more adventures in boundary drawing!
November 23, 2017 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out how to draw boundaries with a friend who is also a customer at a business I help manage.

I am the operations manager at a small business in my town - basically this translates into me being a jack of all trades, and sometimes requires me to handle some customer-facing issues.

This business is a school that offers art and performance classes for students and adults. One of our regular students - let's call him Andy - is a retired former theater professional, and he enjoys these classes immensely as it gives him a creative outlet in his retirement. He's very good and well-loved in the community. He also has some struggles with depression and anxiety (this may seem irrelevant, but I assure you it's not) - he was a fairly heavy drug user back in the 70s (pot and acid mostly), has been clean since 1978 or so but he admits he kind of fried his brain a bit back then. He also worked as a First Responder in NYC after 9/11, and has been diagnosed with PTSD from that.

All that to say that Andy is very sensitive to stress, and is prone to having panic attacks. He lives off of a pension and social security (and his wife Alice is still working and has always been the primary breadwinner in their house) and he pays his class fees with that money. We offer him scholarships and discounts to make the burden easier on him since we know he gets so much out of participating in our programs. However, he usually needs to pay for his classes in installations because the social security checks only hit his bank account at specific times and he also has other bills to pay. However, if he falls behind in paying us, he FREAKS OUT. Not because we are harassing him to pay (on the contrary, we understand his financial situation and are happy to accommodate him; a late payment or two from him doesn't destroy our cash flow), but because he is paranoid that if we notice he hasn't paid we will throw him out of class. We have never thrown him out of a class for a late payment, nor have we ever threatened to do so. I am at a loss as to why he has convinced himself that he's always on the verge of being thrown out, but I also understand that depression/anxiety/PTSD can affect his perception of reality. (I myself suffer from bipolar depression; I get how your brain can trick you.)

A complicating factor is that Andy had a mild heart attack recently that precluded him from taking part in a performance. He desperately wanted to perform, but he had literally been released from the hospital only three days prior and his doctor and Alice (and ultimately us running the school) insisted that it was not safe for him to perform. I suspect that us not letting him take part in the performance in the aftermath of his heart attack has somehow added to his paranoia that we are always looking for a reason to throw him out of a class.

That was all a bunch of context for what happened yesterday: Andy showed up to school in the afternoon in order to pay an installation of a class fee. He's often juggling a couple of debit cards (the pension is in one checking account and the social security checks are deposited into another one or something like that) and so he came in to give me the debit card he wanted to use for this week's installation. I took the information and forwarded it to our bookkeeper and figured all was settled.

Cut to later in the evening - I had gone down to the local pub to have a pre-Thanksgiving drink with some friends. At around 10pm, Alice called. My phone was on vibrate and I didn't feel it in my coat pocket so didn't pick up. Then shortly after, Andy called - same thing, I didn't hear the phone. Then, both Andy and Alice started blowing up my phone with text messages, which I did notice. I listened to the voicemails they left me. Andy was convinced that the bookkeeper had charged the wrong debit card and the charge didn't go through, and both him and Alice were pleading with me to call him back. The text messages largely contained the same information.

I replied to their texts by saying that at 10pm on a Wednesday night right before Thanksgiving there wasn't a lot I could do; I'm not going to call the bookkeeper that late and I'm not expecting her to work on Thanksgiving day, but PLEASE don't worry, we will sort it out on Friday.

Andy then proceeded to keep calling me every ten minutes for the next two hours, leaving desperate voicemails freaking out that we were going to throw him out of the class, interspersed with at least a hundred text messages saying the same thing. I didn't pick up the phone because I was in a noisy pub and it wasn't easy to step out (and I also didn't really want to reward this behavior because I had been very clear in my text message that this issue was NOT something to worry about). I responded to a couple of his texts though reassuring him not to worry, reiterating that this late at night before a holiday there was nothing I could do, and promising that we'd sort it out on Friday. He kept calling. Alice kept calling. I finally sent them both an email, cc-ing the bookkeeper and my boss, explaining again that this was something we would sort out on Friday after the holiday is over, and PLEASE DO NOT WORRY WE ARE NOT EXPELLING YOU FROM CLASS.

This morning I get a text from Andy saying that he saw this morning that the class fee had indeed been withdrawn from the CORRECT account, so the bookkeeper hadn't made a mistake after all, he had misread his bank account. Then Alice texts me, thanking me for being a good friend and putting up with his panicking the night before, and saying that he was so worked up about this situation that she had to give him an extra Klonopin before bed so he could sleep.

I love Andy. I love Alice. They are sweet people who mean well. But I'm irritated right now; we at the school have never ever once ever told Andy that we were going to throw him out of class for a late fee payment. We know he gets a lot out of our programs and we have bent over backwards to accommodate him and his financial situation and are happy to do so. We understand that he has mental health struggles. But blowing up my phone with calls and texts not only when I'm off the clock but also when it's past 10pm and freaking out at me is not okay, especially when I replied multiple times telling him not to sweat it. It feels like an abuse of their access to me; just because they have my phone number doesn't mean that it's my job to talk Andy down from an anxiety spiral in the middle of the night. I'm an operations manager, I'm not his doctor and I'm not his therapist. And I was very clear with both of them in my text responses that this was not something he needed to worry about.

My questions is: What can I say, if anything, to Andy to make him understand once and for all that we will never throw him out of the program for a late payment? That we are always willing to work with him to make sure he has access to the programs he loves given his financial situation? I have already said as much to him several times, as has my boss, and we have also demonstrated this to be the case several times by not ever throwing him out of the program for a late payment? What can I do to keep this from happening again? I don't want him freaking out when he's already in poor health, and I also don't want him and Alice to be blowing up my phone in the middle of the night ever again.

And for that matter, what can I say to both Andy and Alice to make them understand that blowing up my phone in the middle of the night is unacceptable? I don't want to be cruel to an old man with PTSD, and I don't want to be cruel to his long-suffering wife who worries herself sick over him. Is there a gentle way to let them know that this is not okay and I don't want them to do it ever again?


And happy thanksgiving y'all.
posted by thereemix to Human Relations (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just...don‘t reply more than once? I don‘t mean to be snide, but as I understand it you have sometimes replied and sometimes not. And that sort of response is crack to the reassurance seeking brain. It feeds the anxiety spiral (thereemix replied before, but not now! Does that mean something bad? It must mean something bad!)

I mean, you say they‘re abusing their access to you, so stop giving them access: to your response and to your brain. Be very clear when you answer that you won‘t be picking up the phone anymore until monday. And then don‘t.

I think you should have a talk with Alice, too. Sure, he‘s got all these anxiety problems, but is she aware of how she‘s enabling him?
posted by Omnomnom at 1:41 PM on November 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

1. Make it clear to both of them that he would never be thrown out of class or prevented from attending for financial reasons, and you all love having him in class. I know you've done that, but, hey, once more won't hurt (and make sure Alice is looped in). Unfortunately, the kind of comfort he needs isn't compatible with your needs or the program's needs (you can't guarantee he'll ALWAYS be welcome, e.g. for behavioural reasons)
2. Financial issues can't be handled outside of the office at all, so you'll have to insist that they only call during normal business hours, or, if they need to raise something before start of business, email all details so it can be forwarded--you can't do a lot with a phonecall after hours and *you are not available to take any work-related calls after hours*. Additionally, if there's no compelling reason for him to have your personal line, insist he call the office line *only* (and then block him on your personal line). If there is a valid reason to call your personal line, make it very clear you won't be reachable outside of business hours (whatever that is for you). And then guilt-free ignore him if he breaks this rule; set a boundary and stick to it.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 1:41 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Andy (and Alice), could I have a few moments of your time? Thanks. I'd like to discuss two things. The first is that I can't help but notice, Andy, that you really worry when you aren't sure a payment has gone through. I want to assure you that you're a valued member of the community and that we would never end your membership over a missed payment. I know we've discussed this before. Can you help me understand your worry?"

(brief discussion, reassure)

"Okay great, I want to be sure we get to the second item. That's contacting me after hours. I understand you were really worried about your payment, but it's just not okay with me to receive that many calls and texts. And I also cannot always solve these problems after hours. I need to be pretty firm on this; you may call me once or text me once with any concern and I'll get back to you when I can. But if you are sending me multiple texts I will have to block you - and I don't want to do that because I value staying in touch with you. But when I am getting repeated messages from you, it means I can't keep track of other urgent issues, or focus on my personal time. Can you agree to keep your messages to one, and trust that I will get back to you on the next business day?"

Source: I have PTSD and inside I am sure I have been just as nuts about something, but I do something else.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:03 PM on November 23, 2017 [12 favorites]

Captain Awkward answered a similar ? recently.
posted by brujita at 2:35 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Hi Andy and Alice,
I need to speak with you.

First of all:
Andy, we love having you at the school. You are a valued part of our (school) family.
I want to reassure you, once and for all, that we will NEVER expel you for missing a payment or a class activity.
If you need to pay late: it is ok. If you miss a payment, or even a couple: it is ok. We know you also value the school and we trust you to pay when you have the money.
Do you have other concerns about your attendance or pay schedule here that I should know about?

Second of all:
Yesterday you called and texted me a total of 50 times, after business hours, on my personal phone, and on a holiday weekend... and you both continued to contact me even after I said, multiple times, that we would not expel you for missing a payment. This was unfair to me. I need this not to happen again.

I would like you to agree to two things:

A) Please do not contact me at my personal number again.
You are welcome to email me any time at (school email), or call me at (school phone).

B) I will also ask you not to leave multiple messages about the same issue on the same day.
You can certainly call again the next day if something isn't being resolved to your satisfaction.

Andy, I like you. I'm not angry at you, because I know anxiety is tough. But I do need to set an appropriate professional boundary for my own mental health. I hope you can respect that.

I like you both and I really value you at our school.
I will be happy to see you next time you come in.
Have a great Thanksgiving!

Thank you,
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:46 PM on November 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

Two thoughts. One: as long as your management is okay with it, put it in writing (and offer them a framed fucking copy) that you are never going to kick him out of a class for payment reasons. If necessary gather up 2-3 important people and present him with it and impress on him that he is such a valued member of the community and you all HAAAATE seeing him stress over this constantly. Afterwards, explain to him and Alice that this means there should never ever be a repeat of last night.

Two: just comp the dude his classes. Maybe ask him in return to man a table a few times a year (presumably you market your school somewhere or do some kind of outreach?) talking the place up and putting people on the mailing list or whatever. This seems like something that would totally delight him to do anyway, make him feel important, and lets him "work" for free classes.

I think a separate conversation with Alice might also be a good idea, because what the hell? She should help, not make the situation worse.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:40 PM on November 23, 2017 [24 favorites]

You fielded this mess last night; let your boss handle the next bit of business in the coming week, which is communicating to Andy and Alice directly that the organization is switching their payment schedule from ___ (monthly?) to ____ (quarterly?). (Allowing them breathing room, so there's less anxiety around payments/lateness/this fixation on being "kicked out of class." Andy's older -- let me tell you, there was a time when the powers that be WOULD escort a late-paying student out of class, shaming them in front of everyone, so maybe Andy has already suffered that experience and can't really process anyone's reassurances in his panic.)

Your boss will go on to say the organization is instituting a new policy re: calling employees' mobiles about business matters (the school realized they would need to start paying for employee cell phone bills, or whatever polite fiction, if necessary, helps in smoothing it over). Or, they'll be enforcing an existing policy that's been grievously overlooked. Students must call work phone lines during work hours; voicemail is available after hours and is checked the morning of the next business day. (This is standard business practice, do not feel guilty about it. As you noted, nothing could be done outside of business hours anyway.)

For whatever reason, Andy and Alice both were unable to stop spiraling last night. Since you interact with them the most at work, and given recent events, now is the time for your boss to do some of the emotional labor involved with managing with these valued, respected members of your community. That's why your boss is your boss. Seriously, draw your boundary by stepping back and kicking this matter upstairs.

But I'm irritated right now
-- You're a mensch, right now. Thank you for your kindness to, and patience with, Andy and Alice, and happy Thanksgiving to you, too.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:34 PM on November 23, 2017

Everyone has had such great advice above and I second all of it. Once you've had that conversation with Andy and Alice, hopefully they will be more respectful of your boundaries. However, if such a situation should arise once again, after sending your initial response -- and that's only if you feel up for it because 10 p.m. it too late to expect someone to pick up regardless -- feel free to block the caller. You gave them an answer, which they need to sit with, and you can always unblock them the next day; hopefully, they'll have calmed down and found other ways to cope. I'm in the same boat as warriorqueen and totally agree that PTSD is not an excuse for this behavior; we all have our shit but our shit does not give us permission to harass or disrespect others' boundaries. You are very kind to Andy and Alice, and I'm sure things will be clearer and easier from now on. I hope you have had a good day off despite these stresses!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:41 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

But blowing up my phone with calls and texts not only when I'm off the clock but also when it's past 10pm and freaking out at me is not okay, especially when I replied multiple times telling him not to sweat it. It feels like an abuse of their access to me; just because they have my phone number doesn't mean that it's my job to talk Andy down from an anxiety spiral in the middle of the night. I'm an operations manager, I'm not his doctor and I'm not his therapist. And I was very clear with both of them in my text responses that this was not something he needed to worry about.

It sounds like you communicated on their worry but you really need to communicate on the impact of how they go about manifesting that worry. You need to communicate to them that calling and texting frantically a person in this manner is not okay, even during work hours and especially during your free time. You'd be well within your rights to say that much activity is harassment, and you aren't because you like them and empathize with their situation, but they need to understand that one call or email during work hours is enough.
posted by notorious medium at 5:59 AM on November 24, 2017

Stop reassuring them when they're contacting you at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways (like though your personal phone). Every time you say, "It'll be fine," you're relieving their anxiety, so when the anxiety starts up again, they want the reassurance, so they contact you again. If they contact you 50 times and then you reassure them, they learn that even when they are feeling BIG ANXIETY, contacting you is a good way of alleviating it, because you will eventually reassure them. They are using contacting you as their coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety, and you need to stop performing that function at all.

You've reassured them more than enough times, so I would not answer at all after business hours. During business hours, I would ignore, as much as possible, any comments about being kicked out of class (shrug and sympathetic smile, but no promises). You need to get yourself out of the position of being the one to assuage this anxiety.
posted by lazuli at 8:16 AM on November 24, 2017

Another option to consider would be providing him written information about how late payments are dealt with and class removal is dealt with (as a personal policy just for him). If he's usually, say, 5 days late, make the policy that no action will be taken for 15 business days. Or, he can miss two payments before any action is taken, and once he's notified that he missed two payments, he has 30 days to rectify the situation (by making partial payment).

It may be that providing him with a clear and bureaucratic structure and rules he can follow will be LESS anxiety-inducing than just knowing you'll fix it for him. I'd check with Alice and use your personal knowledge of him as to whether he'd cope better knowing he can miss X payments and then has 30 days to rectify a problem and then can relax and do it in his own time; or whether that'd make him more panicked.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:28 PM on November 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

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