my coworker keeps sending junior staff to relay messages for her

A reader writes:

I have a coworker, Jane, who outranks me but who I do not report to. She has been in our organization for 30 years, and I am an admin who has only been here for one year but has been in the workforce for five years. The prior director, who was also here for 30 years, just got replaced and things are certainly changing; it may just be a breaking old habits sort of thing.

My problem with Jane is that she frequently sends her junior staff to ask me questions for her, often things that don’t have anything to do with the messenger. This habit is very inefficient and drives me nuts, as it takes longer to get the task done or communicate through a third party. For example, I received an email from one of her staff, Sarah, regarding a professional organization that I just process invoices for – not make any decisions about:

“As a side note – Jane wanted me to ask you what level of membership you signed me up for? She just wants to know if I’ll be covered during the same year/time frame as everyone else. Do you know what the membership term is? I’m sorry for how vague this all is.”

I also get office supply orders from Sarah saying what Jane wants. Sarah is not Jane’s assistant or in an administrative capacity. The above example isn’t the greatest because it actually relates to Sarah but is Jane’s question. I often get messages from Sarah that have nothing to do with Sarah from Jane. It happens with other staff members relaying the messages as well for. Another example … a message from Erin: “Jane wants me to tell you John wants XX flavor cake for his retirement party and XX gift.”

It is uncomfortable for me and the lower level staff member to be communicating about what Jane wants, since questions often come up that Sarah can’t answer. It also just bothers me on a deeper level, but all these games of telephone just happen too often to not address.

Do you have any tools or language that would help address this? And yes we all have email and phones.

I can see why this is annoying, but … you probably need to put up with it. Jane is senior to you and it’s her prerogative to manage her staff in the way that she deems most effective/efficient for her team as a whole. It genuinely might be saving Jane significant time to be able to pass messages through others. I get that it’s not saving you or them time, and that it’s introducing inefficiencies for you, but as long as Jane is senior to you, in most offices it would be her prerogative to do it this way.

There are probably some cases where it would be reasonable for you to say, “That’s actually a longer conversation that will require some back and forth, so I’ll reach out to Jane directly about it.” And then you’d email Jane and say something like, “Sarah told me you asked her to relay X to me. In order to take care of that, I’d need to know Y and Z.”

But stuff like “Jane wants me to tell you John wants lemon cake for his retirement party and a rice sculpture of Richard Nixon as a gift” doesn’t sound like it requires much back and forth, and rather is just about getting a message delivered.

I suspect you’re balking at this at least in part because it feels like Jane is signaling that her time is worth more than yours or her staff members’, but … well, that might actually be true, in the sense that she’s senior and presumably paid more and is expected to be focusing in other areas. When you take that personally, it can sting — but it’s really not personal.

Of course, Jane’s staff might have a legitimate issue with being used as her assistants so often if they’re not in fact her assistants, but that’s really up to them to handle if so.

As long as you’re getting information in a form that you can act on, there’s not really much here to push back on. And when it’s not in that form, then you just say that and either contact Jane yourself or ask her messenger to relay that.

{ 104 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. AnotherAlison

    Seems like the problem is that the junior staffers reporting to Jane don’t feel comfortable asking for things from the OP without invoking Jane’s authority. Any of the examples could have been asked without mentioning Jane:

    – Can you verify what membership level am I signed up for?
    – Our department needs X supplies?
    – I wanted to let you know that John wants chocolate cake for the retirement party that you’re handling.

    OP, would you accept these requests more readily if Jane’s name wasn’t used? If you would, you could just tell them that. If they’re too junior and you don’t feel they have the authority to make those requests, than it sounds like the current communication style is best.

    Reply
    1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

      I wondered about this as well. I had to break this habit at my current job :)

      At a former job, it’s was pretty hierarchical and your title determined the length of time that it would take to get an answer. Even as a senior manager if I needed things with any sense of urgency, I had to preface it with, “CEO asked me to message you about…” or cc’ing my VP boss.

      Reply
      1. OP

        Yes we were previously very hierarchical, but now have New Director in Charge and things are changing, which is very very good.

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        1. Zillah

          If your organization was very hierarchical until quite recently, that may be why they’re mentioning Jane’s name – and it may lessen as time goes on.

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          1. TootsNYC

            You may also need to encourage them to simply ask on their own–and of course you’ll need to respond to them promptly in order to reward that.

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        2. Stranger than fiction

          No real advice Op but I can totally relate. There’s one exec here who regularly assigns me tasks through other managers instead of directly with me and it drives me batty. The “middle man” will come to me and say “Big boss lady wants a chart with this” and immediately I have questions such as “line chart or column? By salesperson or? When does she need it by” to which middle man goes ” I’ll ask and get back to you” it’s such a waste of time!! But sadly just the way it is with this person at the top.

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          1. Tacocat

            ugh, I feel like I wrote this comment! Same exact thing happens to me! I wonder if part of the problem is that neither middle man nor boss lady have expertise/knowledge in the thing they are requesting. In contrast, I am the data expert and am adept at asking the right questions to understand their needs and come up with a solution. Using the middle man means that I can’t use my process because they don’t understand the problem that they are asking me to resolve. ugh!

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        3. MK

          OP, I don’t have anything to add about your question, but re:the above comment, here are some things for you to consider:

          You may think that changing the hierarchical structure of the company is very, very good, but not everyone is going to agree; and, in fact, they may be the ones who are right. There are fields/projects/organizations where a strict hierarchy is the more efficient way to run things and even the new director might come to see this and modify any plans they have for changes. Ulternatively, the new director might not be able to implement their plans if they face opposition from their own superiors. And even if the changes are for the better and are going ahead as scheduled, they not going to happen overnight, especially in an organization that has employees who have been there for 30 years. Such a change in culture will take time; it’s even possible that the director won’t think it worth the hassle to change the way oldtimers like Jane operate and accomodate them till they retire.

          The reason I bring this up is because I get a vibe from your letter, as in you think that now change is happening, it’s time to overhaul the way the organization works, and much of your frustration comes from not seeing immediate change. It might be a good idea to modify your expectations, both about what the changes are going to look like and how soon they are coming.

          Reply
      2. Another Lawyer

        Yep! I’ve worked in offices where I couldn’t get anything without cc’ing a senior partner. “Fergus would like you to go to the basement in the other office to retrieve this file”

        Reply
    2. Prismatic Professional

      This.

      What is happening now reminds me of when I was younger. My parents told me that I was free to invoke their authority to say no to invitations/suggestions that I didn’t want to accept. Parents saying no was reasonable and expected, but in my community, a child saying no was not taken seriously.

      I’m not saying this is what is actually going on, but it just reminded me. :-) If you would accept the requests as Another Alison said, you could just tell the junior coworkers. When I was new, I was not sure where the boundaries were speaking with other departments.

      Reply
        1. Observer

          I think it’s something most smart parents do. It’s not just because people don’t take a kid seriously. It changes the social dynamic considerably. And, I can see it changing the workplace dynamic considerably, as well.

          Most people who “borrow” authority usually have a reason for it.

          Reply
    3. JB (not in Houston)

      Yes, now that you mention it, I agree. Although the membership example–it sounds like Sarah wasn’t the person who wanted to know and wasn’t sure exactly what information Jane wanted her to get from the OP. I have definitely had that happen to me, where my boss wants me to ask someone for information that relates to me, but I don’t personally need to know the information or know what exact details my boss wants. But in that situation, Alison’s advice is useful–the OP could ask Jane herself.

      Reply
    4. OP

      That’s a really excellent point, I think to me it’s that there’s something juvenile to me about “Jane wants to know…” it reminds me of asking in middle school about crushes for some reason. I do think it would be less irritating if Jane was left out of it completely. It’s something that only bothers me in the moment, “lightly stew” on for 10 minutes and move on to the next thing.

      Looking back I think the cake thing bothered me for a different reason, it was two months in advance of the party that this person was dictating the rules, and was trying to get a cake that isn’t offered by the catering we need to use (university) so I would have to run around Major City to find exact cake he wanted. My boss wants me to give him the options that are available, when I need to order, which is later this month…life of an admin! I also think a bigger issue with that is that something simple like cake choices is relayed through 3 people…John to Jane to Erin. When John could let me know since I order.

      Thank you! Looking forward to more suggestions!

      Reply
      1. LQ

        But John might not know you are the person to go to. Or John might have brought it up in another context and Jane wanted to take care of it rather than having him request his own party things (because that can seem weird, I’d feel a little strange going “Get me a cake and gold watch as a present!” to anyone). And it is perfectly reasonable for Jane to have Erin reach out to you. Especially if Erin has the context you need. I can say at a weekly meeting “can you let OP know John needs a cake and gold watch” and then Erin gets the details and nicely phrases the email with all the right pleasantries and context. “Since John’s retirement is coming up on X date and whatever words go here, cake and gold watch.” (Even if you would be ok with “John needs a cake and gold watch” as the whole email Jane might not be.)

        Reply
        1. OP

          This scenario isn’t similar to what happened, he knows I order, but I do see your point about how it is less demanding(?) to let it go through the grapevine

          Reply
      2. Another Lawyer

        Or, they could have all been sitting in a meeting and it came up, so Jane asked Erin to let you know.

        Reply
      3. OP

        The cake really did go through 3 people, not all at a meeting. I think I was just flabbergasted that someone would dictate what they wanted so early AND the gift…for themselves. But now I can see the effect of having it go through the grapevine instead of outright saying to the person who orders.

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        1. Kyrielle

          It’s also possible that Jane asked John what he wanted, so he wasn’t dictating it so much as answering her question. If my boss asked me what I wanted, I’d assume I was intended to say what I wanted, and answer.

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      4. F.

        OP, it sounds like the bigger problem is that you are annoyed about what are actually fairly common duties of an admin. It is usually an admin who has to make arrangements for things like the party cake, and yes, you do have to take orders from the person who is “dictating the rules”. I’m picking up a vibe (and I may be totally wrong) that you feel that you are being treated like you are less than an equal. I have held admin jobs much of my working life (and am in my mid-50s), and I can tell you that a good admin is worth their weight in gold and is a very valuable member of a company. Yes, it is a junior position that takes direction from everyone, but you are not personally being disrespected, all of it is part of the job (including the indirect communication from managers). ;-)

        Reply
        1. OP

          haha thanks for the fellow admin appreciation! I do like my job, am getting a masters through tuition remission, so I certainly appreciate working here. I do feel valued by my boss, I think I tend to value efficiency and time saving techniques, which may be counter intuitive to admin nature of job duties in terms of not having control of when things get done due to being dependent on other people. But there may be a certain aspect of the less than equal from Jane in other interactions.

          This was certainly a helpful comment :)

          Reply
          1. F.

            You’re welcome (blushing). I’m glad you like the job, and I definitely hear you about the frustration with inefficiency and feeling somewhat powerless to do something about it. Even though I am no longer an admin, I still chafe at the highly inefficient ways my company’s owner wants things done. I tend to pick my battles and accept that change comes slowly.

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      5. Anon College AA

        Oh, the university part is probably the key here. I’ve worked at a college as an admin, and there was more than one staff member (usually Assistant or Asssociate Deans that had been professors, but others as well) that “didn’t do admin work” (usually said rudely or dismissively) or had gotten the (mistaken) impression that certain items were admin jobs and could cause a union grievance if they did them.

        For instance, in one office where I temped and assisted 4 different Assistant/Associate Deans, one woman would constantly forward me emails that said “Please ask Barb about this” (the first time she clarified that she meant Barb Jones in the registrars office). All I would do is turn around and forward that exact message to Barb, who would then respond to me, and then I would forward the response to the Associate Dean. She absolutely could have just forwarded the message to Barb herself and just copied me, but she wouldn’t, and got snippy with me when I mentioned that as a suggestion.

        So unfortunately, it is very possible that Jane considers it “not her job” to interface with you. Or, as others have mentioned, it is possible that your predecessor wouldn’t assist Sarah and Jane’s other staff until they invoked Jane’s name, so now they lead with that. Again, when working at that previous temp job, if I emailed and said “Can you please tell me X” I wouldn’t get a response for days to weeks – but if I invoked the name of the head Dean and said “Dean Smith needs to know X” I got a response within an hour, because Dean Smith was a terrifying (and brilliant, get stuff done) dragon lady.

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        1. OP

          So unfortunately, it is very possible that Jane considers it “not her job” to interface with you.

          ^^yes I think this is it exactly. This is very much how the place was run previously.

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          1. Not So NewReader

            Try not to let this one getcha, OP. Stuff like this can crawl under our skins and take up housekeeping. Having been the recipient and sometimes the messenger I would like to say that the messenger is not feeling so great about this situation either. “Yes, I will fetch for you! I can do that!” sigh. No one wants to be thought of as Fido. One thing I would like to point out is that this gives you and the messenger common ground to bond over. You both feel kind of devalued by Jane’s actions.

            Remembering that feeling is something I have always carried with me. When I have done supervisory work, I was very careful about what I asked people to do. No one is perfect, I am sure I screwed up, but I did have a higher awareness of how I sounded when I made a request and I worked at my communications.

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        2. A Cita

          For your example, I just want to point out, that in general, it probably is actually easier for you to just forward with no additional text. I don’t do this myself, but I’m aware of the practice, and it’s because your assistant/dean would have to spend time typing out a greeting and some content because Politics. She would not be able to just forward with no additional content. You can. And adding content takes time. I say in general, because maybe in your specific example there is little politics in dealing with a registrar, rather than another dean or a chair. But it’s probably habit at this point for her.

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          1. Anon College AA

            In this case in was another admin in the registrars office, and the practice was a holdover from pre-email. And I can understand part of it is that she didn’t want to have to mentally keep track of whether Barb had responded – that part was my job. But the same thing could absolutely have been accomplished by her emailing Barb and cc’ing me, and I even showed her how to set up canned responses (as I had) which said “Hello Barb, Can you please tell me if [fill in student name here] is currently on good academic standing or does s/he have any academic holds?” But nope, she wasn’t interested in that idea because it wasn’t her job to contact Barb, it was mine. Whatever, that’s why it was only a temp gig for me and I didn’t apply for the open position.

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      6. CeeCee

        While I definitely agree that it sounds juvenile saying something along the lines of “Jane wants to know…” It may not be because of insecurity on the part of the staffer and it might be just as annoying to them.

        I know from personal experience, at my last job, I was told often by my supervisor (the General Manager of the company) to send emails stating “Per GM,…” or “GM wants to know…” And I knew before hitting send that most of the responses would have questions that I had no idea to answer.

        I can’t tell you how many times I would ask myself why GM didn’t just reach out himself because after the initial email, I could do nothing to help the situation but become a frustrating (and frustrated) third party. To the point where some (more aggressive, less professional) people would respond with “If GM wants this he can talk to me himself.” which left me in an even more awkward position of relaying and occasionally responding to that situation.

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    5. chillgamesh

      I was about to suggest just this. I’m in a pretty junior position and have to invoke my boss’s authority occasionally. In these cases, it sounds like they could also feel bad for bothering you with little things–like a cake–so they’re making sure you know it’s not them who first brought it up.

      Reply
      1. Kelly L.

        Yep. IMO, it’s done as a way to smooth the interaction and not sound like you, the junior employee, are trying to overstep and dictate things to people.

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        1. Jillociraptor

          Yeah, I do the same. If I’m asking my peers for something, I usually just ask as me (I don’t say “Bosslady asked…), but if I’m reaching out to her peers, I always mention that it’s her request. It helps give them context for the question, too–if they know that Boss wants the thing, it might be clearer how to frame it or what to share.

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          1. Koko

            Agreed. It’s also doing the person you’re speaking with a favor in a way. If they de-prioritized your request because you’re only a coordinator, but then discovered they’d actually deprioritized a VP’s pet project, they would probably be embarrassed about it and wish they had known to devote more attention/more promptly.

            Now ideally nobody’s work would get deprioritized but in today’s world who doesn’t have too much on their plate?

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        2. Rabbit

          Yes, this. My boss frequently asks me to follow up on things that I know are in order and on time, so I feel apologetic constantly hounding the contractor/employee/whomever for something, but I still need to report back to my boss. Thus, “Darth needs to know when exactly you’ll be done with X.”

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      2. Mephyle

        I was about to suggest this too. They suspect that you are likely to give low priority to the request – it is a trivial thing and it’s coming from someone in a junior position. They see this scenario down the road: if you don’t know that the request is coming from Jane, so you postpone it for later, they will have to answer to her about why they didn’t get the response from you, and bother you again.

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    6. Sadsack

      Yeah, I thought the way the people writing went about asking was strange, too. I am not sure how OP can ask them to stop doing that though. What would you tell them?

      Reply
  2. Not a Real Giraffe

    I used to have a boss like Jane, and it was frustrating. Requests like, “Could you email Bob to see if he’s available for 5 minutes tomorrow?” were common, and it would infuriate me because it seemed like it would take just as much time for my boss to email Bob, than for me to act as a go-between.

    But in reality, my boss wanted to get this one item off her mind so she could focus on higher-level demands. She trusted that I could sort out the back-and-forth (say, if Bob wasn’t available tomorrow and we needed to look at the next day). I think Jane is entrusting her subordinates to see the task through and critically think through any missing information.

    If her subordinates aren’t her assistants, then that’s their bone to pick, not yours. I like Alison’s suggestion about looping Jane in when her subordinates truly can’t provide you with additional information, but it seems like most of the information you might need them to gather could be sourced without looping Jane in.

    Reply
    1. Dan

      Yeah, I have a senior technical staff person (who I work with, but isn’t my boss) be like, “schedule a meeting to discussion X.” Um, short of looking for conference room availability, it’s no more efficient for me to do the scheduling than it is for her. Mind you, I’m technical staff, not administrative staff, and remember, she’s not my boss…) I have learned, however, that when *I* schedule meetings, I get to schedule them at times convenient for me. I’m not a morning person, so when I have to schedule stuff, I don’t have to worry about mornings ;)

      Sometimes she’ll say, “tell X that we need to discuss Y at the next meeting.” When Y is senior to me, I always feel like it’s more appropriate for senior technical staff person to drop Y an email herself. I don’t like being go-betweens for senior people on stuff that’s outside my immediate sphere. It’s one thing if it’s my “thing” and I’m critical to the conversation, but it’s another when I’m just tangentially involved.

      Reply
      1. Koko

        I actually look at it as an opportunity to garner positive attention from important people in the organization when a senior person asks me to get or find out something from someone very senior to me. I get to show them that I’m professional, a polite and effective communicator, that I’m prompt in my responses, sometimes that I can intelligently answer clarifying questions the very senior person has. If not for these interactions, the SVP wouldn’t even know there was a Koko working down there in my department. It can only benefit you to have people high in the organization who have a positive impression of you. You never know when your bonus or raise might need an SVP to sign off on the budget line item, or when you might get an opportunity for promotion because the SVP has nice things to say about you.

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    2. Edward Rooney

      I worked in the same room as a group admin. There was one VP who would email a file to the admin, walk over and wait at her desk while she printed it for him. I mean come on, you know how to print your own PowerPoints. I know there are times when you can’t print something you need before your meeting, but he would just stand there.

      Reply
      1. AdminForALongTime

        I had the lone HR person walk up to my desk, hand me to pages to copy and wait for me to copy it and hand it back to her…and the copier was only a few steps more from her desk and right beside me. Nothing impeded her from walking the 10 extra steps to beside my desk to copy it herself. I found that so strange that little power trip.

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      2. Anon College AA

        Although in one office they found that the staff was way over-using the color printer and the costs were astronomical, so only the Admin had that printer installed on her computer, and staff had to email files to her to print them. That way she could also make the call whether it made sense to print the copies herself or send them to the print center.

        However, this was also because that office was full of idiots, and the chair was penny-wise and pound-foolish, so the admin had to babysit them on things like this.

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        1. OwnedByTheCat

          Conversely, I was in a job once where everyone had a limit of how much color they could print. Made sense for teachers and general faculty. I was in marketing… so every time I had to run a letter, brochure, or invitation I’d have to beg for more color credits. And every time our finance team basically shamed me. Stupid.

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      3. Doriana Gray

        There was one VP who would email a file to the admin, walk over and wait at her desk while she printed it for him.

        That is insane. The Senior VP of my previous division and the VP of my current one both print their own stuff. Hell, my current VP doesn’t even have an admin. The only time Senior VP had someone else (usually his admin) print something for him was when he was in back to back and meetings and didn’t have time to get back to his desk or run to the mail room.

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        1. Rabbit

          An old boss of mine asked me to print a very large file for him and bring it to him at another office location (short distance away). I warned him that the size of the file and the slowness of the printer would mean it would take an excruciatingly long time (and it was already quittin’ time!) and I could bring it to him first thing in the morning, but he said he “needed it” and there was no printer at the second location.

          It took 2.5 hours to print this file, so I ended up delivering it to him at the second location at 9 PM. I was not paid hourly, and I was now tired and cranky (I had no other work to do, just stand and stare at the printer). I pointed out a printer directly next to his computer, and he quipped he “hadn’t seen it there.” I could have died. Never figured out if it was a power trip, him being a space cadet or what, but it required a Amy Poehler/Seth Meyers “Really??”

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    3. nofelix

      The effectiveness of this strategy depends on how good the boss is at thinking through a problem before delegating it. What often happens is that they just want it off their plate and so avoid necessary decisions or information in the request. Then they double the back-and-forth, eventually causing the confused staff member to come back for clarification so the boss doesn’t save any time at all. This sounds like it might be happening in the OP’s office too.

      The killer combo with the above is if the boss gives very little autonomy for staff make decisions so they always have to come back for clarification on the most trivial matters.

      Alison’s advice is good. Just give simple 1 minute responses if that’s all the time Jane has devoted to the question.

      Reply
  3. LQ

    The example given seems very odd because I could totally see asking my boss and him saying, I’m not sure ask Chris directly, so I’d go to Chris and say, hey, boss said I should check with you on Thing. This might be a cultural thing where if you are in a culture where I’m not supposed to go to Chris directly normally, but it is ok when my boss says to then I’m fine, or other people aren’t supposed to go to Chris directly then I might want to phrase it that, yeah boss endorsed this.

    For things like supplies Sarah and Jane might be meeting and run out of paper and Jane says, shoot I’m out of paper, could you let Chris know to order some? That seems like a fine use of time. A supervisor assigns their staff a task. Could Jane have done it? Yes. But I’m sure Jane could do a lot of Sarah’s tasks, that doesn’t mean she should be.

    I don’t see why this should be uncomfortable for either of you. If my boss asks me to take on a task I very rarely get uncomfortable about doing it (this wouldn’t be one of those times), and when I go talk to someone and say, hey can you order Thing for Boss I’ve never had anyone else seem uncomfortable with it. Is there something else happening here?

    Reply
    1. OP

      Sarah never had a question about the membership, she was truly just the messenger. Based on an in-person conversation she had no clue what Jane was talking about.

      It just seems like the staff asking me don’t understand the request completely and that’s where I think it goes awry and taking up more time than it needs to.

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      1. neverjaunty

        It does, but it could also be that the staff members are not getting all the information from Jane or relaying it accurately. Sending them back for more information is annoying, but there’s not much else you can do.

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      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        That’s actually more a problem with Sarah, not with Jane. If Sarah doesn’t understand the request, she should ask Jane for whatever context she needs. Of course, sometimes Sarah might not realize she doesn’t fully understand until she’s talking with you, but at that point she should say “let me go back and find out more,” not leave it on you to do that.

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        1. nofelix

          Yeah this is an important skill when working with such people. Remembering to insist on enough clarification to get the job done, even if they outrank you and act like you’re making a big deal over nothing. And they will look at you like you are a big dummy for not knowing all the details of their work, but likely also forget it once you do the task correctly. I always carry a notebook because you never know when some complex instruction is coming because something has landed on their plate and they want it gone immediately.

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        2. Not So NewReader

          If this is a new system for Sarah then she may work into being more efficient about the requests.
          Or it could be that the two of you develop a system where Sarah emails you, “Boss needs X. What else do I need to know about X so we can complete this mission?.”

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      3. LQ

        This could be an issue with the Sarah in this case not asking questions. If my boss tells me to check on something I’m going to figure out what it is so I can have a conversation with all the pieces I need. If I had no clue about something I’m going to come back with more questions.

        Yes this might be going awry, but that doesn’t mean that requests not coming from Jane are the problem. Is there something else that is going on here?

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      4. Cambridge Comma

        It sound like a lot of the inefficiency would be eliminated if Jane’s messengers would ask her a couple of questions when being given the message. Is that something you can suggest to them? Or is Jane’s manner the kind that doesn’t invite further questions.

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      5. Connie-Lynne

        Yeah, it looks to me like Jane’s junior staffers aren’t fully clarifying what is needed prior to talking to you.

        If it were occasional, I’d guess they got vague direction with an “OP will know what I mean, just ask her.” Given that it sounds frequent, you may want to try talking to the staffers and asking them to get more clarity instead of passing along vague requests.

        When the requests are straightforward and clear, though, just passed through a long chain of command, well, that just sounds like you and Jane have stylistic differences that you as the more junior will need to deal with.

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      6. AnotherFed

        It sounds like Jane’s in the process of training up a crop of junior staffers, and they’re at the awful stage where they know enough to get tasks and work on them, but not enough to anticipate the right questions. I understand that’s frustrating for you (and probably frustrating for Jane, too), but these junior staffers should get to the point where they know what info is required for basic tasks they’re coordinating. If that’s the case sending them back to Jane is the best thing to do – if you leave them out of the loop, they never learn what they should have known.

        Reply
      7. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

        While I don’t set my staff to errands of minutiae (or care about cake flavors), I delegate interactions with other people in the company frequently. It’s a thing senior managers are supposed to do.

        “Can you find out from Wilma what the process of these invoice submissions is, please?” “Talk to Fred in the back and make sure these packages are shipped out.” “Dammit, need paper clips. Can you get them ordered from Barney, please.”

        I don’t think a day goes by that I haven’t delegated multiple interactions. I haven’t made my own supply order in 20 years….

        Reply
        1. Turtle Candle

          Yes.

          And while I get that ‘borrowing authority’ can be inappropriate if done to excess/in situations that it’s not necessary, sometimes it is necessary. For example: if getting information about the teapot spout design is part of my own job, I’ll just say, “Hi Aral, can you send me the teapot spout parameters when you get a chance? Thanks!”–and I’ll do this even if I had a chat with my boss and it was him that told me that Aral is the person to ask, because getting that information is within the purview of my job. In that situation, it’d be odd to call on my manager’s authority, because it’s just me doing my job.

          But if my manager has delegated something that I would not, on my own, have authority to do, I will bring up their name, because I actually am borrowing their authority. So like, I don’t have authority to make purchase requests on my own, so I’ll say, “Hey Aral, Miles wanted me to ask you to order more teapot spout molds.” Or, annual teapot reports aren’t my business, so if I get put on that task, “Hi Cordelia, Miles sent me to ask for last year’s annual teapot report.” Or sometimes if I’m not sure if the person will get the context, saying my boss’s name will make it clear what we’re talking about, like, “Hi Ivan, Miles wanted me to talk to you about the cake for the holiday party” makes it clear why I’m the one talking about it–it’s because I’m one of Miles’ underlings.

          As always, it’s hugely about context, but this seems really normal to me. I get a lot of requests of the form of “Hi Turtle, [Boss] said you were the person to talk to about chocolate teapot temperature standards.” The “[Boss] said” just gives me context of where they are in the chain of command, what their context is, why they’re likely asking, etc., in a very economical way.

          Reply
          1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.

            Yeah, I mean, I’m sure there are contexts where it is odd, but it could be sabotaging not to tell the other person the request is for me, right? You might want to queue something for upper management higher, or make whatever other changes in your response, knowing that the answers had high visibility.

            Reply
  4. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

    It genuinely might be saving Jane significant time to be able to pass messages through others.

    I am sure there are many, many times when people get emails from me where they wonder, “why the heck is Not the Droid sending me this?” or even directly saying, “Not the Droid isn’t Obi Wan’s assistant.”

    I do it for my boss because sometimes it is a *huge* time saver for me to do it. And other times it’s because quite honestly if I didn’t do it, the message would never make it to you! We have had something similar to the OP’s example of retirement cake and gift. My boss kept saying she was going to send the information for a baby shower to the admin…finally enough time had passed that I was like, “we’ve missed all the ordering windows” and had to go out and actually pick things up.

    Reply
  5. Murphy

    Huh, I never thought of this as something that might be annoying. I’ll often ask my staff to check with someone else on something or order supplies or whatnot and have never thought twice about it (they’re not my assistants, but, like Alison said, I have other things I need to be focused on). Nor have I ever thought about the language they use to ask (I honestly don’t know if they say, “Murphy asked if you can share a briefing with us on X” rather than “Can you share a briefing with us on X”).

    I can understand frustration if the person asking doesn’t have enough info to get the right answer (and, for the record, that can happen to you no matter where you are in the organization’s hierarchy), but otherwise, I think this is actually pretty common and the phrasing needs to become almost like background noise to you (in that you don’t even notice it).

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Yeah, a lot of requests go back and forth at my workplace like this. Sometimes the higher-up’s name gets attached, sometimes it doesn’t (but people know who it’s for anyway).

      Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      I am wondering if OP is experiencing shock from finding out just how inefficiently companies can run and still remain in business. I have gotten these lists where the boss says do a, b, and c. And each item on the list involved me going back numerous times to get more information. It’s a ten minute task but getting all the information takes two hours. THEN, I hear, “why isn’t your normal stuff x, y and z done?” [Because your a, b and c are done instead.]

      I have found it helpful to frame things as “Doing what the boss is asking for trumps anything else.”

      Reply
  6. F.

    In many hierarchical organizations, it is common for communication to flow mostly between equals. For example, a senior manager may elect to directly deal with only senior managers and delegate conversations with an admin like the OP to her admin (or absent an admin, other junior staff). OP, despite having been in the workforce for five years, you are in a position that is junior staff. As other have noted above, it is also quite possibly a better use of the senior manager’s time to leave the more mundane communications to junior staff while she focuses on her managerial duties. Yes, it is sometimes inefficient for you and the messenger, but it is apparently more efficient for the manager, which is why she continues to do it that way. I can understand your frustration if you came from a company that is less hierarchical and are used to direct communication that cuts across lines of rank.

    Reply
    1. OP

      Yes. This is exactly how it was before New Director, who is not like thatat all, so I think we are all in a weird transition period.

      Reply
      1. LQ

        But this might be a positive part of it, not a negative part. You might have more things where Jane is delegating responsibilities to other people, and if she has staff who can’t get all the information, this could be part of training them to get the information they need. That Sarah didn’t know what membership’s she is signed up for? That’s a thing Sarah should know. And having her boss say, go find out more about this might be a part of giving Sarah more power in her own job. She might not know how to ask Jane the right questions to get there, and especially if Jane has 30 years of doing this the same way, she’s likely going to fumble when a giant change takes place too. That she’s delegating these tasks out is good.

        Reply
        1. Sammie

          I would agree with this. How does Sarah not know or want to know the term of her own memberships? It seems to me that Jane is trying to train her staff to proactively get this information and they are passively dumping it on OP.

          Reply
        2. Rabbit

          Yes, but as OP put it, “Sarah is not Jane’s assistant or in an administrative capacity.” In that case, why would Sarah know anything about Jane’s memberships? It sounds as if Jane is delegating these things to whomever happens to walk past her first. I hope Jane gets a dedicated assistant to handle these things.

          Reply
          1. LQ

            The example sounded like they were about Sarah’s membership not Jane’s.

            While this situation might have something else going on, a supervisor delegating tasks is entirely reasonable. Especially delegating tasks that the employee could be responsible for (like managing their own memberships). Delegation is generally good. Not saying there can’t be problems and sometimes things aren’t done poorly. But when my boss tells me to follow up with IT on the big upgrade I feel like that’s my job, even if sometimes I need to go back to my boss to check on things. If my boss never gave me work I wouldn’t have work and wouldn’t have a job.

            Sure it can be done poorly, but delegation is a key piece of good management.

            Reply
    2. Koko

      Something similar goes on in my office. We have a very collaborative and non-hierarchical culture in terms of most people self-generating work towards common goals with some degree of autonomy rather than work being assigned downward, but some people are still more important!

      In our office the executive team is drowning in email. They are kept “in the loop” on so many things they can barely keep up. Asking a junior person to handle a task keeps all of the back-and-forth out of their inbox and really helps with the email volume problem.

      Reply
  7. Master Bean Counter

    If Jane has been with the org for 30 years, she may be trying to train her staff on some things. Her requests for her staff to find out these things might actually be training for them. Granted the message is getting muddied at the moment, but as this continues you may see improvement in the communications as the staff take over/learn these functions from Jane.

    Reply
    1. hbc

      Ah, yes. I’ve definitely sent people on a trip to muddle through the manuals for an hour when I could answer their question in five minutes, because I need them to stop eating up my time in five minute increments. Even if she’s not planning on retiring or anything, Jane probably should get out of the loop on ordering supplies and picking cake flavors. The first step of that is for her to tell someone else to do it. Then maybe after the second or third (or twentieth) time, Sarah will see that they’re low on pens and order them without involving Jane.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        Though if Jane were the one writing in, I’d tell her to be direct if that’s what she wants, not just hope they act on their own eventually.

        Reply
        1. AnotherFed

          That conversation might be going on in the background – the OP wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) know about the coaching/recalibration Jane is trying to give her direct reports.

          Reply
          1. hbc

            Exactly. And you can be as direct with the coaching as you want, but some people (especially if they’re used to the hierarchical structure) take a long time before they really grok that it’s their item to manage.

            Jane: “I don’t know what kind of membership you have and I honestly couldn’t tell you what is the best choice without doing all the research myself. OP is the person who manages memberships. It’d probably be a good idea to call her and make sure the level meets your needs. If you don’t know your needs, dig in and ask around. Make sense?”
            Sarah: “Yeah, definitely.”

            Sarah to OP, after doing zero research: “Um, Jane wants me to ask you about my membership for some reason.”

            Reply
            1. Not So NewReader

              I have seen this one a LOT. Something gets lost in the translation- like 3/4 of the original conversation.

              Reply
            2. Koko

              Yes, when I was in that transitionary period in my mid-20s where I started being given real autonomy and respected as an expert in my field for the first time, it took a while for it to sink in. I remember my boss at the time answering several of my emails with, “What do you recommend?”

              And for a while I would write back these page-long emails outlining all the research I did to arrive at my recommendation and why I chose one thing over another! So then my boss had to start telling me, “I don’t need to hear all this. Just choose the one you think is best,” and “I trust you on this,” and it still took a while for me to really be comfortable exercising discretion in the word place.

              Reply
      2. Koko

        “I need them to stop eating up my time in five minute increments.”

        So much this. I hate losing time to task-switching.

        Reply
    1. starsaphire

      Darn it, I was just coming in to say that! You beat me to it.

      Hey, I’ll fight you for it! Better yet, we can fight *with* it… :D

      Reply
    2. Cath in Canada

      Someone followed my work Twitter account yesterday who makes rice art! Not sculptures, unfortunately – he uses the plant’s leaves rather than the grains. I still started giggling when I saw his profile though.

      Reply
  8. Cat

    Yeah, I have been known to have my assistant do things like that – it may require some additional time for her and possible even for me, but it puts the “keeping track of details” step on her and not me, which is sometimes the most important thing in my opinion. The same is true of how I will sometimes use junior associates and paralegals, though in that case, the stuff is always substantive rather than purely administrative.

    Reply
  9. Rat Racer

    This seems like pretty common practice to me — higher ups delegating small tasks to their direct reports. Even though it would only take 5 minutes to email Mary myself, I have 12 of these 5-minute tasks on my plate, and delegating them to “Sarah” saves me an hour that I can spend doing the work that I cannot delegate. So I do this all the time. But I usually ask my direct reports to CC me on the email so that if there are follow up questions I can answer directly and avoid a game of “telephone.”

    Reply
  10. Drink the juice Shelby

    Just yesterday I got a forwarded email from someone that detailed questions he had for someone else. He wanted me to ask the questions. I just forwarded the email to the person saying “see Wakeen’s questions below”. I got follow up emails from both parties that they met up and the questions were resolved. Why was I involved in this at all? First, most of the answers were in the email chain. Secondly, the manager has interfaces with the person before, why not send the questions directly? Lastly, why involve a third person at all, it’s not something I would take care of at all. Oh well.

    Reply
  11. Argh!

    I bet she’s a control freak who doesn’t delegate enough stuff to her staff, then uses their spare time this way because she’s too busy with other stuff they could be doing.

    Not that I’ve ever reported to anyone like that…

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      While that may very well be the case here, that’s not universally the case with this kind of thing. It makes sense for managers to delegate work downward to the most junior person who can take care of it, even when it seems like small things, because it frees them up to not have to think about those details so that they can spend their time on things only they can do … that’s actually how I recommend managers operate, for whatever that’s worth.

      Reply
      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

        And, it’s not just delegating asking questions, the actual delegation is obtaining answers. Maybe Wilma needs a couple follow ups or reminders to give the answers. Maybe Wilma needs more information in order to be able to answer (so then obtaining the more information and getting that to Wilma is part of the task). Maybe Wilma isn’t the right person to ask at all, so then the task is finding the right person and asking all over again.

        Thing I delegated an hour ago, good luck and god speed to the delegatee as she’ll probably have to churn through 5 different people in corporate accounting in her quest for my answers.

        Reply
        1. Rat Racer

          And this is one of the best perks of management in my opinion! (I love the teaching, mentoring and collaboration but OH MAN it is great to have someone else knock on 12 doors to figure out who replaced Wilma because she’s out on medical leave and oh by the way, her department re-orged so no one is managing Sylvester’s calendar anymore…)

          Reply
  12. Universtiy

    I definitely understand instinctively getting your shackles up about some kinds of task delegation. If you’re busy and someone asks you to drop what you’re doing to send their email, it can be a harsh reminder that you’re in a less respected (and less compensated) position, and make you feel less valued. It isn’t meant that way, but it can take a while to train yourself not to always react to it. (As an aside, for similar reasons of feeling disrespected, my major pet peeve is people being offended if you don’t refer to them as [Prefix][Last Name] in emails. Some of that is my own cultural disconnect from moving farther south after growing up in Massachusetts, but sometimes you can tell they’re reacting to you that way because you’re younger/an admin, and therefore you owe deference.)

    The only functional problem with some delegation is when your boss literally doesn’t know how to do the work they delegate to you– and if you’re a new hire and ALSO don’t know how, well….. it can be a mess.

    Reply
  13. Sunshine on a cloudy day

    Here’s the thing – it’s one situation if it would take sr. employee 10min to complete task, but her time is to be focused on more important tasks so she hands off task to me (jr. employee) and it will take me 10min to complete. It is a different situation if by handing off this task it creates MORE work for everybody involved (including sr. employee herself).

    Ex: My old boss used to ask me to schedule meetings for her with very busy higher ranking employees. Except she wouldn’t give me access to her calendar or even keep her calendar updated (so I couldn’t rely on the Outlook Scheduling Assistant). If she communicated directly with the higher ranking employee this would have taken 5-10min of her time. But with all the back and forth necessary, I ended up taking at least 20-30min of her time, constantly interrupting her, for different availabilities or to answer her questions regarding why the other employee wasn’t available at her preferred times. Side note: yes I tried sending emails and CCing her, but she just wouldn’t respond or even read them and this sort of pattern emerged in other delegated tasks (not giving me necessary info – info that no reasonable person would know to ask about).

    It drove me BATTY. I’m wondering if this is what is happening with the letter writer. It’s not that this sr. employee could do these tasks in the same amount of time as the jr. employees she’s sending over, it’s that she creating more work for everyone (including herself and the letter writer) by delegating these tasks so thoughtlessly.

    Reply
    1. AnotherFed

      I completely agree your example being a total waste of everyone’s time. However, when you’re trying to train junior people by delegating a task to them, it’s going to take more time total (and maybe even more of the senior person’s time, too) because it needs to be explained, the junior person has to figure out how to do things (and ask questions), and then the work has to get done, too. But if it keeps taking way longer, either the training or the junior person is a dud…

      Reply
    2. Tacocat

      Yes, agree completely. There are times when it is completely appropriate to delegate and makes total sense and there are times when it so frustrating and unnecessary. I think this distinction is key. My boss (a senior leader) is someone who is in the appropriate delegation category. She will delegate, it makes sense, and no one bats an eye. Another senior leader is in the batty category. He delegates to people he doesn’t have delegation power over, asks for priority over other senior leaders, and will give instructions like, “President said she doesn’t like this, so can you come up with something different” (no other details). Next thing you know, you find out it wasn’t even his project/responsibility. Of course all this speaks to being a good manager over a bad one (person in question is always trying to make himself look good over others), but yeah, it’s entirely possible that Jane is being unreasonable/frustrating. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good fix, other than partnering with Sarah to see if she can ask better questions of Jane to smooth the process a little.

      Reply
  14. Gaara

    As the middleman, I have to say, this is so annoying!

    I work at a small teapot services firm. This one senior management person I work with, Itachi, will always email me to ask me to email an administrative person about something. “Gaara, can you ask Sakura to put this meeting on the calendar?” or “Gaara, can you ask Sakura for that chart on recent teapot activity so I can review it?” So then I forward his email, and then forward back the response. Or, sometimes, I reply and copy Sakura and ask her to respond to me and Itachi with the information Itachi is asking for.

    What annoys me the most is that it doesn’t even save Itachi any time or administrative burden. at all. ever. But Itachi isn’t actually an idiot, so I know that he knows it doesn’t create any efficiencies for him and it creates inefficiencies for me. So I don’t see the point of raising this — it’s just an annoying quirk I have to deal with.

    Reply
  15. Chriama

    Why not just reply directly to Jane, cc’ing Sara, when necessary? If it’s a simple answer a la “level of membership” then you can just respond to Sarah, cc’ing Jane. If it’s something that needs a lot of clarification from Jane, reply directly to Jane with your questions and cc Sarah. This lets you gently reinforce a new communication dynamic and still get all the info you need. If it’s multiple levels deep (Sarah says Jane says Richard wants special cake), reply to the person you want sending you this information next time. If Richard is on Jane’s team and it’s reasonable for him to give his requests to her and let her pass it on to the admin, respond to Jane and cc Sarah (and Richard if it makes sense for him to be involved in the conversation). If he should be making these requests directly to admin himself then reply to him and cc Sarah and Jane. Basically, redirect the conversation back to the person it makes the most sense to discuss things with, and cc the other people in the chain if it make sense for them to be up to date on how things are progressing.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      But you’d want to watch out for overruling the communication preferences of the senior person. If Jane wants this totally off her plate and there aren’t additional questions she needs to answer, she might prefer you not loop her back in.

      Reply
      1. Chriama

        That’s true. If Jane is senior then she can’t redirect everything back because it’s not her call. But for those instances when she needs more clarification do you think it’s ok to go back directly to Jane? That would at least eliminate some of the annoying back and forth with the middleman.

        Reply
  16. Erin

    Ugh, no substantial advice, but my sympathies. This happened to me at a prior job often, and not always with senior members, either, but other admins on the same level as me.

    One time I used the word “Jesus” in a quick email, as in, “Oh Jesus, I will get right on that.” Two out of the four of us admins were Christian and not pleased – understandably. They told the other admin who had to tell me all official-like to please not use that word in that way, etc, etc.

    I was like, why wouldn’t they just say that to me in the moment instead of making ABig Thing of it? “Hey Erin, no big deal, but I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t…”

    They had worked with me long enough I would have thought they’d know I would never I intentionally offend anyone, and would be more than happy to comply with a simple request. I’m approachable. Come on. It felt really insulting to bring a third person into the mix to mediate messages.

    Slightly different from your situation, but thank you for submitting the question. It was really interesting to read Alison’s answer. While disappointing, it makes sense.

    I would bring the message up to Jane if you really need to, but really think hard if that’s necessary. If you need to gather more information before responding or getting Jane what she needs – if the request is too vague – I would do so by directly reaching out to Jane, instead of sending Sarah back to gather more info.

    Reply

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