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 employee is a wonderful person, conscientious and careful with her work. We get along very well, but there is something that is driving me crazy: she regularly gives me instructions as to how to proceed on tasks for which I neither ask nor need advice. I'll go to the shredder, and she'll say, "Use the one on the first floor, it's better." I'll get an assignment, and she'll say, "Tell [the person making the assignment] it'll be ready by then." Or, "Save the document in such-and-such folder." It's all imperatives, no "maybe you should," or "it would be better if," or "if I were you, I would."

How do I communicate to her, in the most polite of ways, that while we do get along fine and like each other very much, I am the head of the department, and it's really annoying to be given such instructions on a daily basis and on things that are part of set procedures and that I really know how to do?

Green responds:

My original impulse when reading this was to tell you to let it go, but it is a weird thing for her to be doing, and it's OK for you to let her know that. But having a major conversation about it, or at least starting there, would be overkill, I think. You're better off just letting yourself have a natural reaction when she does it. That might be something like, "I've got it," "yeah, of course," or "what's going on that you're asking me that?" Any of those responses would be appropriate.

For example:

Employee: "Use the shredder on the first floor; it's better."
You: "I'm fine, thanks."

Employee: "Save the document in the shared folder."
You: "Yeah, of course... have you had trouble finding documents I'm putting on the server or something?"

Employee: "Don't forget to tell Fergus the work he just assigned you will be ready by Monday."
You (giving her a strange look): "Well, of course -- is there some reason you think I wouldn't?"

If she's not entirely oblivious, a few repetitions of this will make her realize she's giving you unnecessary instruction.

But if she doesn't, at that point you could ask her what's going on. For example: "Jane, I've noticed you've been giving me a lot of instruction on things that I have under control and that I'd expect you to assume I have covered, like where to save documents or reminders to let Fergus know a document I'm working on is coming by the deadline. I'm wondering what's going on -- have I done something to make you think I don't have my work under control?"

In broaching this, be open to hearing that there really is something going on here that you don't realize -- for instance, that she's noticed you're not doing things that you should be doing (or that she thinks you should be doing) and she's trying to manage you from below. That still wouldn't make it appropriate for her to say some of this stuff, but it would at least give you insight into what's going on.

Alternatively, she might just have a busybody instinct that's running amok, in which case calling her attention to it and asking her to stop should take care of it.

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