my coworker’s questions are getting out of hand

A reader writes:

I have a coworker issue that isn’t really dire, just annoying. My coworker and I started the same job on the same day, about five months ago. She is very thorough and competent once she gets something, but the trouble is that she seems to be afraid to do anything unless she has checked with me (or someone else) 2-3 times on any given issue. I have spent almost half an hour in the past trying to convince her that we didn’t have to attend a cancelled meeting. We regularly dial in to teleconferences, and I am just now to the point where I don’t have to tell her how to dial in if there are not explicit instructions on the email invitation. Once or twice, she has asked me “What does that say?” in regards to an email we’ve both been CC’ed on. Last week, she was getting ready to work from home for the first time and she asked me if she needed to bring her laptop power cable!

It does not seem like a severe enough problem to go to my boss, and I know that with any new job comes a lot of questions — I certainly have had my fair share! However, it has gotten to the point where I dread seeing her IM’s pop up on my screen several times a day. Is there anything I can do to help her solve small problems on her own? I realize that some of it could be communication issues — English is not her first language, and she seems to be trying very hard to make sure she understands something before she proceeds, which I appreciate. But it’s driving me nuts! Do I just need to suck it up in order to be a good coworker?

Not necessarily. You presumably have your own work that you need to focus on, and it’s in her best interests to learn how to stand on her own … but if her instinct is to ask for help rather than trying to figure things out on her own (which is what is sounds like, based on your examples), then being always available to help will probably keep her semi-dependent on you.

The easiest option is to stop making yourself so available to help her. When she IM’s you questions, you don’t need to answer them immediately. You can minimize the IM window and continue doing what you’re doing. Or you can respond back, “Sorry, right in the middle of something.” The same thing goes for questions in person — there’s no reason you can’t simply explain that you’re busy and can’t stop what you’re doing.

Alternately, you can address it big-picture rather than case-by-case. Say something to her like, “I tend to get really focused at work and having too many questions pulls me out of what I’m focusing on. I can answer the occasional question when it’s urgent, but could you direct most of your questions to ___ (fill in your manager’s name here)?”

Furthermore, you’ve got to pull back your own investment in these conversations. Why did you spend that half hour trying to convince her not to attend a canceled meeting? That’s not your responsibility. Tell her once, and then she can do what she wants with that information — it’s not your job to convince her of anything. Similarly, you didn’t need to spend months telling her how to dial in to conference calls. After the third or so request for help, why not just say, “It seems like you’re having trouble remembering this. Will you write this down so that you know in the future?”

In other words, while her behavior is absolutely too dependent on you, you’re contributing to the situation too. Be more conscious of your own contributions to it, set appropriate boundaries, and tell her directly when she should handle something on her own.

{ 91 comments… read them below }

  1. Patti*

    Yes… yes. I used to manage an employee who worked 2nd shift and literally called me for every decision he had to make. Didn’t matter if it was big or small, and sometimes it was just to “report” to me what was happening. No exaggeration… I would leave at 5, and get calls from him every 15-30 minutes for the rest of the night until his shift was over. Eventually… I stopped answering the phone. I would ignore 2-3 calls from him, and call him back maybe an hour later (I didn’t to miss it if it was something truly dire). Miraculously, in most cases, by the time I called back, he had figured it all out on his own!

    Sometimes people just need to see for themselves that they can do it.

  2. OP*

    OP here – thank you so much for your response! I think you are absolutely correct, as usual.

    I should clarify that the teleconference confusion was a bit more of an isolated incident than my letter implied – we had been dialing in to teleconferences for months, but each email invitation had had explicit instructions. The few invitations WITHOUT explicit instructions is when all hell broke loose. Sorry for the confusion there!

    That said, you’re right – she can’t depend on me if I don’t let her. I hereby resolve to stop contributing to this behavior and to never again spend half an hour telling someone they don’t have to attend a cancelled meeting. That, unfortunately, did happen. :(

    1. Naama*

      Understandable. I have maybe a 10% success rate at dialing in to teleconferences. The things are just so tricky.

      …and then of course I forget to mute my phone during presentations. I’ve serenaded sister offices across the country with my hiccups.

    2. Jen in RO*

      One of my coworkers tends to be like that (not that bad, but same type of behavior). She sits right behind me and sometimes she asks me questions once every 30 minutes for the whole day! (I’ve counted. I was that annoyed.) What’s worked for me is just stating the facts and ending the conversation.
      Her: Do you know what X meant in this email?
      Me: Hm, I think she meant Y.
      Her: Oh no, I think she meant Z!
      Me: [I’m 100% sure she meant Y, but don’t feel like debating it.] Well, you might be right. Maybe you should send an e-mail to X and clarify? I really don’t know more than you. *turn around, headphones back on, working*

      And, after a year of her going “wow, how did you know that???” and me answering “google”… she’s still not using google, but she learned to write down my explanations so I don’t have to say the same thing 100 times.

    3. Liz*

      Just a thought – is it possible she considers asking the question a polite move, and keeps conversations going longer than you would like because she thinks she cannot end the discussion?

      I work with a lot of immigrants, and something about this sounds like it could be a problem of manners rather than motivation. I could be wrong.

  3. COT*

    It could also help if you had some resources (say, a how-to binder of job/office related tasks) that you could redirect her to. Then you could tell her, “Check the manual first. If you still can’t find the answer on your own, I’ll be available in an hour to help.” If there’s not a procedure manual, I bet your boss would be impressed if you offered to put one together. Teach a man to fish…

    That won’t stop her from not knowing to bring along her computer cable, but it’ll help with bigger things. And hey, if her laptop dies or she shows up to a cancelled meeting, maybe she’ll learn from her mistakes.

    1. Lils*

      I have had success with this in the past with the exact same situation. I would write up instructions and then I could say, “Oh, I made a cheat sheet for that because I can never remember it either!” (not true, but made her feel better) and handed it to my colleague. At some point the cheat sheets were assembled into a binder that we could refer to.

      I’m not sure how I feel about letting your co-worker sink-or-swim as suggested downthread. Setting boundaries as Alison suggested is a great idea. But I think helping her–appropriately, within boundaries–is a good thing to do. We often talk about “managing up,” e.g., handling your boss in a thoughtful way. Why not “manage sideways” too? It will help your office become productive, and you’ll be seen as a team player. Plus, it’s kind! The hard part will be getting over your annoyance with her, which I absolutely sympathize with.

  4. Lanya*

    Maybe the coworker is asking the OP so many questions because she wants it to appear to upper management that she is not having language barrier problems. She could also be coming from a previous work situation in which she wasn’t allowed to make any decisions on her own or had to double-check every single move with a manager, and it’s carried over to this job.

    But, even if any of the above is contributing to the problem, I agree with AAM completely.

    1. COT*

      True. I’ve had co-workers who came from (unhealthy) work environments where they had to get every little thing approved, which struck tends-toward-autonomy me as frustrating. If this is the case, then redirecting her towards your manager is appropriate. Then your manager will (I hope) catch on and be able to address the issue.

      1. Jen in RO*

        It makes sense to me. In her head, she might have a fear she would be reprimanded for *not* asking… but she might also understand that in this particular job, it’s not the case. So, to keep her conscience clean, so to speak, she decides to double-check with someone, but not the boss.

        The power cable question is simply dumb, but for the others maybe she just needs to have a conversation with the boss? Perhaps if he says “Jane, I trust you and I don’t need you to validate every decision with someone else”, then she would feel more comfortable doing things on her own?

        1. Same Problem*

          I have experienced the same problem with a co-worker for the last 2 years. This individual ask me over and over again how to perform the simplest things. How to write an email. What does this mean. How to complete a customer support ticket. What to write in the ticket. This person does not work. Sits on the phone all day talking to her boyfriend. I run reports on our work duties. She always have the lowest numbers. She goes home when someone says something to her she doesn’t like. I have been carrying this individual for 2 years. However, she believes she should get a promotion. I went to the supervisor, did no good until I presented documentation that she was not pulling her weight in work. Still did no good. The supervisor helps her do her work. I am working a like a dog. She is constantly out sick. I or the individuals on the team that are considered as worker bees get reprimanded if we would like to go on vacation. Supervisor give me the perception they do not want me to take vacation. It really gets on my nerves. I stated previously I am really tired of carrying this person. They placed on a project and wanted me to do the work for her. Stick me with a fork. I am done!

      2. Flynn*

        We’ve just had a new person transferred over and she’s pretty much the same; very experienced/smart but absolutely terrified of making a mistake.

        Turns out she had a REALLY abusive manager for a couple of years, one of those ‘nothing you do will ever be right’, screaming types. That kind of history, or even just a personal worry about how a specific person will react to silly questions, easily explains not going to the manager when you’ve got a coworker instead for me.

        Also, co-worker may be more convenient, is dealing with exactly the same issues in many cases (while the manager may have to go and look up whatever) and they may simply find the coworker more approachable.

        1. rdb*

          Been there, done that, just recently. Dealing with the fallout now, as I start my new job and struggle not to allow my fear to affect my job performance.

  5. KarenT*

    You need to “train” her to leave you alone. I would either just plain be unhelpful, “I’m not sure about your power cable. Ask IT.” Or, “I don’t know how to dial in. Ask the meeting organizer.” She needs to learn how to figure things out for herself, and if she can’t, that needs to be more transparent. Don’t let her use you as a shortcut/crutch. This is, of course, advice for when she is being unreasonable. If you have access to information she doesn’t, it wouldn’t be appropriate to withhold.
    I am also a really big proponent of “just say no.” When she interrupts, tell her you are busy and don’t have time to talk.

    1. KarenT*

      I should mention, however, I am biased against those who don’t make an effort to figure things out. A co-worker of mine asked me today how to spell a word. I handed her my dictionary.

        1. Cara*

          Ahhh! That is also my favorite website! I used to answer the phones at my small nonprofit and I often wanted to send it to people. One woman called asking if there was a Starbucks close to the hotel where we were holding our conference. “Well… there’s this little thing called the internet… maybe you’ve heard of it…”

  6. Just a Reader*

    Yikes. As a boss, I would want to know about this level of helplessness.

    OP, does she ever go to the boss with these questions, or is it always you?

    1. OP*

      I believe she asks our boss some questions, and often if I can’t answer her question I will tell her to go to her project manager. Unfortunately, I heard my boss’ boss make an offhand comment that the project manager who works with her directly had been complaining that our department had been asking too many inane questions.

      1. Just a Reader*

        I would address it directly as AAM recommends, and if it doesn’t improve quickly, alert your boss in a “how would you like me to handle this?” way.

        The lack of critical thinking to this degree is just alarming.

      2. Henning Makholm*

        If it’s harming interdepartmental relations and has reached the level of your boss’s boss, then for that reason alone I think you should have a chat with your boss about how you should handle the situation. Don’t wait to see if it improves quickly — get your boss on board now.

        1. twentymilehike*

          Yes, I know … I’m a day late on this one!

          I think you should have a chat with your boss about how you should handle the situation.

          Remember to frame it as a, “what can I do to help the situation” rather than a complaint!

          I have a coworker who is constantly making errors on paperwork and I am constantly cleaning up the mess. Complaining doesn’t work; but approaching my boss with, “xyz errors are commonly made on this form, what can we do to prevent it? Can we discuss this in our next meeting?” usually ends up with, “sure, lets try changing this … go ahead and work on Fun New Project instead of Boring Old One.”

  7. Amouse*

    It sounds like a confidence issue to me as well. She probably knows what to do but second-guesses herself because of the language barrier and possibly just self-confidence in general. I used to be very much like your co-worker when I would start a new job. I agree wholeheartedly with AAM’s advice. I also think once in a while saying, “What do you think? You have good judgement, you should trust it more” might help to build up her confidence a bit and make her less likely to run to you. It’s not your responsibility to build up her confidence I know but sometimes even saying that once or twice to a person can have a huge impact on them. Obviously if it has no impact don’t drain yourself by continuing to try and convince her she knows what she’s doing.

    1. TL*

      >> I also think once in a while saying, “What do you think? You have good judgement, you should trust it more” might help to build up her confidence a bit and make her less likely to run to you. <<

      I really like this answer, especially in light of the possible ESL issues. Even though I'm the sort of person who tries to figure everything out on my own, I've been known to ask "stupid" questions that make me sound like I haven't thought things through, just because I'm afraid I missed something important. It would have been SO helpful to me, in my less self-confident moments, if someone had told me that I was smart and could trust my own judgment to not screw things up.

      FWIW, it's possible that the OP's coworker came from an environment where healthy, reasonable autonomy was not encouraged, or where the boss did NOT spell out critical details in advance, and the OP quickly figured out that if they didn't ask nitpicky questions, projects wouldn't be done right.

      1. anonymous*

        In addition to being a language barrier, there might also be the possibility that there’s a cultural barrier. The “What do you think? You have great judgement…” response is especially appropriate if that might be the case.

        In grad school, I had a classmate who needed to double check and triple check every little thing, go over every assignment and every reading, verify every test date, etc. She later mentioned that in her home country, there was much less emphasis on the individual and everything was done by group, and that her first impressions of us were that we were all oddly reserved and unwilling to help one another.

  8. Bridgette*

    I provide tech support at a university. I have been in the same situation with professors. When I first started, I made the mistake of being too helpful…and some of them became dependent on me for every little thing, even tasks that we had written instructions for on an easily-found website (they would not even bookmark the website, I would get questions like “Hey can you send me that link again…”). I did exactly what Alison advised – I stopped answering calls/emails immediately, I pointed them to resources instead of explaining it, and I cut down my answers when I took the questions. That really helped – give her the minimum amount of information necessary. I found that if I tried to explain too much, they would get really confused and kept asking me questions.

    She sounds like she’s terrified, of what, who knows. Hopefully her manager will address it. I think that weaning her off your support will help make her more confident.

    1. Jamie*

      This – x100. Refer them to documentation rather than hand holding as much as you can. It will save your sanity.

      1. Bridgette*

        When they ask me for a link to the documentation (that I’ve sent before), I just say, it’s on our website. And then magically, I have a meeting where I can’t respond to phone or email for 4 hours.

      2. Jen in RO*

        You know how depressing it is when you *are* the documentation department and you point your coworkers (tech writers) to the documentation and they still can’t/won’t follow it? And then they tell you “this step wasn’t in the procedure”, even though it was? And then you realize that even if it weren’t in the procedure, it was painfully obvious? Sometimes I don’t have fun at work.

    2. Lily*

      I’ve been in the same situation and I agree with you and I do the same things. Unfortunately, people can get nasty. I’ve had someone react with co-worker rivalry “you tell her the information, but only give me the link!” and not stop harping on it.

      Sometimes people have an emotional investment in the oddest things. Can I call it a work fetish when people seem incredibly attached to particular behaviors?

  9. Steve Bell*

    As a coworker this is great advice. As a manager, I have seen this come up quite often. I normally would field it this way: 1. What do YOU think It means or should do. 2. Ask for potential options if applicable. 3. What do YOU recommend? 4. Ok, do it! After a couple of those exchanges, during a 1:1, they normally start to get IT. If not, I comment on the confidence and successes they are having. Pointing out they are doing it and don’t always need me. That is how the good employees become great employees.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, if you’re a manager and your employee is doing this, the advice is different. In addition to what Steve wrote, you might also need to explicitly say, “I’m looking to you to take ownership over this stuff and figure out more of it on your own before coming to me.”

    2. Emily*

      Would it be crazy for a coworker to handle the situation this way with another coworker? It sounds like the OP’s coworker a) sees the OP as a person with authority (maybe not over her, but general) and know-how, b) has insecurities about her own know-how, and c) has developed a habit of double-checking everything, down to the laptop power cord question. Though it’s not the OP’s job to basically co-manage this person, what does she have to lose by encouraging her coworker to answer her own questions, at least as she phases her own hand-holding out?

      1. Anonymous*

        I don’t think that a coworker can handle the situation like a manager can. From my experience the best OP can do is exactly what this post suggests. Focus on taking the emergency out and help when it fits her schedule and sending to the manager. Sticky situation, everyone likes to be helpful with their teammates, within reason.

  10. ChristineH*

    Great suggestions so far!

    Another idea: I tend to ask a lot of questions myself, so what I’ve gotten in the habit of doing is writing down all my questions so that I can go over them with the appropriate person at one given time (e.g. at the end of each day or during any regularly-scheduled 1:1 meetings), rather than a gazillion times throughout the day.

    I do agree that she should get in the habit of figuring things out herself, but as someone who is extremely conscious of wanting to do everything correctly, I can understand the impulse to ask constant questions. That’s why I compile my questions and ask them at once.

    Another idea if she’s forgetting instructions for common tasks/activities, she could write them down in a way she’ll understand (maybe you can review to be sure she understood correctly) and keep at her desk somehow, perhaps on a bulletin board. That way, she has those visual cues right there to refer back to.

    Good luck!

    1. Just a Reader*

      This is a good idea too–it sounds like part of the problem is the interruption of your workflow.

    2. Blinx*

      That’s a great idea! I remember keeping a notebook when I started my last job… who to contact about what, what procedures to follow for certain projects… even a cheat sheet for all the acronyms I wasn’t yet familiar with. And if someone showed me a procedure, I wrote down every step, including key commands. Invaluable during the first 6 months on the job, and even later, if some projects only came up a few times a year.

    3. jill*

      This has worked for me too. I manage one person but we share a lot of the same information and processes (just that I’m driving them on a vision level and she’s driving them on an execution level). We have a shared OneNote notebook where we both plunk in information or pain points as we discover them, and then discuss them at our check ins. Then we can put them into order or step-by-step instructions together, and both reference them (and send them to other team members, as the need arises).

      I think someone mentioned something like this downthread, but something like this might work in this situation – once you answer the question (assuming it’s not a duh one like the computer cord), remind the colleague to write it in the OneNote/notebook/whatever for their future reference, and make sure to note if you see something that they added that was helpful to you.

  11. fposte*

    I’d want to know about this, if I were the boss, but I can understand your not wanting to take it to a supervisor in case it sounds like a complaint rather than a heads up. My concern is that she may genuinely not realize that she’s expected to solve these things herself and not take up a colleague’s time with them, and it’s tough to say that to her if you’re a co-worker rather than a supervisor.

    The cancelled meeting thing gets a little weird, though–why is she asking you if she doesn’t believe your answer? It sounds like you didn’t take any offense at that, at least, so good for you, but it’s like she has just enough initiative to make it hard for you.

    1. Bridgette*

      I wonder if she was in a situation before where she thought a meeting was cancelled but it actually wasn’t, and she didn’t attend and therefore got in trouble. Someone mentioned above that it sounds like she has come from a very micro-managed environment and a healthy sense of autonomy wasn’t fostered.

      1. Blinx*

        Our Outlook meetings were continually getting messed up, especially if someone cancelled or rescheduled a recurring meeting. And then all of a sudden, duplicate meetings would show up, or scheduled meetings would vanish. It’s not foolproof. I know I’ve missed one or two meetings because of this!

    2. Jen in RO*

      Some people just want validation, I guess… and anything other than validation isn’t good enough. The coworker I described upthread always does this – asks for your opinion and then contradicts you if it doesn’t fit with her opinion. Why ask then?!

  12. Could've been the OP*

    Wow. About a year ago, I could have written this question.
    Ex: Q: I just got an email asking me to do X, what do you think that means? A: Why don’t you scroll down to read the fwded message and figure out what the assignment is related to?
    Goes on and on and on. It’s the not being able to problem solve that irks me to no end.

    Try suggesting something along the lines of, “Can you attempt 2 or 3 solutions and come back to me if you still don’t find an answer?” Or “Sorry I don’t have time right now, I have to finish this, let me know if you’re still stuck in an hour.” I sympathize, especially because my boss didn’t feel like spending any time nurturing my coworker, so I had to take the brunt of the asinine Qs. It’s a little avoiding the issue, but see if you can move desks so you’re not near her (if you are). That way she has to call you or email you or get up and walk over to your desk instead of just turning around and seeing you sitting at your computer.

    It does get better, eventually…

  13. anon o*

    I’ve known people like this before, and it drives me a little crazy. I think it’s not necessarily their previous environment or whatever and just their personality. I knew someone who literally asked me, “should I wear a hat outside?” when neither of us had been outside all day. And she just stood there waiting for instructions on weather to wear a hat…outside…in February…in Canada. I tried to take the training method as well and asked if she thought it might be cold outside. I felt like an idiot asking an adult that question.

    1. anon o*

      I should clarify that she wasn’t idly asking if it was cold enough for a hat – she wanted me to tell her what to do.

  14. Prague*

    Depending on where she’s from (non-native English speaker so I’m assuming different culture), she may be afraid to do things on her own. I work with a lady from Lebanon who I used to get mad at for always checking with the boss to see whether my answers to her questions were correct. It came off as her not trusting me. Then she happened to mention that in Lebanon, you don’t do much of *anything* without ensuring it’s definitely correct – because getting into what might be mild trouble here is a much bigger deal there (from firing offense to police/Hezbollah).

  15. Brightwanderer*

    The language barrier might well be causing her to constantly second-guess herself – that, or a bad experience with said barrier in the past. I’ve lived and worked in Japan and although I’m competent in the language I never really got fluent. The whole time I was working there I felt a constant grate of misunderstandings and clarification – did I mishear that? Did she mean something else? I’d go off and do X and then no, it was meant to be Y… even if this coworker is fluent in English at this point, she may have had experience in the past of that awful feeling of “I’m not quite sure I understood that but I was obviously supposed to…” and got into the habit of checking over and over again. Especially with the cancelled meeting – that sounds exactly like the kind of nervous behaviour I’d get into when using, say, public transport – “They said the train was delayed but did they really say that? Should I be there early anyway? Maybe they meant it would be delayed later – or it might be delayed – or it had been delayed but was now not delayed – or it was delayed for some people not other people – and I NEED TO BE STANDING THERE FOR TWENTY MINUTES JUST IN CASE…”

    Which doesn’t change the answer any. It just struck me as familiar…

    1. Ivy*

      Ya the whole ESL thing struck a cord with me as well. One, because I came to my country at a young age and while I don’t have trouble with English, my parents do. Two, because I did an exchange to a French speaking country and got exactly the same experience. Again, it doesn’t change the answer. But OP, if you’ve never experienced this yourself, it might help imagining the kind of situation she’s in. It’s really tough being in a foreign country, and really seeing that might give you an extra grain of patients. (Not that I’m saying your not being patient now, because you are. It just might help ease some of that “UGH” feeling you get when she asks a question).

      1. Steve G*

        True, I lived in Czech Republic for 3 years and the first year it was like….it didn’t matter how much handholding someone would have given me – I either got it or didn’t. And if I didn’t get it you lose confidence and start with the stupid questions!

    2. class factotum*

      Oh yes! The delayed train in a foreign country in a language you don’t speak! Do you have time to run to the ladies’ room or not? What about get a bottle of water? (Which of course creates the problem anew.) Do you dare move? What if the train, which is RIGHT THERE! starts to move and you’re not on it?

      So stressful!

  16. sara*

    do you guys think there is an obvious difference between someone just wanting to make sure they dosomething correctly or just being too lazy or don’t have the sense to to look something up on their own? or are both just equally annoying? because I’ve seen the latter….and if I was that coworker, I would be extremely annoyed.

    1. OP*

      I honestly have not figured out which camp my coworker is in. Most of her questions make it sound as though she just wants to do her job correctly, but the laptop power cord question was so bizarre that I had no idea what to think.

      1. Anonymous*

        Sometimes people are just stumped by what appears to us as simple technology stuff. I remember the day the simple instruction of “copy and paste that into word” became a 30 minute lesson on cut and paste and how to open office.

    2. Rana*

      I’ve noticed, as a teacher and as a habitue of internet forums, is that there’s always a small contingent of people who do seem to need hand-holding for everything. Like a student who doesn’t have a hard copy of the syllabus and goes for weeks missing assignments because of it – even though there’s a downloadable and printable copy on the course webpage via a big red button that says “syllabus” (and I know that they visit the website, because they send their other confused questions from there). Or the person who’s new to a hobby and their very first post on the forums is a paragraph-long list of really basic questions that could be easily answered by just poking around the site.

      I don’t know why people behave like this, but it seems to me I’m seeing more of them around than I used to.

    3. MH*

      I worked with somebody like that. Was forever asking me the extension number for the accounts department, office in X location etc. She had a list pinned in front of her which she was too lazy to look at and wanted me to be her speaking directory.

      I blew my top in the end and had a screaming row in the manager’s office which the entire building could hear. Ooops!

      I was sick of the lack of respect she gave me, that it was my job to be able to recall all this stuff and be happy to repeat it over and over again to her.

      Hope you don’t get driven to doing that!

  17. Not So NewReader*

    The idea that it could be a language barrier problem, puts things in the best possible light- as opposed to “my coworker is a slacker”. I am hoping it is just a language issue.

    I am wondering if she would benefit from some tutoring in English. But instead of general conversation English- focus on the words used in a work place.
    She knows English well enough to fill out a job app or write a resume. She does seem to know what the emails say. She just doesn’t believe what she read.

    I had a friend who did a similar thing with learning to drive. The actual disconnect was not the driving skill itself. Her driving skills were good, especially for a beginner. The disconnect was her total disbelief that she could actually learn how to drive. As she fine tuned her driving skills, the disbelief faded away.

  18. Elizabeth West*

    For a previous job, the receptionist left me a very detailed SOP folder with every single process written down for her successor, since she moved before they hired someone. I was SO grateful for this! I’m big on writing things down. Not only does it keep me from messing up, it helps me learn the job. Yes, it may take an extra few minutes during training, but I probably won’t have to bother you much after that.

    I wrote an entire procedural manual for my last job, following that receptionist’s example. That way if anyone covering for me had to check how to do something, it was right there on my desk. Same if we had to have a temp in. I was so proud of that manual–it had tabs, a table of contents and even appendices. I didn’t get to take a sterilized version with me when I was laid off; there wasn’t time between “You’re gone” and the leaving. Grrr. >:(

    1. JessB*

      I did the same thing at my first full-time job, and created a great manual. I left some really detailed instructions on how to perform basic Excel tasks at my last job, where I wowed my sueprvisor by sorting a list using a button, instead of manually cutting and pasting all the rows.

      At my current job, I arrived to find a similar folder, and a helpful co-worker who knows how to draw boundaries. The second or third time I ask her how to do something, she’ll say, ‘It’s in the folder, about page 40. Remember? Does that help?’ The fourth or fifth time I ask her, she’ll say “It’s in the folder. Let me know if you can’t find it.” It’s pretty great.

  19. Anony*

    When I first read the post, I kinda thought of myself, but I cross my fingers that I don’t appear like the OP’s co-worker. I always have in the back of my mind that I maybe asking a bit too many questions… but why do I ask? It’s the training that I never received! I never got any formal training and it was always a learn as you go. I’m new to the workforce so I’m guessing this is how anyone learns how to do theire jobs?

    1. fposte*

      I’d say two things to ask yourself before you ask a question are 1) can I find this out on my own? and 2) is this the person I should be asking? (I suppose there’s also 3) is this a convenient time for the person I’m asking?)

      The OP’s co-worker seems to be missing on all three.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes! I might also add: Is this the least intrusive method I can use to ask the question? In other words, don’t interrupt them in person at their desk or send a pay-attention-to-me-right-now I.M. when you could email instead.

        1. Jen in RO*

          For the record, an IM is far, far less intrusive than having someone show up at your desk. If people IMed me instead of showing up my life would be much more relaxed – I can ignore the IM for 5 minutes, finish what I was writing, *then* answer.

      2. Natalie*

        If you still have to ask a question following Step 1, maybe mention what you’ve done already. Not in a put-upon sort of way, but enough detail so I don’t suggest something you tried already.

      3. Minous*

        I like it when the person outlines what steps they have already taken(looked here, asked this person) so I can give an answer that doesn’t involve what they have already done.

    2. Not So NewReader*


      Try, try not to ask the same question twice. Sometimes I have asked myself is this current question a variation of a previous question? If yes, I can kind of piece together an answer without asking anyone.

      Yeah, write stuff down. If you need to have a little notebook in your pocket- then do so. You will not use it forever and it will help.

      Occasionally, ask people “Is there a way I can figure out X or Y type questions on my own, without bothering you?” This shows you are thinking on your feet.

      My last suggestion may seem silly. I use my drive time to review the new tasks I learned the previous day to see if I remember the steps and sequence. It helps me to deal with new job jitters by channeling my thinking and it also reinforces what I have learned so far.

      1. Could've been the OP*

        I always appreciate when someone says, “I tried doing A, but it didn’t work to solve problem B. Do you have any advice?” Instead of saying “I can’t do B.” Well, did you try anything on your own before asking?

    3. Jen in RO*

      I don’t know if this applies to your job, but if it does – use google. For example, I’m sure someone can figure out how to add auto-filter to a spreadsheet without my invaluable help… and yet some people feel the need to ask that too. Some of my coworkers consider me a “guru” in the software we use… but all I did was poke at the buttons and google when something wasn’t obvious.

      But, to answer your question: yes, that’s pretty much how everyone learns their jobs. My company lacks in training too and my first weeks sucked so much I almost quit. Be happy if there’s someone available to actually answer your questions! When I joined, they didn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Ha, I had a database that no one used but me and no one else used Access either. I had to fix stuff all the time by googling it because Access help files are only helpful if you’re a programmer. Grr.

  20. JT*

    If the co-worked is having problems interpreting language, I try to be helpful. But the other stuff you have to let go – it’s a disservice to both of you to keep this dependency.

    I’d answer questions at most once and after that ask, nicely, if he understood what you’d said. If he does, say something like “OK, so use your judgement and make the best choice. You generally know what you’re doing.”

    You’ve got to be cruel to be kind.

  21. anon*

    Oh my goodness, this is a situation I am going through right now as well!

    The coworker who started a few weeks after me isn’t used to making any kind of decisions on her own from her previous job, and she asks me probably 30 times a day to read an email to see if it sounds okay or if i could look over her work to check it over.

    I am not her supervisor. It frustrates me when she asks for me help, uses my answer to do something, and then takes credit for it.

    I am definitely going to start using this advice ASAP.

  22. Vicki*

    On the other hand, it could be worse.
    I had a co-worker who never asked. She’s just try something. She claimed she liked to”learn byt trying and if it broke then she could learn.” Except she was always breaking things.

    She would open a new document and _erase the template_. Her documents never matched the standard format. And she didn’t care.

    There were many times I wished she would ask first instead of breaking things (because I had to go in later to fix them.)

    Be careful what you wish for.

    1. JessB*

      Oh man, that sucks! I am big on looking around our massive communal drive to see if I can find a template for what I’m about to do, but there is no erasing!

    2. Jen in RO*

      I have a coworker like OP’s and one like yours… I’m not sure which I prefer. Neither, honestly! For the “break stuff” coworker, our solution wasn’t the most elegant, but it worked. We used to cover for her (since her mistakes reflected on the whole team), but one time when she really messed up and we had to stay 2 hours late to fix it, I just ripped into her. “Yes, it’s your mistake, you should have been more careful, three people had to work late for you, next time ask or don’t do it at all!” She hated me for a week, but she started asking more questions, at least. (And with her, I’d rather deal with the questions than with the mess!)

    3. The Other Dawn*

      I was out for two days so I’m pretty late to the game here. I work in a bank and we once had someone like this. She had been a teller manager at her previous bank and was now “just a teller”. Being that she had once been a supervisor, she would often try to figure out how to do a complicated transaction without checking to see if there might be disastrous consequences. Well one day she tried to do something on a savings account and ended up creating a mess for the accounting department because it threw the general ledger out of balance. It also created a mess at the teller line because it threw the teller out of balance. And on top of that, the customer’s account was all messed up. It took quite a bit of work to fix it and I had to reprimand her for it. Just because she was a teller supervisor at one time didn’t mean she knew how to operate our system, which was totally different from her previous bank.

  23. EngineerGirl*

    Oh my, this was me several years ago. And listen up folks, it wasn’t due to a lack of critical thinking skills. Instead it was due to low self confidence and and an intense fear of failure.

    There was someone in my life that would lecture me for years (yes years) afterward if I made a stupid mistake. So I became paranoid about making mistakes. Let me say that it was a big day when I allowed myself the freedom to make mistakes.

    The other issue was self confidence. If you grow up with someone saying to you “you’re not that great” or “don’t get above yourself” it can really, really cause you to question your ability. You could be getting 100% on all your tests and think of yourself as a failure. It doesn’t make sense, but if you hear a message often enough, all evidence to the contrary won’t wipe it out.

    So OP, here are some suggestions:
    * I really like the “what do you think” tactic. And after she gives the correct answer, say “yes, that is what I would do too”. It gives her “permission” to go forward.
    * Encourage her as much as possible to be independent. That can mean stating to her in plain english “I can’t help you right now – but I think you already know how to do it” (again, encouragement for being independent)
    * Talk to your boss about encouraging her to strive. He should give her permission to fail on occasions. Instead of getting lectures, she should get “here is how you do it better”
    * Make the suggestion that she carry a notebook and write things down. It is much easier to read something in your second language than to hear it.

    1. JT*

      Great advice.

      I think you can be a little harsher sometimes too – “You’ve done it before fine. Just do it. Stop worrying!”

    2. Willow Sunstar*

      I understand where you’re coming from. My mother was hypercritical of me when I was growing up, so for many years I was a perfectionist as well. I still am when it comes to certain things, especially writing. I found that Toastmasters actually helped me with the self-confidence piece. There are other organizations one can join. My workplace just happened to have a convenient Toastmasters club, and I was encouraged to join by my manager.

  24. Anonymous*

    Maybe I’ve just been burned too many times in past jobs, but if I were the OP, I would be worried about the coworker going to the supervisor and complaining that I “never” helped her with questions. I would recommend documenting answers to her questions and encouragement for her to seek out answers herself, in writing/email so that you have something to show your manager if he/she comes to you and says that the coworker complained.

  25. sidro*

    I’m glad that i found you gays, at less I’m not alone in this situation, the weird thing is my ex-co.worker and the one working with me now have the same habit , keeping it mute all day, but when the boss is here, they started to suffocate me with questions, plus the questions are about some qualifications that we should have to work in our position, i mean like basic stuff and not the specific politic of work.
    The worst thing is that my boss now is asking me to teach them (should i ?) and how can i skip this situation without having troubles with my boss ?

  26. Willow Sunstar*

    I have a similar issue with a new coworker. However, he sits right next to me and knows if I am busy or not. So without constantly getting up from my desk, which will seem odd, how do I do that? I have sent him helpful link after helpful link so he can figure things out on his own.

    He also is an oversharer and has told me his entire work history in IM, and is apparently trying to get my entire work history out of me. I’m 39. He’s 25. My work history is a lot longer than his, and he doesn’t need to know it anyway. I have tried the “I’m working on something” tact, and I have also tried the “we can get in trouble for too much IM’ing socially here” tact. It’s not really working that well.

    One of my friends thinks he’s hitting on me. If that is the case, it’s extremely inappropriate. However, he’s also a minority, so I have to handle this delicately. I do not care to have to go deal with HR. How can I tell if his incessant questions are him inappropriately hitting on me?

  27. Bob*

    Laptop power cables.

    I don’t understand these things, I keep being told what to do with mine, and even resorted to asking people what I should do about them. The one time I did what I wanted (drove home without mine by mistake) my boss freaked and and tried to get me to turn around 1/2 through my 2 hour drive home to come get it. Since I had about 4 extras at home, it didn’t really matter to me, but somehow keeping which one strait and all was sooooo important to the my co-workers (boss in particular).

    When he finally found a way to return the company power cord to me I was just like “oh ok, back from 3 to 4 in the spares bin” and on about my day. So really…. are you sure she’s an idiot? Maybe she’s just blonde, and or has one of several minor (sometimes high-functioning) mental disorders? Asperger’s maybe?

    I know *I* can never use the company phones properly. In my last 3 jobs, I never made a single outgoing call. It’s easier to just use my cell phone, I don’t have to worry about minutes and payment that way anyways. (I’ve pretty much never turned in an expense report outside of required company trips either… can’t really afford to pay my own air fare, although I’ve been tempted on hotels etc just to avoid paperwork)

    And yet, I’m here because my boss (a computer programmer) constantly asks me how to program computers and I’m trying to figure out how to deal with it. (leave, quit, retire, gut it out, offer poles instead of fishes, etc)

  28. Willow Sunstar*

    I have a coworker like this. The problem is that he’s new to the company and has been there over a month. He has been given lots of training, and yet seems to need his hand held on the simplest of things, like sending a new vendor an e-mail to get them started on the set-up process. We have assigned seats and I am right across from him. I’m not allowed to move.

    I need to be at my desk working all day, so I cannot just get up and be gone for half an hour or whatever. I have tried bringing in my obnoxious-sized gaming headphones to listen to my iPod. He did not get the point. He will stand at my desk or tap me on the shoulder repeatedly until I do everything but hold his hand. I have tried the “I’m working on something that needs to be done right now” tactic and it only has worked once with him. I have tried speaking to him about how we all only get 3 months to learn our jobs, and after that period, he is expected to know his job well enough that he does not ask questions unless it’s on something out of the ordinary. I’ve also told him that there may be days where I am not present in the office, and that he needs to learn how to do his job without using me as a crutch.

    He has not been authorized for additional training, but he has had the lady who provided much of it hover over at his desk for an hour on end because he’s incapable of reading and comprehending the e-mails that he needs to follow to troubleshoot (his job is a customer-service sort-of job).

    I have a different job. I am being cross-trained on his job. I have answered some of his questions, but he does not even try to look through the documentation or his notes on many of them.

    Then there are the completely random, no-brainer questions. For example, he’s been given the dress-code policy and he asked me yesterday if he was allowed to wear sweaters to work. (Duh, we’re in Minnesota!) It’s the kind of company where you can wear nice jeans and nice sneakers and a polo shirt during the warm months. I told him to go and read the dress-code policy again.

    I am at my wit’s end dealing with him. But I feel like I cannot even say anything to the boss about all his questions. He’s a minority and I don’t dare speak up. The trainer lady has told the boss about all the questions he is asking her and is trying to get him to authorize more training. Also he does nothing but a. blame his lack of knowledge on the previous trainer, who left the company two weeks or so into our jobs. and b. blame his lack of knowledge on him not learning by listening to people. Well, then how does he expect to learn? *Head desk*

    It’s not the training that’s the issue. Either the guy has absolutely zero confidence in himself, or he has a learning disability or something.

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