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When the Boss's Spouse Acts Like Management

You're going about your work day when your manager's spouse walks in and asks what you're working on today, and tells you to clean your desk. Let's talk about the boss's spouse who acts like management!

Increasingly, it feels like there are three people in this workplace marriage: You, your boss, and your boss's better half! The problem is, your boss's spouse doesn't actually work for the company. No, he or she simply shows up on a regular basis to "hang out," say "hi," and tell stories.

If you have a great relationship with your boss's family members, then good for you! It's so nice when things work out well. But when it isn't working, it can be a very hard situation to know how to handle.

How does this "situation" show up in the workplace? Maybe you're in charge of arranging your boss's travel plans, and his or her spouse is always on the phone telling you exactly how to do it.

Maybe you're in sales, and the boss's significant other wants to know if you've met your weekly quota yet (and then proceeds to offer advice for reaching your goals).

Maybe your boss's spouse likes to "drop in" and ask each employee "how their week is going" while possibly using a desktop to see exactly how the work week is going.

Maybe your boss's spouse seems a teensy-weensy bit too involved in offering unsolicited advice to employees, or tends to ask prying questions you'd rather not answer.

Maybe your boss's spouse shows up and tells two of your co-workers "what a great time" was had last night when they all went to dinner and a movie. Hmm. Your invitation to dine with the boss must have gotten lost in the mail?

If you've ever experienced any of these management "scenarios" at work, then you know what a tightrope walk they can be as an employee! At particular risk are small firms with fewer than 50 employees where everyone really is like family and management practices can be, shall we say, struggling to evolve beyond the start-up phase when a spouse may have indeed played an integral role in getting the company off the ground.

The question is, how should you deal with a boss's better half who seems to have assumed a management-by-proxy role at work? Here are five tips for handling this delicate workplace situation:

1. Distinguish the personal from professional. The boss's spouse offers you some hairstyle advice? Eh, just let it go. The boss's spouse wants to tell you how to file documents, how to talk on the phone or when you may leave for lunch? Um, now it's actually job-related. You'll have to separate what's worth worrying about (job-related) from what's not worth the trouble (not technically job-related).

2. Be respectful. You want to be respectful toward your boss's spouse while maintaining autonomy to do your job in the way you've been trained to do it. Be pleasant in the face of unsolicited advice or work-related questions, but follow your own professional instincts, too. The company hired you for a reason.

3. Be an aggressive self editor. Take greater care in what you say, and how you say it. It's no fun to purposefully self-edit, but it's probably a good idea when interacting with someone who seems to lack boundaries. Sharing your thoughts on the season finale of your favorite TV show? Yes. Sharing your thoughts on politics? No.

4. Clarify your responsibilities. If you're receiving conflicting management advice (see Tip #1), then you may need to talk to your real supervisor (e.g., the other half you technically report to every day). Don't say, "But [your spouse] said to do it this way," which could make things worse. You might simply say you want to "double check" on a project, deadlines, what time you should go to lunch, or whatever else about the work is being questioned to a worrying degree. This way, you're getting it straight from the boss's mouth.

5. Keep networking. Unfortunately, this management situation isn't likely to change anytime soon, and you'll have to decide if you can tolerate it over the long term. In the meantime, keep your resume polished, keep doing your best work, work hard to stay above the workplace family fray, and keep your calendar sprinkled with a few networking events or professional meetup groups.

This workplace situation can be an uncomfortable one, but thinking it through -- and being more strategic in your one-on-one interactions -- is the key to making it work. Besides, you're already married to your work, anyway.

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