my coworker keeps asking me to handle his mail

A reader writes:

I was hired as a Marketing & Executive Assistant at a start-up company, and I also sit at the front desk. During my initial interview, my then-to-be boss explained that although I sit at the front desk, the receptionist duties are small and, primarily, he would like me to be working on creating a new database from scratch, and working on marketing and sales numbers. I guess at a start-up you wear a lot of hats!

I also do the shipping for the company (UPS, FedEx). I understand that 1 person should be in charge of this because it is a little involved. No problem, I’m happy to put everything together! However, one person in my office has continually asked me to send regular mail for him. I’ve told him I’d be happy to give him a stamp, and informed him of the mailbox location (just right outside our small office). He often parks right next to the mailbox. After multiple times of asking me, I thought it would be best to meet him halfway, and I’ve put together a mailing station in the printing room, with pre-stamped envelopes with return labels. All he has to do it write the address, and when he leaves the office, put it in the mailbox. And he keeps giving me documents to mail! I feel like I’ve been very clear, and it keeps happening, and its frustrating. My boss was very clear in our interview that he needs me to focus on these big items so we can more readily pull data, and I’m often interrupted by this person.

Well, just because your boss wants you focusing on big items doesn’t mean he doesn’t also expect you to be handling smaller ones around the edges, so the first thing you need to do is get clarity from him about whether this is something he wants you doing or not.

So ask your boss if you’re supposed to be handling regular mail for people, or if they should handle it themselves. Don’t say this in a tone of “I don’t want to do it”; say it in a tone of “I’m genuinely trying to get clarity on this because I’m not sure.” If he says no, then the next time your coworker asks you to mail something for him, tell him, “I actually don’t handle regular mail for the office, only shipping; everyone handles regular mail themselves.”

(Side note: You said that you’ve already been clear about this with him, but you haven’t. You’ve offered him stamps and directed him to the mailroom. But it doesn’t sound like you’ve directly told him that he needs to do it himself.)

However, if your boss says that yes, this is part of your job (which wouldn’t be surprising, based on your description of your role), then set up a system to manage it without being constantly interrupted. For instance, you could set up an out-box for mail where he and others can leave things that need to be mailed, and you could handle it all once a day. Or whatever else you come up with — but do come up with some system so that you’re not being randomly interrupted, and make people aware that they need to use that system.

Being responsible for something doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to drop everything to handle it whenever someone asks. Set up a system that keeps that from happening.

{ 103 comments… read them below }

  1. Twentymilehike*

    Great advice, Alison. I am in such a similar position and sometimes I want to bang my head against the wall. I have found it very effective to structure my day more, leaving a (roughly) designated time for each office task that needs to be done and I make sure that I always plan in chunks of time for my large projects. If someone tries to hand me something (even after years of showing them my in box) I just point them in the direction if my inbox. Having multiple boxes is also useful. I have two additional ones that are for specific items that are more crucial so my coworkers will be confident these items will receive the correct attention.

  2. Marie*

    I don’t know if this is your first time in a front desk sort of job, but having worked in a few over the years, I can tell you from my experience that it is astounding how much personal work your colleagues will try to foist off on you. There are small, agreeable things, like showing your coworker who’s getting married how to make labels for her invitations, and then there are the over-the-top rage-making things, like your coworker having you make complicated flight and hotel reservations for (what you later find out to be) a personal trip.

    If you have any reservations about checking in with your boss about, “Hey, is this my job?” get over them ASAP, because you will need to do this A LOT. The front desk can be a really demoralizing job if you don’t enforce boundaries clearly and consistently. It can also be a great place to learn how to do that if you’ve never had to, because there are very few other jobs where somebody might think it’s appropriate to ask you to wrap their family’s Christmas presents for them, make UPS labels for all of them, and drop them off at UPS on your way home. Learning how to say “no” directly to requests like that taught me a lot of assertiveness I didn’t have, and it’s assertiveness that’s served me very well in other jobs.

    What’s always worked for me is setting up weekly brief meetings (or quick emails, if they’re too busy for meetings) with my supervisor where I touch base with them about what’s currently on my plate. It’s a good chance to check in about what other coworkers have handed off to me and see if this is really my job (that’s how I found out the airline and hotel reservations were personal), and also a chance for me to assess my priorities in a way that helps with setting boundaries. As in, “No, Jane, I can’t take the time to wrap and send your Christmas presents. This website is my absolute priority right now, so I can’t take on any non-work related tasks at all.”

    1. Sasha*

      I have heard many stories of admin assistants having to do things like this for people – send personal mail, set up personal travel, etc. All personal stuff. I have never encountered this and I was an admin for many years, and even when I haven’t been, I have just never seen people bring personal things to work and expect a coworker to handle them. Is this common in certain sectors or is it just depending on the office? It’s just really weird to me. Why would you ask a coworker to mail your personal mail or wrap your gifts?

      1. Jamie*

        I am thankful I’ve never seen this either.

        Maybe it’s because I work in an industry that runs really lean so no one has time on their hands for this kind of thing…I can’t think of a boss I’ve had who wouldn’t put an end to that immediately if it ever happened.

        1. twentymilehike*

          I’ve wrapped Christmas presesnts for my boss. I’ve also balanced personal checkbooks, put gas in the wife’s car, mailed packages for girlfriends and sons in college, made restaurant reservations, helped pick out anniversary gifts, and ordered birthday flowers.

          I don’t mind helping out, but it is important to communicate if you have time or don’t or are busy or overwhelmed. I have no problem saying, “Can it be done tomorrow/later, because I’m right in the middle of Important Task/Special Report?” Usually I’ll get a “no problem, when you have time” or an “no problem, I’ll take care of it myself.”

          I see my admin/office manager job duty as “being as helpful as possible.”

          1. Chinook*

            But there is a world of difference for doing this for your boss or even your supervisor (who assign you your tasks) and doing it for a colleague who, under normal circumstances, would never be assigning you work.

            If your boss tells you that this isn’t your job, ask her if she would be willing to have you direct people to her whenever they have a new task for you to do. I had an office manager volunteer to be my “funnel” when I was a receptionist and it was amazing how many times people would offer to “take care of it themselves” if they had to bother someone “important” first.

            1. Marie*

              YES. At the Christmas-present-wrapping workplace, my boss (once she realized, to her amazement, that me just saying “no” and her having strong words with the individuals wasn’t working) told me to tell people, “Boss assigns me my work tasks, so let her know.” That’s when they started going to the gal who used to be the admin assistant, and was no longer under my boss.

            2. twentymilehike*

              But there is a world of difference for doing this for your boss or even your supervisor (who assign you your tasks) and doing it for a colleague who, under normal circumstances, would never be assigning you work.

              Oh, yes, of course! I was responding specifically to the posts about people never having encountered admins being asked to do personal things.

        2. Piper*

          I’ve picked up lunches, purchased gift cards, cleaned up the lunch area, and made coffee for my boss. And I wasn’t an administrative assistant. I was a designer working on a website build. I was the only person who had ever reported to him and clearly he didn’t understand the difference between assistant and direct report. That was a horrible job on so many levels. I think a lot of times it’s not about the industry or even the company, but about the boss.

      2. BW*

        I was an admin asst for a while, and thankfully never encountered this. When I moved out of that position and had an admin asst at my disposal it never even occurred to me to ask her to do non-work personal tasks. Heck I felt bad about giving her my FedEx shipments when I knew how to do them myself! It is bizarre. The only personal requests I’ve gotten at work are people looking for a single stamp or some Tylenol for a random headache. I guess it depends on the workplace culture.

        My brother works in IT and does get the personal requests, not just from co-workers but from people outside of work who just assume he’d be happy to come fix things for them because that’s what he does as a job. It drives him nuts.

        1. Jamie*

          If your brother tells him his hourly rate for this kind of thing it tends to stop – if the rate is high enough.

          If you get a virus and go to Best Buy the Geek Squad will charge about $138 to clean it. Which people think is outrageous until they ask me and find out it will cost a whole lot more to get me to care…then they either learn self-sufficiency or find someone who wants to help.

          1. Piper*

            This is exactly what I told my boss to make him stop his ridiculous requests (see my comment above). (I was a contractor so he didn’t know my salary.) Once I told him my hourly rate and he picked his jaw up off the floor because I think I was making more than him, the crazy assistant requests stopped immediately.

      3. fposte*

        I think it’s been a convention in some cases–the old secretary-doing-the-gift-shopping-for-the-wife thing–and in others it’s somebody who takes advantage of a situation (I worked with somebody not at all old school who made staff do all kinds of personal stuff for her).

        1. Jill*

          “Shopping for the wife thing”. OMG. This was my old boss. He lived his whole life like a Leave it to Beaver episode and asked me to do all kinds of things a secretary would do back in those times. Buy him cigarettes, bring his kid to work and have be babysit, and yes, buy his wife’s birthday and Christmas presents.

          Some bosses are just living in a time warp,sad but true.

        2. Marly King*

          I had the not-at-all-old-school type, where I had to make her kids’ doctors appointments, get her tires changed, make her team office dinner reservations, pick up dry cleaning/coffee, etc. I finally had to push back when she’d have me call her kids’ school and pretend to be her once for something. Ugh.

      4. A Bug!*

        It’s not unusual among the law offices I know for lawyers to give that sort of task to their assistants around Christmas. Things often slow down a bit this time of year so I’m not too bothered by it.

        That said, most of the legal assistants I know are paid directly by the lawyer handing over the task, which in my opinion does make some difference.

        1. K*

          Yeah, the older lawyers at my firm will routinely have their secretary book personal travel for them – I think it’s just something they’re used to from the old days. I will admit, I’ve had my secretary book a three-way flight where one of the legs was personal and one was business before.

          1. K*

            (The weirdest incident I’ve ever heard of, incidentally, was a young lawyer at a firm that pays somewhat better than mine who had her secretary call the French Laundry all afternoon until a reservation opened up. Apparently the secretary was totally fine with it, but yeah.)

      5. JLL*

        I had a boss who regularly asked me spend my (unpaid) lunch getting her lunch, her coffee, and ship various biohazard samples (blood, urine, god knows what else) to her doctor across the country. Trust me, I didn’t last long.

        1. Jamie*

          Talk about two things which should never be multitasked.

          I don’t know about you guys, but if I was dealing with blood and urine (and I don’t even want to know what “God knows what else” could be) I’m not really in a “let me grab lunch” frame of mind. Ew.

      1. Marie*

        She did. My boss absolutely did not view these things as my job and was shocked that anybody else did. She had many strong words with individuals about the big stuff, and brought it up at staff meetings to make sure everybody knew this wasn’t an expectation of my workload, but the little stuff kept coming up.

        I can say that some of the employees (in my opinion) knew this wasn’t my job and were just the sort of people who felt entitled to push until they found somebody with weak enough boundaries — when I made it clear I wasn’t going to do these tasks, these coworkers went to the person who *used* to be the admin assistant, and was much more passive and bad at saying no than I was, so she became the Christmas present wrapper. Some of the employees were just making a friendly request without realizing how iffy and inappropriate this got to be, but those were the people for whom a less direct and assertive “NO AND STOP ASKING” would work, or an “I’m actually pretty busy” would get an embarrassed “Why did I even ask you? It’s not your job, sorry,” in response.

        I’ve worked in places where this kind of boundary-infringement seemed like the norm, and places where it was unthinkable. I guess I never tried to think through what the difference was. In both places, I always had a strong boss at my back telling others this kind of behavior wasn’t acceptable at all, so that wasn’t the issue, and those bosses were great and helped me develop the confidence and assertiveness I needed to say no.

        I think the difference between the places where this happened and the places where it didn’t was in the way that the Top Boss operated. If the person at the top had clear boundaries and expectations of how work is supposed to operate and what everybody’s role should be, I’ve found people less likely to try to drag in personal errands. If the person at the top, say, brings in his grandchildren for long days at the office (this wasn’t a daycare issue, just a “who doesn’t love my grandkids?” issue) and commandeers people to help entertain them while he’s on conference calls, then it’s the kind of office where people ask me to wrap their Christmas presents. A good example, I guess, of how important top-down culture can be — if the boss at the top is very loose with appropriate workflow, it’s not an office that’s going to attract people who respect or practice strong boundaries.

        1. Jamie*

          I think the difference between the places where this happened and the places where it didn’t was in the way that the Top Boss operated.

          This is a huge element. When the owners of the company make their own travel arrangement and tend to their own personal errands and mail it sets the tone.

          1. Sasha*

            Thanks for the comments, y’all. Makes sense that this kind of behavior would be top-down, as many things are in workplace culture. I admit I’m looking at this from a somewhat naive view – I always assumed it was understood that you don’t put personal tasks of that scale on coworkers/employees/etc.

  3. AB*

    Alison, I’m bookmarking this post because I can see myself forwarding it to colleagues for years to come (like I do with some other posts)!

    It addresses two common patterns I see in coworkers:

    1. Treating indirect cues as direct explanations. Giving an excuse why you don’t want to join someone’s happy hour, redirecting the person to the mailroom when they ask you to mail something for them, etc. are not the same thing as directly telling someone you are not responsible for doing / don’t want to do something.

    2. Complaining that some task they are asked to perform is getting in the way of doing more important work. In most cases this is not true — *you* are the one letting others interrupt your flow. Create a system like Alison said, to prevent you from being randomly interrupted, and use your down time, or the time when you want to take a break for more intellectual work, to handle these supporting tasks.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The treating indirect cues as direct explanations thing is a common denominator in so many of the situations we see here! And the indirect cue-givers generally believe they really have been direct and then are mystified/frustrated when the person doesn’t get the message.

      1. Josh S*

        I was going to comment on exactly this. I see it with family members too. I say, “You need to be direct and spell it out in plain terms,” and they’ll say, “But I was direct! I obliquely said about it and they didn’t get the point!”

        And no matter how many times I give direct language (as in “If you’d like me to do A, B, and C, that means that X, Y, and Z won’t get done which will cause very negative consequence“) and tell them that obliquely hinting, “But what about X, and Z?” won’t get the job done, they don’t get it.

        It might be worth a post–maybe for Intuit or US News–about “Ways you’re being indirect in your communication when you think you’re being direct” or some other tutorial for plain and direct communication? It deserves its own post…

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Good stuff, Josh.

          I find that the word “now” is a stumbling block. As in “would you please do that now?”

          Some people consider that “now” word to be rude-rude. They assume it is a demand.

          Other people consider it just part of the question that addresses time frame. Without the “now” word, the listener assumes it can be done later.

          The bigger picture is some folks don’t know when speaking directly crosses over to sounding poorly- i.e. demanding/bossy/pushy. Where is that line anyway?

          Personally, I think the line varies from one person to another. There are times when a hint works well for me. Then there are other times when I just need a crystal clear explanation.

    2. Julie*


      (I really don’t have anything else to add, but I want to sign up for emails for further comments. Alison, is there any way of doing this without spamming the comments thread? I know there’s a way to add RSS notifications without commenting, but apparently not email.)

            1. Josh S*

              I know you do. But I figure if I can point it out every time there’s a complaint or a part of the system you’re dissatisfied with, perhaps someday you’ll change your mind. :)

                1. FreeThinkerTX*

                  Thank you for a perfect example of how not to be oblique in framing a request / setting a boundary.

          1. clobbered*

            Actually if there was one thing I wish the commenting system had it would be the ability to upvote (+1, whatever you call it) individual comments without having to make an entry. But you know, at the end of the day, details schmetails, it’s the content that counts.

            1. Jamie*

              it’s the content that counts.

              I would argue that there’s no better content on the subject matter anywhere. And I’ve been on the internets for a day or two.

              1. Josh S*

                I agree. I think that this forum has some of the best, self-governing/self-policing, generally polite, helpful commenters anywhere on teh intarwebz.

                I mean, I have yet to see a thread get Godwin’ed, I can count on one hand the number of threads that got seriously abusive to anyone, and even when we seriously argue we keep it civil and respect each other. It’s what the internet should be…

  4. perrik*

    If it makes the OP feel any better, this doesn’t happen just to people sitting at a front desk. When I was in desktop support, I had to go off-campus to install a bunch of computers (plus peripherals and software packages) for a remote office. I emailed my main campus clientele to let them know that I would be swamped today but they could page me if they had an urgent question or issue.

    While elbow-deep in a CPU installing memory chips, I heard my pager go off. “I want to use Priceline to score a cheap flight to see my family. Can you walk me through using Priceline?”

    Anyway, I concur with Twentymilehike about setting up inboxes for non-urgent tasks like this. If handling regular mail is part of your duties (according to your boss), let your co-workers know that all such mail must be dropped off in your Regular Mail inbox and that you will process all such mail at X:XX. Any letters dropped off after that time will go out tomorrow. “However, stamped envelopes are available at the mailing station in the printing room for your convenience. The last pickup time for the USPS mailbox outside our office is X:XX.”

    The “that is, if you’re not too damn lazy to mail your own stuff” part is merely implied.

    1. Jamie*

      I just got through saying that I’ve never seen the personal stuff – but that was specific to the trips and cards, etc.

      This? All the freaking time and ’tis the season to annoy IT with requests for advice on the best/cheapest laptop/desktop/phone/tablet you want to buy your mom/son/husband/fourth cousin.

      It’s like people think we have some super secret purchasing network where we know where to buy iPads for $1. If that were true I wouldn’t be working, I’d be trafficking iPads.

      For most people I’m all about generic advice like checking your local stores for sales and I’ll send links to my favored vendors – but that’s all. For people I like well enough to actually help I do – but always send the information from home after hours. Because if I like you it means you aren’t trying to take advantage of me and this signals that it’s something I’m doing on my own time and it keeps the requests to a minimum.

      But I do refer people to my reps if they are looking for a big ticket item. A couple of people bought big screen tvs from one of my vendors last Christmas and it was win-win. Good prices and it was nice to have a little more trust in the person handling the sale. And the rep appreciated the extra business and that’s good will extended to me. I like my warm and fuzzy with a big side of mercenary.

      1. Sasha*

        My super-secret purchasing network is known as New Egg, and I enjoy watching my friends and family make amazed faces as they discover that you can buy computers from the interwebz.

        I’m generally okay with IT requests EXCEPT for Facebook. I absolutely detest helping people with Facebook. I know it’s very curmudgeonly of me but something deep down inside revolts at the idea of helping someone figure out Facebook.

        1. Jamie*

          Love New Egg!! Cannot recommend them enough.

          And yeah – I refuse to help anyone with Facebook or Twitter. I have, on the other hand, troubleshooted Words with Friends and sent links for the best Angry Birds cheat vids.


          1. FreeThinkerTX*

            I’ve always wondered which is correct: “…troubleshooted…” or “…troubleshot…”

            1. Jamie*

              I actually debated that…maybe it’s actually troubleshat? :)

              I gave up trying to be in the top percentile of grammarians here a loooong tome ago. I never had a shot!

            2. Rana*

              I believe it’s “troubleshot” (because it used to be two words: trouble shoot, as in shooting down troubles) but don’t quote me on it.

        2. perrik*

          Love Newegg! My other super-secret purchasing network is, which I’ve been using since they had a really low price on a Palm III (good gravy, I’m old) and it arrived the next day even though I only paid for standard UPS shipping.

          There’s a whole world of rants about being a non-IT temp outed as “the gal who actually knows computer stuff”. If you are paying me clerical wages, no, I will not also troubleshoot your network connectivity issues.

          But like Jamie, I’ll help with Angry Birds cheats. That is *important*.

          1. Laura L*

            Hmm… Maybe you two could start an Angry Birds cheats thread for all of us on the LinkedIn page? I didn’t even realize there WERE cheats for that.

    2. BW*

      My brother works supporting all the computer equipment and network in three buildings for his employer. He gets that kind of thing a lot.

  5. kristinyc*

    I’m sure the co-worker just assumes that since you handle the shipping that regular mail would be included – it’s a pretty logical conclusion.

    Is he wanting you to send his personal mail (like, Netflix and bills), or is it work related mail? Either way, I think Allison’s suggestion of just making an inbox and doing one trip to the mailbox per day is reasonable. (And hey, it’s a nice little excuse to take a walk!). Or, if you know what time the regular mail comes to your office, just tell people to get their mail to you before then and hand it over to the mail carrier – it seems like this is a pretty minimal amount of effort.

    I work at a start-up too, and whenever something like this comes up, our office manager just emails everyone and says, “Hey guys! New policy – if you need to do [whatever], here’s how it needs to be done and here’s who to go to with questions.” That way, it’s clear and known, do it’ll be really obvious if someone’s not following it.

    1. Kelly O*

      Kristin has a great question – is this personal mail, or business mail? Are you getting envelopes that need postage, loose things that need to be packaged, or does it just need to be dropped off?

      If it’s business mail, then the solution is pretty simple – just come up with a mail drop-off spot, designate it, put a sign on it, and deal with it all at once. You may have to physically take it from some people (because some people are just that way) but just put it in its spot and do it when you set aside that time.

      If it’s personal, it can still be a simple “thanks, just put it in the mail drop” and be done with it. If it’s personal, it should already be ready to go – now if he’s asking you to package up his personal things, that’s a whole other question. (And again, that answer will depend on what level this person is in the company, especially if it’s a small one.)

      The bottom line is that part of your role is the front desk and the administrative duties. Mail shouldn’t really take that much time in the grand scheme of things.

      The other thing to consider is the will you’re cultivating, and how your reaction to Mail Guy is perceived. While I understand the frustration at being interrupted, how is your reaction reflecting on you? (Much as I hate to say it, take Mail Guy out of the equation for a moment.) If you’re acting perpetually put out because you have to stop and do this, it could potentially hold you back down the road.

  6. Anonymous*

    Just let the guy know you don’t handle the mail, you only handle shipping. Perhaps he doesn’t realize…. or he does, but will keep giving it to you until you have the balls to tell him otherwise.

    And if he’s sending personal mail with work-intended postage, many times this isn’t actually allowed and may be an issue in itself. Free postage is not usually a fringe benefit provided by your employer.

    1. Jamie*

      Wait…is this personal mail? I thought the OP was being asked to send his regular, but work related, mail.

      If this is personal mail, outside of Christmas cards and Netflix who even has personal mail anymore? I can’t remember the last time I needed to stop by a mailbox for regular mail.

      1. Tiff*

        Please see my below comment about the horrible woman who put the thank you notes for her wedding in the mailroom to be stamped and mailed. Even though our office policy was pretty lax (you could actually put some personal mail in there) she took it way too far.

        1. Henning Makholm*

          I wish I had been in that mailroom. I’d have put the thank-you notes in window envelopes and run them through the franking machine so they looked like bills.

          And if I needed to type the addresses into a computer by hand to get them printed on company letterhead cover sheets for the window envelopes, then so be it!

        1. Meg Murry*

          Most banks have a bill pay service that is either so many mailed checks a most free or really cheap (like 25 cnets – cheaper than a stamp). And you can setip to automatically mail every month. I do this for all my payments that have to be mailed, it’s so much better than hunting down my checkbook, stamps & envelops for 2 payments a month.

      2. twentymilehike*

        If this is personal mail, outside of Christmas cards and Netflix who even has personal mail anymore?

        Letters to and from grandma :) Most 98 year olds don’t use computers hehe

        Actually, I’ll be the first to admit that I frequent Hallmark and mail random cards to my friends just for fun. I also send actual postcards when I go on vacation! People get a real kick out of it … you should give it a whirl!

        1. Jamie*

          Sure – just as soon as I can talk a co-worker into addressing and mailing them for me.

          You and your pseudo-Canadian ways…

          1. twentymilehike*

            Sure – just as soon as I can talk a co-worker into addressing and mailing them for me.

            You and your pseudo-Canadian ways…

            You are SO. Lucky. I didn’t have a mouthful of latte when I read that or you’d owe me a keyboard …

            I ought to mail you a postcard. From Canada.

    2. Marie*

      Right. The fact that the guy wants you to bring his mail out when you bring the regular office mail out, sure, not a big thing. But it sounds like he wants you to stamp and address his mail, which is ridiculous (provided your boss agrees this isn’t your job).

      There are, sadly, some people who are just habitual boundary-pushers, and will keep pushing after 30 no’s in the hope that the 31st time they’ll get a yes (which teaches them to ask you 31 times for everything). So you definitely need to stick to boundaries strong and assertively and stubbornly.

      Another tactic: If you’ve clarified with your boss that this isn’t your job, and a clear direct no doesn’t work, my third option was to tell them “If I finish with my regular work, I’ll see if I can get to this personal errand for you, but I probably won’t have time” (I always make sure to remark that it’s a personal errand). And then I never do it. Passive-aggressive, yes, which is why you only go for it after you’ve clearly and directly said no. But sometimes an assertive no gets no results, because it has no consequences for the coworker (if they don’t care about, you know, normal things like being decent coworkers, and your boss isn’t ponying up any consequences for them). But some important errand of theirs going undone has consequences to them, so after a few experiences of that, I could get the worst offenders to back off, as it was just too risky for them to allow me the final say on whether their utility bills got addressed and stamped on time.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Keep in mind though that it might actually be her job. She’d need to talk to her boss first to make sure. (She clarified below that it’s not his personal mail; it’s work mail.)

        1. KA*

          Well sounds like I do need to have a conversation with him about this. Sounds like currently, my job is “whatever people are currently throwing at you because we are knee deep in start-up problems”. Which is just, awesome.

            1. Marie*

              Having worked in a very small non-profit, “whatever we can throw at you” was absolutely the standard. You can decide you don’t like it — that’s totally legit! — but you need to know what the boundaries actually are. At the small non-profit, the dividing line was with personal errands (not okay, ostensibly, people still asked), and if I had a task that my boss identified as the Highest of High Priorities, I could and was expected to turn down other work.

              I learned a lot in that environment, and I really like flexible work environments, but I eventually decided I didn’t like the hectic and chaotic nature of it, so I switched to a workplace where my work is still “whatever we throw at you” but without the “and if this doesn’t get done we’ll lose the grant and go out of business” terror attached.

              Anyway, what I mean to say is, it might help to take some time to parse out what you’re not liking here. Do you not like the tasks you’re being given to do? Do you not like the way you’re being given them? Do you not like the kind of supervision you have? Do you not like the time limits you have? Do you not like the ways you’re being asked? Do you not like having a job that’s sort of loose in its definition? All these things are separate issues, and some can be potentially changed to make your experience of work better, but you have to know concretely what’s not working for you before you can ask for a different solution.

              1. fposte*

                These are excellent points. I know a lot of people could enjoy this kind of environment, and it can be an opportunity for the admin to be the person who provides the office structure and create workflow streams. This is how you get to be one of those respected office powerhouses that the C suite (or dean, in my case) would never cross.

                Of course, your office has to be open to this, and it’s not rewarding if you don’t actually want it.

                1. twentymilehike*

                  it can be an opportunity for the admin to be the person who provides the office structure and create workflow streams.

                  As always, fposte, an inisightful comment. As someone in a similar position, I’m going to also mention that it is a really good way to expand your skillset. And a really awesome opportunity to take initiative and show what you can do to make the office run more efficiently.

                  Sometimes I get frustrated because I feel like I’m babysitting, but I get the warm fuzzies when I realize that other people’s jobs are easier because of my work and I can see the office flowing more efficiently.

      2. JLL*

        Yep. I did this often. “Oh, you want me to print out a document for you while I’m working on a presentation AND I have to walk by your desk in order to get to the printer because you are closer to it than I am while you BBM your boyfriend, oh, junior exec? Okay. You asked me to “Print.” right-click-Print. It’s on the printer waiting for you.” After a couple of times of “it’s on the printer waiting for you” suddenly she figured out how to do it herself.

  7. Tiff*

    There’s always that one person who takes the inch and keeps on going. When I worked as an aa (front desk) I handled the mail. We had a basket in the mailroom where folks could drop off their mail and I would use our postage machine then drop it off downstairs. Mostly it was work, but there were some personal items too and it was never a problem until one of the other aa’s decided to put all 150 of her wedding thank you notes in the box. I simply put her items in a box and stuck it back on her desk. A letter here or there isn’t bad, but that was a huge waste of company resources and my time.

    I was in the regional corporate office for a multi-family housing company then. The atmosphere when I first started was very Mad Men: the office manager was young, inexperienced and busty (the vp “recruited” her away from her job as a waitress at Outback and promptly promoted her over more experienced but less attractive staff), the VP hired his girlfriend to work in a different department and got her a boob job, I was asked to scour an old refrigerator that ended up at said VP’s house, there was liberal use of the company amex for “team building” (drinks for cute girls) and “business dinners” (food and drink for cute girls). It was a mess.

    It was such a relief when Chicago corporate cleaned house. They had the assistant VP reshuffle the regional managers, then the VP canned the assistant VP, then the VP magically decided to “take an opportunity in Texas.” Finally the new VP canned Ms. Busoms. By that time I’d found a better opportunity and was able to escape that dysfunctional hell-hole.

    1. some1*

      Years ago I worked in a govt dept and they had a postage meter for business mail, with a strict no personal mail policy. I had two people I knew made good money run their personal bills through the meter.

    2. Natalie*

      I would be really perplexed if I got a wedding thank-you with a postage meter stamp, instead of a regular stamp. I subconsciously assign envelopes with metered stamps to the “not personal mail” category.

      Apparently that’s actually fairly common – I have a friend who works in nonprofit fundraising and they use traditional stamps on all of their appeals and thank-yous because people are more likely to open them.

  8. KA*

    I wrote this email to Alison yesterday, and its definitely given me a 3rd party account of what happened. I’m trying to be professional and not TOO direct, and he needs something direct. Actually after reading this, I’m not opposed to taking the mail out, it’s the interruption that frustrates me. And an outgoing box would resolve this completely.

    There’s also a bit of background about this person, which probably is a bit of why I got so upset. He sends me documents to upload to our WebEx meeting 10 minutes AFTER the meeting has started, and then snaps at me later that the document wasn’t converted correctly. Just really demoralizing and not taking responsibility that he was the one who was late. Generally, he doesn’t respect what I’m currently doing and then snaps when it doesn’t go right. And possibly I’m usually on the offense with him.

    I guess I better go by these inboxes for the mailroom. I have my work cut out for me!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You just need to give him clear instructions in these situations. For instance, “In order to get documents uploaded for a meeting, I need to receive them X minutes before the meeting starts.” And then if he doesn’t do that and snaps when it doesn’t go well, “As I’ve told you before, I need to receive these X minutes before a meeting; otherwise, I can’t realistically have it ready in time.”

      1. Kelly O*

        And you HAVE to do your best to stay neutral when you say this. Trust me, any hint of “oh my sweet Jesus are we having this same conversation AGAIN?” will make it worse.

        If he keeps on giving you things at inappropriate times, it might be best to mention it to your boss, who should be able to help you navigate that.

        (And thanks for clarifying it’s work mail. I had not read far enough down to see that when I responded to Kristin earlier.)

    2. Tiff*

      When you get good and tired of his mess you’ll say something to him that will make him think twice before snapping at you. I’ve been there.

    3. Jamie*

      It’s normal that this kind of thing is amplified since he’s entitled and kind of asshatty in other ways.

      There are people who can ask me for thing not technically in my job description and I’m more than happy to help. Other people, I have to take a deep breath before I respond because I just bridle quicker. For me it’s always the entitled ones that irritate me the most.

      Like the people who complain about their monitor because someone else got a new monitor (because they needed one) and that one is bigger so all of a sudden they need one, too. When someone has a reputation for those kind of requests even the reasonable ones are annoying. It’s that they set their request default to “unreasonable” and hence the burden of proof is higher.

      1. KA*

        YES, I totally agree. My boss always starts a conversation with “this is not a priority, but if you don’t mind, please do X when you have a chance. Thank you” – And I’ll do it pretty soon after he asks.

        With this guy, I need to take a HUGE breath, and think about what I’m saying. Honestly, I feel like he needed help from stamping the letter, putting on the address label, and writing the address.

        Alison’s right through: ignore the bad behavior, address the problem, and move on. But, it doesn’t mean that I’m less frustrated about it!

        1. Kylie*

          Ladies and gentleman, my life as an admin.

          Sometimes I want to start a blog of crazy things people ask me to do. The first would be, “dear wrong number, it is not my job to google the business you are trying to call to find their phone number” followed closely by “I am not a xerox technician and know just as much about why the printer isn’t working as you do.”

          But somehow if people are really nice and not demanding about it, I just don’t mind doing the silly tasks like that as much. That’s probably not a very professional thing to admit, but it’s true.

      2. A Bug!*

        This happened in another office in my area. A couple of paralegals’ ancient monitors crapped out and got replaced, and the rest of the pool got up in arms. So the rest of the perfectly-functional monitors got replaced, too.

        And then several of those paralegals complained because their new monitors had a higher resolution and “the words are too tiny and I can’t read anything!” (The rest of them were ecstatic over being able to use “side-by-side” effectively.)

        1. Jamie*

          I wouldn’t have replaced them. That just rewards whining and I won’t have it.

          I take that back, if people get too pissy about it I’m happy to replace it…I always have something in storage that’s functional but even worse than what they have now.

          And heh – I love side by side…9 x out of 10 when someone is whining about not having two monitors that will solve the problem they claim to have. Unfortunately if their real problem is that so and so has two monitors and they don’t …well, that problem won’t get solved. You want a second monitor your need has to be a little greater than wanting email up on one screen and the internet on the other.

          1. Henning Makholm*

            Hey, I already use side-by-side (and sometimes side-by-side-in-two-stories-each) for my code (and quietly curse my coworkers when they won’t stick to the 80-character right margin that makes it possible). But the web pages that the code makes, or the issue tracking system, or the email I’m writing about the code, or reference documentation I need while coding, that goes on the other monitor, thankyouverymuch.

            Recently I’ve needed, several times, to spend hours correlating two different log files (with lines that routinely exceed 160 characters) and a packet dump (and Wireshark is close to useless at half-screen width). I don’t know how I’d have survived that if confined to one monitor.

            Fortunately, getting two monitors was as simple as saying to our IT person, “hey, I noticed that so-and-so is working dual-headed. Can I try that too?”

            They guy who sits across from me has three monitors. I don’t know if I could adjust to that … most of the time.

            1. Jamie*

              I have three and it’s optimal for me – I love it. In writing reports from data to be able to test in one screen and have the source in the other with the third for specs/email/what have you in invaluable.

              I do dual monitors as standard issue for engineering and although I sounded flip before, I do consider every request and if there is a legitimate reason they will get one. I’ve just had requests from people who in no way shape or form can justify the use and it’s solely because so and so got one – that’s what irks me.

              Personally I would quit if I had to go back to a single monitor…but that’s because of the nature of my job it just tying my hands. If I had a different job and went back to the finance department or whatever I would totally adjust.

              But I sounded more callous in my early comment than I am – if there’s a reason I’m happy to pop in an extra video card and fire it up. (Just between you, me, and everyone reading this post I love hardware stuff and don’t get to do nearly enough of it.)

              1. Agile Phalanges*

                Our company started using dual monitors (for everyone) when we went paperless. I was in AP at the time, and it was necessary if we were paperless–document on one screen (instead of the document holder) and ERP system on the other screen. But it’s useful for SO many other things. As I took on more general accounting roles, I’d have Excel on one side, ERP on the other. Or Excel and Excel. Or Excel document I’m e-mailing about on one side, and e-mail I’m typing on the other.

                Now I’m in marketing, and I STILL don’t know what I’d do without two monitors. Source data in Excel, presentation I’m creating on the other side. Presentation on one side, e-mail on the other. Presenting in GoToMeeting from one screen (and only that screen showing to the audience) original data plus other reference materials to flip between on the “hidden” screen. The list goes on and on. I’m allowed to work from home as much as I want. But until I set up my own home office (with dual monitors and a docking station I’ll probably have to pay for), I can only work from home to the extent that I can stand to work on one tiny laptop monitor. Which is to say, not at all. I’ve only put in one full day from home, ever, since starting this position in May, and that was because I was just coding responses to open-ended questions and only needed one screen for the task. I really need to source/organize myself a home office…

                1. Agile Phalanges*

                  Oh, and I’ve always enjoyed using photos I’ve taken as my wallpaper, and shortly after going to the dual monitor system, the head IT guy was at the corporate office instead of the location he was based at, and walked by when I was just typing an e-mail or something and was only using one screen, and he saw a photo of my son on the other, and made some remark lke, “I’m glad we paid for all those video cards and monitors, so people can use them as a picture frame.”

        2. JT*

          Complaining about not being able to read smaller text on a screen is very reasonable, and it’s not surprising that they don’t know how to change the resolution to increase the default text size themselves – it’s not a typical office task for most people.

          If they complain properly – saying to IT “Can you make all text show up larger?” is appropriate.

          Also, up to a certain point (around 23″ or 24″ for typical office tasks, normal vision, etc) productivity increases as monitor size increases due to less scrolling and need to switch between windows. This has been measured. So getting, say 3″ or 4″ of extra monitor size will pay itself back easily, even if the old monitor still worked.

          1. Jamie*

            I agree that if they ask it’s ITs job to walk them through adjusting their display. However, I have a lot more respect for someone who shows a little bit of initiative and googles something this simple first.

            Now, would i roll my eyes and ask if their google was broken when I got the request? Of course not. But I’d absolutely be thinking it.

    4. Marie*

      It might help to change your expectations of this person. If you expect him to act like a normal reasonable person, every time he snaps at you for doing something that isn’t really possible or appropriate for you, it’s going to freak you out and put you on the defensive, because you’ll feel like you need to prove you didn’t do anything wrong. If you just expect this person to be unreasonable, you can stop taking it personally — take Alison’s advice, give him clear instructions, then when he snaps, know you did your due diligence, and this snapping is this guy’s personal baggage leaking out and not a commentary on what you did or didn’t do wrong.

      This snappy rude guy’s got a personal bag of issues here — don’t hold it for him, that’s his bag.

  9. KA*

    Oh, the mail was office related. Most government agencies that we deal with still want snail mail.

    If it was Netflix, I would have shot through the roof!

  10. LL*

    I agree with Alison’s advice here. Direct explanations are the way to go.

    I’d also like to note that some employees may have had previous experience with a front desk receptionist or AA that *did* handle all of this type of work. And it sounds like the OP replaced an AA who passively accepted it. So it’s really not all that surprising that the co-workers are making these requests.

    Personally, I’ve seen at least 3 companies replace the traditional AA with some hybrid position and then expect all the other workers to pick up the clerical slack. For example, the hybrid marketing/AA doesn’t have time to handle regular mail, so now each employee is responsible for their own. Of course this isn’t the OP’s fault, but it may explain some employees’ expectations and requests.

  11. just laura*

    “Being responsible for something doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to drop everything to handle it whenever someone asks. Set up a system that keeps that from happening.”


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