my coworker leans on us for help way too much

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talk with a caller whose coworker won’t stop asking for help with her job — help that she shouldn’t need. Here’s the letter she sent to me, and you can listen to our discussion about it on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or Anchor (or here’s the direct RSS feed). This episode is 12 minutes long.

I have a relatively new coworker, who I’ll call Jane. I was initially responsible for training her, which I did in depth. She took notes and seemed to catch on okay.

But since she started 9 months ago, it’s become apparent she either isn’t retaining the information we share with her or is second-guessing herself. A lot. She repeatedly asks me about things I’ve already gone over with her, that she’s taken notes on, and that I’ve emailed her instructions for. It’s gotten to the point that I’ve saved every email containing instructions I’ve sent her so I can simply re-send them when she asks that question again.

Plus, when she has a question, she will go from person to person in our department and ask it with such a sense of urgency that we have to stop work to answer. Even though we all provide her the same answer, she’ll then still ask another person.

When we’ve brought our concerns about her to our director, our director says Jane’s former company was a lot more stringent on everything being perfect, and Jane is gun shy about making the tiniest mistake. We also think she may be accustomed to delegating or having staff perform duties for her, since, in her previous position (of 27 years!), she supposedly managed a team of designers at a company that provided similar services as ours.

My manager and our director are aware of all these issues with Jane but keep asking us to be patient with her. Yet she’s a big time-suck and strain on resources and our staff, and I’m finding it difficult to stay patient around her.

If you want to ask your own question on the show, email it to podcast@askamanager.org.

And a transcript of last week’s show is here. (My aim is to provide transcripts each week for the previous week’s show, thanks to the generous help of a reader.)

{ 115 comments… read them below }

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Thanks — that’s really great to hear!

      So that everyone knows what I have planned: I’m doing an initial “season” of 12 episodes and then will stop and reassess. I’m not going to be able to keep up weekly episodes year round, but depending on how this goes, I could end up doing one or two seasons a year, or switch to less regularly scheduled episodes, or something like that.

      1. Garrett

        Yes, even once every other week would be wonderful! It’s a nice break from the political podcasts I listen to.

      2. a1

        I love them, too. Every other week or monthly would be fine as a schedule, too. However, you obviously know your schedule best so whatever works for you is good. :-)

    2. Bonky

      I’m really enjoying them too! I’m on maternity leave at the moment (I’m fortunate to live in a country where a year’s leave is standard), and AAM has been a wonderful grounding reminder that everything is not sensitive washing powder and wet wipes. The podcasts are great for when I’m feeding the baby, when I can’t really use my hands to read; and what I’ve listened to so far has been really well produced. Alison talks like she writes, which should be read as a real compliment!

    1. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)

      You’re more than welcome! I have friends who are hard of hearing/Deaf so I know how vital these are for people :)

      1. MsChanandlerBong

        Thank you so much! I am hard of hearing AND have no attention span, so podcasts just don’t fit with the way I prefer to learn. I love being able to read a transcript.

    2. Transcripts Rule

      I hope (s)he is not doing them for free…transcription takes time and people do it for a living. I just got an online quote – a 12-minute podcast with 2 speakers and verbatim transcription would cost $24.

      1. BookCocoon

        I volunteer to do transcripts for an organization I value. It’s a great way to give back to something you support and improve accessibility for others.

      2. Not So NewReader

        Not all compensation comes in a paycheck. It could be that in the future Alison is able to be a reference for MJ or help MJ in some manner. I would say though, that if we must pay for all work, then we ALL owe Alison a huge, huge amount of money.

      3. Lissa

        Yup, I am a transcriber/captionist and sometimes volunteer my services. It’s a good way to give back, get my name out there and increase awareness of accessibility options.

    3. Jessica

      Another big thanks for the transcripts! I couldn’t get the podcast to work on my device, but would much much rather read text anyway. That’s really awesome of you to provide this for the AAM community. Thanks so much!

  1. BookCocoon

    I could have written this question, as my situation is extremely similar, except that my coworker has been here almost 3 years now. For the first six months, I documented how much of my time she was taking up and how often her questions were things we’ve gone over before and met with our director about them, but he kept wanting to give her more chances, and when I finally gave up after six months because I was just repeating myself over and over again he apparently thought the problem had magically solved itself, because when I mentioned it again recently he was shocked that the same thing was still happening (but doesn’t plan to do anything more about it).

    These are the ways in which my situation differs, and I’m wondering if the advice would be any different:
    1) She’s only coming to me, rather than everyone, because I’m the only one who knows the answers (besides her) since I used to do her job.
    2) The majority of questions she brings me can be answered in one sentence or one word, like, “In this situation, is the answer A or B?” So it’s hard to say, “Sorry, I can’t help right now,” when that would take just as long to say as answering her question. The problem is their frequency (6-10 times a day) and repetitiveness (asking the same question over and over again each time the situation comes up).
    3) She’s aware of the problem, to an extent. She’ll constantly preface her questions with “My mind is a sieve!” or “I’m having a senior moment!” So she knows her memory is terrible. She takes lots and lots of notes but so much of her job (office manager) requires just knowing a lot off the top of your head and not having to sift through pages and pages for a specific answer. She’ll tell me that she spent time looking for an answer or that she looked at her notes but still had questions. But I swear, she could ask me a question for the 15th time and genuinely not remember that we’ve ever had the conversation before. Her memory is just that bad.

    Assuming that our director (her manager) has abdicated the responsibility of managing her, is there anything else I should be doing at this point? My workload is not so heavy that it’s impacting my ability to get things done (usually), but it drives me up the wall! The few times I’ve responded in a tone that was less than patient and kind, others have noticed and commented (probably because it’s so unlike me). I recognize this may just be a grin-and-bear-it, this-is-the-reality-of-this-workplace type of situation.

    1. Yvette

      Since you are stuck dealing with her anyway, and much of it is quick, could you schedule a time of day or week or month or whatever where you answer her questions. Not getting an immediate response may either force her to figure it our on her own (up until now why should she, her system works for her) and get things done, or she won’t get things done and people will notice and realize why, or she will pester others, again bringing attention to the fact that she cannot do the job.

      I can’t see where anyone would fault you for not wanting to be interrupted constantly and you would still be willing to help, just on your terms. If you are doing someone a favor, they need to be flexible as well.

      1. BookCocoon

        I would say about 60% of the questions come from phone calls she gets, where someone calls to ask a question, she can’t remember the policy on it, and she puts them on hold to come ask me for the umpteenth time what she should say.

        1. Yvette

          Ouch!! Could you (or better she) put together a word doc of FAQ’s? Maybe build it over time as questions are asked and then she can use the search function in word to find it?

          What does she do when you are not there?

          1. BookCocoon

            Ooh, I like that idea a lot about creating my own FAQs document for her. Thank you!

            I have no idea what she does when I’m out sick or on vacation. I think she just guesses. Like the LW’s coworker, she’s probably right most of the time. The problem is that when she’s wrong and tells someone the wrong thing, it can have huge, time-consuming consequences, which I think is why she’s always asking, even in the times when she thinks she knows the answer already.

            1. Evan Þ

              “The problem is that when she’s wrong and tells someone the wrong thing, it can have huge, time-consuming consequences, which I think is why she’s always asking, even in the times when she thinks she knows the answer already.”

              I have this same issue sometimes. A FAQ document I built for myself, plus searchable email, are saving things.

            2. Susan Sto Helit

              I’m in a different industry – one with a bit more leeway for ‘I feel this is the correct answer here’, rather than ‘this is what the policy is’ – but for me, as the most junior member on my team, I find that it really helps for me to understand clearly exactly what it is that I have ownership of, and what should be my manager’s call.

              With a previous manager, who tended to micro-manage, it was hard to feel confident making ANY decision for myself, because he always tended to weigh in anyway. That got me into the habit of running pretty much everything by him automatically, because otherwise he would interfere.

              With a more hands-off manager, though, I’m happy knowing what’s my responsibility, and going ahead and making the decisions within that area – knowing that I can back them up if I need to. If I feel something requires confirming with my manager I’ll go run it by him, but generally by giving my proposed solution and checking he’s on board. It’s a very different dynamic.

              Is it possible your colleague has been micromanaged in the past, and needs help adjusting to the idea that it’s ok to make her own decisions?

              1. BookCocoon

                She was out of the workforce for 20 years, so I don’t think that’s a factor.

                I think what’s more likely a factor is that she does occasionally give people the wrong information when she doesn’t check (because she forgets everything) and it has, on a rare occasion, blown up into a huge problem that took us a lot of time to sort out. So I think that’s made her nervous about giving out information without double-checking that she’s giving the right answer.

      2. Little Bean

        My first thought was that this might not work for an office manager role if she’s dealing with the public, because there’s probably someone standing there (or on the phone) waiting for a reply. But if that’s the case, maybe the solution here is to train her on how to handle situations where she doesn’t know the answer, with a response other than just ask BookCocoon. For example, maybe you could help equip her with some scripts to say “I’m not sure about that, let me look into it and I will get back to you. What’s the best way to reach you?”. Then she could take her time going through her notes and figuring out the answer. Right now, she’s been trained to believe that it’s faster and easier for her to ask you for the answers every time. I had a former coworker once who relied on me for things like this – she would even straight-up say “I could look it up myself but I knew you would know the answer.” I got in the habit of not answering her question and instead just saying things like “Oh, I think it was in that email a few weeks ago – if you search your inbox for X, I’m sure you’ll find it. Let me know if you can’t find it and I’ll forward it to you!” So not refusing to help but sort of teaching her to fish rather than giving her the fish.

        1. Yvette

          Very good!!! With the added perk that if she keeps giving that response, especially repeatedly to the same person for the same kinds of questions it may get back to her manager that she does not appear to know her job very well, forcing them to deal with it.

        2. BookCocoon

          Yeah, I think the “waiting person” piece is a big part of the issue. If I tell her to go back and check her notes, she’ll look really uncomfortable and say she already tried looking for an answer and the person is waiting on hold and can I just please help.

          1. INeedANap

            I really think you need to let her fail. This sucks a lot for the person on the phone, but ultimately it’s her job that’s on the line and clearly no one is going to do anything about her while she’s not failing.

          2. Yvette

            That is where the I will check and get back to you phrase comes in. If that is not convenient for the person on the other end of the phone, too bad. Like INeedANap says below, perhaps you need to let her fail.

          3. Not So NewReader

            Good, you know her pattern. Tell her, when she is not on the phone, that you have noticed she brings you questions with the explanation that the person is waiting for her answer. Let her know that this is a problem that needs to be solved as you cannot continue doing her job plus yours. (Don’t get into the fact that you are not that busy. That is not relevant. You are not being paid to do her job anymore. That is the only relevant fact here.)

            Ask her how she handles that when you are out. Listen to her response. It could be that she says, “I eventually find it in my notes and I call them back”, or similar type answer. This is your opportunity to say, “Good, then that is what you need to do when I am HERE, also.

            You can definitely let her know that you will no longer be giving her speedy answers for people who are waiting. Going forward, any question she has you will first ask her what she has done so far to find an answer to that question. She is absolutely counting on you to just give her an answer, she is counting on the fact that it takes too much work to pull an answer out of her. Unfortunately, the only response to this is to make her work for her own answer. It’s either push back like this OR spend the rest of your days answering the same questions over and over. These are the choices we face with people like this. So maybe it takes you three months of pushing back vs. spending the rest of your life answering her. Pushing back starts to look like the better idea, right?

            Anyway, have this conversation BEFORE she comes to you with a question. Tell her this is the new set up. You are not being paid to do her job any more and you have your own work. If you feel guilty tell her one or two questions a week is fine, so she should chose those questions wisely.

            In as much as it’s not fair to you that she keeps asking, it’s also not fair to her that you keep answering. She cannot stand on her own two feet and as a manager she absolutely has to stand on her own two feet to do the job successfully.

            If you have to you can also mention the memory jokes she makes. If she makes a joke about sieves or seniors, just say, “We ALL have trouble remembering some stuff. You will have to work out what you will do to help yourself remember. This is something we all have to sort out because it is expected that we remember lots of basic information.” Then, the next time she jokes again, you can say, “We talked about that. And we said that you should work out a system to help yourself. What have you done since that conversation to help yourself?”

    2. Nan

      Can she type her notes? That helps me when I need something to stick. The effort to get it down so I understand it makes it stick.

      Also, she can then search the document for what she’s looking for rather than shuffle papers. It’s faster.

      1. BookCocoon

        I think she has typed many of her notes… into many different documents… that are saved all over her Desktop.

        Honestly, I’m not 100% sure she would know how to search a document without asking for help on how to do it each time. Her tech skills are… not great. Thankfully they encompass a relatively small part of her job, but still.

        1. Irene Adler

          Is there a training session (not involving you) of some kind that she can attend to help with her skills?
          She should be able to look up instructions herself for each regular circumstance that she encounters.

          This is an unfair burden to place on you.
          I like the delay tactic Yvette suggested.

          Her issue with her memory is a real event. BUT that does NOT make it your issue. She needs to find ways to deal with faulty memory. Her supervisor needs to task her with creating/maintaining a look-up file for phone use so that she is self-sufficient. Asking you should be a last resort for the totally unusual phone issue. What happens if one day you take another job?

          FYI:I had a lab tech who had some memory issues. But she took matters in hand and used post-it notes as a memory aid. Her work was flawless!

          1. BookCocoon

            Oh man, you should see her desk. Literally every available space on the sides of her desk is covered in Post-It notes.

            I am job seeking right now, and I’ve said she’s going to crash and burn when I’m gone. Until I actually leave, though, I’m not sure that anything’s going to change. (Or if anything will even change then — our director is highly averse to firing people unless there’s some issue so egregious that it violates our employee handbook for appropriate conduct.)

            During her first year here our director made her take all sorts of online trainings. But since she retains very little, it didn’t help a whole lot.

            1. fposte

              Oh, man. I feel the most for people who are clearly trying very hard to overcome a challenge and just aren’t managing it–but it still doesn’t obligate you to carry her memory load.

            2. Paxton

              The receptionist I handed my job off to wasn’t very tech savvy so we made a binder that she could print out the instructions and put it in. Then it was her responsibility to organize it in a way that made sense and she could reference.

        2. Blue

          Could she handle putting all her notes in one word doc and remembering “CTRL+F” (or putting it on a post it directly in front of her face)? Because it seems like that should be enough to fix most of the problem, and I know even my most technophobic coworker can manage that.

          1. BookCocoon

            Yeah, I really like Yvette’s suggestion above of putting her most FAQs into a document for her. I think she could handle searching that.

          2. SpaceNovice

            Even better: create a word document where all the section headers are her common questions, then a table of contents to make for easy clicking. (Searching for an answer would still be possible, too.)

            Bonus is if you design this document to help out more than just her. Document document document. Maybe put her in control of creating this document (if she can handle it). That should boost her confidence, and it’s possible that her confidence just needs to be boosted (in addition to the action of writing stuff down) to help this stuff stick.

        3. Stranger than fiction

          Ugh, that’s the problem with my coworker who’s like this. Their PC skills just aren’t up to par, so they ask me because they don’t know how to do a basic search or find.

    3. Princess Penelope

      After three years (!!!), your patience tank is entitled to be empty!
      Her: “My mind is a sieve!”
      You: “I’m sorry! That must be very hard for you. But your personal problem is not my professional problem.”

      1. BookCocoon

        I think our director would have an actual fit if there was someone waiting on the phone and I refused to answer the question that our office manager couldn’t remember the answer to.

          1. BookCocoon

            Mm, possibly. My supervisor can sometimes go on weird power trips and might feel the need to “report” me. And if he found out, he would never. let. it. go. for as long as I worked here.

      2. Irene Adler

        Or:

        Her: My mind is a sieve!”
        You: “So what did your doctor instruct you to do about this when you informed him/her of this fact?”

        Maybe a little too cheeky.
        But clearly she’s a manipulator. Maybe to cover the memory issue. Maybe because it is easier than actually learning what to do. And she has learned that management is okay with this.

        1. Salamander

          Alas, I think this is the case. I think she’s going to keep doing this until you make it more uncomfortable for her to ask than to figure out the answer on her own.

          So, when she does this, I would be tempted to go over to her desk, stand over her, and say, in a no-nonsense tone: “Please write this down.” Watch her do it. Ask her to read what she wrote back to you and have her make any needed corrections. She may get flustered and complain that you’re treating her like a child, but that’s okay. She needs to learn that your job is not to be her assistant, and that if she keeps persisting with this, she will be experiencing some uncomfortable moments.

          If you can, I would also be tempted not to pick up the phone every time she calls. You’re allowed to take breaks, and you shouldn’t be chained to your desk or your phone in order to hold her hand.

          1. BookCocoon

            So, a few things.
            1) I don’t think she’s a manipulator. I think she’s genuinely trying really, really, really hard and is not playing with a full deck for whatever reason. So it’s hard to push back when I think she is legitimately trying her hardest. She is very sweet. She is very aware of her own issues, which I think is compounding her own tentativeness about answering questions without help, because she knows there’s a good chance she’s forgetting something a lot of the time.
            2) It’s a small office. She’s walking 15 feet from her desk to my office and standing in my doorway to ask me questions. I’ve tried shutting my door and she’s called me or knocked on my door. I had a conversation with her about not interrupting me when my door is closed. So now she will knock and open the door and ask if I can be interrupted now because she has someone on the phone who needs an answer.
            3) I have been called out before when I have not acted 100% patient with her, because again, small office, my supervisor can overhear our conversations, though her supervisor, our director, is far enough away to be oblivious of all that’s going on, when he’s even here and not in meetings. So there’s definitely a larger issues at play here about expectations, and that’s probably a conversation I need to have with my supervisor. Like, am I allowed to set boundaries, and how can I do that in a way that will not hurt me professionally? In a prior conversation she suggested shutting my door so I need to circle back about how that has not worked.

            I really do appreciate all the suggestions and am not trying to sound like a “no, nothing will work” downer. I loved Yvette’s suggestion above of creating my own “FAQs” document for her and then teaching her how to search it.

            1. fposte

              As I said, I feel for her, and I also feel for you, because I think she can’t do the job she’s hired for and you’re being made to be her belt and suspenders. It also sounds like your management may be a little conflicted on this as well, since you state your director is likely to be unhappy if you can’t supply her with information for a caller but your supervisor has stated you can shut the door (and presumably therefore deny her an answer).

              I confess I’m kind of on the “no, nothing will work” side. I don’t see her changing–I’m betting you’re just going to get questions about how to search that FAQ on top of the regular ones–and it seems like your management expects you to keep this hole filled. It wouldn’t hurt to create the FAQ just to try, and also meet with your supervisor and get outlined just what kind of rebuffs you’re allowed to offer. I’m not clear how directly the co-worker has been told that a locked door means “no knock, no open” or if she has and that’s just disappeared into the memory hole as well; if the latter, all you can really do is ask about locking.

              Sorry. This would make me crazy.

              1. BookCocoon

                Thanks. I appreciate the empathy and the validation.

                I do think I need to have another conversation with my supervisor about this. I did have a direct conversation with the office manager after I shut my door and she forwarded a call to me, like, “Hey, I almost never shut my door. When I do, it means I’m working on something that I can’t be disturbed. Please don’t forward calls to me when my door is shut.” But apparently she took that to mean, “If my door is shut, please knock on my door and ask me whether I can take a call or answer a question.” Writing this out, I realize that even though I said, “I can’t be disturbed” the only specific direction I gave her was “don’t forward calls to my phone.” So I need to find a way of clarifying that more for her.

                I think you’re right that FAQ document isn’t going to help that much, but I think just being able to say, “Oh, is that not in the FAQ document?” (and when she says, “Oh, I forgot to check,” saying, “Please do and let me know if it’s not in there”) will be a valuable way of redirecting her that doesn’t reflect poorly on me professionally.

            2. Mephyle

              For #2, I think it is time to start answering “no” to the question “Can I disturb you?” when “no” is the honest answer – which I guess it is, since you had your door closed.
              You could combine this one with the suggestion above of coaching her to tell the caller she will call them back when she has the answer.

            3. MommyMD

              I fell bad for you. I do think she’s a manipulator who relies on other people to do her legwork. Many manipulative people are extra friendly and play the stupid card. I’d find a way to not help her so much and I would never start a conversation with her that you don’t have to.

              “I’m sure if you search your files, you’ll find it” said kindly and professionally.

      3. MommyMD

        Exactly. I’m all for helping out but after a year you’ve worn your welcome. Let her find her way out of this herself. If she can’t, she’s not right for the job.

    4. Festive Terrarium

      Do you think she might actually be cognitively impaired? What you are describing sounds a lot like early memory loss. I’m not diagnosing anyone over the internet obviously but I do wonder if this might be what is going on.

      1. BookCocoon

        Very possibly, yeah. She’s clearly aware of the issue, though, so I’m not really sure what more I can do. I’m 15-20 years younger than her so I feel awkward giving her life advice.

        1. Festive Terrarium

          It’s not an easy situation. If the manager isn’t responsive, could you go to HR with your concerns? I’m thinking that if this is what is actually going on, and she is eligible for disability, it would be better for her to apply for that than to be eventually be fired because she can’t do her job. But yeah it would be very awkward to have that conversation with a co-worker.

          But it could be a million other things like anxiety or what have you. I have a co-worker that can’t seem to do anything without double checking first and I think that’s anxiety. And the aggravating thing is I’ll answer her question and then she’ll argue with me about my answer! So now I just say I don’t know or check with your manager to everything.

      2. Stranger than fiction

        That’s what I think is going on with my coworker! I just forwarded her an email the other day for the third time in two months! But this wasn’t an issue where she couldn’t find the info, this was like it was the first time she was hearing/asking about it

    5. hbc

      Besides telling her to stop leaving the customer on hold (which I think is a great idea), I would also:

      -For anything that involves any judgment, start making her choose whether she thinks A or B is right and explain why. She’ll be more likely to remember it, she’ll be more likely to feel good about her instincts if she’s getting them right, and coming to you isn’t effort-free.

      -For anything that’s pure memory, start developing your own forgetfulness. “I don’t recall, but I’m pretty sure I sent you an email on how to do A & B back in November. You search your stuff, and I’ll see what I can find.”

      -Start being busy. “I can’t stop this work midstream, I’ll get back to you in 30 minutes.” She doesn’t have to know that the reason you can’t stop is that you’ve had it with her.

      1. BookCocoon

        I’ve struggled with how to do #1 in a way that doesn’t come across at totally patronizing. Part of that is my own weirdness because she’s older than me, and part of that is being gun-shy from being reprimanded when I’ve lost my patience with her in the past. Any suggestions for how to approach it in a non-condescending manner?

        1. designbot

          Be as straightforward as possible?
          “BookCocoon, the client’s on the line asking about our latest teapot. Is that A, or is it B?”
          “Which do you think it is?
          “Oh, I don’t know, can’t you just tell me?”
          “Of course I will but I think you’ll remember better if you stop to think about which you think it right and why. Give it a go, I bet you actually know this!”
          The key I think it to remain positive and matter of fact especially as you explain yourself. Think of yourself as a coach or a cheerleeder, reminding her that she has the information she needs.

          1. BookCocoon

            OK, I think I can try that. A portion of her questions are already phrased as, “It’s A, right?” so I think this might result in more questions being phrased that way, but I think maybe just making her do the mental work might make her more reluctant to come ask me.

    6. Sarah

      If you have the PTO time, I’d suggest taking a 2-week vacation where you are literally unavailable to her, and let things either burn down (in which case your boss will need to deal with it somehow) or she learns to cope.

      1. Salamander

        This. I’m sure that this will end very quickly if she calls the boss for help every time she needs it.

      2. BookCocoon

        I have taken a week-long vacation before. Nothing has happened that’s not salvageable, and sometimes I just come back to a bunch of phone messages to return. But I do think she would crash and burn if left on her own for multiple weeks at a time.

        I have a lot of shorter vacations planned right now, but I did think of this for a strategy if and when I find a new job (hopefully soon). Since I will get to cash out my vacation anyway, I thought it might be better to just take a week of vacation and then come back for a day or two, which would be everyone’s last chance to ask me questions. Since everyone has my phone number I am afraid that I would still get texted questions even after changing jobs, and since my spouse works here as well I would not want him to be punished if I abruptly blocked everyone from the office. This would be a gracious gesture to allow them to figure out what they don’t know before I leave forever and make it more understandable that I was refusing to answer any more questions.

        1. Lou

          Alison’s got a couple of letters that address what to do if you get texted questions from old job after you’ve left, so if that happens (or you just want to prepare) you could look them up. Basically, just don’t answer them. Or answer with “new job’s keeping me super busy, hope you’re well!” but only after 7pm or something, implying that you aren’t checking your phone during the day so that you cannot be relied on for a quick, easy answer. Either way don’t answer their questions. This is especially helpful if you’ve put together some kind of “things to know” materials that you can point them back to. Once you’ve left you’re not responsible anymore. And if your spouse was getting grief he could say something similar “oh, BookCocoon is so busy at the new job! They must not have time to check their phone.”

          1. BookCocoon

            Oh, I absolutely plan to set boundaries. I’m not concerned about my ability to do that. I’m more concerned with 1) what will happen to the people we work with if and when the office manager crashes and burns, both because I do genuinely care about them and because it impacts my husband’s work, and 2) my husband’s already on thin ice with the director for other reasons (mostly unwarranted) and I don’t want to give anyone another reason to view him poorly.

    7. ThursdaysGeek

      I have some memory issues too. And because of that I keep a journal of the work I have done (electronic), notes on work I need to do, and write up notes on processes. I use this as a strength, and people now come to me for answers and documentation. She’s using her bad memory as an excuse, and it absolutely does not need to be that way. (That doesn’t really help you. Sorry.)

      1. BookCocoon

        No, it’s helpful to know that other people with memory issues have found systems that work for them other than “treat coworker as my external memory.”

      2. Not So NewReader

        ThurdaysGeek is right.
        A friend had a horrible stroke. She did not know her name and her family became total strangers. Her husband bought her (I forget the exact thing) a portable device to put everything into. She carries it with her EVERYWHERE. Oh btw, she had to teach herself how to read again before she could use the device. Yeah, bad situation.

        However, it goes to show what people can do to over come the hand they have been dealt. She still does not remember getting married but her and hubby are still together. Powerful stuff.

        I had to speak a little firmly to a friend once. He kept saying, “I am not good with names.” He said this a LOT. Finally one day I said, “We have a finite amount of energy. You can either put your energy into saying you are not good with names all the time OR you can conserve that energy to put it into actually remembering names. You have a choice.” (This was a case of excessively stating “I am not good at names.”)
        So he stopped saying that most of the time… now I see he is remembering more and more names. He’s putting that energy into the extra effort it takes to remember names.

    8. Nacho

      Is there anywhere else she could find these answers, like a website or a manual? If not, help her create one, not just for her, but anyone else who gets that job in the future.

      If there is someplace already, then stop answering her questions. Tell her flat out that you don’t have the time to answer these questions, and she should be looking at the manual, even if that takes longer than asking you.

      1. BookCocoon

        The breadth of knowledge she should have under her belt at this point is such that it can be found lots of places, depending on the area — our website, our manual, past emails, or just from having a general understanding of how our office processes work.

        I think creating my own list of her FAQs will help me determine whether the questions are mostly things she could find if she looked hard enough or more basic things that she’s just expected to know as a human being who’s existed in our office for the past three years.

        A recent example would be… let’s say that one of our llama farms switched to a new breed of llama, and our office spent an entire year dealing with the issues arising from that, including multiple conversations involving the office manager so she could field phone calls. And then she comes to me and says, “Does Happy Farm have X or Y breed of llama?” and in my head I’m like, “Ummm… do you not remember the past year and all the conversations about switching Happy Farm to Y breed?” So I tell her Y breed, and then a week later she comes back and says, “Do any of our farms have Y breed of llama? Or is that not a thing?” These are the kinds of things I don’t think we’d have to write down because… can your memory really be that bad?

        1. RUKiddingMe

          Ugh! Good luck with a swift job search/offer/change. This will never, ever…ever get better…ever. Is your spouse also looking to change employers?

    9. Kiwi

      I think all the ideas about how to deal with this are great, especially the FAQ doc. Hopefully they’ll help cut back how much she asks you.

      But if they don’t, could you reframe it to yourself as being part of your job duties? That your daily tasks just include answering her questions. You could even report it to your manager like you do every other task – today I finished the packaging for the new teapot, wrote a press release, and answered 10 customer support questions for Coworker. That might make the issue more visible to your manager, and if it’s just part of your job, it might make it feel less infuriating.

      1. BookCocoon

        That’s part of why I think I need to have another conversation with my supervisor. It’s hard because she’s not the director, who is the office manager’s supervisor, so her expectations for me might not be the same as his expectations for me. The vibe I’ve gotten so far from the director is “We all help each other here, and I expect you to be a good colleague” without any real limit to what that entails. I’m very good at my job so it would take a lot more than this to derail the quality of my work, but it’s just so irritating to be constantly interrupted in order to be asked questions that the office manager should know the answers to after 3(!) years on the job. And that’s really the challenge — I can’t frame it necessarily in terms of “This is impacting my work in X way” when it’s more a case of “I swear I’m going to strangle her if she asks me that same billing question one more time.”

        1. Jenny Next

          But it does have an impact on your work, aside from just irritating the hell out of you. There’s a good deal of literature about how interruptions affect productivity — just Google something like “interruptions at work” and you’ll see.

          I had a situation of constantly being interrupted by many people a few years ago. (This was more having to do with everyone being overloaded and a few people being assigned tasks that were way above their skill set, rather than people with memory issues.) By the end of that long and miserable period, my memory and concentration were shot, I had constant anxiety, and I loathed a job that I had loved for many years. It took me several years to recover.

          My point is that it may not be so serious for you, but not being permitted to focus on your own work is not a trivial thing.

    10. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

      This so much. I just spent my day with a co-worker who acts like every day is their first day. The simplest questions are asked repeatedly because they can’t be bothered to remember. I gave them a 5 minute task and restrained myself from chasing them down after 30 minutes. When they finally returned, they had still managed to do the wrong thing.

    11. Wehaf

      I know you say only you know the answers, but does either your supervisor or hers know them, as well? If so, could you direct her to ask them instead of asking you?

      1. BookCocoon

        No, my supervisor is relatively new and only recently has been able to be convinced that it’s her responsibility to understand the basics of how our office functions. (That’s a separate issue… don’t get me started.) Our director has also not made it his responsibility to understand the ins and outs of our many different policies and processes since they don’t impact his day-to-day work. For any given question it’s possible that someone else will know the answer or that it’s written down somewhere, but it’s such a broad range of questions that come in that it depends on the circumstance.

    12. RUKiddingMe

      Coworker: “What/where/how…X?”

      You: “Oh I don’t know/can’t remember but I’m sure it’s in your notes somewhere.”

      Rinse, repeat. I know you said that it’s just as fast or even faster to give her the answer, but the goal here is to train her to quit asking. Just don’t know/remember (because it’s ‘been so long’ or whatever) ad infinitum.

  2. Arils

    OOOOMMMGGGG. Did I write this in my sleep? Draining coworker who has been around 9 months now. Can’t wait to listen!

  3. Myrin

    Like Alison, I found it really interesting that Jane’s output is actually perfectly alright – I definitely didn’t expect that and am quite intrigued by this seemingly insatiable insecurity of hers.

    1. PieInTheBlueSky

      This may not work for some kinds of tasks, but perhaps the OP can ask Jane to complete a draft first, and then afterwards OP (or someone else on the team) can do a review and give feedback. Maybe this way there would be fewer interruptions.

      1. ABK

        This! Tell her to do it on her own and make as many decisions as she needs to make to get it done. Then you can go over with it with her all at once before it goes “live” or whatever. You can address her decisions and praise her for everything she did right! It will be a great confidence boost for her and way more efficient for you.

  4. Little Bean

    Haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast but just wanted to say that I had the exact same thing happen with a coworker once. Despite extensive training, she was just not picking up on things nearly as quickly as she needed to. It got to the point where people would ask her to write their answer down every time they helped her, then ask her to refer to her notes when she asked the same question again. The good news is that she figured things out. I still don’t quite know why it took so long but after the first year, she started making significant improvements. I’m no longer at that job but she is, and I hear from my former coworkers that she’s actually excellent at her job now.

  5. RG2

    I thought Alison’s advice was great! If it were me, I’d probably also have a conversation with Jane about how the current work environment is different from what she might have experienced in the past. I’d probably say, ‘Hey, it seems like you’re really worried about making mistakes and so you’re triple checking things that you’re already sure are right. I know other places aren’t like this and you may be doing that because of your last work environment, but our bosses understand that people make occasional mistakes and aren’t going to punish you for that. We prefer to be more efficient and keep the team focused on moving forward on other work.’ (Or whatever language is accurate for your work environment).

    I had a coworker have a similar conversation with me when I transitioned out of a toxic workplace and it was a great wakeup call for me (I was reading emails multiple times for grammar pet peeves my old boss would have freaked out about and it was super inefficient and unnecessary).

  6. Willow Sunstar

    Sounds like you have the female version of Monday, except he had very little other work experience. Good luck–I had to find another job to not have to put up with it anymore, and it went on for 3 years and management did not care.

  7. essEss

    I don’t have a chance to listen to the podcast, but if you are sending her the answers in email then you should sit down with her to create email folders in her inbox to put documentation for each of her topics…. this way she can file the answer away AND be able to find it again quickly.
    Then when she re-asks you a question, you can ask her which inbox folder she already checked for the answer.
    If she gets answers verbally, tell her to write HERSELF an email with the answer and then file it just like the other emails. Tell her that you won’t give her the answer unless she’s already read the instructions she has saved in the inbox folders.

  8. Candy Clouston

    I’d specifically address asking multiple people the same question by telling her to pick one person she thinks is best for her question and trusting that answer. She’s not seeking a second surgical opinion here; these sound like less than critical questions (to which everyone seems to have the same answer anyway) and the world will not end if someone misleads her and she makes a mistake. (In fact, showing evidence that mistakes aren’t fatal and that how they’re addressed is as important as avoiding them when possible might be helpful.) She might also benefit by an informal review in which her successes are recognized so that she has an anchor in reality w/r/t her performance. (That talk would also include the need to respect others’ time when she doesn’t seem to really need it to perform well.)

  9. hayling

    Loved this ep! I hope you do more seasons! It’s the perfect thing for me to listen to on my afternoon stretch break.

    I was thinking you should put a link to the blog post in the show description/notes for each episode. I bet it would encourage more listeners to come chat about it on the blog.

  10. Tad03102

    This is a sign. I have considered sending in almost the exact same question for the past few days.

  11. Teapot librarian

    Alison, I love the podcast. I wanted to share a few specific reasons why. 1. In the back and forth with callers, you use some of the same techniques you suggest in responses. On yesterday’s I noticed you saying “is that something you can do?” It sounded so natural when you asked, it made it seem much more normal to use that question. 2. Relatedly, I learn best by reading, followed up by listening to reinforce what I’ve read. Having the podcast is great for that second piece, and if there’s particularly useful scripting in a podcast, I can listen over and over to get it firmly in my head.
    So kudos, and I hope you’re able to keep it up!

      1. zora

        I second! I laughed out loud when you said “does that sound like something you can do?” since you’ve written it here so often. It is such a perfect phrase for coaching!

  12. Just stoppin' by to chat

    Thanks so much to MJ for transcribing the podcast, and thanks to Allison for making it available. Great advice, Allison! I really appreciated how you kept reiterating that the Guest had already gone above and beyond for their former employer. I remember how nervous I was when I gave my 2 weeks notice to my first employer out of college (this was a for-profit company, so 2 weeks notice was standard) I had really grown in that company, and many of my co-workers were friends outside of work. As a result, I felt like I was letting people down/doing something wrong. However, it was definitely time for me to leave, and I’m now at a company where there is much greater potential, and it’s the kind of place I want to retire from (and I’m still 25 years away from retirement!) Anyways, I was so nervous when I gave my notice, and even created a PowerPoint deck with my proposed transition plan before my boss even asked for it. Then, fast forward five years when I changed jobs within my current company, and I wasn’t nervous at all. It was all due to the emotional attachment I had to my first employer out of school, but now I can see that changing jobs is just part of doing business.

    1. Just stoppin' by to chat

      Opps…this comment was in reference to the previous podcast about the person that was still training their replacement 3 months on

  13. BadPlanning

    I wonder if part of the toxic environment she came from included ever changing rules/procedures. Every time she thought she had something, she’d get in trouble because something had changed. Or they only claimed there was a procedure but it was totally arbitrary and ever changing depending on who you talk to. So checking with everyone/asking afresh covers is a CYA move.

    But after several months of consistency, you’d hope she’d feel like, “Ah, this place is not ever shifting sand.”

  14. Debster

    A little late to the game, but this was a great episode! I could have written this letter. I have a coworker who has been here at least two years. My managers are aware that she is struggling, but I don’t think she will ever be fired. She has gone through three trainers & nothing they say or do seems to be helping! She goes around asking multiple people the same question (I like to call it “taking a survey”) & she has no shame in letting you know that’s what she is doing: “Okay thanks… I’m going to go ask Joe about it. Not that I don’t trust you, I just want to make sure.” There have been several instances when I have given her an answer to a question, but then she’ll come back a week later and ask me the same question over again! She just doesn’t seem to retain anything!

    I think I will take Alison’s advice & start telling her to review her notes and previous emails. As well as to stop asking me for my advice if she is only going to ignore it and ask other people.

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