My new assistant laughs at everything I say

I hired her, but now she's embarrassing me.

Published June 20, 2007 10:07AM (EDT)

Dear Readers,

Just a quick note to say thank you for your responses to my shameless yet sheepish request for shameless blurbs and promotions for the book. I am going through them now, and they are really great! It is going to make designing the cover and inside pages of the book a real pleasure. I will keep you informed as we make progress! Thanks again! -- C.T.

Dear Cary,

I recently hired a new assistant, and while she seems very talented and a wonderful person -- hardworking, eager, attentive -- she is, frankly, a little hard to take. She's loud and brash and chatty, and most annoyingly she laughs at the slightest provocation. I think I joked with her about a couple of things when interviewing her, and now she seems to think I'm always joking. She laughs at just about everything I say -- not in a derisive way but as though she's enjoying a joke I've made. For instance, I gave her a small project and told her about a circumstance that could arise when working on other similar projects, and then added, "That's not true of this one," and for some reason she thought this was quite funny.

It's so early in her employment that I am chalking up a lot of this to newcomer nerves. I think she is just trying too hard to fit in. I certainly wasn't Ms. Popularity when I joined this company. I probably annoyed a few people too, but they let me find my way without any talking-to.

But she's trying so hard, I worry that she is going to alienate people. I guess I also worry that her behavior reflects badly on my judgment in hiring her.

I saw a hint of all this in her when interviewing her, but I think she was restraining herself. And she did so well in testing and in the reports we got from references, we overlooked her "quirkiness." But now it seems whatever restraint she was exercising has completely vanished.

Cary, would I be overstepping if I sat her down and asked her to dial it down a notch? I don't want to squelch her personality -- I do like her enthusiasm -- and I certainly don't want to hurt her feelings or make her think she's in trouble. I'm not sure how much good that would do, anyway. I keep thinking of the "Mary Tyler Moore" episode in which Lou Grant tells the annoying Ted Baxter, "You know how you are? Well, stop it." Yeah, that helps a lot.

Should I just give her some time to adjust, or should I have a talk with her?

Biting My Tongue So Hard It's Bleeding

Dear Biting My Tongue,

I would give her time to adjust, but do not assume that she will. Instead, use that time to figure out what to do if she doesn't.

Ask yourself this: Is her behavior goal-oriented or self-protective? Does she want to be liked, or does she want your job? Is she just nervous around you, or is she strategically sucking up?

Some people who are ambitious and want your job will never say they are ambitious and want your job. They will say your hair looks nice today.

And then when she has become your boss and you ask for a raise, she says your hair looks nice today but she liked it a little better when it was longer, didn't you, and she'd love to give you a raise and you certainly deserve it but ... those darned penny pinchers in accounting! Maybe you'd be happier somewhere where you can get paid what you're worth ... and thanks for coming in, I'm glad we could have this little chat!

Oh how in the blink of an eye our fortunes can change!

So watch her eyes when she laughs, or when she says she likes your hair. Is she looking at your hair or watching your face to gauge the effectiveness of her method?

Watch her when a powerful person walks into the room. Does her head dart up like the head of a hungry little bird? Does she twitter over to any cluster that contains a boss? Do her eyes glisten when she looks at power?

And when you talk to her, does she seem to be looking through you to your salary, as though your numbers were written on the back of your head?

Go back over the interview and the tests. What ambitions did she express? Were her terms of employment short or long? Were they at elite, powerful institutions or humble little shops? Did she go to an elite university? Could her current job represent kind of a step down for her? These all may be clues.

It's fine if she has some genuine drive. But you don't want her walking over you to get to the executive washroom. Let her walk over someone else.

A second and equally plausible possibility is that she is simply a nervous, confused and frightened person who radiates her discomfort. Maybe she would rather be painting or performing her poems but feels she simply must have this job and so is overdoing the "I'm so happy to be here" bit. Or she may have other outside problems that are causing her anxiety -- an abusive husband or an abusive upbringing, or certain obsessions she feels she must hide.

She may calm down once she feels secure. Or she may continue to drive you nuts. You can't tell. And I would suggest that you can hardly take years to find out.

So if she is on a probationary period of employment, use that period to make your decision. If you're not comfortable after that time, let her go. It doesn't do your company any good if your assistant makes you too nervous to think straight.

Assistants are supposed to assist. Granted, it may be a very difficult position to be in. But if she's driving you crazy, she's not doing the job.

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