columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

My assistant does her work well. However, we're similar in age, and I think that makes her speak much more candidly with me than she otherwise might. She borders on rude in conversations, especially if I correct her on anything or ask her to do something differently, and she asserts herself in projects so much it seems that she forgets I'm the one with final say. It's great that she has so many ideas, but she's very new to this industry and very early in her career, so sometimes her ideas aren't feasible or just wouldn't work for our company. When I tell her that X won't work and why and suggest something else, she usually argues with me or sends back terse responses that indicate she thinks it's a terrible idea. She often oversteps by volunteering to do work on projects that no one has asked for, or phrasing her ideas as things we're 100 percent going to do without asking for feedback.

I have an incredibly demanding workload, and going back and forth with her on projects is starting to create more work (and a lot of frustrations) for me. She's generally a little clueless about how this industry works (and office etiquette in general), so maybe she doesn't understand that usually assistants don't get to be this argumentative for projects they're helping with. But I have no idea how to tell someone they're being too assertive for their position. How can I talk to her about how she communicates?

Green responds:

Sometimes the most effective way to make it clear to someone that you have authority over them is to really clearly exercise that authority.

It's great that you want to be nice and supportive -- you should be nice and supportive -- but you're not doing her any favors by allowing this behavior to continue. It's likely to get her in trouble with someone who isn't so nice at future jobs -- and that's before the larger point, which is that it's getting in the way of the work you've hired her to assist you with.

You have two different ways you can deal with it: You can sit her down for a conversation about it or you can try calling out the behavior in the moment when it's happening. I'm generally a fan of addressing the big picture ("Here's a pattern I'm seeing; what's going on?"), but you also might be able to get the results you want just by being more forthright in the moment as these situations happen.

For example:

  • When she argues with you how you plan to proceed on a project, look visibly surprised and say, "I've actually made the decision to do X, so let's discuss how we're going to move forward with that."
  • If she send you emails disagreeing with your ideas, ask her to come talk to you in person and then say this: "I'm a little taken aback by your email. I understand that you had a different idea, but I'm planning to do it my way and need you on board with that. Can you do that?"
  • If she's rude when you correct her or ask her to do something differently, say this: "That response really concerns me. I need to be able to ask you to do things differently and have you take it in stride. Is everything OK?" (If what she said was openly rude, change that last part to, "I can't let you talk to me or anyone else here that way.")
  • If she phrases an idea as something you're 100 percent going to do when she hasn't run it by you, say this: "Let's talk about that before you do anything definite with it. I'd want to hear more before OK'ing it."

Of course, in general, managers should be open to hearing employees' ideas, hearing dissent, and so forth. But in this case, you have someone who's really unclear on the boundaries of her role, and so clearly calling out those boundaries might prompt her to realize that she's overstepping -- and even if it doesn't, these are still reasonable boundaries for you to assert.

But if you do this a few times and don't see a change -- or if you'd rather just cut to the chase -- then sit down and name the pattern you're seeing. You could say: "I want to talk about how we work together. It's great that you have ideas, but I need you to be clear on our roles on the projects we work on together. I need to make the decisions I think are best for my projects. When I make a choice different from the one you hoped I'd make, I need you to roll with that -- not argue or be short with me. The same thing goes when I correct your work or ask you to do something differently; I need you to accept that, not become snippy. And overall, I need you to operate with the understanding that I'm managing these projects and will be calling the shots on them. Can you do that?"

If that doesn't result in a dramatic change, you'd need to consider whether she's going to be able to function effectively in the job or not. But first try naming what you're seeing and clearly asking for a change.

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