Q: How can I get my coworker to stop mothering me? I have been at my job about six months and am by far the youngest person in my office of 10-15 people. I am in my mid-20s in an office where everyone else is 40+. For the most part, everyone works together well and the age difference doesn’t matter. But I have one coworker, an older woman we will call Sue, who insists on “parenting” me and getting involved in my personal life. She often brings in “treats” to the office and will email everyone that they are available, but will insist on bringing some to me at my desk “since she knows how much kids eat.”
The first time I took a day off, the next day Sue asked me if I got sick unexpectedly. In confusion, I told her, no, I took a pre-approved vacation day. She said that she was “surprised I didn’t tell her about this beforehand” and proceeded to ask if “I was visiting my boyfriend.” We are on totally separate teams and our work does not overlap at all! There is literally no work-related reason she needs to know everything I do, and even if she did, she doesn’t need to know what I do outside of work.
This pattern has continued. If I take some time off, she will either ask about it before or after (depending on if she notices it on my calendar beforehand) and pry into why I need time off (“are you visiting your parents/visiting your boyfriend/taking a personal day/sick?”).
Recently, I went in for a kidney surgery and was out of office for a while. Sue, via Facebook, decided to contact my mother! She asked my mother to keep her up-to-date on my surgery and progress. My mother, thinking it was a nice gesture, agreed to do so. During the time I was off, she texted me regularly to ask how I was doing, and if I didn’t respond within a few hours, she would contact my mother.
Now that I have returned to the office, Sue keeps monitoring me and asking health related questions such as “Are you feeling okay? You’re drinking a lot of water today” and “I noticed you’ve gone to the restroom a lot today. Everything still working down there?” I asked her to please stop asking me because it makes me uncomfortable and informed her that I would come to her if I had an issue I wanted to discuss. Afterwards, Sue messaged my mother on Facebook to ask her if I was okay because I was unusually rude to her!
A: Sue is out of her gourd.
The “I know how much kids eat” thing is pretty amusing. Does she think you’re 14 and having a puberty-induced growth spurt?
But amusement aside, she’s crossed multiple lines here. Being mothered by coworkers is annoying in general, but Sue is going way beyond the usual annoying parenting that 20somethings sometimes have to deal with. Contacting your mother?! Monitoring your bathroom use?! She’s so far out of her gourd in this area that the gourd is in another solar system.
From today onward, cut Sue off cold turkey. You’re no longer going to entertain even mild remarks or inquiries about your personal life from her. She needs to hear, clearly and repeatedly, that this is unwelcome and not okay. That means:
* Tell your mother immediately not to have further contact with Sue. Ideally, if Sue tries to contact her again, your mom would say, “Jane is an adult and manages her own life. I’m not the right person to contact about this.” But if your mom won’t do that, she needs to at least ignore Sue and not respond to her. (Also, if I’m inferring correctly that they’re now connected on Facebook, ask your mom to sever that connection.)
* When Sue asks about your time off, say, “Why do you ask?” If she continues to pry (“are you visiting your boyfriend?”) or does anything other than back off, say, “Sue, I’d rather not discuss it. Please don’t continue to ask me about how I’m spending my days off. Thank you.”
* If she expresses surprise that she didn’t know about your planned days off or anything else about your life, say, “I’m confused. Our work doesn’t overlap at all. Is there some reason I’m missing that you would need to know?”
* If she continues to ask questions about your health, say, “I’ve got it under control.” If she continues to ask after that, say, “As I said, I’ve got it under control. Please stop asking.” And/or “it’s weird that you’re monitoring how much I’m drinking / using the bathroom. Please stop doing that.” (If that feels too rude to you, please know that it’s not — she’s the one being rude and it’s perfectly appropriate for you to assert boundaries with her. But if you know that in reality you’re not going to be able to use that kind of wording, then you could just stick with “I’ve got it under control.”)
* If she makes more weird age-related remarks like the one about bringing you treats since she knows how much kids eat, say, “Sue, I’m an adult. That’s a really weird thing to say to a colleague.”
(In fact, that frame — “that’s a really weird thing to say to a colleague” — should be your positioning on all of this. What she’s doing is super weird, and it’s totally reasonable to let your face, tone, and words convey that.)
You might be able to get it under control this way — if you refuse to let her mother you, hopefully the lack of gratification will eventually get her to stop. But you might need to have a big-picture conversation with her as well, either now or if doing the above for a couple of weeks doesn’t stop it. That would sound like this: “Sue, I’m not sure if you realize how differently you treat me than the rest of our colleagues. I’m an adult and I don’t need mothering. I’d like you to stop monitoring my health and my days off, asking about how often I’m drinking water or using the bathroom, or generally acting like my mother. And speaking of my mother, please don’t continue to contact her. I need you to treat me like you would any other colleague, rather than a young person who needs your assistance. Can you do that?”
Ultimately, whether or not Sue stops isn’t fully in your control. But your response to her is, and you have a lot of power to starve her of the info and responses that make this rewarding for her. Try that, and I bet that even if it doesn’t stop 100%, she’ll pull way, way back. And meanwhile, colleagues who see you handling it this way will see you being mature and reasonable and her being … quite strange.
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Q: How do I avoid talking about the details of an injury when I return to work? I lost the tips of two fingers in a lawnmower accident recently, and will return to work after two weeks off. I don’t wish to provide the details of my absence or injury whatsoever to my peers. It doesn’t help that I work in a large school and am the department head of technology, and should know better about safety around machinery. What is a polite way to answer about my absence and/or bandaged fingertips? I’m truly dreading returning to work for this one reason.
A: “It’s a long story, but I’ll be fine!” — said cheerfully and followed by an immediate change of subject.
Or “Oh, it’s too gruesome too talk about.” Or “I’m in denial that it even happened. Tell me about where we are with the X project!” Or “Just an accident, and I’m working on forgetting about it.”
The key with all of these is to say them cheerfully and immediately change the subject.
Polite people will get the message that you don’t want to talk about it. Rude people may continue to push, at which point you can say, “I’m really trying not to relive it — thanks for understanding!”
Another option is “I’d rather not talk about it,” but I think that will make it more dramatic and cause some people to speculate on what happened and why it’s off-limits.
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