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Staff going over your head? Define your supervisory duties

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in Your Office Coach

Question: I work in a very small office with my boss, his wife and two administrative assistants.  As the office manager, I supervise the assistants, but they always take their questions or concerns to the boss’s wife. Recently, when one of them complained about a task that I gave her, the boss’s wife told me to do the task instead. So how can I be considered their supervisor?” — Ignored

Marie’s Answer: In a family business, relatives often have more power than managers. By dealing with the wife, your employees have figured out how to go over your head without going to your boss. Very clever.

•    The wife may be consciously usurping your authority or simply acting without thinking.  Either way, your fundamental problem is poorly defined roles. Everyone in the office should clearly understand who is responsible for what.

•    To resolve the issue, request assistance from your boss and his wife. Complaining about her would be suicidal, so describe the situation in a neutral way. Example: “Although my title is ‘office manager,’ the assistants don’t seem to view me as their supervisor. I think it would help if we could all agree on my role.”

•    Once your supervisory duties are defined, have your boss review them with the staff. Then ask the wife to send the assistants back to you when they bring issues to her (which they will). This clearly sends the message that you really are the supervisor.

You may find, however, that the wife is unwilling to relinquish her power and her husband is unwilling to intervene. In that case, your “manager” title will continue to be relatively meaningless.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Chuck September 3, 2011 at 9:38 am

I have worked for a small doctors office that was family owned too and the employees would go to the wife also. Eventually the wife see’s it that they don’t need an office manager because all of the employee’s come to her no matter who they hire for a office manager. They do not seem to address the issue that she allows it to happen and therefore she takes on more responsibility than she can handle.


Anon November 19, 2008 at 7:57 pm

It’s always difficult to work in a small office, where everything is noticed, and it’s even more difficult when the company is owned and managed by a family. I would certainly suggest getting clarification of appropriate reporting relationships and responsibilities. However, the boss is not going to reprimand his wife, and since you can’t control him, it may be that you have to choose the lesser of 2 evils: keeping your mouth shut & just doing your job to the best of your ability, or trying to get another job in our declingin economy.


ted November 19, 2008 at 3:05 pm

When you work for a small company as stated where the owner and his wife have a part and you have subordinate employees managed under your job provision, I feel the approach should be to go directly to the person that hired you and insure everything you stated is in fact in your job classification as well as the management and direction of these employees that leapfrog over you. Inform the responsible person in HR, or whoever hired you that there is a necessary chain of command that is being broken and due to a political atmosphere it is a problem because you find it difficult to accept responsibility for the job these individuals are paid to do, as you are left out out the Chain of Command Loop. It is your immediate Managers responsibility that you report to, probably in this case the owner to get this issue back on track and the basic business fornat of reporting employees back together with the “Chain Of Command” If they can’t or wont, again to an emotional or fact of nepatism, it is time to cut the cord and move on. If a reporting chain of command structure can’t or wont be maintained then all that will result is chaos and employee “fire drills”, with the wasted time in the non solve of the issue. A company can not grow under these circumstances, and, eventually must bite the bullet for making their personell mistakes and non compliance to a basic business structure. This is why so many small companies go under in todays extremely competitive and restrictive environment. You personally can only change what you control, in this case the direction and work performance of the employees that “Should” report to you. If this is not corrected or understood by the people for making responsible decisions above you, dont waste any more time in this job, fold up your tent and move on.




ManyHats November 19, 2008 at 2:03 pm

Excellent advice, Marie. I just wanted to add an anecdote about how nice it is to have the boss’ backup as well as his back. My title is “office manager” also. Generally I answer the phone; I have a mandate to protect my president from cold callers and all the other “junk” calls that are aimed at him. A solicitor called, trying to get a charitable contribution from us. I told him that I, as the office manager, was the person he needed to talk to first, but he had the boss’ name and INSISTED on speaking with him. He went beyond firm to slightly nasty.

I would never do this today, but I was still new with the company; so I left Mr. Nasty on hold and walked into the president’s office and repeated the conversation to him. Mr. President said he would take the call (surprise!) He signaled me to wait, picked up, identified himself and listened to the pitch, then said quite clearly, “Oh, I don’t get involved with that. You need to speak with our Office Manager!” and flipped exceedingly embarassed Mr. Nasty back to me.


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