Why Is My Boss Acting This Way Toward Me?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about the boss making me a go-fer female:

I have been working at my current company for almost three months as an engineer. I came to this company with years of previous knowledge and experience. One month into the job, I was given a project to organize training for a new product for some of our clients. My boss is very disorganized and though she wanted me to head the training, she continually took over and would communicate with others involved without involving me in the conversations.

Despite this, the training session was successful since the client left the training expressing how much they learned. However, during the training, my boss would interrupt me when ever I would add any input and would also send me on “errands”, i.e., hunt down people, buy lunch for everyone, etc. Her attitude towards me during the training session (which lasted three days) changed from her usual friendliness to addressing me very sharply and not returning (or even acknowledging) two messages I left for her during this time. Her attitude during the training session made me think that she thought my work wasn’t up to expectations, yet after the training was complete and everyone left, she was back to her friendly self and told me how well she thought the training went.

I decided to just let it go since I am new and perhaps didn’t realize she was under a lot of stress, etc., during the training. We are now supposed to travel together to go to a workshop. Our office is set up so everyone is self-sufficient, but she came into my office one day and started telling me to make her flight reservations for her and even to make reservations for a co-worker who is located in another state.

My job is a new position, so I did not replace anyone who perhaps did these administrative tasks for my boss. I’m busy learning about this company’s products, goals, procedures, etc., yet my boss keeps interrupting me to do some very administrative tasks for her. I noticed that she does not act this way towards the other engineers, even those that were hired around the same time I was. I don’t want to bring up the gender issue, but I am female and I’m beginning to wonder if she is subconsciously giving me these types of tasks because I am a woman. Since she is also female, I would think that she would be more sensitive to this type of behavior.I want to talk to my boss about this, but I don’t want to come off as being petty or thinking that certain tasks are beneath me. However, I don’t like being treated like her secretary, nor do I appreciate her negative attitude towards me when we are around clients, etc.

Signed, Frustrated

Dear Frustrated:

It seems that there may be a difference in what you and your boss consider to be your actual job duties and “other duties as assigned.” That catch-all phrase often extends far past basic job descriptions and can be a source of irritation and frustration. Sometimes, however, a position is created for the sole purpose of having someone available as a quasi-assistant, but without the title. In other situations, the supervisor or manager may be empowered to use any subordinate as needed, whatever the job description of that subordinate. Since you are new to the office, it may be they had been looking for someone to help with a variety of tasks and your position was created for that reason.There may also be some other dynamics going on, unintentional or otherwise, related to your tenure, gender, age, or skills.

The issues may actually be positive about you. For example, your boss may enjoy working with you more than she likes to work with others. She may think you are better at dealing with the details than anyone else. She may even see her actions as a way to establish that you and she are a team, compared to her lesser involvement with the others.Or, her actions may be more negative. She may want to emphasize to you that you are not a high level employee. Or, she may feel that your experience prior to coming to this work might have made you overly-confident and she wants to humble you a bit. She may feel she needs to clearly establish her status in relationship to yours. If there are not many women in the workplace, she may feel that the two of you will be compared and she wants it to be seen that she is the decision-maker.

Or, and often this is the case, there is no deep thought process at all. She has some work to be done and she knows she can delegate it, so she does. She may hate the detail work of making reservations and so forth, and be grateful someone else can do them.No matter how self-sufficient an office is set-up, bosses frequently have others do the tasks that do not require supervisory or managerial authority. This frees them up for the reports, letters, reviews and research that is required from them by those higher up. These tasks are not usually known by subordinates, and often there is an erroneous feeling that work is “dumped” rather than delegated.There is also the issue of her interaction with you when others are around.

Once again, analyze those situations. Does her less friendly treatment coincide only with very busy times for her? Were your communications to her during that time of a nature that she felt they were resolved without direct response by her? When she didn’t acknowledge your messages, did you follow up in some way? Might she have felt the matters weren’t important after all? Was her negative attitude more obvious to you at some times rather than others? Is it possible she was sending you a message about some aspect of your actions? Or, were you involved in something at the time that might have appeared to usurp her authority, or that might have made you look more effective than her? Do you think she was trying to cover for the fact that you were doing a great deal of the work she was supposed to do? Who were the other people present? Could some aspect of their relationships to your boss have made the difference? For example, was she particularly trying to impress them for some reason? Was her curt behavior toward you so obvious that anyone would have noticed and felt it to be rude, or so obvious that she would have had to do it purposely? Or, was it subtle or subject to intepretation? Those are all questions that might help you think through what has occurred.Whatever the results of your analysis, you don’t want the situation to continue, or at least you want some clarification. I think you are wise to want to talk to her about it–and also wise to be concerned about the results of it. Consider some of the following as you develop your plan of action:

1. The size of your organization may have an affect on how you handle this. You will also want to be guided by what kind of work environment you think might result from very assertive action about this. You might be able to change some of the things that are happening–but the price might be that your boss will have negative feelings about you for a long time, or you might be viewed as not wanting to pitch in on work outside your immediate job.On the other hand, it might be very beneficial to get some of this cleared up. For one thing, you will enjoy your work more if you know where you stand. For another, your boss may not realize how you have felt about some of the things that have happened, and may want to have a better working relationship with you than you feel you are having.

2. If you have a written job description, look at it again to see if your work fits that description generally, and if it does not, where are the disparities. Are you doing some things that are higher level, as well as some things that are lower level, or just lower level? Are you being prevented from doing the job for which you thought you were being hired–and if so will that hurt your performance reviews when they come around?You will certainly want to have some resolution about that.

3. When have you been given the more administrative tasks? Has it been when you may have appeared to have plenty of time to do them? Were others not available to help for some reason? Had you offered to help? It may be that you will benefit by being ready to mention the tasks that you are working on, so you can ask if someone else might help you do the work your boss has asked you about. I don’t advocate having busy work to avoid other tasks, but maybe your boss thinks you need to be kept busier than you currently are.

4. Does your boss have a boss at a higher level? If so, that tells you that any action taken by your boss about you would have to be approved by that person. That also tells you that you have an appeal level, if you have to use it. It may be that your boss is asking you to do things that are not appropriate for your position and her boss would not be happy with it. Once you have a clear picture of your job description you will have a better idea how likely it is that your boss is asking you to do things that are not part of your work. Or at least, that it is work that all should do on occasion, not just you.

5. If your organization has a Human Resources section or personnel manager that group or person may be a resource about this. Your boss may not have been told exactly WHAT your job was all about. It could be awkward to brings concerns to them, but they may be the ones who can clarify with you and your boss what your job is supposed to be.

They are also a good resource if you end up having to discuss the disparity between you and male employees when it comes to the work you have been assigned.So, a big part of the solution to your concerns, if there are any to be had, is to take some time to consider the details of what has been happening, and to use any organizational resources available. The next part of the solution is, as you suggested, to talk with your supervisor about at least part of your concerns.You wouldn’t want to appear to be criticizing her decisions about assigning work to you. But, you may be able to gain a great deal by helping her see herself as a support and mentor for you, as well as an effective boss. Open and frequent communications can help achieve that.Consider approaching her at a non-stressful time and saying, “Karen, I’ve worried a bit about a couple of things and finally decided you would want me to talk to you about them. I felt during the training that you seemed irritated with me. For example, there was the time when…..(give an example). I want to do the best job possible in those situations. Is there going to be a chance to work on something like that again? Are there some things you’d like me to do differently next time, or some things you’d like me to learn now, so I can be ready next time?” That not only might encourage her to mention any concerns, but may also get her to reiterate positive things about your work. I doubt that she would say, “Well, Ava, the truth is that you were making me look bad because you were doing such a good job. So, next time, try to act more subservient to me and let me take credit for everything.” She also wouldn’t say, “I thought you were a little too sure of yourself and I wanted to knock you down a peg or two. Did you mind that?”But, at least talking to her might make her more sensitive to how her actions are viewed in those situations. She might also realize that she was being inadvertently rude or curt, and she may want to correct that. If you have worked there for only three months, she may simply not be used to your role in the work.

This might be a good time to ask her to evaluate your work and let you know how things are going at the three month mark. You could even say you have always asked for such critiques on a regular basis. Or, you could say you’re enjoying your work and want to make sure things are going OK. The key is to find a way to allow both of you to talk about your job–and hopefully, your job in relation to hers. Emphasize the real job for which you think you were hired–engineering.If you feel comfortable talking to her openly, consider being honest about your concern over being the only one asked to do what might be considered secretarial tasks. You might approach it by saying that you are happy to do anything asked of you, but you are certain she will understand that you worry the guys will assume you are the only one who does such tasks. Ask if those are tasks that could be rotated. You might offer to prepare a list of steps for others to follow when they are involved. I don’t think she will rotate the tasks, because that rarely works well. But at least she might ask others in addition to you to do them. While you’re considering how to approach a conversation with her, you may decide it will likely anger her and result in her feeling badly about you. That will serve as a mental warning that perhaps you want to just do the tasks and endure until such time as you have more tenure or status.Another way to decide the degree to which you want to deal with it is to consider what you would be thinking if one of the men you work with was asked to do the tasks you’ve done so far. Would you think it made him less significant than you? If so, others may feel the same way about you, and it might be important for you to find a way to change things. If you wouldn’t even notice and would feel he was simply doing a few additional tasks, then maybe that is how others are seeing what you do as well.As you can tell, there is no absolute solution to your situation. That is especially true since you know your boss, your office culture, your co-workers and your job description and capabilities best. But, hopefully by thinking through the situation you can make the first crucial decision: Do you want to say something about it? Then, you can develop a basic approach to what you want to say or do.While you are at it, remember to work at being a strong part of the office team, and a highly skillful and knowledgeable person in the areas that are part of your solid job description. Show yourself to be actively engaged in tasks that cannot easily be interrupted. Work in a way that presents you as far too valuable to be used for mundane tasks. You may be doing that already, but it might be worthwhile to go an extra step with it. Continue to work at keeping a good relationship with your boss.

Think of her goals and concerns and see how you can help her achieve those. When a direct report employee (a subordinate) helps to make a boss look good through consistently good work and volunteering to do extras, it takes a very mean-spirited boss to ignore it.If you can find additional ways to be a star at work, perhaps you will also find yourself being freed from tasks that can be given to someone else. (Then, THEY can try to figure out what to do about it!) If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. You may be able to help others who are facing your same challenges. 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.