my boss brings her elderly uncle to work with her

A reader writes:

I work for a highly specialized temp staffing agency. We serve only one industry, and come to assignments already having a high level of knowledge and experience in our field. I’m one of two temporary staff at my current assignment; the other, who’s been here longer and is in a higher-level position, is effectively my boss. (In an ideal world, we’d both be reporting to the same on-site company employee, but that person isn’t really in a position to assign work or otherwise act as a manager at present – long story.) Professionally, she really knows her stuff, and seems to have made some important steps toward cleaning up a big mess at this company (though they still have a long way to go).

But there is a problem, of course, and it’s one I don’t think I’ve seen in your column yet. My boss is also the primary caregiver for an elderly relative with dementia, who she brings to work with her about half the time. At first, this seemed a little odd – when she meets with clients, Uncle Bob is right there the office, and he has a habit of striking up out-of-the-blue conversations with both coworkers and clients alike – but hey, as a temp, I’m accustomed not only to working with a lot of distractions, but also to keeping my opinions about the local customs to myself unless I’m specifically asked. Lately, though, it’s gotten much worse. Due to some changes at the company where we’re working, it’s usually just Boss and I in the office … which means that if she heads out to a meeting, I become Uncle Bob’s de facto babysitter. Mostly, he just sits in Boss’s office quietly, but he does periodically come out and ask where Boss is and when she’s coming back, or ask to use the restroom (which means someone needs to escort him there and then help him find Boss’s office again when he’s done). These interruptions are distracting, especially when I’m working on a project that requires fairly intense concentration (which most of my work does), though honestly not much more so than fielding the occasional client contact that comes in.

Mostly, though, I’ve just gotten more and more frustrated and flummoxed with how inappropriate this is. Admittedly, some of my motives are selfish ones: I have no special skill or interest in elder care or memory care, especially for a stranger, and looking after Uncle Bob takes time away from the work I’m being paid to do. But I’m also concerned about how this impacts our business – both in terms of how unprofessional it makes both the temp staffing company and the company where we’re currently working look, AND in terms of liability (which would be a disaster if Uncle Bob were to wander off on his way back from the bathroom and be injured or worse).

What would AAM do?

Oh, gosh. The thing here is that if you take out the overall weirdness of having someone’s relative in your office all day, the actual impact on you isn’t all that significant: you answer a couple of not-crazy-sounding questions (although the escorting him to the bathroom part is probably odd). But it doesn’t sound like you’re being asked to truly babysit him, or engage in elder care, or anything like that.

So it seems like the real issue is less about the fairly minimal impact on your work and more about the fact that it’s just plain weird to have this situation.

I’m curious about whether the staffing agency that placed you both there knows about this. It seems like the type of thing that they normally wouldn’t okay, and I wonder if they’re even aware. One option would be to talk to your contact there and explain that you feel a little uncomfortable about being tasked with watching over the uncle when your boss is out.

Another possibility too, of course, is to talk with your boss directly, but I’m honestly struggling to come up with language that you’re likely to feel comfortable using. I suppose I’d say something like this: “Jane, I feel awkward about having your uncle in our office so often, especially when you’re away and I need to watch over him and help him when he needs anything. Is this a temporary measure while you look for full-time care for him, or is it something that will continue long-term?”

Ideally that would cue her in that you’re not okay with this arrangement, but if she simply tells you that it’s her long-term plan, then you could ask if the staffing company knows and is okay with it. If they are, well, there’s your answer — this is part of the set-up there, and you’d then need to decide whether it’s a job you want, knowing that this comes with the package.

Of course, then you also need to be prepared for there to be awkwardness between you and your boss if she ends up not bringing the uncle in anymore and resents you for it — I don’t see any way to ward that chance off, even by being reasonable and kind in your tone throughout your dealings over this. It’s a messy situation, as it always is when someone violates generally accepted office norms and expects others to be okay with it, without even talking it through with them.

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