My mother in law has been out of work for some time and really needs a job, she’s applied to a lot of places and not gotten any calls. She has very specific work experience, work in this field has dried up significantly and is sporadic at best, she still has a mortgage etc. and needs to be working full time, so now she’s applying for jobs that are outside her area of expertise and is struggling to find work as a result. This has been going on for some time and is really weighing on my boyfriend, so to try to help her out he spoke to the manager at his job about hiring her and it’s looking like she’s going to get a job, great news….except I also work there and I’m not happy about it, and I don’t know if I’m being a horrible raging bitch or if I’m justified in this, or maybe it’s a bit of both.
For some background I don’t particularly like my mother in law, she’s a “very nice lady” on the surface but underneath not so nice, she says everything in a sweet voice with a smile but there can be ice in the words, she is very manipulative and plays the victim when she’s called out, she plays woe is me when she doesn’t get her way, she’s just a difficult person, we’ve had some issues over the years, but she doesn’t push me too far anymore as I’ve been quite good at setting my boundaries and sticking to them and boyfriend has gotten and is still getting better at seeing her behavior for what it is.
We get along fine, but I just don’t really like her, never will, I don’t trust her.
My concern about working with her is that she’s very needy and not very good at mixing with people so I worry that she’s going to expect me to be her work friend and to take my breaks with her and that she’s going to be popping into my office for chats etc and I’m not cool with any of that, I don’t want to be her friend and I don’t want my working life changing because she got a job there.
I know that she’s going to play the victim and tell my boyfriend I’m a horrible person because I don’t want to be her friend and I fear that this could cause serious issues for us as a couple.
Am I being really unreasonable?
I need scripts for how to deal with this, I’m blunt by nature and I don’t think bluntness is the best option here, or maybe it is.
I need to know how to tell her no and I also need to know how to explain it to my boyfriend.
Hello there! I do have a few suggestions to help you manage this situation with maximum professionalism and boundary maintenance.
Normally you and your boyfriend would be somewhat a united front, right? You set boundaries with his mom, he backs you up. He sets boundaries with his mom, you back him up. When you both spend time with her, you act as a buffer against her more irritating tendencies, you give each other cover and excuses for leaving early or declining an invitation, etc., right?
Have you tried a direct discussion with your boyfriend re: “Hey, it’s very sweet of you to help your mom with the job, but the idea of it is making my shoulders go up around my ears. I’m going to hope for the best, and hopefully it will go well, but we can agree that you’re taking point on Mom Duty, right? I’ll do my best to be professional and welcoming, but if she gets needy about wanting to always chitchat or take all our breaks together, I am going to send her right to you.”
You could start with questions, like, “Are you nervous about having your mom work with us? How do you want to handle it if she’s needy or passive-aggressive?”
However you talk about it, talk about it. He knows that you and your mother-in-law (MIL hereafter) don’t get along that well. If you can get his agreement to take the lead on helping her transition into your workplace, if you can decide how you’ll both handle it if things get weird, you can keep on being a united front.
That way if she is cool, great! You were worried for nothing, you can tell your boyfriend, “Hey, I was worried for nothing, but I really appreciate you hearing me out about that and making a plan with me.”
If she is not cool and she decides to become your problem, I give you permission to immediately and routinely make her his problem. “Oh, thanks, I don’t have time to chat/eat lunch with/take my break with you today, but your son is probably free! Have the best time!” If you usually take breaks with him sometimes at work or eat lunch with him, suspend that for a while. It’s time for quiet reading in your car, solo lunches, eating at your desk, running all your errands, whatever it takes.“Oh, boyfriend and I see each other at home all the time, don’t worry about me, go have some great mother-son bonding time!” Never compete with her for the Lunch With Boyfriend Time Slot, not ever. Let her win that one, every time.
And look, you might need to get ruthless and use the speakerphone. “Hey honey, how’s your day going? I’ve got you on speaker, [Mom]’s with me, and I told her I couldn’t go to lunch today but that you’re probably free! Sound good? I’m sending her your way right now, maybe y’all can try that new Thai place.” This is especially useful if she tries the gambit of “Oh, I don’t want to bother him at work, he’s so busy” in order to get you to fill in instead. Nonsense! NOBODY’S TOO BUSY FOR THEIR MOTHER, RIGHT? You’ll call him right now on that speakerphone and put him on the spot.
You say that your MIL’s chosen weapon is “niceness.” Your first choice is “bluntness” (I like that one a lot, too!) but remember that “niceness” is mounted on the communal Wall of Blades, free for anyone to use.
Your sword is “niceness.” Your shield is “professionalism.” Your helmet is “kindness.” If you can dress your boundaries up in those three things? You’re golden.
Professionalism is why you simply can’t discuss personal/family stuff at work! And professionalism is why you don’t like to bring work home! And you express all that as kindly and pleasantly as possible! For example:
“Oh, MIL, the only way [Boyfriend] and I manage this job is to agree to never take work home with us or home stuff to work, it really helps to keep those things separate. Now that you’re here, let’s keep that going! That way we can be psyched to see our great new coworker, [MIL-Name] at work and just hang out with our lovely family member [Mom-version of MIL-Name] when we’re off the clock.”
Professionalism is how you hopefully keep her out of your chain of command, if you need to talk with your manager about that. “Oh, I wouldn’t feel comfortable supervising a family member.” “I’m happy to show her the parts of my job that directly affect her, but I think we’ll both do better if she has a trainer who isn’t a family member. Boundaries are everyone’s friend!”
Professionalism is recognizing that the best outcome for everyone is that your MIL thrives at this job, that she regains her confidence, learns new skills, and fits in with the rest of the team. So, how would you (a professional) treat a new coworker who was a stranger if you wanted them to do well in your workplace?
- You’d want them to feel welcome.
- You’d want them to know their way around.
- You’d want them to know where to find information, resources, people they need.
- You’d want to stay pretty neutral, avoid assumptions about what they are like, and give them a chance to impress you.
- You’d greet them pleasantly, make polite chitchat like “how was your weekend,” etc. and strive to keep things pleasant and light.
- You’d mind your Ps and Qs – you wouldn’t immediately spill office gossip [important since you don’t trust your MIL] or talk about personal topics with them, you’d be on your best behavior until you knew them better.
- You also wouldn’t spill gossip about them, right? Let your coworkers form their own impressions and relationships with your MIL, don’t tell everyone how annoying she is and poison the well for her.
Now imagine that new coworker were someone else in your life, someone you like. You’d do all of the above, right? But you might try a little harder to help them fit in. For example:
- Look, unless the company does some kind of formal welcome lunch, you and your boyfriend are GOING to take her out to a welcome lunch on her first day. If the company or her direct manager does do a formal welcome thing, y’all are taking her to dinner. I don’t make the rules, but this is a rule, when a family member starts a job where you work, you make sure their first day is nice in some way. You can do it with a big “this is a special occasion for your first day, yaaaaaaaay for you!” flourish to mark it as different from other days, but you’re doing it. “I don’t have time for any of that” starts tomorrow.
- When you started working there, what are some useful, low-stakes things that the existing staff told you? What are some things that you wish someone had told you? Make a list of those things. Could be “where the good bathroom is,” could be “the training manual says email the TPS report, but Gerard likes to look at a hard copy first.” Make a list of these for your MIL. Keep it low stakes (again, avoid office gossip or sore spots, you’re giving her info, not ammunition).
- For someone with her job function, who are the most important people she should meet and know? Are you someone who can introduce her and smooth the way a bit? She’ll be less needy if she has other people to go to for work questions, and you’ll feel less stressed out by her neediness if you can redirect it to someone besides you who can actually help. It’s the difference between “I’M NOT YOUR NEW WORK FRIEND, GOT IT?” and “Great question, [MIL Name], let me connect you with the best person to walk you through that!” and walk her over and make the introduction. If it does become a boundary issue down the road, you can just repeat the process, like,“Oh, remember, Millicent is the Database Queen! Need me to walk you over or do you remember where she sits?” (P.S. Everyone is “needy” when they start a new job, in this case you can probably mitigate and solve a ton of that by relentlessly, pleasantly introducing your MIL around and consistently redirecting her to the right people.)
Let’s end with some specific suggestions based on your relationship with this specific MIL and your boyfriend.
- As stated before, SHARE NO GOSSIP WITH HER. You can’t trust her not to repeat it.
- As stated before, SHARE NO GOSSIP ABOUT HER. Assume it will get back to her. It’s also the wrong thing to do. Remember when you were a sullen teenager, formed mostly of avoidance, sarcasm, and grievances, and your parents would run into other adults who knew you, and those adults would be like “Letter Writer is the most delightful person, you must be so proud of her!” and your parents would be like “Right! We are!” but also be wondering “Who the heck are they talking about? They can’t mean the Human Thumbs Down Review we have to live with?” People have different modes – her parental mode and/or mother-in-law mode may be very different from her work mode. Let’s hope!
- INSTEAD, SHARE PRAISE. With her: “Dalton in Accounting told me your expense reports were the easiest to follow he’d ever seen, nice work [MIL!]” About her: “Yeah, lol, working with my mother-in-law, not awkward at all, the dream! But you know what? She’s so excited to be here, and she is really great at [organizing thorny schedules][keeping track of the details][look just find something nice that is somewhat job related and say it, “she folds napkins the best” or “she’s always reliably on time.”]. Human beings need praise, employees need praise, the best managers motivate with praise and recognition. Look for reasons to praise her.
- Don’t let anyone triangulate. Your MIL’s supervisor should give her feedback directly, not through you or your boyfriend. Your fellow employees should ask her questions directly. Something’s unclear? She should talk to her manager directly. She tries to pass on feedback or gossip to you? “Oh, thanks for letting me know, but I’ll just wait until So & So asks me directly.” Model the boundaries you want to see. I love my sweet MIL to pieces, but she is a KNOWN Shit Disturber who is terrified of conflict so will tell you things she wants you to know in the form of telling you what someone else said about you. That way if you don’t like it, you’ll direct the conflict at the other person. It’s masterful, really. I respect it! But I try not to fall for it.
- Consider also, your MIL had a whole career before this where she had to get along with people and develop skills and knowledge, isn’t it better to assume that your company hired her for a reason that isn’t just a personal favor to your boyfriend, that they see something valuable in what she brings to the table?
- Tighten up your game, generally. Your MIL will likely notice and comment on everything you do (it’s her way), so like, deploy the lint brush, sort any desk piles into smaller, more identifiable piles, refresh your memory about the rules and follow them, delete anything questionable from the Slack channel, etc.
- If your office has a guest chair, can it be temporarily hidden in a closet or be covered in a hard-to-quickly-move pile of important documents? I’m not joking. There’s also the “The Sorkin,” as demonstrated by this hero boss back in Question 11.
- Find a few harmless scripts that de-escalate conflict that you can repeat as necessary:
- I always love “Thanks, I’ll think about it” for unsolicited advice (you’ll think about it and not do it, this phrasing gives the other person nothing to latch onto for an argument).
- See also, agreeing with people if they accuse you of something. MIL: “Every time I try to talk to you, you foist me off on someone else.” You:”Yes, I guess I am doing that? I just want to make sure you have lots of professional connections here, so you don’t feel like you only have me and [son/boyfriend] to depend on!”
- Maybe throw out some “Crossing the streams with work and family is always a little awkward, I know we’re all doing our best to be patient with each other” if something starts to get heated.
- To make her articulate specific requests and complaints (vs. fostering a constant vague sense of grievance) go with “Everybody wants you to do well and feel comfortable here, is there something specific I could do that would help with that?” Make her spell it out. If she won’t? You’re cleared to ignore it.
- Is there something low stakes that you could reasonably ask her advice about? “Now that you’re here, with all the experience you have, how do YOU handle situations like XYZ?” If she’s feeling vulnerable and anxious, reminding her that she does know things is a kind thing to do. If the advice sucks? “Thanks so much, I’ll definitely think about it!”
- The past can bring safer conversational ground, right? “What was your first day at your very first job like?” “Did you ever think you’d be working with [Son/Boyfriend?]” “What’s the best/worst job advice anyone’s ever given you?”
- Your resume is up to date, right? You’re searched around a little bit for other jobs in your field? Also not a joke. If you needed to pull the ripcord professionally, could you? Think of it as insurance.
Two last points:
Remember the “let’s not bring work home/let’s not bring home to work” boundary with your boyfriend I wrote about a bunch of paragraphs back? If it’s not already your practice, consider adopting it now. If you need to vent about your MIL, talk to friends who don’t work with you or make a throwaway Reddit login like civilized people, don’t get in the habit of downloading it all on your boyfriend at night (Remember, if she’s bugging the hell out of you at work, you can solve that at work by making sure she bugs him instead.)
Finally, you will not be able to avoid your MIL entirely at work, nor should you. I realize she’s irritating, but you haven’t described behavior from her where freezing her out completely wouldn’t make you the asshole in the story. There is a minimum amount of engagement you’re gonna have to do to keep the peace professionally and in your family, so figure out what that is and find a way to do it consistently and proactively. Do you stop by her desk for a quick daily “how’s it going?” check-in around the same time every day? Do you have lunch with her & your boyfriend on payday once a month? (And redirect all lunch invitations to then, “a special treat?”)
I can tell you with some certainty that if she constantly seeks you out and you constantly avoid her, she will chase you. She will notice and comment on your avoidance, she will create friction with you, your boyfriend, and your coworkers, she will make it A Thing and bring about all the annoying stuff that you wrote to me about. In contrast, if you actively seek her out briefly at predictable times each day, you will instantly get more control over those interactions because you can walk away when you’re done vs. having to keep coming up with ways to “politely” kick her out of your office or send her to your boyfriend’s desk. If you’re consistent about it, she might feel more relaxed (You don’t HATE her, you’re just at work and you’re busy, you DO check in when you can!) and, if she does try to go all “woe is me!!!!” about it, you can know for sure that you’re doing your best with an awkward situation.
If you do your best, and she insists on being terrible, that’s on her. Your boyfriend is doing a kind thing for someone he loves. Hopefully she’ll adapt well to it. Hopefully we have armed you as well as we can against the unintended consequences.
Edited to Add: STOP commenting on whether the LW is using the exact right combination of boyfriend & mother-in-law. It affects literally nothing about the advice about what to do, but it is filling up my moderation queue with non sequiturs. Stop.