You may know the type. They drive you nuts at the office — and at home — with issues better left for a therapist. Here's how to keep them at a distance.
IT SEEMED STRANGE enough when Megan Rippner's boss called her at home — on her day off — to discuss a billing matter. But after Rippner, the manager of a retail store the woman owned, feigned sickness to get off the phone, the conversation took a downright bizarre turn. "You better check the doctors around here," her boss chimed in, "because when I was in the hospital..." With that, she launched into a 40-minute monologue that sounded like the plot of a made-for-TV movie, touching on everything from her near-fatal delivery of her child to a romantic liaison in Australia. "I couldn't get a word in," recalls Rippner. "I guess she wanted the attention."
After that, the off-hours calls became a ritual. "If I didn't answer, she'd call 10 times, leaving messages," Rippner says. "Sometimes I'd get off the phone with her and she'd call back two seconds later." Rippner wasn't the only employee getting hounded. The boss went so far as to send the police to one staffer's home after the woman failed to return her calls. "I'd laugh about it with my husband and sisters," says Rippner, "but after a while it wasn't funny anymore."
Call them needy bosses. They can't seem to change their voice mail message without your opinion. They pack your day with chores that bolster their ego — and sap your productivity. Worse, they'll invade your personal time, calling you at home with intimate details they should be sharing with their therapist.
Marlene Greenman is all too familiar with the symptoms. Her former boss at a nonprofit magazine craved adulation so much that he'd pout if an employee failed to invite him to a birthday or wedding. He even planned his own "surprise" party and picked out the gift — a $2,000 watch. Sometimes he'd walk into the newsroom right before a deadline, plop himself into a chair and interrupt the staff with a joke session. "He needed to feel like everyone was hanging on his every word," says Greenman (that's her maiden name — she doesn't want to burn her bridges).
Dealing with needy people is tough enough. But when the person is your boss, the situation gets particularly dicey. You can't just tell him to get lost. Bruise his ego and he'll make your job miserable — or leave you without one. Tim Orellano, president of an HR consulting firm in Little Rock, Ark., suggests a tactful approach: delicately pointing out how the boss's behavior interferes with your performance. To get her boss out of the newsroom, Greenman, for instance, jokingly reminded him that her staff couldn't afford to miss a deadline. "I was always good-natured about it," she says. "He was my boss."
Left unchecked, your boss's neediness will seep into your personal life sooner or later. In an attempt to drag you around like a security blanket, the boss may look for any excuse to dominate your time outside the office. So it's important to tie up loose ends and "head off the notion that something has to be talked about over the weekend," says Alan Levins, an employment lawyer and co-author of the Boss's Survival Guide, which includes pointers on managing your own boss. If that doesn't help? "Screen your calls."
That worked for one woman, an assistant to a high-maintenance entertainment executive in New York. After enduring frequent calls early in the morning and late Sunday nights, the assistant invested in a caller ID machine. Now, instead of picking up the phone, when she spots the dreaded digits she waits for a message. "If it's important, I'll call her right back and say I was in the shower," the assistant explains. "If it isn't important, I'll wait a few hours. That reduces the instant availability."
Phone calls weren't the only way the exec would infringe on the assistant's time. In the mornings she would insist that they meet at a street corner and ride to work together. The assistant figured out a way to curb that, too: She pointed out that she needed time before the boss arrived to complete important work tasks. That was smart, says Orellano: "It's saying I want to do a good job, as opposed to I think there's a big issue with us." The latter could be interpreted as an attack on your boss's personality — and trigger an emotional eruption. "You don't want to go there," Orellano warns. "The personality style may be the issue, but you have to go down a hallway to get to the problem."
Though working for someone who requires more attention than your five-year-old can be exhausting, it often has an unexpected payoff: being in the know. Whenever the assistant to the entertainment exec gets dragged along on yet another shopping trip or some other out-of-office excursion, she'll treat it like a fact-finding mission: "I hear stories I wouldn't hear, things she wouldn't say in the office, like the viability of the business."
Rippner didn't wait for the upside. After three months with her needy boss, she quit. "I'm just happy to be rid of her," Rippner says.