my boss’s colleague wants me to return his phone calls for him

Here’s a different spin on a recent question. A reader writes:

I’m not the admin from the earlier post about borrowing an assistant, but it did encourage me to ask about this. I am the executive assistant at a large hotel. Since we have a number of departments and only a few admins, my boss, the General Manager, encourages me to help out where I’m needed.

One department head, who has worked closely with my boss for years and was actually the Assistant General Manager when the hotel opened, occasionally forwards voicemails to me and asks me to handle them. Sometimes it’s about a more complicated issue, like having to say no to a favor somebody’s relative asked of him, and he’ll ask me to come to his office where he’ll spend 10 minutes explaining the situation and what I need to do about it. Basically, in most of these cases he spends more time giving me instructions than he would have if he just called the person back himself.

It happens infrequently enough that I haven’t spoken up or tried to push back yet, but I don’t want him to make a habit out of asking someone else to do parts of his own job for him, especially when I could be helping out people who actually need my help instead. I’m also uncomfortable with the fact that he’s not even asking me for help, he’s just sending these messages to me and expecting me to deal with them. What should I do the next time this happens? Or should I just accept this as part of my job?

The question is really whether or not responding to these voicemails falls into your purview. I mean, if Jane handles X and Bob gets a call about X, it doesn’t matter that Jane doesn’t report to Bob — it makes sense for him to forward the message to her to deal with. So the important thing here is what type of messages this guy is passing along to you, and whether your boss considers those to be things that fall within your role.

If the answer isn’t clear, or if you’re pretty sure that they shouldn’t be falling to you, then you should talk to your boss about it. Say something like, “Hey, Bob has been asking me to handle X, Y, and Z on his behalf, and I’m not sure if I should be doing that.”  If Bob’s requests are keeping you from more important work, say that too. (But be honest about this; if you actually have time to get it all done, don’t misrepresent that.)

It’s possible that your boss is going to tell you yes, it’s perfectly appropriate for Bob to be sending you those things, in which case there’s your answer. (This actually seems likely since you noted that your boss encourages you to help out where you’re needed.) Or she might tell you no, in which case you can start pushing back on Bob (with either a case-by-case “I can’t take that on because I’m busy with projects for Edwina” or a big-picture “Hey, Edwina clarified that you should actually handle these calls yourself”).

Now, some people might say that you should skip your boss and just start pushing back on Bob directly … but it’s really important to be aligned with your boss first about whether these are things you should be handling. If it turns out that they are, you want to know that. Basically, the point is — if you’re not positive, ask. Then proceed accordingly.

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Bridgette*

    “Sometimes it’s about a more complicated issue, like having to say no to a favor somebody’s relative asked of him.”

    This sounds like a personal call to me that Bob is asking the OP to handle. And that would definitely be out of her scope of responsibilities. Much like the commenter the other day who told the story about her boss that asked her to book her hair appointments and pick up cupcakes for her daughter’s birthday.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it could depend on specifics. For instance, it could be a call from someone asking for a discount on catering an event at the hotel. If the OP often handles catering calls, it wouldn’t be crazy for him to have her return the call — making it clear to the caller that these calls will go through their official channels, regardless of the personal connection.

      1. Bridgette*

        That makes sense. At first it read like Bob is just trying to get out of a sticky situation with a friend or relative. :)

        1. Josh S*

          That was my first reading too. If it takes 5 minutes to handle the call, and 15 minutes to explain to the admin how to handle the call, it’s clearly not a time issue preventing Bob from taking care of it himself. So…a personal issue? Foisting a task off to the OP because it’s uncomfortable?

          I dunno. But if Bob is just getting rid of unpleasant tasks that are his purview, he needs to grow a backbone. Management isn’t always comfortable.

      2. A Bug!*

        In my office I sometimes have to handle similar calls. A friend of my boss tells someone else “Oh, my buddy does that, look him up and give him a call, tell him I sent you and he’ll cut you a deal.”

        Except the friend of my boss is really more of a casual acquaintance that doesn’t understand boundaries and shouldn’t be making promises like that.

      3. Paul*

        This is my thought exactly. I’ve had to do it for bosses before.

        The executive wants to stay friends with or at least not offend someone, so by having an employee below the executive’s level inform the friend/relative/acquaintance, it makes it seem like it’s just a business thing that the executive can’t help (even if he or she actually can).

        IMO, in this case, the executive is probably handling this the way he is very intentionally. Then again, perhaps he’s just bad with confrontation. Doubtful if he’s an executive, but who knows.

  2. AJ in Memphis*

    I agree with AAM. She should speak with her boss first to clarify her responsibilities and if it’s not something she should be doing, then it’s the boss’ job to talk with their colleague, not the OP.

    If she should be helping this person, then the boss should be giving boundaries on what is okay to do and not do to and also follow up with the colleague.

  3. Rachel*

    Wish there were more examples, however, speaking as someone who is in a very similar role (I am an EA in the hotel industry, and I have multiple properties reporting to my boss), I think what the manager is asking her to do is completely in the scope of her responsibilities. Internal rate requests or “friends & family” rates and reservations are often granted and tracked by the EA. If the OP needs to say no, just call them back and say “I’ve looked into occupancies during that time and unfortunately, we are already at 80% (or whatever), so discounts are not availble (and suggest they look at other dates).”

    If the manager is asking her to respond to guest complaints, again, that’s well within her realm. As EA, they should be able to respond to guest issues and be empowered enough to seek solutions to resolve them. That’s what an Executive Assistant IS. An individual able to speak on behalf on the executive team.

    If the manager in question is asking OP to respond to personal errands, that’s where you draw the line and simply state you are not comfortable handling a specific issue.

  4. NewReader*

    He used to be Assistant General Manager. Now he is a department head. Demotion? Could be just a sign of the times and not reflective of his work. Is there a current Assistant General Manager?

    Is he the only one doing this, just dumping things in your lap?

    Are there common threads running through his requests. For example- he does not want to have to deliver bad news. Or perhaps he avoids certian people?
    To me it sounds really awkward for you to have to go into a conversation with people he knows. Am picturing myself going into a business and asking a favor of a specific person. I get a response later from another person that I have never met? oooo- CHILLY. Tells me where I am at.
    Do you have any of the voice mails? It might not be a bad idea to play the voice mails for your boss so he can see first hand how things are going. He may pick up on something that we are not thinking about here.

    1. OP*

      It’s not a demotion; he requested that job because it’ll help him on the track to becoming a GM. I only mentioned it since I suspected it might be a carryover habit from when he used to be an AGM (a position I directly report to).

      The common thread is that he wants me to say “no” to people, basically (some he knows, some he doesn’t know), and doesn’t want to be bothered with telling them himself. The thing is that I can’t honestly say he doesn’t have the time to do it himself, since he had the time to explain each situation to me.

      1. NewReader*

        Yeah, it sounded like it could be a carry over habit from his old position.

        Well, you would be doing him a favor by chatting with your boss. If he wants to become a GM then he will benefit from the chat about “please and thank you” and the chat about his aversion to the “no” word.

        These are two basic skills a manager should have. Is it possible that people in his department see the same two problems? You may not be the only one he is doing it to.

  5. OP*

    Thank you for the always-sound advice and for answering so quickly, AAM!

    There haven’t been any personal calls or anything out of line, it’s just all simple voicemails he could handle himself. Like I said, the situation is far from critical — I just wanted an idea of how to deal if it does become too much. And I’m happy to do exactly what you said; if I’m too busy, I’ll say so.

    My boss has been great about handling managers who try to dump too much of their own work off on me because I’m so “quick and efficient” (it happens a lot!), so I trust that if Bob starts treating me like his personal assistant, my boss will tell him to back off once he knows about what’s going on.

  6. Lilybell*

    It sounds like he wants you to make calls that he finds uncomfortable. I’m an EA that had a slightly similar situation – we worked for a famous politican (at one of his agencies) and my boss always wanted me to call high level people at City Hall for personal favors (like asking the Mayor to come speak at her personal charity event or for donations). The people at City Hall were getting frustrated with me and it was extremely awkward. I finally sat her down and told her that I became an executive assistant for a reason – so I don’t have to be responsible for a company’s bottom line, so I won’t ever have to fire someone and so I can leave at the end of the day and not have to think about work. I told her that making uncomfortable calls begging for favors is above my pay grade; she was annoyed with me for two days and pouted but she never had me make one of those awful calls again.

  7. Emily*

    If it’s any consolation, I kinda wish my boss would ask me to say ‘no’ to his favor requests instead of asking me to do the favor myself!

  8. Steve G*

    I’m totally in agreement with the OP that this guy has crossed the line. I am an Account Manager and do alot of “portfolio management” work… any task that are unpleasant, or that no one finds like steering to the right person, or take too long, or require a phone calls (in these days of people prefering emails over calls to the degree that some people are nervous making calls)…end up on my desk. And I get some of the scenario as well that the person takes 3 minutes to explain something to me where it would have been a one minute call.

    My organization is working on holding such people more accountable for such these tasks and not dumping them on people in my position, which shows you it is recognized as wrong at least at one company.

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