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Navigating the Murky Waters of Being Friendly With Staffers

can-you-be-friends-with-your-secretary

2016 Update: We still stand by the advice in this post, but you may also want to check out our latest discussion of whether you can be friends with your secretary

Can you be friends with your secretary?  We got this e-mail from Reader A and it raises a lot of interesting questions, such as how to treat your assistants, how to behave in a male-dominated field where you’re one of the only women who isn’t a secretary, and so forth….

I’m wondering how one is friendly with colleagues at work without becoming friends with colleagues at work. I’m an attorney and have recently moved to a firm where I’m the only female attorney, and the staff is comprised almost entirely of women. I was warned in a joking manner by one of the partners when taking the job to beware – previous female attorneys at the firm have fallen victim to being ‘friends’ with staff (regular lunches, after-work drinks, etc) and then later suffer the wrath should someone need to be called on the carpet for job performance or with claims of favoritism.

So far, I’ve gone to lunch with only a couple of people who have initiated the invitation, and I avoid discussing others in the office and steer conversation away from that topic. However, I plan on being here a long time, and I wonder if you or your readers have insight that might help me or have found themselves in similar situations.

Right? Great e-mail. So far, what reader A is doing sounds great to us. Here are some further tips:

    • There’s nothing wrong with finding a friend who happens to be a staffer. Like our advice for dating at the office a few weeks ago, though, we would not recommend looking for a best friend at the office (really, among the staffers or elsewhere). Aim for collegiality. You’re all in this together, and you all have your own jobs to do, and it’s often best if emotions are kept out of it.  Friendship can be harder with people you supervise directly —  it’s important to see both their skills and weaknesses as clearly as possible, so you can compensate and better manage, either by delegating things in certain respects, or knowing to phrase your requests in a certain way.

  • If you are the only female supervisor you have to recognize that they’re going to be looking at you completely differently. What you wear? Open fodder for discussion. How you act? It’s likely to be subjected to some judgy attitudes — e.g., if you don’t cheerfully smile you’ll be branded a bitch; if you don’t act grateful then you’ll be seen as too good for yourself.   You have to walk a delicate line.  Be friendly and, importantly, be cheerful whenever possible.  Remember details about the staffers you work with as carefully as you would remember the details about a superior — the names of their children, their husbands, their pets — these are important things.  But:  be careful about partaking in activities that your male colleagues are not partaking in.  Skip the manicures, girl’s night drinks, or any sort of bakery circle.  Our reader is particularly very smart to avoid the gossip.
  • Age differences can be even weirder with staffers. Do your best as a manager to treat everyone the same, regardless.  We’ve had assistants who were just out of college, and we’ve had some who were old enough to be our mother.  Try not to treat the young’uns in a mothering way, and if your assistant is older than you don’t let her treat you in that way (i.e., tidying your office if it isn’t part of her regular list of tasks).
  • Seek alliances where possible. With everything above said, recognize that there are likely some very powerful women among the staffers.  Perhaps they’ve been there 20 years and everyone looks to them for how to act and what to say.  Perhaps they’re the top partner’s assistant and they have his ear.  Either way — if they’re the one asking you to a manicure, you might want to accept.

Readers, what are your thoughts?  What’s your best advice for dealing with staffers and assistants, whether you’re the only female lawyer on staff or not?

Comments

  1. I would be warm and polite with the staff members (male and female), but if I were the only female attorney at a firm, I would not be actual friends with any staff member. Though unfair both to you and the staff, you’ve got an uphill battle to fight to establish yourself in the attorney-group regardless. Don’t make it harder on yourself by giving off the impression of not feeling comfortable in that role.

  2. Agreed. Be nice, but don’t be friends. Don’t go on shopping trips or after work excursions, but do remember birthdays and ask about children and grandbabies. It’s a hard balance, but I’d rather be thought of as a little cool by staff than as a glorified secretary by the partners.

  3. I am in the same situation, I am the only female lawyer/management level. When I first got here, all the staff were female. Now we do have some male support staff. At first, they tried to include me in office gossip and complaints, I think because I am younger than the other lawyers and because I am female. I stopped that right away. I don’t participate in the gossip or in the staff social events. When I am invited I politely decline. I try to make up for it by occasionally briging in donuts or baked goods (although I need to read the corner office book recommended last week which apparently thinks that is self sabotaging) and try to be nice and friendly to everyone, but definitely not friends. Now that I have been here longer I honestly think at the social events they have more fun without me there anyway (I wouldnt be able to relax with my boss, nor would I want to). Good luck!

    • good point — I haven’t felt the staff have a burning desire to be friends with me even if I were willing. Our lives are very different, and when they get together out of the office, they probably want to complain about the attorneys.

    • What’s the corner office book? I seem to have missed that post last week.

      • Nice Girls Dont Get the Corner Office. I have it on hold at the bookstore – picking it up after work.

        • I read this book – take it with a grain of salt, lest you think you have to change everything about yourself.

          • newassociate :

            i’m a big fan of this book. certainly, a grain of salt, but definitely don’t feed people. that’s a secretary move for sure.

  4. The calls to mind Peggy on Mad Men. I’m not sure exactly what lessons to draw from that, but it’s an interesting “model,” of sorts.

  5. I think Corporette had good advice. Be polite, be gracious, remember things about them, but politely decline lunch and other out of office interaction unless other attorneys are involved (and even then make sure it’s the attorneys whose example you want to follow…). It’s a very difficult line to walk but it sounds like you’re on the right track.

    I did find it interesting that Corporette used the example of tidying the office by an older staffer. I went from a 24 year old assistant to one the same age as my mother and I find the older one is VERY resentful of supporting such a young attorney. The idea of her tidying my office is laughable. It’s more like try not to let her lecture or bully you or avoid doing your work.

    • I thought the same. I have had a much harder time with the older assistants than the younger. The older are much more set in their ways and dont like to consider one bit that I might have some “ways” of my own.

  6. For me, eating with the ladies means you’re part of the ladies, and that’s bad territory to get into. I’d read Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and only ask politely about family when you’ve got a reason to not be able to stay. Try to only attend events with the ladies when the partners are there as well (i.e. Holiday Party), and emulate the men’s relationships with their staff as much as possible. And good luck! I’ve joked with other female friends that we’ll start a firm together and only hire young office boys for our viewing pleasure when we need staff. If only that could work…

    • “emulate the men’s relationships with their staff as much as possible. ”

      NO NO NO NO NO. I’ve been support staff, I’ve been a secretary and I’m now an attorney, and an emphatic NO. The way males professionals patronize their support staff, and the way the support staff eat it up is one of the reasons I went to grad school. I have seen this at every firm – small, medium, large – where I have worked. I did a lot of temping before and during law school, and it was still the same, on 2 coasts. I wish I could articulate this better, but I billed 14 hours today and I am out of words.

      I treat everyone in my professional sphere the same – the copy guy, the secretarial pool, the partner I report to, the office cleaner on the night shift. Everyone is deserving of courtesy and respect in the same measure. And my support staff get cold hard cash for the holidays, not chocolate or flowers or intimate lunch dates.

      • Eek! That stinks. I was a paralegal at a few places and never ran into that, except for from the attorney who was sleeping with his paralegal, but that’s a different ball of wax. I’m sorry you had to experience that.

      • Amen!

  7. This has been on my mind for a while. I’m one of four women on the fifty-person professional staff, and all but one support staffer is female. I’m also the only pro under 30, and many of the support staff are, so just by being a young woman I’m demographically lumped in with the support staff. I distinguish myself by dressing more formally than they do and emphasizing the high-level projects I’m working on when chatting with colleagues instead of the more menial tasks. Any other tips?

    • Ugh. My tip is to refrain from “emphasizing the high-level projects [you’re] working on.” If you have to tell people you’re important, you’re not important.

      • Yeah I actually rolled my eyes while reading that.

        • I think it can be done tactfully, for instance it differentiates your roles….when a staffer is talking about a stressful day of having to set up a meeting conference room, and you mention that you have a long day of client meetings…you can mention things like that without sounding arrogant, it just helps define a boundary by reinforcing that you have very different roles in the workplace. A little bitchy yes, but do it with a smile! :)

  8. Beyond the male-female ratio issue, I urge anyone who has support staff under them to sit them down at some point early in the relationship and discuss generic things such as work style (I do/don’t prefer emails over phone calls), I prefer you screen my calls/let them go to VM, I consider it your/my responsibility to refill the printer paper. This really helps when/if, later on, there are performance issues, or you want to broaden a staffer’s responsibility, you can point to your SUPERVISORY relationship and the guidelines that were discussed.

    Even if the discussion initially seems awkward, position it as trying to help the staffer grow/develop/have his/her needs met as well. It’s a two-way conversation, for sure. You should also discuss the staffer’s needs and constraints (schedule/breaks, preferred communication style, willingness to try projects that stretch his/her bounds). I have found that establishing such guidelines makes working together MUCH more harmonious.

    I really urge supervisors to put on their “manager” hat when managing people. It goes a long way toward establishing a manger-underling BUT we’re on the same team together relationship.

  9. I used to work in a firm setting and now I work in a corporate legal department. I don’t miss the firm for half a second and one of the main reasons for this is the segretion and hierarchy of the firm. In the corporate environment, we all eat together and talk about our lives in a genuine way.

    At the end of the day, we are all people with dealing with the same stuff (jobs, family, bills, ect.). Everyone has goals and motivators and there is no reason that you can’t eat lunch with someone just because their goal is to be promoted to paralegal and your goal is to make senior partner. Now if you don’t have the same interests or values as someone in your staff, sure why would you want to eat with them or spend extra time with them. Would you want to hang out with the attorney that gossiped or behaved poorly…doubtful, so don’t spend time with staffers that behave that way either. But not all staffers are ingrates as assumed by this posting. But simply avoiding this type situation because they are “staff” is rude, silly and shamful.

    It is simply the golden rule: treat others as you would have them treat you. You wouldn’t like it if a senior partner choose to eat in his office just to avoid eating with you in the lunch room, so don’t do the same to the staff.

    • It may seem snobby or something not to socialize with staff (though I am not sure they want to socialize with you either — I know I don’t want to socialize with the managing partner), but the point is simply this: this woman is already got a deck stacked against her. She’s the only female attorney in a firm where apparently previous female attorneys have not worked out for reasons at least somewhat relating to their interactions with staff. She’s got her work cut out for her. I don’t think she also has to take on the burden of redefining the firm’s culture. Just like I wouldn’t advise her to be the person pushing for more pro bono — it’s not that it’s not a worthy goal, but sometimes you’ve got to focus on one goal at a time. Right now, for her, that’s just surviving and being accepted. When it becomes clear that she’s an awesome lawyer, she can focus on other priorities.

      • Yeah I think the issue here is a little different. When I worked at a top 100 law firm in undergrad, I noticed that one of the female support staff went to the wedding of the female associate, they lunched together and seemed like genuine friends, it was not a big deal at all, there were plenty of women lawyers and no risk of the male lawyers mistaking her or lumping her in with the female staff as far her responsibilities/abilities. The problem the writer has is there are no female professionals, only the support staff, and she feels there is a risk of her male work peers viewing her as someone who will make copies for them. I think that is a real risk in that situation, and she does have to behave differently then she might under difference circumstances. She should still be treating others as she wishes to be treated, friendly and respectful. But I think she should avoid “girls nights” or all support staff lunches if no males ever go.

  10. I used to the be the only female lawyer at my firm. I am friendly w/ secretaries and paralegals (all female), but not after work. I treat my own secretary very well and take her to lunch occasionally, but I decline all the “girls” lunches. I don’t make it sound like a policy – I’m just too busy that day.
    I got to be friendly w/ one paralegal as we were both having kids at the same time. We never got really close, but we invite each other to our kids’ bday parties. I kinda wish we hadn’t as we’re now butting heads a bit when I try to give her assignments.

    • Elizabeth :

      Your comment about having kids at the same time brings up an interesting topic. I am not the only female attorney at my firm, but I am the youngest by a generation. I felt good about the cordial-but-professional relationships I had with staff, but when I had my daughter last year, I found that most of the female staff thought nothing of crossing a line with me. There seems to be something of a sorority among women who’ve carried and given birth to babies, and nothing is off limits for some. All of a sudden it became perfectly appropriate (in their minds) to make comments about my weight, food intake, clothing, etc. – and late in my pregnancy, when I’d return from doctor appointments I was bombarded with questions about how dilated I was, etc. One paralegal even said to me, “I can tell that the baby has dropped because your boobs aren’t smushed up against your belly any more.” In what world is it okay for someone to utter these syllables at work—much less a paralegal to attorney? I was pretty aghast at this and didn’t say anything at the time, but I wish I would have.

      It is tricky. I try to strike a balance with my staff, because our firm is quite small and there is a fair amount of socializing that goes on between attorneys and staff. I take my cues from the older female attorneys, but I also find that, perhaps of generational differences, I am more likely to pour my own cup of coffee and things like that. I have a hard time asking my assistant twice my age to get me coffee. But I don’t think there’s any doubt where the boundary is. She knows I am her boss, and I know—because she’s told me—that she will go above and beyond for me because she respects the fact that I know I’m younger and don’t think I’m better than her. She appreciates that I give her that respect, and as a result she really goes to bat for me. This has been helpful on more occasions than I can count—she’s very senior in our office and has the ear of the senior partners, and her liking me goes a long way.

      • Ugh, don’t get me started on the pregnancy thing. I’m not at a firm, but in the corporate world. A peer of mine (older by 15-20 years) would make the most obnoxious comments to me about my pregnancy weight (I gained a lot of weight). She’d say things like “Oh, you’re definitely having a girl, your hips are spreading” (complete with hand gestures). I’d typically reply with something like “Oh, thanks for noticing and mentioning it.”– I totally get the sorority of mothers at work, but to me, if the pregnant woman isn’t initiating this type of sharing, then don’t bring it up! The lack of common sense really fascinates/annoys me!

        • I also got tons of this BS when pregnant (twice) at my former BigLaw firm. The support staff, led by my secretary, had been gossiping for a few weeks on whether I was pregnant before I announced — both times. The inappropriate comments were something else — food intake, how fast/slow I walked down the hallway, whether I looked chubby or pregnant, you name it.

          FWIW, I handled the inappropriate comments either with A Look or by ignoring/walking by without stopping. I found that if I acknowledged them in any manner, they just got worse.

          • One of our floater support staff would frequently rub my belly. Um….no. No. Just no. I finally had to say something rather emphatically about not rubbing my belly and calling me “Mommy.” I am not your mommy. Ugh.

  11. I know C says not to gossip, but I sometimes find that support staff can give you some valuable info that you can’t get elsewhere. e.g. I am not at a law firm, but a consulting firm with a similar structure. I am an associate and found out some key information about one of the new projects a partner just got, from said partner’s assistant, whom I’m on friendly terms with. Note that she and I don’t have a supervisory relationship, so it may be different.
    Anyone else been in a similar situation?
    This sounds more scheming than I intend, but any tips for leveraging your gal-pal connection to glean potentially useful info, but still not lose the respect of being in a more senior role?

    • I agree that staff can be a good source of information about what is going on in the office that you might want to get a piece of. I think the key for not losing respect is that you are “gossiping” about work, not personal lives, so it shouldn’t be looked down upon in the same way. As far as how to leverage it, I would suggest that once you learn about a new project you want to work on from the staff member, that you go directly to the person who brought in the work and express you interest and try to get assigned. I think people would not look very highly on you if you had the assistant talk to her supervisor about how great you are–after all, what does she know about your professional abilities?

      To the extent you want to be friendly and gossip about non work stuff, just keep it to a minimal. Talking for five minutes in the break room while you get your coffee will be considered friendly in a good way, and won’t automatically make you “one of the girls.”

      • Thanks. I do know how to make use of the information once I do get it (e.g. go talk to the partner and so on). My question was more about how to continue being on good terms with support staff so that I CAN get such information in the future. There is valuable info you can get from support staff, and you dont know what/when until you do happen to get it.
        Afaik, the only way seems to be to go out to lunch with them, chat with them occasionally in the break room, and so on. 5-minute break room ‘hi, how are you?’s will not do it for me, it takes longer.
        Corporette and others advise against this though.
        I have many female peers so its not a gender issue for me, but I do want to maintain personal connections with the support staff so that I get valuable leads like this one in the future.

  12. divaliscious11 :

    I think this discussion can be broadened to non-staff. Balancing being friendly with other professionals your supervise can be a a field of landmines, particularly when you have to ‘manage’ a particular problem or issue and the subordinate takes constructive criticism personally…

  13. Anonymous :

    Being friends with the staff: just don’t do it.

    I’ve never worked in a law firm, but I have worked for two different Fortune 500 companies. Although I think it is different in a corporate environment than a law firm, there still is definitely the risk that by socializing with the support/admin staff, you are seen as one of them, and not one of the executives. It’s just too easy for male upper managers to paint all women with the same brush. It’s the same kind of reasoning behind “don’t ever get your boss coffee” because after that, you are the coffee-bringer, period. I don’t get people coffee, I don’t type up documents, I don’t take notes at meetings. Those are administrative tasks and I am not an admin; I am a decision-maker.

    I don’t think it’s that hard to distinguish where the line is. Be polite and be warm, but don’t engage past pleasantries. A long commute, night classes, a busy boyfriend/partner, or child are all good reasons not to go for drinks with support staff. Being the only woman exec in an office does not mean you join the “girls’ club;” it means you take pains not to be seen as a secretary. As for gossip – there is a way to get valuable info from support staff without crossing the line into being BFFs. There’s a difference between trading office-related info without getting into personal business – keep conversations related to “I heard he resigned this morning” and not about boyfriend troubles or anything personal about yourself.

    This is unfortunately the way the world works. I can tell you, as someone who is mid-career, there are huge drawbacks to being extra-super nice vs. being seen as an executive.

  14. Blonde lawyer :

    I agree that office gossip can be very useful. I will stop and listen when people are talking about stuff going on but I hardly ever offer any info on someone. The information I have heard, however, has been invaluable for figuring out firm culture, what is looked down on, what will get you fired, who likes their work what way, etc.

    I am a HUGE fan of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. I would caution, though, don’t go to the opposite extreme and never helping people. A favor to a partner can go a long way. For example, noticing partner hasn’t had time to eat and you are running out for take out dinner? It is ok to ask him if he wants you to grab him something too. It is called being conscious and courteous and can put you in a good light. I’m not talking about buying coffee and candy daily and offering take notes. Just finding balance.

  15. The drawback to gleaning gossip from staff is that you’ll be a target for them to gossip about & share with others (if you’re not already).

    I find it difficult to understand the issue of having lunch with staff etc because surely they’d prefer to socialise amongst themselves (and not ask the OP along)? I work in a corporate setting and never have the PAs etc asked ANYONE (nor is it expected) to lunch with them/ go for outings – despite a 50-50 gender ratio.

    When I worked at a Big 5 accounting firm, there were staff who actively socialised with the PA and these were always the more empty-headed (= not good at their work) types who could ALWAYS be found gossiping with the PA. Not sure if that was a coincidence. I was friendly at all times, but never a “friend” (i.e. no gossip/ lunches etc).

  16. I’m friends with some younger support staff, in a mentoring way. I like them as people, they’re good at their jobs, and they ask me for career/resume/applying to law school advice. If invited to their happy hour I go, I’ll occasionally have coffee or lunch with one or two of them, and I’ve invited one or two to parties I threw (attorneys were also invited). In the past this circle included one staff member whom I supervised. I think you have to take into account the individual personalities involved, and be nice and friendly to everyone even if you’re only actually friends with one or two. I would never go dancing/drinking/shopping/on vacation with someone under me (or over me) on the office hierarchy as I do with some of my girlfriends at my level, but I don’t think it makes any sense to have a blanket ban on friendships with people just because of their job title.

    At the very least, be friendly to everyone. The support staffers I’m friends with know exactly which attorneys are jerks to their assistants, and believe me, I get copies made much more quickly than they do.

  17. OK, not at a firm… I never really socialized with my direct subordinates, but the boss I had for many years was always friendly and generous- bringing in food for everyone, e.g., so it made it easy to be generous as well without feeling like a serf or a grandma. I remember asking a guy who worked for once (and I mean once) if he could pick me up a salad when he was going out and he had a male version of a hissy fit about it. So, as a human, I would just say yes, do not get too chummy with the staff, but if there is some one you genuinely like (common interest, same home town, something like that) or if some one has a problem and asks something small of you, do not be so wed to your status and rules that you become a nut case about it.

  18. Anne Vohl :

    At one time I was the only female attorney in a firm. All of the staff were female. One (newly hired) was black. She seemed miserable and I found her crying in the ladies’ room, so we chatted. I asked her out to lunch. We did lunch. It was a big mistake. Somehow it made matters worse. She expected me to be her advocate, but the workload overwhelmed her. My advice – do not socialize with staff. Period.

  19. I agree with Erin M. and others that you should be nice to everyone, but be careful about establishing real friendships with folks either above or below you in the chain of command. Being nice is just a human thing, and if you can manage that, you will be granted slack (at least some of the time) when you need it. What disturbed me upon first reading of reader A’s question was the comment from the male partner to be careful about forming friendships with other women because of potential difficulties with accusations of favoritism later. My gut reaction was that this male partner was already creating a situation where reader A would feel uncomfortable making any kind of comforting alliance, however minimal it might be. Reader A already feels alone because she is the only female attorney, and I grimaced when the partner gave her that unnecessary warning. Who the heck knows what happened to the prior female lawyer, and how this male partner perceives the outcome? My antennae went up, and I would suggest that reader A be (a) nice and (b) just curious enough to elicit information about the firm culture in a way that is non-gossipy. It may be that the partner was engaging in a bit of isolationism on reader A. Best of luck to her – thankfully, I am not the only female attorney where I am, but I still experience problems with what I describe as the “two X chromosomes and a spine” syndrome.

  20. I think it greatly depends on the size and caliber of the firm or business.

    In my case, I am a paralegal at a small IP firm and work under 6 attorneys.
    We are all very close, to where we go out for drinks, lunch, etc all the time, including the accountant, the receptionist, the file clerk, and the law clerks.
    However, there is an invisible line you should NOT cross even in the small business environment, from being friendly and personable, to being overly friendly, playing favorites, and being downright unprofessional.

  21. Former Paralegal :

    As a former paralegal, I have to take offense to Elizabeth’s “how dare a paralegal talk to an attorney like that” attitude. The comment she received about her pregnancy was inappropriate from anyone, but news flash: Paralegals are professional staff members and should be treated as such.

    I am now an attorney, and treat my paralegal as if we are in similar positions…both professional, both educated, and both very knowledgeable. In fact, when I first started my job she knew more than I did about a lot of things, especially judge-specific stuff.

    Treat your paralegals well ladies. Don’t act like you are somehow better than they are because you went to law school. For the most part, an experienced paralegal is more valuable than a new associate. They certainly are more productive!

    • Former Paralegal, I’m sorry that my comment came across as offensive. I certainly didn’t mean to be patronizing. If you knew me in real life, you’d know that I am exceptionally courteous to paralegals (and everyone else, for that matter)–often deferential, even. In fact, the paralegals in my office have all told me how much they appreciate that I don’t make them feel like second-class citizens. (See my comment about getting my own coffee; I’m the only attorney in my firm who doesn’t make a paralegal do it.) I am diligent about thanking them for their work and wholeheartedly agree that they know more than I do about many things, particularly when I first started.

      The comment my paralegal made to me should not have been uttered by anyone (as I said). But it’s still the case that I am her supervisor and her boss. And it’s never appropriate to comment on your boss’s “boobs” (ugh, hate that word) as if you were girlfriends. All I meant is that the line between female staff and female attorneys can become blurry when pregnancy is involved, because some women feel it’s a free pass to get buddy-buddy. And it isn’t.

      Again, I’m very sorry that I offended you.

  22. Here’s why it mattered that she was black. It was because she was the only black person in the office, and maybe the only black person working in an office in the whole 12 story building. The white staff people in the office were not speaking to her, which was quite obvious to me. It was fairly clear that was the reason she was crying. I knew it was frowned on in that office to have lunch with a “secretary”, but I saw she was on the verge of quitting after only 10 days, and I thought maybe I could persuade her to stick it out a while longer and maybe things would work out. The boss badly wanted a diverse workforce. We had chosen her from a field of many applicants. I liked her and I wanted to sit down and talk with her over lunch. I did persuade her to stay on the job a little longer, but it only prolonged her agony, I believe.

    • delurking :

      Fair enough. I wondered if maybe you were black and so you felt that you had something in common. You know if you (as a non black person) see discrimination like that, it’s good that you responded, but I would recommend saying something to your boss/a boss next time. As you are her superior and non black it would carry more weight (to your superiors).

  23. Ladies, I will second the general consensus above: don’t get too friendly. Just learned this the hard way. I’m in a fairly laid back office where people aren’t too guarded, but there are always the age/gender undercurrents. At a time a few months ago where I was in a weak and lonely place at work (mean boss getting meaner) I opened up to an exec assistant about it. Knew I shouldn’t have- but she was in tears and knew that he had been treating me horribly also. After that, she wanted to talk about it weekly or so, which is distracting, inappropriate, etc.- but I had opened the door. Luckily she is 100% trustworthy or it could have been a major error. I had also engaged in ‘friendly chatter’ with her and another a few too many times, to a point where they started asking about my personal life out in the hall where others could hear- it is very difficult to turn this off once it begins. But it’s hard when people are nice to act distant- it can be a tough balance. But, I will now always err on the other side because this became a frustrating situation (that I knew was my own fault). Luckily I just accepted an offer for a dream job elsewhere, so aside from being excited for a thousand other reasons, this issue will soon be gone and I’ll learn from it.

    Also any ladies who may think hugs are okay- my husband just had a paralegal temp try to hug him goodbye before he went on vacation, and he just sat there stone-shouldered and horrified. Never okay at work unless there’s a long history of friendliness or such.

  24. Liz (Europe) :

    Lobbying for more women on your level whenever there’s an opportunity to hire someone extra seems like a good idea, but I’m sure you’ve thought of that yourself.

    • Liz (Europe) :

      (And also for more guys on the lower levels whenever there’s an opportunity to hire there… Terribly sexist indeed, but then mixed companies seem to work best. I’ve admittedly never had to make the call in any kind of work environment, but in my student time I did get to pick for various things and nobody seemed freaked out whenever I suggested we get the guy out of two or three equally fit candidates because we had like fifteen girls and two guys so far. In fact, the others felt much the same way.)

  25. Former Paralegal, 2L Clerk :

    The one-on-one personal details get you into trouble. And if you have a friendship with one staffer, your other staffers will feel rejected.
    Solution: Take your secretary and your paralegal(s) to lunch as a group once a month. One of the new associates I worked for right before leaving for school did this, and it helped the teamwork. The bond gets strengthened, without giving up status as the boss. That way, assigning the gross projects and insisting on quality work doesn’t hurt the “friendship.”
    There was an attorney-paralegal friendship at our firm, and when the paralegal was pregnant, she got mad that the attorney didn’t make other staff move files around.
    Anyway, there’s a right way to build these friendships. Having taken kleenex to an attorney who was crying in her office, I can tell you it changes the perception. Sure, “I have it all together” is a facade, but it’s the right way to act.

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