A reader writes:
My dad started dating this woman (Jill) about two years ago, after he and my stepmom amicably divorced. As this was going on, I graduated from grad school, ended my student internship, and started looking for jobs. In six months, I applied to 275 jobs and didn’t get a single interview. I was desperate for work when my dad said Jill needed a new executive assistant. Jill is the chair of a nonprofit, and the job came with a good salary and a lot new responsibilities. I had an interview and was offered the job right away.
Immediately, things were much worse than I expected:
• She tells me when to start working either late at night or in the morning. My hours aren’t terribly long, but it is impossible to schedule anything since I don’t know my schedule in advance, and my health and self-care have taken a beating. I don’t have set hours, so she calls and texts at any time, and I never know when I’m done for the day.
• One of my main roles is to work on her book, a memoir about the struggles of being a minority and a woman. My dad, a white man, is writing the entire thing secretly; she hasn’t told her publisher that a ghostwriter is involved, and he is getting no compensation or recognition as she goes around telling everyone that she’s the only woman of this ethnic group to write a book on the subject.
• When I ask clarifying questions, she belittles me (“That’s common sense” or “You know as much as I do”).
• She’s rude and cruel to me in front of others at meetings, events, and on conference calls. Once when I said the way she was talking to me was making me flustered, she yelled that this is how she manages people, that I perceive things the wrong way, and that it’s a problem with me.
• She is always coming up with elaborate rumors about our out-of-state staff. She often says that her former assistant had brain damage; her reasoning was that she was born premature and therefore must have brain damage and be “mentally handicapped.” So-and-so is obese because her kid died and now she’s too emotionally unstable to work. So-and-so must be crazy because he chose to serve on a submarine while in the Navy.
• She doesn’t do anything herself because she doesn’t know how to use Word. She makes me come to her house to print things because she doesn’t want to open them on her computer. I write columns under her name, and then we go through upwards of six drafts as she makes minuscule tweaks, forgets she made those tweaks, and changes them back to the original, all while criticizing me for not making any sense.
• She volunteered to watch her infant granddaughter twice a week, but she started leaving the baby with me while she goes to her law office. I don’t get paid extra for this; she says that would be unfair to the organization.
We go through cycles where I think everything is fine, and then I get yelled at about something small that I didn’t realize was an issue. Every time there’s some sort of problem, I try to change what I do, only to have a new problem spring up that was never an issue before. My job has become one big game of whack-a-mole that I’m being forced to play when I really just want to focus on the mountain of tasks I’ve been assigned. She wants me to be just a personal assistant, but the job responsibilities I have are a lot bigger than that (helping to plan large events and writing for our publications), and tending to her has become a distraction from my work, which I know bothers her. I try to be polite and helpful, but I have so much stuff to do that it’s hard to remind her to respond to emails, especially when usually she snaps that I should know how to respond myself, even when she needs to review things to give the final okay.
She’s also always brought my dad into things. When I first started, she’d say she cared more about me being her assistant than dating my dad, and that if she needed to devote more time to making our work relationship better, she’d end things with my dad. I was constantly terrified of doing something that would make her dump my father. In the months since, my dad has moved in, and they started seeing a couples counselor (Jill constantly threatens to end their relationship).
Last week, I forgot to do something, she reminded me, and I quickly did the task. Hours later at 11 p.m., she accused me of not doing it and started sending me long, mean texts saying, “This is becoming a problem with you,” etc. When I said I had done the task, she said she shouldn’t have had to remind me. I thought I’d just ride the storm out. Everything I said was met with a different criticism, I wasn’t sure what to do, it was late, and this wasn’t productive, so I didn’t respond to her last text (which hadn’t asked anything of me). Soon after, my dad called to say that Jill had yelled at him for half an hour about distracting me from my work. The next day, they went on a weeklong vacation to Mexico, where she had sporadic internet access. She barely emailed me the entire time, leaving me to work on her book.
Yesterday, my father started giving me job advice: morning check-ins and updates with Jill, etc. — things I do every day and have been doing for the past 10 months. Then he said, “Would you be open to seeing our family therapist with us to help with your job?” I told him there was no way I was going to do that. I was really upset afterwards that he would try to put me in that position where they would gang up on me in their therapist’s office, especially when he knows I’ve started seeking out other jobs.
This morning, she told me to come over at 8:30 a.m. When I got there, she and my dad sat opposite me and spent 45 minutes scolding me, citing “complaints” by the out-of-state employees with whom I have great relationships and get along very well. Then she said that the only solution she can think of to deal with my communication problems is for me to join her and my father at their couples therapist. She said I hadn’t forgotten to do the task from the week before and that it was a deeper issue. I was literally cornered in her living room, and I could see from my heart rate monitor that I was at 115 bpm, frantically trying not to hyperventilate. When I said I thought it was inappropriate to go see a therapist with my boss and my dad, she said she would write it into my job requirement or put me on probation. She’s given me two days to agree to therapy or write a list of all the reasons I won’t go with them and what I’ll do to change my behavior. I seriously suspect she has narcissistic personality disorder, and I know from experience that she doesn’t respond well when I try to explain myself or disagree with her.
I’ve been depressed for months, but I’ve reached a new level of desperation. I would work anywhere else — I would do anything else. I’ve been applying to jobs for a couple weeks now, and I would be thrilled to wait tables while continuing my job hunt. My mom says that I won’t be able to get a good job if I’ve quit a job after less than a year and start doing something that isn’t on a larger career path, but all of my friends my age say that my health is more important. I feel so confused, gaslighted, abused — and then I feel like maybe I’m just being a millenial and don’t have what it takes to be successful. Am I just a bad employee? I probably don’t have the best personality for a personal assistant, but I try to work hard, keep organized and professional, and board members go out of their way to compliment me when we’re at meetings and events. Since getting this job, I never complained to my father about his girlfriend or brought her up, but Jill is constantly blurring the boundaries by asking about extremely personal things during work and bringing up work when we’re celebrating holidays and birthdays.
I am miserable and feel so trapped and confused. Is all this normal?! I have so many mixed signals about every aspect of my job, and this situation is taking over my life. What do I do when I have to give my answer to the ultimatum?
Let me say this very, very clearly: Jill and your dad are the problems here, not you.
This is a horrible, toxic, dysfunctional brew of a work situation, and not because of you.
Jill is a terrible boss, has wildly unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of you, is asking you to do things far outside the scope of what is okay to ask, and is behaving like an asshole. More specifically:
It’s not okay to give someone no set hours and just expect them to start working late at night or early in the morning with no notice, and then get angry if they’re not responsive.
It’s not okay to belittle anyone, and particularly not okay to belittle people one has power over.
It’s not okay to expect you to regularly babysit an infant — without pay! — as part of an office job and without your enthusiastic consent.
Her propensity to lie and gossip unkindly about people who work for her — and about their hardships, in particular — is, frankly, disgusting.
And it is insanely inappropriate for Jill and your dad to ask you to attend couples counseling. Insanely. And that’s before we even get into Jill’s ludicrous threat to make it a job requirement or put you on probation over it. This is liver boss / chemo boss / leave-a-work-note-at-a-grave boss level of insanity and inappropriateness.
On top of all that, Jill also sounds incompetent … and it says something that that’s the least of the problems here.
As for the immediate problem of the therapy ultimatum … If the organization has 25+ employees, it’s covered by the ADA, and thus Jill probably can’t legally order you to attend therapy. But she sounds horrible enough that she might not care if you point out that it’s illegal. If the organization is smaller than 25 people and/or she doesn’t care about the law, then try saying this to her: “If there are issues with my work performance, let’s discuss those. But I’m not attending therapy with you or my father. That’s inappropriate for a work relationship, and it’s not something I’m going to do.” If she pushes, say, “This isn’t something I’m going to continue to discuss.”
More importantly, though: please please please take any other job you can get right now so that you can quit this one.
This situation is bad enough that it might even make sense to quit now, without another job lined up, if you can afford to. But if you can’t — and there’s no shame in it if you can’t — then for whatever remaining period of time you’re stuck there, make a point of emotionally disengaging from the work. Go through the motions and do the bare minimum you need to do to keep a paycheck coming in, but don’t emotionally invest in the work or Jill’s expectations or Jill’s feedback.
Tell her you’re not longer available for babysitting, too. Use the words “I’m not comfortable being left in charge of an infant and will no longer be able to watch her for you. I need to stick to the work I was hired to do.”
And please know that your mom is wrong that you won’t be able to get a good job if you quit this one. One seven-month stay will not be a big deal. It’s a pattern of short-term stays that’s a problem, not one of them. And if interviewers ask why you left this job, you can say, “My boss started dating my father, and it became too awkward to stay there.” Believe me, everyone will understand that. You will receive sympathy gasps.
Last, no matter what else you do, stop being terrified that you’ll do something that will make Jill dump your dad. Frankly, it might be a better outcome for everyone if she does because she is horrid — but either way, their relationship is not your responsibility. It never was, but your dad
forfeited burned to ashes any claim to consideration in that realm when he became an accessory to Jill’s mistreatment of you.
my dad is dating my boss, and they want me to go to couples therapy with them was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.