my coworker refuses to answer questions I need to do my job

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A reader writes:

Yesterday, a colleague of mine refused to show me how to perform a task or even to allow me to observe her performing the task. She actually said, “I can’t show you this because I don’t know if you are supposed to have user-permissions to perform this task and I could get in trouble.” It’s a simple task of maintaining a library of inventory that is checked in and out regularly by my department. This task is directly related to my responsibilities. The company recently reassigned this particular task from her to me because it made better sense for my department to manage it. She is the only person who was ever trained and involved in this.

This is a very on-point illustration of most of our interactions since I began with this company. She refuses to part with information that might help me. She has responded to my queries for assistance in the following ways:

“Call someone in the Australian office for help” (we are in Canada)
“I don’t know how to do that” (even though she was previously doing it)
“I don’t know who you should ask for help with that” (others will point me back to her for help)
“I don’t remember who showed me how to do that”
“I can’t show you that or I will get in trouble”

Although we have had many interactions like this one, yesterday was the first time her manager witnessed it. His response? He said, “What’s the big deal? Why don’t you show her…you won’t get into trouble! And if you do, I will take the heat for you.” She then begrudgingly showed me.

Afterward, I went to speak to my manager about it and HER manager was already in there talking about it. So, I joined their conversation and expressed my confusion and frustration. They were empathic and suggested that next week we all go for lunch to clear the air. After ruminating on the situation, I feel pissed off that her manager didn’t discuss this with HER but chose to approach my manager about it. I also feel that a lunch date will not solve this issue.

This company is one of the most laid-back, culturally responsible, value-conscious places I have ever worked. I know empirically that she would never get in trouble for being innovative and helping to accomplish a task. She is in a completely different department, with a vastly different role. We have zero need to collaborate, except for the occasional question or two.

My question is threefold. How should I stand up for myself but also remain professional? What angle of approach would you recommend for dealing with this particular incident? What angle of approach would you recommend for dealing with future interactions with her?

They want you to go to lunch together to “clear the air”? That’s ridiculous. Her manager simply needs to do his job and direct her to stop being obstructionist with you. End of story.

If I were you, I’d say that a group lunch will make this into a bigger matter than it needs to be and you’d prefer it if her manager would simply explain to her that she should help you when asked. And that if you’re not actually supposed to be asking for her help with these things, someone should tell you that so that you stop.

Aside from that, if you want to, you could try having a one-time, big-picture conversation with her about what’s going on. Say something like this:  “Jane, when I’ve occasionally needed to ask for your help with something, I’ve gotten the sense that you don’t appreciate being asked. You’ve told me that you aren’t allowed to show me things that you are allowed to show me and that you don’t know how to do things that you’ve done yourself. I need to be able to rely on your assistance to get my job done, and I’m wondering if there’s something going on that I don’t know about.”

But after that, if the problem continues, stop engaging. At that point, each and every time it happens, go to your manager and say, “I need Jane to show me X and she’s refusing.” Or, if it’s appropriate in your particular office, you could go directly to Jane’s manager with this instead. Ultimately, they need to deal with Jane as the problem she is; it’s not a problem you can solve yourself.

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. LA

    Thanks so much for addressing my question…great insight and will help me deal with this issue in a confident way! Much appreciated!

  2. Andy Lester

    I smell a lot of backstory. I’m guessing that Jane has some sort of personal grudge against LA. I can imagine any number of scenarios. LA hasn’t told us any backstory, so I don’t know. Maybe LA doesn’t know herself.

    I’m guessing the “group lunch to clear the air” is their way of forcing Jane to help LA, but that feels wrong. They don’t need to have Jane & LA get along. They need to Jane to get along with LA, which Jane is not doing. This problem is, so far as LA has described, is entirely one-sided. It’s also an embarrassing correction for Jane to be trotted out and told to play nice.

    I’d go so far as to say that if I were in LA’s position, I would say to my boss “I’d really rather not have this a bigger production than it already is. I have no problem with Jane, and I’d just like to have Jane get over her problems with me. I’m doubtful that going to a group lunch is going to address that.”

    Allison’s core advice is dead-on, though: Let management deal with this. It’s not your job.

    1. Chinook

      Or, like the woman in my office did this, she feels that being the sole holder of knowledge means they can’t fire her and she gets to control what is going on. Problem is, she eventually crossed the line and outright bullied me in front of partners and, 2 months later, her retirement after 40 years was announced with ONE week’s notice. Her final act was to not give any information to any of the other admin assistant before leaving and, since her department was used to her knowing/doing everything, leaving us to scramble to do her work on top of our own with no training and, in my case, no experience in the field to even guess what questions I should be asking.

      When asked to train me over the previous year, she would take what ever I needed to be done, fly through the computer screens too fast for me to ask what button she hit and then roll her eyes when I asked for details and move on to someone else.

      1. Artemesia

        I once took over an operation with a key player who controlled this kind of information. He had taken initiative in developing their data management plan back in the dark ages when computers were newish and had schooled everyone to believe that it was very difficult and very complicated and so only he could do it.

        I tried various methods of getting his direct supervisor trained and the office cross trained, but he then tried to foment rebellion among other players, telling them that they were being asked to do things far beyond their level. He actually with a straight face told me that it was unreasonable for me to expect the secretaries to do ‘boolean algebra’ to which I replied ‘you mean ‘and’ and ‘or’.

        The only fix that worked was to fire him. We put in a new system; everyone found it easy to use and things ran smoothly from then on.

  3. Anonymous

    Something tells me that she’s upset that the job that was all hers is being taken away and given to someone else who hasn’t been there as long as her. I’m not condoning her behavior, but hear me out: When someone’s set to do a certain task that’s necessary and nobody else does it, most people will want to do it by themselves. Mostly it’s for them to feel valued and self-important on the job. When someone else comes along and starts to do parts of their job that was originally just for them, a few people might get jealous and they start questioning their sense of worth in the company and they might get possessive.

    It’s normal to feel a little bit jealous when someone takes away the work they did for a while. I’ve had that happen to me when I interned this past summer. They hired a new person to do the exact job I did the summer before and I did feel a little jealousy because I wanted to feel valued and worthwhile, but I got over it very quickly as I moved onto other tasks and realized that it was a necessary change. But it sounds like she’s taking it too far and is being not only possessive, but selfish and hindering the flow of the workplace. She shouldn’t be taking it out on you, you’re doing your job and she has to do hers. Duties and responibilites change over time and she’s stuck in the past. That’s fine that she can be a little jealous and upset, but when she’s making a concerted effort to prevent teaching you parts of the job that only she knows is taking it way too far into the petty realm.

    1. Nodumbunny

      Yeah, but unless Unhelpful Woman is being left with no job responsibilities at all, and thus has a legitimate fear she’s being eased out of a job, she needs to act like a grownup and get over it.

      1. Anonymous

        That’s what I said. She’s taking it way too far and she has to grow up and be mature about it, if she wants to keep her job.

        1. Job Seeker

          I also think the OP here should watch her back. Sometimes when things like this happen and no-one in authority handles it, you need to watch your back.

          1. Marie

            “….you need to watch your back.” Couldn’t agree more. Depending on what type of person Jane is and what the dynamics are in OP’s workplace, I really hope OP has management that will deal with this clearly and effectively by telling Jane that she needs to comply, otherwise what now seems like a relatively minor problem could get unnecessarily ugly.

            The “laidback” environment coupled with the “clear the air” lunch gives me PTSD. I had a manager who was utterly conflict-avoidant and who subscribed to the “we-all-need-to-be-friends-at-all-costs-so-let’s-make-nice” style of management. Drove me crazy that he wouldn’t just buck up and directly tell the Noncompliant Employee what needed to done. As you can imagine, the mismanagement (or really, the nonexistent management!) resulted not only in all kinds of communication issues, but also some shockingly underhanded and manipulative bullying (from one co-worker to several peers). Manager tried to address it with the warm and fuzzy approach. It was awful!!

            I wholeheartedly agree that your manager/s should be handling this; I just hope that they aren’t spineless!! And whatever you do, just say no to the lunch!! That’s nuts!

            1. Job Seeker

              Exactly, there is an old saying if someone tells you who they are or what they are about, Believe them. The actions that is person is doing is a red flag. I would think most managers would handle this. I believe the OP should definitely watch her back. She is the new person.

            2. Vicki

              I was in a dept meeting once and the dept head was doing her regular “We all need to Agree and Get Along and be Happy!” speech. When she finished, our IT guy turned his chair toward her, looked her in the eyes and said “We’re not going to ‘All Get Along’. What we _need_ to do is to make a decision and stick to it.”

              1. Chelle

                That’s very rude and unprofessional though. Yea, not everyone is going to like each other but everyone should get along if not for the sanity of the work place.

                The IT was just desplayed that hes working against that and he’s not respecting his superior.

                1. Long Time Admin

                  That supervisor deserves to be disrespected. I’ll bet decisions have been postponed for years, and things are approaching critical mass. (That’s what’s happening right now in my company.)

                  If this IT guy got someone in charge to make a decision, then he’s a hero!

                2. Chelle

                  Except there’s no edvince of decisions being postponed – in fact, there’s the opposite since the speech was about “needing to agree.”

                  Regardless, I fail to see how someone disrespecting their boss in front of the entire staff is getting someone to take charge and make a decision. Particularly when the boss just infered that they need to get over petty stuff in order to get stuff done.

                  The IT guy just proved her right, not showed her up. I’d be pulling him for a discussion on that kind of nonproductive/helpful comment stat.

                3. Kelly O

                  I have to disagree with you, Chelle.

                  I am so very, very tired of the “okay everyone, let’s all get along and be happy” cheerleaders. How about you just make a decision, inform everyone of that decision, and stick to it?

                  I wish I’d had the nerve to say that in a recent meeting here. Communication is way more important than an ice cream social or making sure poor Jane’s feelings aren’t hurt because she saw Sue and Anne talking, and just KNEW they were talking about her. How about you tell me when Big Projects are coming up? Or when you change procedures? Or one of you upper management types makes a decision and you all actually agree on that, and then tell everyone involved in the process?

                  You know, rather than letting people figure out things because the procedure changed, no one told you, and you kept doing it the same way you’d been doing it… because THAT makes for happy workplaces. Lemme tell you.

                4. Chelle

                  Which is fine and dandy and can be handled face-to-face – not in a group meeting in attempt to undermine your boss.

                  I’m just saying – I see no need to praise unprofessional behavior, even if it is in response to unprofessional behavior.

                5. Ask a Manager Post author

                  It depends on how it was said, but there are contexts where that wouldn’t be unprofessional to say. If you’re having a group discussion and the manager is advocating handling things one way, it’s reasonable to say that you think something else would be a better way. Assuming you work in an office where things are discussed and you’re allowed to give input. I’ve certainly said things like that to managers at meetings before. And I value people saying it to me now.

                  You don’t say it in a hostile way, of course, but it’s reasonable to point out.

                6. Chelle

                  Certainly, but I disagree that this situtation present fits into the apporiate way of handling it.

                7. Ask a Manager Post author

                  I suspect we’re each brining our own experiences to this. You’ve probably seen people do things like this badly and are reading it through that lens, and I’ve seen people do things like this well (and have done it myself), so am reading it it through that lens. I could definitely picture the scenario Vicki described going either way, depending on the context of the meeting, the history with this manager, and the tone it was said in. (This is another time when I wish I could post a sound file — I would record myself saying it in the nicest tone ever.)

                8. Chelle

                  Maybe. I just feel in the situation above, the manager is attempting to steer the group to focusing more on decisions rather than issues. I didn’t infer the whole “get along!” as everyone needs to be best friends – but as “we need to agree to decisions and tolerate each other.”

                  And the response of “we’re not going to get along, we just need to make a decision” doesn’t feel apporiate to me. It feels snappy and non helpful.

                  A response of “you’re right, now how would you like us to handle making this decision” is more to your point than “well that’s sweet and all but pointless. Can you do your job now?”

                  Then again, lenses and all. The comment above just sounded snotty and rude to me and I wouldn’t want to model anything I say on that or praise it. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t say something similar to what you’re suggesting though AAM.

                9. Chelle

                  I think there’s a slight confusion – I have no issue with people discussing or even directing comments to their boss in front of the team. I’m not trying to imply people should just sit there as the boss lectures.

                  I’m saying, in this situation alone, that the IT guy came off as rude and frankly kind of childish.

  4. Joey

    I think any engagement with an information hoarder like her is a waste of time, especially because her manager sounds like a wimp. But I’m curious arent there other ways to get what you need. I can’t imagine if she were to disappear you’d be forever unable to learn the tasks or get the info you need. I’m just saying sometimes its more effective and efficient to go around an obstructionist instead of through them.

    1. Anonymous

      Agreed – pretend that there is no one to train you and try to process as much information as possible on your own. Build your own network of helpers, read documentation, make it your own.
      Also, if the person providing the training has other duties, it is distracting and annoying to be constantly interrupted. Schedule training/Q&A sessions and plan an agenda for each, including the questions you asked previously and did not get satisfactory answers. Make both managers optional attendees.
      During the training session, TAKE NOTES and send follow-up emails if you need clarification.

      1. AMG

        This worked well for me. I still don’t have everything, but I am slowly acquiring the info. It makes a huge impact. Hang in there. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

  5. Tax Nerd

    I’ve experienced similar situations, but nothing as egregious as this. (The first time, it was due to the “forced ranking” system – people at my level didn’t want to help because it might affect how we were ranked later on. So I learned to ask people below me or above me, even if they weren’t normally the best ones to ask.)

    This sounds like someone who has decided that being the only person who knows something is the path to job security/ feeling valued. When someone gets like this, you need to go to their manager (either directly or through your manager) because they realize that managerial attention for being obstructionist outweights any positive regard for being the only person who knows something.

  6. Idea

    “I can’t show you this because I don’t know if you are supposed to have user-permissions to perform this task and I could get in trouble.”

    This is when you go to her manager and say “I need XX from [colleague] but she isn’t sure if she’s allowed to show/give it to me. Can you email her to let her know I can be involved, and CC me please? I need to complete this task ASAP.”

    That way, every one has a record of the conversation to refer back to if and when it ever comes up again.

    Maybe even suggest your own manager is copied in on the email. And don’t forget to let your manager know what is going on to, so that they can step in as needed.

    1. Laurie

      +1.

      OP should do this as super-sweetly as possible too. If Jane comes up with one of her excuses, empathize with her sweetly, “Yeah, I know right, these legal issues are so hard to guess at! Give me a quick sec, I’ll talk to your manager and we can get the necessary permissions. Thanks for letting me know!”

      THEN go to her manager and follow instructions as laid out above.

      Next time there’s another thing you need, email her manager, your manager and cc Jane, and say you need help with this and if the manager sees any potential legal issues with this. If Jane wants to use another excuse, then she’ll have to respond to that email and say, “I don’t know how to do this, or Australia office can help you better or whatever”. If not, after 4-5 times of this, she’ll get the message and start complying.

      1. Nic

        I also agree with this approach. The nice thing about this approach is that it isn’t directly rude to Jane, but leaves a very clear, written record of the fact that Jane was unhelpful.

        I would admit that this is a slightly passive aggressive way of handling the situation though. However, this may be the best way to handle it based on how the managers have already handled the issue (or NOT handled it….)

    2. KellyK

      I definitely agree with this approach. While it sounds like this particular coworker is being deliberately obstructionist, it works just as well when it’s a sincere and legitimate concern. And it means that you don’t have to try to parse out which one it is.

    3. Joey

      This approach sounds good in theory but rarely works when the manager is a wimp like the ops. All you end up doing is getting really frustrated going to her manager each and everytime you have a different request. And you’re going to grate on the managers nerves by constantly bombarding her with repeated requests do basically do her job.

  7. Wilton Businessman

    Sounds like a case of “If I show somebody else how to do this, they won’t need me” syndrome. Too much drama for you, get your management to work it out.

  8. Kelly O

    I agree with the above comments that killing Unhelpful Person with kindness might be the way to resolve this one. She can’t complain that you’re being difficult to work with if you frame it as trying to alleviate her concerns and resolve this so you can both work more efficiently.

    I will add that I really, really dislike this whole “why don’t you go to lunch?” or “you need to like each other” approach. Lunch is not going to help. Lunch will be awkward and weird. You don’t even have to like each other to interact professionally, and without the appearance of a cat fight.

  9. Another Jamie

    People who refuse to share on-the-job knowledge are one of my biggest pet peeves. Especially since they most likely learned how to do whatever it is on the job.

    Anyone who thinks they need exclusive knowledge to be valuable isn’t valuable. At my company, people who start doing this don’t tend to last long. You mostly likely didn’t come into the company with that training. Your value is your ability to learn, adapt, create, solve, and improve.

    I have the opposite problem at my job. No one wants to learn what I know, even though it’s valuable information and all of the people that trained me on it are gone. I’ve documented the hell out of it, so if I was hit by a bus they’d be able to find it all. They’d still rather just ask me the few times they need the info rather than look it up or learn it on their own. Which is fine with me. I am a lot more fun to interact with than a wiki page. :)

  10. Malissa

    The only reason I can come up with for the lunch thing is because that would be on neutral ground. There are times when that is exactly what is needed. This doesn’t sound like one of those. This sounds like a situation where everything needs to be documented by email. As in Jane, I need you to show me how to do X so I can do Y. Can we do this Wednesday at 2?
    The need is covered as well as a reason and a definite time has been suggested. Giving Jane very little wiggle room in the process.

  11. Stacie

    From now on, I would put all informational requests to her in email, and CC her manager and even your manager if need be. Be polite and professional and use the guise of keeping everyone in the loop. If she replies with an excuse to just you, reply to her and the managers. The requests don’t seem to be often enough to be obnoxious to the managers.

    At the very least, this will create a trail of how unhelpful she is.

  12. Another Job Seeker

    Jane’s behavior is childish and irresponsible. She may have valid concerns about the security of her position, but I do not think she is handling them properly. OP, I think the suggestions that others have posted are excellent – I’d try them if I were in a similar position. Also, if the things you would like for Jane to show you to do are not proprietary, you might be able to teach yourself how to do them. Check out Google, YouTube, a website called lynda dot com, and Khan Academy. If you are using an off-the-shelf product, you might wish to see whether your vendor has a network of customers who work on the system you are using. I have learned quite a bit from users at other companies who use the same product we use here.

    If your projects are associated with proprietary applications and/or content and working with Jane is your only option, I hope that some of the suggestions provided by other posters can help you.

  13. The Other Dawn

    By saying they should all go to lunch to clear the air, the managers are basically saying it’s just a case of two people who don’t like each other and going to lunch together will make them become friends. Stupid. I agree with Alison’s advice. This needs to be taken to OP’s manager if she continues to encounter obstacles.

  14. Melissa

    This “let’s go to lunch” thing just smacks of treating employees like kids. I would personally feel as if I had done something wrong, to be forced to give up my own personal lunch time and then forced to discuss getting along, like I’m in the principal’s office with another student.

    Something similar recently happened to me, when another employee completely misjudged me and started seeing everything I said and did with these misconceptions in mind. The employee blew up at me, and when I spoke to management about it, there was a lot of emphasis on ‘making nice’. No, I don’t want to make nice. I want to do my job.

  15. Jackie

    I was in a similar situation. My coworker accused me of harassment because I asked questions about the changes she made to the computer program which affected my work. Management did nothing to correct the situation so I left.

  16. Grey

    If she’s resistant, I’d bet she feels insulted. She apparently knows this task better than anyone else in the office, yet she’s being relieved of the duty. On top of that, she has to help train someone else to do it.

    I’ve been in that situation. If I’m good enough to train my replacement, why aren’t I good enough to keep the job? It’s demoralizing.

    If there’s no other way to get the info you need, try to be a bit sympathetic or maybe even feed her ego when you ask for her help.

    1. Grey

      By the way… My apologies to AAM if my email notifications keep getting bounced back to you. I accidentally entered the wrong email address. I tried to fix it in “manage your subscriptions”, but I’d have to access the non-existent account to confirm the change.

  17. Jennifer S.

    I’m having the same problem at work, my colleague refuses to train me, refuses to listen to me, is close minded and insults me, gives me dirty looks and yells at me. complains about my work to my manager and isn’t a team player. She finds enjoyment in seeing me fail. I’ve had no professional training on the payroll software I’m using and she leaves important things out when she does train. I’ve spoken to my manager, I’ve spoken to the VP of HR, The Senior VP of HR and nothing is being done about it. I lost my cool and told her to grow up. She has done this to every person who has sat in my chair before me.

    I have no idea where to go for help now, I have no allies. Any help?

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