how to bring up a work concern diplomatically
February 19, 2021 8:48 AM   Subscribe

I have a co-worker who is very needy and seems to be struggling with basic aspects of her job. She needs a LOT of hand-holding, and the time I spend trying to help her is taking away from my ability to get my tasks done. I need to speak with my boss about this, but I am unsure how to do so without overstepping or sounding like someone who doesn't want to be a team player. Help me figure this out.

This co-worker doesn't report to me; we are peers and report to the same manager. Our manager is doing a combo of WFH and in office at the moment while co-worker and I are in the office daily. Manager is home today.

We have had monster snowstorms three weeks in a row where I live resulting in office closures. Since I was not set up to WFH, I fell extremely behind in my work (I process financial transactions daily). After our third consecutive week of snow closure this week, my manager got me set up with a work laptop so I can work from home in the event of further closures. In the meantime, I am getting caught up but am 2 days behind where I need to be, and it's Friday. I really need some solid time just to put on my headphones and get this data entry done.

Co-worker is a receptionist/admin. Co-worker came into this job not even knowing how to use Microsoft Word or Outlook, which was a bit shocking. When she checks her voicemail every morning she often has no idea how to respond to client requests, even though many of them are very simple, i.e. please update my email address, I didn't receive XYZ information on Wednesday and was expecting to, what happened, I ordered ABC product and it hasn't arrived yet.

All co-worker has to do in these situations is: find the client in the client list (it's in a centralized location and I've showed her where to find it several times) and update the email address. If client didn't receive XYZ, contact the department who was supposed to send it to them and find out what happened (we are a small non-profit with only four main departments) - is there a typo in their contact info? Did it get sent to spam? If there is a typo, call the client back to clarify the contact info. If we think it went to spam, call the client back and tell them to check their spam filter. If client ordered ABC product and it hasn't arrived yet, follow up with shipping to find out if the items have been sent out yet; sometimes client has ordered ABC only yesterday and it takes a few days for the order to be fulfilled, then contact the client and let them know.

I tell her this stuff verbally. Then she walks over to my desk (we are both masked) and goes through the list AGAIN, and I tell her the same stuff. In some cases, she clearly doesn't understand what I am saying even though 99% of these requests consist of "follow up with the client and make sure we have their contact info accurately" or "talk to the other people who work here who can help". Most of the time, it's clear that she is actively trying to avoid having to call people back for clarification. One client called because she had been waiting for XYZ info for two weeks and hadn't heard back. When I looked up his name in the client list, it did not match the info he gave co-worker - the last name was spelled differently than what he said on the VM, and was also spelled differently in the email address we had on record. I told co-worker that she needed to call this person back asap to get clarification on the actual spelling of his name and email address. She said she'd just look in our database, and I said our database is a mirror of the external client list, so if the spelling is wrong in one place it will be wrong in the other. She said she would email him for clarification - I said no, if his email address is wrong, he won't get the email, and this will drag on for longer, which is bad because the guy has been waiting for two weeks for XYZ. She sort of stared at me blankly and I told her, again, to please just call the guy. She went back to her desk and five minutes later asked me, "wait, when I call this guy what am I asking him for?"

I am at my wit's end. These are all just examples from this morning. She just walked over here AGAIN to clarify that she needed to call this client to confirm his email address. I do not understand WTF is going on or why she needs to be told information 4 or 5 times in order to do her job. This stuff should be common sense for people in admin roles, and her previous role was an admin in a gym for over 15 years, so client communication should not be this hard for her. I just wasted a whole hour going over this stuff with her, repeatedly, at the expense of getting my own work done. I am falling more behind by the minute. I need to focus on my accounting work. I think I just happen to be the unlucky sod who's desk is in the same room as hers so I'm having to deal with this; if someone else was in here with her they'd be the person dealing with this. At any rate, I cannot put up with this any longer. I started my career as an admin/receptionist before moving over the accounting, I did it for 3 years, in the hotel industry (so tons of client relations) and I caught on fairly quickly. I am gonna lose my shit if I can't get caught up today or have to stay in the office till 7 pm like I've done the past three work days.

I want to speak to our manager about this, because going through this every goddamn day with her is severely impacting my ability to get my work done. Co-worker has been hired on a temp-to-perm contract and I want my manager to be aware that she may not be the right fit for this position. At the very least, I want my manager to give me the go-ahead to tell co-worker that I cannot continue to help her do her job and she needs to reach out to other resources in the company without asking me the same question 7 times because I have my own shit to do.

But how do I do this diplomatically? I'm at BEC with co-worker at this point and I do not want to display any hostility. I also do not want to seem like someone who is not a team player and unwilling to help others when they need it. But this is way too much hand-holding, and it's not my goddamn job. If co-worker needs more training, it cannot come from me - I AM AN ACCOUNTANT.

Help help help before I completely blow my gasket. I have 200 financial transactions to get in before I leave today and I just lost half of my morning dealing with this.

I also have a supervisor who I interact with daily as he is one step above me in the finance division, though I do not technically "report" to him. He sees I am drowning in work and is kind and sympathetic. Since manager isn't here today, should I reach out to him to explain what is going on and why I'm having trouble catching up? Maybe he can help me talk to manager, or provide advice? I just don't think this can wait any longer. I do not think co-worker should be hired permanently. I do not want them to ask her to take on more responsibility because she's going to make things worse. I don't know why they haven't been checking in with her.

NB: I do not want to ask Alison Green at Ask a Manager this question as I feel the quality of her advice has gotten dramatically worse in the last few years, so please do not refer me to her. Thank you.
posted by nayantara to Work & Money (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Has anyone told you that you have to answer her questions? What if you just told her you were too busy to help and then ignored her for the rest of the day?
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:51 AM on February 19 [16 favorites]


I would just say you're too busy catching up to help her currently and if she needs help to ask her supervisor/manager. If your manager tells you to help her, then you should have a discussion about roles and responsibilities and her ineptitude.
posted by Young Kullervo at 8:54 AM on February 19 [17 favorites]


This is absolutely something you should take up with your manager. I am a manager, and I would want to know immediately if one of my folks was getting behind because of having to do as much hand-holding as your describing.

One way to approach it would be very pragmatically; something along the lines of:

I wanted to let you know that I'm starting to get behind in tasks X, Y, and Z - one thing that would really help me get back on track is if we can get some resources for Co-worker. I seem to be her go-to for pretty much everything, but I can't do both given deadline D.


This does a few things:

1. Expressly illustrates that your work is suffering
2. Plainly asks your manager to do something about it
3. Points to what will happen if nothing is done, namely, your work will continue to suffer.

It is 100% your manager's job to address this.
posted by jquinby at 8:57 AM on February 19 [60 favorites]


Nthing talk to your manager. I love jquinby's script. Also, as a stop-gap for today - just politely tell her you're too busy to assist. "So sorry, I'm swamped. Please do your best with the tools I've given you previously. If you need further assistance, check with [manager name]. They're a better resource than me."

It sounds (at least partially) like a confidence issue. Sometimes you gotta push the baby bird out of the nest to let them fly. She doesn't want to jump out because she has been able to rely on you. I used to be that person who would answer all the questions. One day, I just started saying 'I don't know' to a lot more questions, and IT. WAS. AMAZING. People will figure it out. And if they don't, it's really not on you. Play dumb, and let them do as they will.
posted by hydra77 at 9:23 AM on February 19 [11 favorites]


Tell your coworker "I'm sorry, you will need to ask [her manager] about that" to every single question she comes to you with from now until the end of eternity.

Tell your manager that your work is suffering.
Tell your manager your fact-based concerns about the coworker (lack of experience in Office suite, etc).
Tell your manager that coworker seems to lack the confidence to apply the knowledge you give her which results in her approaching you multiple times for the same basic questions.
Re-state that your work is suffering.

This is not your job to fix.
posted by phunniemee at 9:26 AM on February 19 [27 favorites]


As a manager, if this was occurring on my team I would want you to set your boundaries first by telling your coworker that you are unable to assist because you have to catch up on your own work and ask xyz instead, where xyz is probably your manager. If the coworker is still bothering you after you clearly set that boundary, or is not getting stuff done, then go to your manager with concerns, jquinby’s answers is perfect for that conversation. Team player means setting boundaries and in general, if an employee comes to me without having tried that, it looks more like tattling than trying to get a situation resolved.
posted by HMSSM at 9:29 AM on February 19 [7 favorites]


If you feel uneasy about approaching her manager, keep in mind that your co-worker is probably aware that she's struggling. While admitting her deficiencies might be embarrassing, it's the first step to improving and resolving what must be a stressful situation for her. You really are doing both you and your co-worker a favor by addressing the training issue directly.
posted by SPrintF at 9:38 AM on February 19


I have worked with this person and it is infuriating -- you have my sympathies. I agree with what everyone else has said -- set your boundaries with her, and let your manager know about the situation. If you have ideas about how she could be more successful, share them with your manager -- in my experience, managers like to hear solutions, not problems, and it may help mitigate some of your "not a team player concerns." Some thoughts along those lines -- would giving her a workflow/decision tree to follow help? Have her takes notes when she's asking someone for help? Repeat back what she'll do before she goes back to her desk? Though I do want emphasize it is absolutely not your job to solve this problem permanently -- it should be your manager who creates the workflow and works on the coping mechanisms with her.
posted by natabat at 9:56 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


For today: Put your headphones on, buckle down to try to get through your work, and if (when) she comes back over just lift your headphones off of one year, say "I'm sorry, I cannot help you any further today, I absolutely have to finish this," and then get back to it. And, uh, I guess her a friendly "eesh, work is busy, you know how it is!" kind of face?

I probably wouldn't bother going to your higher-up colleague for advice today, because he's unlikely to be able to do anything about this admin person today.
posted by desuetude at 10:17 AM on February 19 [4 favorites]


Nthing advice to bring it up with your manager, but if she's coming to you with the same basic types of tasks over and over, perhaps you or her manager or someone else in the office could write out some step-by-step instructions or checklists for her most frequent tasks.

I was laid off for 10 months for the pandemic because my employer wasn't set up for remote work when it started. When they brought me back they had a new job manual that some core senior employees had written while the business was mostly shut down and OH MY GOD has that helped so much. I almost never have to ask questions anymore because 99% of my tasks have written instructions now. Whereas before the pandemic, I was asking my supervisor and coworkers questions at least a dozen times a day.

Another thing they've implemented now that people are working remotely is a company chat room on WhatsApp. Now if anyone has basic n00b questions or problems, we can post them to the chat for anyone who is free to answer or if it's something complicated say "transfer the call to me."
posted by Jacqueline at 10:44 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


In a more immediate sense, now that you have a work laptop is it possible for you to work from home the rest of the day? It doesn’t resolve the ongoing problem but underscores the need to be heads down (and might be a good way to test out what sounds like a newish setup, too).
posted by sm1tten at 10:51 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


You're not alone!

relevant Ask A Manager post

And another one!

Actually, browsing the whole "coworkers" tag gives you a good framework for how to bring things up with management and coworkers effectively.
Basically:
1) Report to management which negative effects coworker's behaviour has on the company's bottom line (delaying your own work).
2) Get manager's okay to stop helping coworker / inform manager of how you will respond to coworker's asks in future.
3) Tell coworker - repeatedly - that you cannot help her anymore, as management has told you to prioritise your own delayed work, and she will need to talk to management about her questions.
4) Ignore fallout (dropped balls, complaining coworker).

You have taken on other people's problem and that didn't work out at all. Now you get to return it to the people to whom it belongs: The ball dropping coworker and the manager who should be dealing with her.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:00 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


Some people cannot follow audio instructions and will do better with written instructions. (I am one of these). However, you writing up documentation is not currently in your job description. Is it in someone else's? Is it a need management is aware of at all?

If you would like to do the documentation, you might ask your manager if your other work can be reduced enough to give you time to do it. If you don't want to do the documentation, then personally I wouldn't mention it; instead just mention the burden on you that these constant questions impose.
posted by nat at 11:07 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


For today, right now, while you're catching up on stuff that sounds like it is the whole business' priority: you tell her that you're sorry, but you have 6 hours of work to finish in the next 4 hours, and you can't help this afternoon. Close yourself off with as many non-verbal cues as possible--closing/locking the door if you have one, earphones, no eye contact. If/when she comes over, ask her to come back in 10 minutes because you're deep in the middle of something. Prioritizing the high-priority work for an afternoon is completely defensible and can be done professionally.

Longer-term, I'd also suggest written training documentation to the coworker and also to your boss. If you don't want to write it that's fine, but you can tell the boss "I think that Co-worker might need more detailed training materials than I can make right now, unless you want me to put off [other important thing]." Maybe the boss will make the documentation themselves, maybe the boss will agree with you that these processes are too obvious to need it and will see the level at which your co-worker is struggling.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:15 AM on February 19 [8 favorites]


The first thing I'll say is that whenever I've worked with someone with zero experience in things like Word and seemingly zero ability to follow directions, I wonder how that person got the job in the first place, and the answer is almost always that they have some relationship to a powerful person in the organization. Boss's son's new girlfriend, top employee's nephew, mistress of someone, etc. In general, I'm not a huge fan of ratting your colleagues out to your boss, but I'm especially reluctant to advise that in a situation where the person might have a powerful patron and you don't. That's a good way to get yourself on the wrong side in a game of office politics, which is not really something you want to do (especially at a new-ish job).

Do you have a regular 1-on-1 with either your reporting-to boss or your supervisor? If you've got an already-scheduled meeting, that's an OK time to bring this up, because you're not going out of your way to complain. Every 1-on-1 I've ever had starts with the boss person saying "so, how's it going?", and you can respond in such a way to prompt your boss to get the information out of you without actually volunteering it. "It's going OK, but I'm just really behind from the snow, and I'm having trouble catching up because of all the other demands on my time." This gives you the ability to play it by ear. If your boss is concerned about how much of your time is being wasted, you can tell them more and ask for help. But if they don't seem to care or act like they can't do anything about it, you'll know you don't have the leverage in the situation.

If you don't have a 1-on-1, I guess you'll have to bring it up on your own, but I think there's a way to do it without being a rat. Frame it as being concerned about your work. Try to let your boss be the one to bring up your co-worker, and let them decide how to handle it.

As inconvenient as having to deal with this person is for you, it would be infinitely more inconvenient for her if she were to get fired (or put on the path to being fired) as a result of you complaining about her. You obviously want to avoid getting yourself fired because you're so far behind, but it doesn't have to be a competitive situation. You can look out for each other.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:54 AM on February 19 [4 favorites]


No more conversations. Next time she walks over, tell her you're busy but that you would be happy to reply to an email when you get caught up, so she should email you and copy [manager], since [manager] might have some processes written up that you don't know about that would save everyone time and keep members happy.

Try to remember that it's not new person's fault that she was hired with no skills and has been given inadequate training. Your only job here is to facilitate reconnecting two people who should be working more closely together. Your manager will let you keep doing the heavy lifting until you redirect it back to her lap.
posted by headnsouth at 12:16 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]


Great and I just got chastised by my normally kind and sympathetic dotted line supervisor because we are so far behind. We have had FOUR SNOW DAYS/OFFICE CLOSURES plus ONE NATIONAL HOLIDAY in the month of February and they JUST got me set up for WFH YESTERDAY and in the meantime I've been staying late to get caught up every goddamn night I'm in the office and it's not my goddamn fault he's two weeks behind on his own work because he's waiting for me to finish my work, it's the fault that I lost FOUR GODDAMN DAYS and I have to field questions from this frikken idiot admin incessantly and they expect me to cover the phones if she's away from her desk and I AM A FUCKING ACCOUNTANT and this is intricate data entry and they're fucking lucky I'm only two days behind at this point. I don't see how they expect me to do financial work sitting in the fucking reception area with this woman.

I emailed my manager and politely explained the problem WITHOUT the above vitriol and she and I are going to have a chat Monday morning.

I feel like shit right now because I thought my dotted line supervisor liked me and it turns out he's mad at me for making him fall behind. MAYBE YOU ALL SHOULD HAVE GIVEN ME A LAPTOP BACK WHEN I STARTED IN DECEMBER

I feel like I am going to have a panic attack so I'm gonna go deal with that now. Thanks to everyone so far for your advice.
posted by nayantara at 1:16 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]


This is so not your fault. I am very sorry to read your update. Your dotted line manager is taking out their stress on you, you haven't done anything wrong and in fact have been picking up the slack for a co-worker that he should have observed does not have the skills/training/whatever for that position. Also, snow days happen and that's not your fault either!

I don't see how they expect me to do financial work sitting in the fucking reception area with this woman.

When I worked as front desk admin many moons ago, a situation arose where they needed me to do some simple accounts receivable/payable stuff, and my boss explicitly took me off the front desk and put me in a room by myself to give me the space and quiet I needed. By no means was it difficult accounting work, but she felt that it wasn't the kind of thing you could do when the phones were ringing and other people were demanding things of you. And she was right!

It's unreasonable to expect you to be able to do more than your share of work while you are in this situation.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:31 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


Next time the admin asks for your help tell her that dotted line supervisor would be happy to assist her with that issue 😈
posted by phunniemee at 1:47 PM on February 19 [10 favorites]


Deep breath. You are not your job.
These people are being ridiculous, yes.
You are doing amazing work.
They can make you work. They can't make you care.
They can't make you do more than you are actually capable of doing (in the timeframe you have, with the situation you are in).
You can't make yourself do more than you are capable of.
Disengage.
Do your job, at your pace, as best you can. Tell the idiot, should she come by, to go away, you have no time for her questions.
Everything else can be sorted out on Monday.

You are not getting paid to care. Do not give them more than they have paid for.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:52 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]


I'm also sorry to read your update. As others have suggested, your best option is probably to start deflecting all your coworker's questions to the manager.

Also, IME dotted-line reporting suuuuuuuucks. I once (as a low-level admin assistant) wound up with a big target on my back due to office politics relating to my manager's dotted-line. I don't want to say it's impossible to make that kind of work relationship work, but…
posted by Lexica at 2:06 PM on February 19


To clarify one thing: co-worker came to us from a temp agency on a temp-to-perm contract. She's not a nepotism hire. The agency failed to vet her in any meaningful way and I guess she didn't actually interview with anyone here before her first day.

This is why I want to raise concerns now. If she isn't the right fit, she should not be converted to a permanent employee.

Dotted line supervisor apologized. Apparently he's dealing with some political stuff higher up the management chain and is stressed AF.

I am looking forward to my chat with my manager on Monday.
posted by nayantara at 2:22 PM on February 19 [8 favorites]


One thing to keep in mind is that this does not mean your dotted line manager does not like you, or that he is actually mad at you. He is frustrated but try not to take that personally. (I see your update that he apologized.)

It sounds like this job is newish. How long have you been in accounting? Is it possible that your manager is reading your previous experience as an admin as meaning you could be kind of a backup and also a learning resource to this person? Those are things I think you want to clarify in that meeting on Monday.
posted by sm1tten at 2:25 PM on February 19


One more and I'll stop threadsitting:

I have been working in accounting for my entire career. This is a new position for the company, previously there was one woman who did my role + receptionist. It did not go well. They had to fire her. They created my role specifically to handle financial transactions only and looked specifically for a person with an accounting background. They actually interviewed me nearly a year ago and were about to make me an offer right when our state went on COVID lockdown in March and had to institute a hiring freeze. They came back to me last November saying things had picked up and am I still interested in the job. So here I am.

They hired the admin temp after they hired me, as I said, through a temp agency who clearly did not vet her well.
posted by nayantara at 2:54 PM on February 19


Yikes. If you want some circumspect phrasing, Receptionist has needed a lot of Support/ Coaching/ Training, and I'm the only one here for her to ask. This has been requiring X hours/day, so it's cutting in to my time. I don't blame you for feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. If a new employee needs to be trained, someone should be assigned that task. I once temped for a year or so, and I understand that's it hard to come in cold and have limited support, but I think your temp needs more active supervision, form someone with more time.
posted by theora55 at 2:57 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]


It sounds to me like you're handling this pretty well, all things considered. I'm glad you are going to talk to your manager on Monday.

The only practical suggestion I have, in addition to the great advice above, is to tell your manager you want to work from home for the majority of next week now that you are set up to do so. That will let you get caught up while forcing your supervisor, manager, and colleague to deal with each other.
posted by rpfields at 7:29 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


In your meeting with your manager, I would provide a couple of very specific examples - the one you gave about not understanding why two databases that are copies of each would contain the same date and why one can't send an email about an incorrect email suggest that this for more than just a training problem. Just saying she needs more support or more training does not convey the nature the problem as well as a few examples of what exactly has been going on.
posted by metahawk at 8:03 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


I spoke with my manager on Monday, diplomatically, providing several examples of recurring issues with the admin's ability to handle basic aspects of her job and also explaining how much of my time she's taking up bothering me with these questions. My boss was very apologetic that I've had to deal with this. Some of the problem is that not everyone is back in the office full time though that was expected by February 1 (bc of people's personal circumstances i.e. childcare, living with a high risk person etc) so many of the people admin should be talking to about these issues aren't around (though they are working from home) and admin isn't comfortable with those people yet. But, manager said that's not an excuse for admin haranguing me, and also not an excuse for not being able to handle basic Admin 101 tasks. She indicated that admin has been working customer service for 20 years prior to coming here and it's surprising that she doesn't know how to field voice mails. Manager is also disappointed that we ended up with someone who doesn't know MS Office Suite bc that apparently has been causing problems with other aspects of her duties here. Basically the temp agency failed completely at vetting her, or admin fudged her knowledge when she signed up with the agency.

Manager said she'd talk with admin and tell her to leave me alone so I can do my work. She also said that she and the Exec Assistant to the CEO will start giving her additional admin tasks and hopefully admin will develop more confidence and be able to make decisions on her own before bugging me.

I do not know when or if this conversation took place, or how strongly my manager emphasized to admin that she should not bother me. I did see Exec Assistant working with her the last two days on things like supply inventory and orders and other such tasks.

However, admin has not stopped asking me about EVERYTHING. Manager told me that when she does this to tell her if she doesn't know what to do, refer her to manager and explain that I need to focus on my work. I have done so but nothing has changed.

This morning admin came to work and checked her messages. She received a message from a donor who was asking a question, but she didn't understand what he was asking (maybe his cell phone was having reception issues or he was too vague). She asked me what to do. I hadn't put my headphones on yet. I told her to ask manager what to do. She reiterated that she didn't understand the voicemail. I said please ask manager. She told me again she didn't understand the voicemail. I said look, maybe you should call the donor back and ask for clarification. Then I put my headphones on.

Turns out admin did not contact manager or call the donor back, she just forwarded the voicemail to someone else in the office. This person is now very confused and sent and email to his colleague, me, my dotted line supervisor asking what this is about. I replied all and said I thought admin had spoken to the donor before forwarding the call. I added manager to the email chain when I replied.

I do not know what else I can do at this point aside from coming in the door at the morning with my headphones already on so she can't bother me before I start my work. It's only been 2 days since I raised complaints with my manager. I don't want to be a nag. But this is fucking ridiculous. Is there anything else I can do?
posted by nayantara at 9:20 AM on February 24


Oh, I was hoping for an update!

You are doing great. This is an extinction burst. She will push it and push it and push it to force you to give a different answer. Never give in. Don't even make suggestions ("call a donor"), even that's too rewarding. Just repeat: Ask the manager. Yes, ask the manager. I need you to stop asking me now. Talk to the manager. *headphones on, lalala can't hear you*.

If you get confused emails, reply all that coworker was instructed to ask the manager and you cannot explain why she roped other people into it. CC Manager.

It's only been two days. Give it a week or two. A week or two in which you can stonewall any stupid question she has and wash your hands of the consequences. In which you can let your manager and coworkers suffer the consequences and finally grasp the scope of the problem. In which every one of her questions gets her one step closer to being fired.

She will start making stupid mistakes rather than asking the manager. Mistakes that can cost the company time, or money, or anger the donors.

This is not your problem anymore.

You need to let her AND the company feel the consequences of her dumbness.

Stop being mad at her for asking - which is another way of saying "stop feeling responsible". Get past that extinction burst. This will end.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:34 AM on February 24 [9 favorites]


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