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Today, out of the blue my supervisor came to me and asked me to talk in private. I noticed he had a sticky note on his hand, it was my new phone number I had written down and had pasted to the board of other new mobile numbers from employees.

He told me that he had felt I was overstepping my boundaries, as an employee below him. To my surprise, where I thought I had posted my new phone number (a place where ALL employees could share their new updated contact number) was ACTUALLY where only the branch supervisors put their phone numbers. He believed I was trying to butt up and was trying to be like a person in a position higher than where I am currently.

He also brought up that I started to include our firm's name in the signature of my e-mails. He told me that both of these, from his perspective looked like I was overstepping my boundaries. Of course I did my best to make it clear to him that it was not my intention, and simply I explained the truth that I was just trying to give a proper flush format to my e-mails as an employee. And explained the phone number situation was a misunderstanding.

He also brought to my attention that there were other occurrences where he received that feeling but did not bring anything up specifically.

I feel as if he still believes I took those actions intentionally to overstep those boundaries, how do I make it up to him? Am I actually overstepping boundaries unintentionally? I don't know how to handle this situation.

I work in the United States in California. Originally I am from Vietnam, I don't know if I had violated some sort of custom.

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    Why is putting your company name in the email signature overstepping your boundaries? – Simon Feb 6 at 9:03
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    In many jurisdictions it's a requirement to identify the company in emails which come from the company on company business. Which country is this? (You can edit that information into the tags) – Andrew Leach Feb 6 at 9:37
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    That is bizarre behavior of the boss and also strange company policies. Phone numbers on stickies on a board ??? Unless this is normal in your region, I'd start looking for alternative jobs. – Hilmar Feb 6 at 12:55
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Feb 10 at 0:25
  • For clarification, is the e-mail account where you put the company name in the signature your company e-mail account or a personal e-mail account? – reirab Feb 10 at 5:47
297

Sounds like your boss has a problem.

To my surprise, where I thought I had posted my new phone number (a place where ALL employees could share their new updated contact number) was ACTUALLY where only where the branch supervisors put their phone numbers.

I'd have responded to this with a casual apology. "Sorry boss, I had no idea that was only for branch supervisors." Then consider it dealt with.

He also brought up that I started to include our firm's name in the signature of my e-mails.

This is just plain weird. Including your firm's name & your job title in signatures of emails is pretty much standard practice wherever I've worked. If it were me, I'd actively challenge him on this with something akin to the following:

Really? This has been standard practice anywhere else I've worked, and I see this as providing transparency and clarity to whoever I'm emailing. I will of course remove it, but this is new to me. Could you also forward on the email policy so I can check there's no other points I'm unintentionally violating?

Beyond that, let the whole thing drop, and don't over-apologise at all - that makes it worse. There's no "making it up to him", you haven't done anything wrong. At best this is just a misunderstanding that's now cleared up.

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    Might want to mention the part where the boss is unwilling to bring up any other concrete examples. I think that further supports this as the correct answer. – ThunderGuppy Feb 6 at 15:06
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    That's key here - don't try to "make it up to him". It may be the path to some abusive relationship in which he makes do stuff because you want to "make it up to him". If you find he's going that way, either document & reach HR - or prepare your CV for something better. – mgarciaisaia Feb 6 at 15:34
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    If this kind of strangeness becomes commonplace, or gets worse, it is time to look for your next job. I know that sounds terrible, but over several decades, I have worked for almost 20 bosses, and had perhaps 2 that I would have been better off not working for. The best solution is to get out of those situations. But that is a different day, and a different circumstance. Some people you just will not be able to make ecstatically overjoyed with your presence. – mongo Feb 6 at 15:58
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    Just to emphasize what is implicit in this answer: the OP did not violate a custom in the U.S. workplace. I might also soften the tone in the suggested email as the boss already demonstrated that they have thin skin, so an email that could easily be read as snarky (even if not intended that way) is probably not a good idea unless the OP already has a backup job lined up. – bob Feb 6 at 19:42
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    Great answer, and the only thing I'd add is that including company information in an email signature isn't just standard practice, but is usually a company policy all employees are required to follow (and in some cases the exact structure and font used is mandated as well). – Wipqozn Feb 7 at 13:03
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You've apologized and understood the expectations of your manager, so all you can do going forwards is concentrate on your job. If in doubt about future decisions like this, just do the same as your co-workers.

Over time, you'll get a better feeling of what's appropriate and what's not.

Try not to worry about it too much.

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    I like this answer because it separates the issue at hand (overstepping the boss's expectations) from any judgement on whether or not those expectations are reasonable. – dwizum Feb 6 at 13:34
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Both of these things seem weird to me.

  1. Why on earth is there a bulletin board with a bunch of phone numbers tacked to it?
    You have a company email system (I assume, since you mention email signature) phone numbers can be assigned as part of each employees profile.
    My mobile number hasn't changed in probably ten years, it is hard for me to see why you'd have a board full of them. (maybe this is just because of the norm I'm used to, living in the USA?)

  2. Company name has been required in email signatures everywhere I've worked for a while, along with first and last name.

Don't worry about it, you have apologized... just one thing left to do:

Look at the email signatures of people at your level. Create a new one for yourself based on them. Send it to your boss with a quick:

I've looked at other peoples signatures and I think this is what I should be using
can you verify this is correct?'

While you don't really owe him this, it shows a spirit of trying to do the right thing.

  • "maybe non-USA?" Not entirely sure why the USA would be the only place where people don't change mobile numbers unless they can help it? Can you expand on this remark? – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 6 at 19:34
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit People changed mobile numbers regularly in the US in the late 90's and early 0's until a federal law was enacted that required number portability without a fee. I'm only aware of 1 person I know who changed their mobile number in the last ten years and that came up this past Sunday. This statement excludes work phones. I didn't mean to imply the US was the only place that this is true - just that I could only conceive that a 'board full of mobile numbers' would probably only happen outside the US. – J. Chris Compton Feb 6 at 19:47
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    At first carriers didn't allow it because so that changing to a new carrier was a big pain because you lost your old number - that's when people changing numbers was very common. There were a lot of different carriers all offering good deals on new phones if you switched (the phone was often free). The law meant consumers could take their phone number from one carrier to another and neither carrier was allowed to charge them a fee... so people started exercising their right to keep their old number. – J. Chris Compton Feb 6 at 20:05
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    I wonder if the board is full of emergency contact numbers for key people. It explains why it exists (works when the power is out), why it only has important people on it, and why it would be weird to add your own name to it. – Oddthinking Feb 7 at 8:31
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    @Oddthinking That's a better guess than I have. Though if that's true I would think it would be better if it was a printed sheet with a table on it (containing: name, mobile#, department, responsibilities). – J. Chris Compton Feb 7 at 17:01
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how do I make it up to him?

I wouldn't even bother. This guy clearly likes to feel like he's in power and to be above others. If he's picking up these little things as a threat or you trying to overstep your boundaries then he is clearly paranoid and has an issue with that.

Am I actually overstepping boundaries unintentionally?

Not at all, you made an honest mistake that you apologised for. It's not as if the board says "Supervisors numbers" otherwise you wouldn't have done it.

As for having your company in your email signature, in my area/country this is normal. It makes the company look professional and also your emails look more professional and neat. If he's saying this is overstepping boundaries you really want to have a think about what the future at this company holds...

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    And it's hardly the biggest mistake a person could make. No harm was done. – Steve Smith Feb 6 at 15:57
  • Completely agree. My guess is your boss potentially feels threatened by your natural abilities or work ethic and is trying to keep you in your place. Or possibly senses that you are both diligent and keen to please and is somehow trying to take advantage of that. Don't try to make it up to them - just keep your head down, don't worry about it and do a good job. – Andrew Ebling Feb 9 at 8:16
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He also brought to my attention that there were other occurrences where he received that feeling but did not bring anything up specifically.

This is why you feel he still believes strange things about you, and this is also why you don't know how to handle the situation.

He should not have confronted you with vague generalities. He should ONLY have raised specific occurrences with you. He did bring up two specifics, but he should have left it at that, not implied there were more without naming them.

In the moment when he was bringing up that there were "other instances," you should have politely and interestedly cut in with, "Could you please give me an example of these other instances?" Chances are that he'd say he doesn't remember offhand. Then you would say, still interested, "I'd like to understand this fully. Can you think what else may have given you that impression?"

Take up specifics only. No one can do anything about vague "feelings." Only about specific occurrences.

This is actually a fundamental rule regarding JUSTICE, which applies equally well in the workplace as it does in the broader society.

Now that the conversation has passed, I would skip it. But if you ever are having a "heart-to-heart" talk with him, you might ask to better understand where this came from. In the mean time, just go on with your job, and be sure to get the actual specifics for any discipline or criticism being made of you.

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I don't know how to handle this situation.

You already have, you apologised for your misunderstanding.

Now shrug it off, keep smiling and be more careful. Don't give him any more ammunition and don't allow yourself to get frustrated or feel threatened trying to figure out what his problem is.

You're a minority, expect things like this to happen from time to time. You just shrug them off and watch your back.

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    The last sentence is important. A thick skin to get over off sh..tuff this kind of people will throw your way and making sure to not give them ammunition to bring you down. The game jerks play is to drag you down to their level. The only winning move is to not play. – Mindwin Feb 6 at 15:04
  • Meanwhile, those of us who are not members of minorities need to step up when we see racist (and plausibly racist) interactions. Our privilege protects us from the worst repercussions that minority coworkers tend to suffer when they point out how their skin color affects their treatment. – Greg Martin Feb 7 at 23:11
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Your boss just doesn't like you. Maybe it is because you are from Vietnam. Maybe his grandparent told terribles histories about Vietnamese people when your boss was a child and a image of an evil Vietnamese is written in the depths of his subconscience. Who knows?

Your boss is thinking and acting irrationally. Human beings, even when they are educated, can act irrationally when they face things or persons they don't like (or things or persons they like too much). There is not much you can do. He is the problem not you.

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    Too much speculation... – Robert Feb 8 at 22:10
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    @Robert Exactly my point There are an infinity of possible reasons for his supervisor is acting this way, but apparently none of them are related to any real action from OP. So OP can't do much about it because it is an inner problem of his supervisor personality. – Mandrill Feb 9 at 13:25
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You overstepped your boundaries.

The boundaries exist, even if they weren't communicated to you. The boundaries may only be in your boss's head, and nowhere else. Even still, they exist.

I understand, overstepping the boundaries was an accident. Or, actually, multiple accidents. That's fine. I've overstepped boundaries before, and been instantly forgiven. I've had other people overstep boundaries before, and instantly forgiven them. Sometimes there's no way to avoid that, because the boundaries may not always be clear. Such events can be unavoidable.

However, some boundaries have been clarified for you. So, at this point, crossing those boundaries is now much more avoidable than before.

If you want to stay on your boss's good side, try to comply and even honor what he desires. He is unlikely to recommend you for promotion, or a raise, if he's viewing you as a threat or has any other reason to be displeased with the things you do.

Other posted answers seem to suggest your boss is erratically non-sensible. They may be right about that. (The whole E-Mail signature thing does seem weird about your boss, from my perspective. But that opinion might heavily reflect the culture I'm a part of.) Even if his perspectives are a bit off-kilter, it looks like he has some amount of faith in you. After all, he let you know how you're displeasing him. If he really had no hope for you, he might have just kept silent while he moved against you, in an attempt to simply terminate your job. I've certainly read some horror stories about bosses doing things like that.

Instead, your boss is basically saying, "Cut it out. Stop doing these types of things."

So, your boss is communicating with you. Not only did he let you know some objectionable actions, but he explained why he was concerned about those actions. He has taken the time to reach out to you, hoping that you will modify the specific type of behavior that he has an issue with. That may be a very good sign.

Good, as in, you might not need to worry too much that your job is in immediate jeopardy. Maybe keeping him happy will require that you are always needing to be extra careful. Or, maybe he will be content after a bit of time, once you've regained his trust.

You should put a bit of thought into whether you want to remain under his careful eye, which has currently been disapproving of you, or if you may flourish better under a different boss (which may mean transferring to another department within your company, or finding a new employer). I'm being a bit un-specific about what your best course of action is, because there are multiple ways that things could go well or poorly. So, I've just been pointing out some things that you can think about as you make some decisions.

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    The boundaries may only be in your boss's head, and nowhere else. Even still, they exist. I'm really not sure that a boundary exists if it's not communicated or implicitly understood by a society. Not any more than an invisible road sign can still be called a sign. – Tobia Tesan Feb 9 at 16:56
  • Sure it exists. I can have a boundary in my head, that says if a two-year-old crosses that boundary, then I need to act. If the two-year-old doesn't cross that boundary, then I don't need to worry as much. I may have self-imposed financial boundaries, which might also be described as "comfort zones". Computer partitions are "boundaries", even if software (like operating systems) could violate those boundaries (e.g., overlapping partitions). The term "boundary" refers to the concept of a "location"/"line" that helps to define an area, not necessarily the communication/enforcement of it (IMHO). – TOOGAM Feb 9 at 19:03

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