to his friendliness. But if you think you are unsafe physically, you need to get out of the room and get help immediately. If you think you are being hurt in your career, you need to talk to your supervisor or HR. You would need clear evidence that something negative was related to this situation.

4. Starting tomorrow, keep the focus of being friendly, cheerful and smiling as always, but not personal with the CEO. Work to develop your knowledge and skills, so he doesn’t have to feel that he is bringing you out of your shell to help develop you. It may be that you are very introverted, but in most workplaces there is a need for people to talk openly when they have something to contribute. Someone who only sits and observes, without asking questions, providing answers or being part of the group, will not be valued fully. And, it makes other people uncomfortable to feel that someone is being left out. They will often try to draw that person out–which may be what your CEO is doing.

Talk to your friend, your supervisor, and ask in what areas you need to develop the most–then concentrate on those areas. You know you have many strengths that you can continue to display. As you work to develop your personal and professional skills you will gain more confidence, and that will make situations like this much less problematic for you.

Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.