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My ex boss is about to return to work part time after maternity leave - we had previously worked together in our department for 6 years and although I never liked her much we got on fine. In her absence I have now been promoted to her previous position and when she came back for a couple of keeping in touch days admitted that she is really struggling with the idea of our role reversal. She is also extremely emotional about returning and leaving her child, understandably, but she tends to bottle these up and not communicate.

I am looking for advice from anyone who has become their boss' boss and how you go about doing your job whilst also supporting them?!

Thank you

  • 11
    Consider if you can ask her to take any concerns about her position change to HR in some way. Honestly, if she has effectively been demoted by going on maternity leave, that would piss anyone off (and is illegal in some countries) - however, that has nothing to do with you, and you need to deflect any possible anger/resentment to the people in charge of demoting her. You have been promoted on your own merit, and those 2 discussions should be separate if you can. – Ida Aug 11 '14 at 17:49
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    I don't see why this post deserved downvotes (without even comments to explain the reason). So +1 from me to balance. – Péter Török Aug 11 '14 at 20:27
  • @PéterTörök - I second that. Upvoting as well. This is a very good Workplace question, and would apply to many situations, not just maternity leaves. – Wesley Long Aug 11 '14 at 22:32
  • @Péter Török: +1 same reason – A. I. Breveleri May 7 '17 at 23:44
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Start communicating with her as soon as you can. It doesn't have to be about work necessarily. Both of you have had some life changing experiences (her baby, your promotion), so make sure you can be civil to each other.

Identify what she was good at and possibly an area you are weaker. Ask her if you can rely on her in this capacity. You will make the final decisions as her boss, but you'll get more out of the relationship if there is a clearer explanation of what her new role is.

Ask her how she sees this work relationship and how would she prefer to get feedback. You may find her preferences as the boss (confronting people in public) may not be the same as a subordinate. You may have to do more things in private than other team members.

Hopefully, you don't have to go to far out of your way to remind her that you are now the boss. Some people understand the "chain of command" and follow along accordingly, some don't. If there is a problem, address it before it goes too far. This could have a negative impact on your ability to manage the rest of the team.

  • Which country is this in may jurisdictions demotion after maternity leave is screamingly illegal - which you may well appear to be complicit in. – Pepone Aug 12 '14 at 15:49
  • @Pepone - Unless the author had a part in actually promoting himself I doubt it. – Donald Aug 12 '14 at 18:51
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    @Pepone - My impression was the former boss chose to become a part-time employee (and is reluctant to leave child this mucb), so I don't see how she could keep a her current management position. – user8365 Aug 12 '14 at 19:34
  • @JeffO my understanding of maternity leave is that you MUST come back to your job or one of an equivalent grade. – Pepone Aug 12 '14 at 22:47
  • @Ramhound if it came to court would you want to be grilled by a £2000 a day lawyer who will attempt to spin it that you colluded with the company to do the person out of her job? – Pepone Aug 12 '14 at 22:48
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First, please make sure you understand whether your promotion to her position was temporary. It may have been intended just for the duration of her family leave. She may think it was intended that way.

Second, if you find out for sure that your promotion is indeed permanent, you should definitely have a conversation with your boss and / or the HR department in your company about how to communicate that change clearly to this returning new mother. It needs to be presented as the new normal, not something that is subject to negotiation. It can't hurt to do this well before she returns to work, so you don't have to "drop the hammer" on her on her first day back.

Third, I know this isn't easy, but you may wish to think through your mindset about this person being "difficult." What is it that makes her difficult? Is there any way you can reframe the way you think about working with her?

Fourth, you can visibly celebrate her return. Take her out to lunch, ooh and ahh over the baby pix, and tell her how happy you all are she has returned to work. Tell her why you're happy she's back. "Jill, I'm so happy you're back! You're the one who really knows the Acme account (or whatever). I hope we haven't messed it up too badly while you were away taking care of little George." (Use the infant's name!)

Fifth, set aside a couple of tasks that you know she's great at doing, and so offer something useful for her to do and succeed at in her first couple of days back.

Sixth, in her second week back, when she's gotten into the groove, have a conversation with her about responsibilities and expectations.

Cut her some slack: it's a tough transition. And, ask her to cut you some slack. (For non-US-English native speakers: "cut slack" means be forgiving and flexible.)

  • I believe the returning employee was clear about it being permanent, commenting on the "Role reversal," so it may be more well-defined. Still upvoting, though. Good answer! – Wesley Long Aug 11 '14 at 22:31
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I actually have done this. Our role reversal was actually quite non-dramatic - a much longer time span and with enough career choices and changes that it didn't feel all that unnatural to either of us. But my thoughts...

Expectations

Make sure expectations all around are clear. Your new boss's expectations on your management of her, her expectations of you, your expectations of her.

It's worth a 1 on 1 with your boss before she gets back to make sure all is well with your mutual expectations on her return.

It's worth a 1 on 1 with her where you two talk about work assignments, and how you and she will resolve problems and what her scope of work will be.

I didn't do this so formally with my former boss, but we did have many conversations privately where we'd clarify with each other what we wanted or why we were sharing. We trusted each other enough that he could say "if I were you, this is how I'd take that" and I could ask "pretend to be me for a second... what do you think this means?" - he was actually a very valuable resource this way.

Motivations

A key thing to keep track of here are motivations. If she's really uncomfortable with this - is it because she'd really rather be the boss? Did she ask for a demotion or get demoted? What's the motivation of the people that decided to rearrange your positions?

A thing you should aim to avoid here is getting in the middle of a discrimination lawsuit. Here's three scenarios, any could be valid:

  • She asked for the demotion (even if she has regrets) because she wanted more time to be a mother
  • She was demoted because she was never good at the job and in her absence the powers that be realized how awesome you are.
  • She was demoted because the powers that be decided that as a new mother she wouldn't be able to do the job (LAWSUIT TERRITORY!)

If it's the first, then figure out whether you want to be a place she can vent - it's OK to say no, because it would be easy for her venting to feel to you like blame. Asking her to find another outlet, or a mentor who can help here is appropriate.

If she was bad at her job, and got demoted, you and your boss may want to talk about the expectations of performance management here. Asking a new manager to manage a poorly performing employee who is the former boss is asking a LOT and it's fair to ask for help in figuring out how to proceed.

If you have reason to believe that you are in lawsuit territory, proceed directly to HR and ask for help. If possible get yourself a legal consult from within the company.

The Personal

Different people are better or worse and more or less comfortable with engaging on personal issues. I had a great boss who NEVER, EVER, EVER wanted to talk about my family life beyond the highest level of unemotional detail. She was still a great boss and a great mentor.

If you can't get into the touchy feely stuff without feeling profoundly awkward and uncomfortable, that's OK. Keep it about the work - welcome her back a work meeting, give her the time she deserves to help her ramp up and get guidance, keep the lines of commucation open. Be fair and balanced with how you treat the whole team in terms of giving time off for baby-related surprises. Everyone has a life, everyone has surprises, new motherhood/former-bossness shouldn't mean that you treat her unfairly compared to the rest of the team.

If you do like hearing baby stories, and being in touch with the personal lives of those you work with - go for it. It's OK, as long as you are not intrusive or judgmental. My experience has been that those that like personal connections are also pretty good at negotiating them.

Be Aware of...

What I think of as lingering bossiness. There's a power distance between employees and bosses. She's been the boss and she's used to having the deference and control that is now yours. Don't let her personality dominate meetings, don't let her take more than her fair share of your (or the team's) time and attention, don't let her have the control that is rightfully yours. If you would expect behavior from any other member of the team (please check with me before deciding on X) - expect it of her.

Give feedback clearly and directly (and mostly privately) when those points aren't met. Don't infer or imply the reasons for the problem (I know you used to be the boss... that's obviously why you are doing this..) - stick to the problem and what you need in terms of behavior change.

Provide a resolution system for emotionality

First - don't infer. New mothers are all different. Certainly new mothers have a very good chance of coming to work with new baby stories. But the nature of the experience as it is shared with coworkers is as individual as the people - I've had new moms be funny, sappy, sad, happy, frustrated, and almost anything else. As long as it stays within the bounds of culturally acceptable, it's just a part of who they are.

However if you have behavior that is not work appropriate, be prepared with a way to avoid the pattern of inappropriate behavior. Bursting into tears in a meeting, for example, can be greeted with a compassionate "do you need a minute? why don't you take a moment, take a step outside, collect yourself and come back". If it happens once, no big deal, if it happens weekly, it's a problem that you two should talk about.

Have some sense of what new mom facilities your company provides. Many these days provide "Mother's rooms" - so that new moms can ... deal with the biological impact of motherhood in privacy and peace. Learn where these are and if someone needs to get her a key to the room -- unless this is already common knowledge. Most mothers can deal with private mother stuff without having this be a serious work-performance impact. A male boss typically will not interrupt a woman making use of these private spaces, it's more appropriate to leave a sticky note on her monitor saying "come see me when you get a chance" and figure that you two will catch up in 15-20 minutes.

The rest of the team

There's bound to be some tension. Keep tabs on everyone and try to minimize the awkwardness. Be clear when you are (or are not) delegating authority to her, and when you want to decisions to filter exclusively through. Solicit the thoughts and opinions of others, they may have good ideas, or see elements to problems that you don't see.

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If she is conscious that you are a better boss to her than she would have been to you, the battle is more than half won. She knows or should know that she is better off with someone as compassionate as you as her boss, because a much worse alternative would be someone like her as her boss.

She should know either implicitly or explicitly that the decision to promote you in this position had not been yours to make. You were awarded the position and you have to live up to the responsibility you have been given. And that the reason she is no longer your boss is that the position requires a level of physical availability that at this point, she is simply not in a position to provide. That is the long and short of it and if she has an argument to the contrary, she should take it to the management. In the meantime, the die is cast. She is better off working with you than against you.

She is probably being unreasonable in wanting both to take care of the child and fulfilling the full-time position. If she doesn't know she is unreasonable, then she should be told that she is being unreasonable. And that's what the management should tell her. No one on the face of this Earth can be in two places at once and serve two masters at once. Not even ghosts can be in two places at the same time and serve two masters at once.

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    I feel the last paragraph is unreasonable, and does not add any value to the answer. In fact, it makes the situation worse if the original poster starts to doubt her work. She is not taking care of her child at work, she is working at work. To think that moms with children is somehow incapable of work is rude at best, and extremely prejudiced, damaging, and illegal at worst. It is also misogynic to the extreme, can dads not work and be dads at the same time either? – Ida Aug 12 '14 at 16:34
  • @Ida There are only so many hours in the day. She can choose to take care of the kid during some of these hours and she can take care of work during some of the hours. She can't do both. Same thing with dads: they have to choose, too. This is the reality, and reality doesn't care if you are offended. Many Asian families are fortunate in that the grandparents and various siblings are willing to offer baby sitting services. We are all subject to the same laws that we can't be in two places at once and can't serve two masters at once. – Vietnhi Phuvan Aug 12 '14 at 18:18
  • "She is probably being unreasonable in wanting both to take care of the child and fulfilling the full-time position." - this is complete and total nonsense. People need to work, the reason both parents have to work, is because absurd costs of living increases among other reasons. – Donald Aug 12 '14 at 18:53
  • @Ramhound Really? Any hour that she spends at work is one hour that she is not with her child, and vice versa. She can't be in two places at once and manage her subordinates and take care of her child at the same time. You can't either. Denial of reality feels wonderful, doesn't it? – Vietnhi Phuvan Aug 12 '14 at 19:04
  • @Ramhound Both parents need to work. If they don't find a way to alternate shifts, then they are in a bind. The day care option, if it is available t all, is pretty expensive. The only thing that sucks worse than having just two parents to take care of a child is having just one parent taking care of a child. – Vietnhi Phuvan Aug 12 '14 at 19:09

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