my coworker treats me like his assistant

A reader writes:

I work in a small office, 7 people total. I love my job and I’ve always received glowing reviews from my boss, the general manager. However, I (and a fellow coworker) have an irritating, ever-present problem. Our office is a male dominated office, with me and one other coworker the only women who work in our office.

Another coworker (let’s call him Jim) refuses to learn our operating system, which includes all client data. He will walk up to my desk and interrupt whatever work I’m currently in the middle of to ask me to look up a customer and information about their service. He will even interupt my lunch break (while I have headphones in, watching a tutorial for my Accounting class) and ask me to look up client information. If he sees me on the phone with a client, he will instead walk over to the other woman in our office (let’s call her Mandy) and ask her to look up information instead. He will even call Mandy or me with questions about clients when he is out of the office, at home, sitting in front of his (company-issued) laptop!

Jim treats both of us as his assistants, although neither of our jobs are related to his. He will ask Mandy or me to prepare presentations for customers who neither of us have contact with. These are just some of the most frustrating tasks he asks us to complete. He’s asked me to help him format his email signature, or to save a picture onto his desktop, and other things that are incredibly simple to do. All of these tasks he has the time to do, but he just doesn’t want to do them. Our company operating system has been in place for years, and Jim has had mandatory training on this system. But it’s as if he’s scared or intimidated by technology, and won’t use the system.

Jim has worn a path in the carpet of our office, from his desk, to my desk, to Mandy’s desk, and back. There’s nothing Jim won’t ask either of us to do, and it doesn’t matter how busy we are. I’m starting to feel like he’s using Mandy and I to do his “busy work” because he thinks it’s beneath him. He’s never asked any other coworkers for help, and I feel like he’s asking Mandy and I because we’re the women in the office.

How do I politely but tactfully ask him to stop bothering me with tasks that he should know how to do? Mandy has worked for this company for a lot longer than I have, and I know it’s wearing her thin. (Side note: one time Mandy protested to Jim’s request for her to do some of his work, and was written up by her boss for being “unprofessional” and “too loud.”) Please help!

He’s continuing to do this because you and Mandy are inadvertently reinforcing the behavior by allowing it. Stop rewarding his behavior with help and answers, and retrain him to do this stuff himself or look elsewhere for answers.

These are the phrases you need to use:

“Sorry, I’m on deadline. Try checking the manual.”

“I’m not sure. Have you asked Gavin or Apollo?”

“Have you checked the database? That’s the first place to look.”

“Sorry, I’ve got to get this finished before my lunch break ends.”

“You want me to prepare a presentation for your client? Sorry, I’m busy with X, Y and Z. The other teapot makers do that for themselves so maybe one of them can show you how they do it.”

“Sorry, I’m swamped right now.”

“What have you tried so far?”

“Can’t help! Sorry!”

“Apollo does fantastic presentations. Try checking with him.”

“I don’t know anything about those customers — sorry!”

At some point, you could also consider just asking him head-on about what’s going on. As in: “Hey, Jim, I’m curious about why you keep asking Mandy and me for help with these items, since  we work in different areas than you. Have you tried asking Dorian or Cecil, since they do work so similar to yours?” And then depending on his answer, you might follow up with: “Have you noticed that you only ask the women in the office for assistance?”

That said, before you do this, make sure that you and your manager are on the same page about what your role is. If there’s any chance that Jim is acting like you’re his assistant because he’s been told that it’s appropriate to go to you with these things, you need to know that. And you need to know that your manager will have your back if Jim complains.

{ 221 comments… read them below }

  1. Adam*

    I’m curious how old “Jim” is and how long he’s been at this company. Is he perhaps not technically savvy and would much rather have other people do the things that he’s intimidated/doesn’t want to bother to learn?

    Not that that’s an acceptable excuse of course. I agree to talk to your manager about Jim’s frequent requests.

    1. OP*

      OP here. Jim has worked with this company for 17+ years. He’s mid-to-late 50’s, and he’s nowhere near tech-savvy. I should have been clearer in my original letter, but Jim, Mandy and I all have different managers. Mandy and Jim work in a related field, but Mandy does not report to Jim, nor does Jim have any say in Mandy’s job or job description. The only caveat with that is Mandy and Jim work with the same customers. Ever since Jim and Mandy started working with the same customers around 10 years ago, Jim has acted as though Mandy reports to him. But again, she doesn’t.

      1. Mike B.*

        Hmm. It sounds to me like the three of you are at the same level, with a layer of three managers reporting to a CEO–in which case it kind of makes sense that he’s approaching only the two of you, and the problem *might* be less about casual sexism than about a lack of self-reliance (though I could see both being in play).

        If I’m incorrect in my assumption, and he’s a level above you and reports directly to the CEO…well, that makes some sense too, unless he has his own direct report that he’s ignoring in favor of the two of you.

        1. OP*

          He doesn’t have a direct report to help him. He’s in his own department by himself. He’s never had a direct report in all the years he’s worked with this company. With all the work he does, he’s been given the opportunity to train up on that work, or has been shown how to do it. He simply refuses to do it.

          1. Artemesia*

            I’d sit down with your manager and say something like ‘I need your advise on an issue that is interrupting my work flow. Jim seems reluctant to learn how to do XYZ for his clients and is constantly interrupting my work to have me look up things for him. Last week he interrupted with these repetitive tasks that he could easily do 15 times as well as asking me to prep presentations for two of his clients that he will be doing. Being asked to do Jim’s scut work makes me less effective at getting the work for my own clients done and so I have tried to show him how to use the data base but he is pretty resistant. He seems to expect every woman in the office to be his secretary. I’m wondering if he needs to get some training on the system. ‘

            Of course you run the risk, he will make you Jim’s assistant. But the manager does need a heads up and it needs to be framed as resistance to learn basic procedures of the job.

            I would have long since used the phrases AMA suggests as in ‘Why don’t you check with Apollo’ and ‘I am on deadline, you’ll need to look that up.’

          2. Anonymoose*

            Frankly, it sounds like Jim needs an assistant. Even in a small company, it doesn’t always make sense for a higher-level person to be doing certain tasks that can be more cheaply and quickly completed by an entry-level professional.

            1. NW Cat Lady*

              I don’t think it sounds like Jim needs an assistant. I think it sounds like Jim needs to be told that this is part of his job and he needs to do it, just like everyone else in the office. The OP stated that Jim has time to do the tasks, and he’s been trained on how to do them, he just refuses.

                1. Mike B.*

                  I don’t think we have enough information to draw a conclusion here, frankly. Maybe he’s an entitled prima donna who doesn’t think anything of asking women to do his dirty work…or maybe he’s busy with higher-level projects and has no one to delegate administrative tasks to. OP seems to feel strongly that he’s the former, but she’s not necessarily in a position to see the situation objectively.

                  If OP is still listening: please tell us more about your relative positions in the organization. Jim’s been around for 17 years; is he a senior-level employee who doesn’t happen to be a manager? You and Mandy aren’t *his* assistants, but is that the function you serve for your actual managers?

              1. OP*

                You are exactly right! These are not tasks that are too time consuming, or too difficult. All of the people in our office, me included, complete these same tasks. We took the time to learn our new system, pay attention during the training, and we use the system multiple times a day. Jim just simply refuses to do any of that.

                1. Angora*

                  I had this issue when I transferred to a new job. I worked for the Dean and a Director. I was not support for the faculty, they had their own department admin assistants. Faculty would come down the hall and ask me to drop whatever I was doing and ask me to run errands or do their copying.

                  My boss and I worked out a system. He knew who would try to take advantage of the new person. I would tell them that I had a deadline and couldn’t help them that they needed to see their department secretary. If they pushed back , I would inform them that they were free to go to Dr. XXX and ask for my assistance. He would decide if what they wanted had higher priority. I think only one faculty member even went to him, I never saw her again. She was the worse one … we had a courier and she could never get anything to him … she had major time management issues.

          3. Ed*

            It sounds like Mandy is in a worse situation than OP. If her and Jim share the same customers, it could easily affect her work directly if she stops helping him.

            1. Angora*

              You know … two bad both women couldn’t be out of the office at the same time. Who would he go to than?

              He should be held accountable for new learning the new software. It should reflect on his performance evaluation.

      2. HKGstudent*

        Oh dear, I’m afraid that the two of you have been a little too polite. Your favors have been taken for granted.
        It happened to me too, but personality-wise I’m a little assertive so here you have my pieces of advice:
        *Walk up to your boss and dig up your JD. If reporting to Jim is included, you’re stuck.
        *If you’re not answering to Jim, tell your boss that Jim is in need of an assistant and that you have never been invited for this (extra) post nor have you been paid for this.
        *Outline Jim’s former/regular requests in writing in form of a diary (plus time of the day)
        *Propose for a revised JD for you to consider plus a top-up in pay for your extra service
        *Moreover: mention that either Jim or the company has to pay ;)

        I think it’s OK to vent about things here but it’s more important to clarify with the people you deal with. If you’re worried about politics you just need to be subtle about the do’s and donts. There are many ways of asking things or to tell Jim off, but it does come down to your personality.
        Hope that this is useful. Cheers

    2. Jen S. 2.0*

      I also would bet good money that Jim learned 17 years ago that asking the *men* in the office resulted in replies like “Sorry, I’m on deadline. Try checking the manual” and “Have you checked the database? That’s the first place to look,” but asking the *women* resulted in help, however grudging. So, indeed, there’s a gender component, but it’s one that he’s got good reason to encourage.

  2. The Cosmic Avenger*

    It doesn’t sound like deflecting him will work, because management seems to fully support Jim’s self-infantilizing behavior:

    Side note: one time Mandy protested to Jim’s request for her to do some of his work, and was written up by her boss for being “unprofessional” and “too loud.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It sounds like the OP and Mandy might have different managers though — and also like Mandy’s write-up might have been for unrelated issues, rather than linked to her Jim complaint.

      1. OP*

        Hi Allison! Thank you so much for responding to my letter. Mandy and I are really enjoying reading your response and the helpful comments. The write-up Mandy received was directly in relation to her refusing to do Jim’s project. She didn’t shout or yell or be dramatic-she just very firmly stated “No, there is no time for me to do this project for you. I have X, Y, and Z due by COB today.” The problem that is stemming from Mandy’s write-up (I wrote a little more about that above) is that now she’s in fear of being written up again for declining to help Jim, so she feels like she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. The really difficult problem surrounding all of this, is that my boss, Jim’s boss, and Mandy’s boss do not work together, nor do they answer to the same C-level manager. Basically we’re three different departments in one office.

    2. Adam V*

      Like Alison says, though, part of the issue may have been that she didn’t get her manager on the same page ahead of time. If Jim has the opportunity to run to Mandy’s boss first and say “I need my presentation done and Mandy won’t help”, then she’s going to come across as the problem. If she tells her boss “Jim keeps asking me to do his work and it’s interrupting mine, and it’s not even for my client”, then her boss would be able to say “well, was she in the middle of something? Was it for your client or hers?”

      1. OP*

        OP here. The problem with Mandy being written up stems from a whole nasty nest of office politics. When Jim asked Mandy to set time aside do to a large project for him (which was not something she’s responsible for, nor ever been asked to do prior to this), Mandy calmly stated that she wouldn’t have the time, as she had to meet deadlines for her own work. Jim then complained to his boss, and his boss complained to Mandy’s boss, therefore resulting in Mandy’s write-up. Mandy’s boss has been with the company for less than a year, and Mandy was the one who trained her upon hire. Mandy’s boss had no interest in asking for her side of the story, and didn’t want to “look bad” in her first year of management in front of Jim’s boss. Therefore she wrote Mandy up. Mandy has never received any write-ups before, or any verbal warnings.

        1. fposte*

          That suggests that Mandy, at least, may be expected by her supervisor to perform some of these tasks, sucky though that may be. All the more reason for you to clarify with *your* manager whether you’re to be support staff for Jim or not and whether she’ll back you up if Jim complains.

          1. holly*

            so maybe she should sit down with her manager and find out explicitly what her new job duties are?

            1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

              I think Mike was asking because you referenced Mandy’s manager as a “her.” Are you a small office on a larger staff (where most others work in different offices)?

              1. OP*

                That’s correct-both Mandy and Jim’s bosses work in another location. Mandy’s boss is a female, Jim’s boss is a male, and both work in our Corporate office. Only my boss works in the same location as the three of us.

        2. Emma the Strange*

          If she hasn’t already, Mandy should have a conversation where she asks her boss to spell out exactly how the boss thinks Mandy should have handled Jim’s request, and how she should handle similar conflicts going forward. Did the boss really expect Mandy to drop the big, important, by-COB deadlines in order to help Jim? (It sounds like Mandy was never given a chance to explain things, so maybe the boss didn’t actually realize that was the trade off? Still a shitty boss, but maybe not beyond all hope). Would the boss have been willing to assign the work to someone else/do it themselves to make sure the deadlines were met? If not, would the boss take the heat for the deadlines not being met, or would they throw Mandy under the bus?

          If this boss has any shred of competence, this kind of conversation will prod them into finding a solution that doesn’t constantly punish Mandy for failing to meet impossible expectations. However, if the boss insists that Mandy should just “find time” to do everything by the deadline (somehow), or that she should reject his request, but “more politely” (somehow), then it’s probably time for Mandy to dust off the old resume.

        3. Biff*

          I, too, have been in a situation where I was chewed out for someone else’s lack of ability to do their own work. I don’t know that this is a salvageable situation for Mandy, given my own experience with a similar situation. I think Mandy does need to define her work as it is related to Jim, maybe not just with her own boss but with his. If the overall expectation of the management is that ‘the women can help’ then you are going to need to look on for work.

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      Yes, it sounds like management will not have her back if Jim complains, and that he will complain.

      Normally I agree with Alison’s advice, but from the little information here, I suspect it will not work. Thus, I would try modifying it a bit. Don’t refuse to help, but do put off your help (and Mandy needs to do the same). So something like this:

      “Sorry, I’m on deadline. Try checking the manual. If that doesn’t help, I should have some time in about an hour.”

      “Sorry, I’ve got to get this finished before my lunch break ends. That will be in 25 minutes.”

      “Sorry, I’m swamped right now. I should have some time tomorrow morning.”

      “I don’t know anything about those customers. I can come to your desk and show you how I would figure it out. I’ll be free in about 15 minutes.”

      So he can’t accuse you of being unhelpful. But your help is delayed (and delay it for longer and longer, as needed). If you and Mandy both do this, he’ll either go to someone else for help, figure it out, or complain to his manager. And if he complains, you’ll either get support, or clarification that part of your job is doing part of his job. That will be a slightly different AAM question. :)

      1. IvyGirl*

        Personally, I would go with the last one – the one without an apology. The phrasing there is also great – “I’ll show you how I’d figure it out.”

        Because really, are you sorry that you’re unable to help him?

      2. Betsy*

        This is a really effective strategy for dealing with these kinds of personalities, I’ve found. Don’t just say “no,” but be clear about where they are on your priority list.

        I stopped responding immediately to emails in my last job, and a lot of my coworkers became a lot more self-sufficient in reaction. This is not to say I wouldn’t answer at all, but I would wait 1-2 hours before replying to questions unless it was a legitimate emergency (or from my boss). When someone stopped by my desk with a question, I’d say, “Don’t want to lose my train of thought. Drop me an email?”

        When someone came by and said, “Hey, could you do the detailwork to make my spouts look good? You know I’m really bad at it,” I’d say, “Sure. I need to finish my 3 teapots first, but I should be able to get to it Thursday afternoon.” It’s making the process more difficult and less rewarding for them, without actually removing the support. You’ll still help them! It will just take longer.

      3. cv*

        I really like this because it gives you something to take to your manager if Jim doesn’t react well. You can present it in terms of the impact the interruptions have on your own work, not just as something that’s annoying you.

        And it wouldn’t surprise me if the general manager is okay with Jim’s refusal to learn the technology. There are a lot of people with habits like this and everyone deals because they’re great with clients or have some other skill set they bring (see: one of my faculty advisors, who doesn’t use email but has so much history and knowledge in the field that everyone just picks up the phone or contacts him through his assistant). So I’d be thinking of suggestions for your manager for how to handle it that don’t include Jim shaping up – would it help if he spread his requests around to others, or does he need a part-time assistant, or could someone export his client contact info from the database every so often so he has it in a spreadsheet, or whatever? It sucks, but in an office that small there’s sometimes a less strict delineation of job duties and more of an inclination to accommodate varying personalities and skill sets.

  3. Episkey*

    It makes me a little nervous that you say your co-worker was written up the one time she tried to boundary-enforce.

    I definitely think you should talk to your manager about this and make sure you won’t be in the same boat.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I agree. And I’d be blunt, “I feel like Jim believes that I am his assistant. Does Jim run this work through you and I just don’t know it? Has he been told that he can assign me projects? If this is the case then I think my job description needs to updated.”

      A similar situation happened at old job where a female assistant was replaced with a male. The male boss then gave his work to a female assistant in another department instead of his own. After a month she went to her boss and straight up said that the other boss was sexist for giving his work to her. It never happened again.

        1. Camellia*

          I really like this. Just say sure! Let’s go talk to my boss to see where I can fit this in with my other priorities!

          Doing this every time will show your manager that this is not a one-off or an occasional request, that it is really impacting your work. The work you presumably do for YOUR manager.

            1. Jessa*

              This can be an email or a phone call if necessary. The main thrust is to let the manager know every single time that she’s interrupted she needs to know what task to do and which to ignore. If the boss keeps getting “what’s the priority here” emails, maybe something will change. It may require a sit down/phone conference with all the bosses/employees but someone needs to ask what the job descriptions are across the board and get management buy in. Whether it’s “do his work, and we’ll deal with the fallout of what you’re not doing,” or “we never knew that,” the problem here is that this dynamic has been in place for years and years. The answer may end up being that the OP and her associate need other jobs. But if I didn’t mis-read there’s TEN years listed in that letter. This is not going to change overnight without serious sit downs.

      1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

        I actually really love that wording. It’s exactly to the point: “I feel like Jim believes I am his assistant. Is that how things are and I just don’t know it?” I love all of that. Because I feel like, in these situations, there’s a real danger in your boss thinking “She’s just being asked to do this one thing, and she’s refusing, so she’s just being obstinate and unhelpful.” The wording you put out allows you to lay out a pattern of behavior without spending 10 minutes talking (or, as some people might hear it, “whining about a handful of little requests”).

  4. Nina*

    While I agree that Jim shouldn’t be asking the OP and Mandy for help because they’re the only women in the office, I don’t think the OP should direct him to the other men in the office, either. IMO, that’s just reinforcing the idea that Jim should just ask others to do his work, rather than learn how to do it himself.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Fixing Jim isnt’ really their problem though. All they really have to do is set boundaries for their own work.

      And probably if he goes to the men they’re not going to be nearly as helpful as Mandy and OP were.

      1. Nina*

        I’m not saying they should fix Jim, but I would sooner tell him to check the manual before asking someone else for assistance. It’s not anyone’s job to be assisting him, frankly.

  5. Katie the Fed*

    Jim might be doing this because he’s lazy or because you’re the women in the office, or some combination, but regardless you need to stop. Just don’t do it.

    I’ve been in this situation many times – I work in a very male-dominated field and it’s not uncommon for me to be the only female in the office or room. I was in a training course where the guys expected me to make coffee for the group every day. I don’t know if it started because I just happened to make it the first couple days (when nobody else was) or because they thought I should be the one doing it, but regardless I put a stop to that quickly. I just started bringing my own coffee in. They actually had the nerve to ask me a few times to do it (“but Katie, you’re so good at it!”) but I just laughed and told them they could be good at it too if they bothered to do it.

    I’ve also been signed up as the notetaker more times than I care to remember. But I had to learn to stand my ground and tell other people it was time for them to take meeting notes too. Don’t put up with the (“but you’re better at it!”) bullshit. It’s lazy, plain and simple.

    1. Betsy*

      Yeah, I had to do the same thing. There are some “female” jobs that I pretty much always reject on principle, because I got stuck into them so many times — meeting notes, party planning, shopping for shower gifts, providing food, etc.

      It’s different if there’s a rotation, and everyone has to take a turn, but there have been some teams where I was the only woman, and when someone said, “We need someone to order lunch!” all eyes just spun to me. It made me really cranky, and I have cultivated a reputation for being Bad at those things.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        ARgh I hate the party planning. I pretty much end up doing that because if I don’t, it doesn’t happen and I’m a manager so I want to make sure morale is good. And I HATE planning events.

        1. Betsy*

          Yeah, I am a total non-management type, and I am awful at planning parties. And yet, every time someone was like, “We should have a party for Jim’s new baby!” or “Yay! Successful release! Party-time!” the expectation always seemed to be that I’d make it happen. Not my job!

        2. Sabrina*

          On a similar note, I used to be an AA, which typically got stuck with some of these things, but we’d particularly always get stuck with cake cutting. Why? I don’t know. I mean there’s no training I took that makes me particularly skilled at cutting cakes for parties to which I was not even invited. The last time this happened was when a contractor, who’d been there all of 6 weeks, was getting a good-bye party with a cake. I was about to leave the company after 10 years and knew that no such party was planned for me. I had to pick up the cake, delivered it to the room, and handed over the knife with instructions to return it to its owner when they were done.

          1. ThursdaysGeek*

            My dad would always cut our birthday cake with pieces that were the same amount but were not the same shape, using triangles and various polygons. That is a valuable skill (which I have practiced), especially if you wish people to not ask you to cut the cake. Having non-square pieces seems to make many people uneasy, even though they have nothing to complain about exactly.

            1. fposte*

              Oh, that’s hilarious. But I think my office would find that delightful. (Aside from a few arguments about surface ratios.)

              1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

                This. It’s not about how much cake you get, it’s about how much frosting. I dibs an end piece. Or, better yet, a corner.

                1. Artemesia*

                  When I was 5 there was a fancy birthday cake at school — super fancy tiered. The teacher asked me if I wanted a piece and I said ‘Only if I can have a corner please.’ I was scolded for rudeness AND given the corner piece. This launched a lifetime of always knowing how to get the corner piece and the corner office.

                2. Jessa*

                  Yes, and I hated my mother over this, because I was the hostess even if it was my party, I was 15 before I got any of the roses on the cake (because those are for GUESTS,) ‘scuse me what about the bloody birthday girl? I wanted corners with roses. By 15 I had the brains to order crazy cakes with no writing and roses all over the darned things. Because seriously I was not going to have “roses are for GUESTS, not for guests of honour,” fights with my mother any more, better to pay for my own darned cake and make everyone happy. Because gods forbid my cousins should be put out one inch on MY birthday.

            2. Anonsie*

              You know, that would make me feel weird if someone gave me like… A rhombus piece of cake. I cannot put my finger on why.

              As a child, however, I always asked my parents to cut my sandwiches into ridiculous shapes. They’d ask “rectangles or triangles” and I would think about it for a minute before asking for something not on the menu. According to my mom, I regularly asked for circles in particular.

          2. Phyllis*

            “Now Milton, don’t be greedy, let’s pass it along and make sure everyone gets a piece.”

            Sorry, couldn’t resist.

          3. Mephyle*

            Cake cutting (fair division) is a legitimate subject in mathematical graph theory (see, for example, ). Search {cake cutting theorem} (no quotes, no braces) for more examples. I bet you never knew that unless you or someone close to you was a graph theorist!

        3. Midge*

          My job is not related to event planning, but I do need to be very detail oriented. I have a male coworker who tells me I would be a great wedding planner after anything that requires a fair amount of coordination. Nothing makes me internally rage quite so much as succeeding at my job, which is not event planning, and being told I should plan parties instead. Next time he makes this comment, I plan to ask if he would say the same thing to a man.

        4. Seattle Writer Girl*

          Oh yes, the dreaded Party Planning Committee. As the youngest woman in my office I remember being asked to go shopping for our company party and then when I got back to the office I was in the kitchen putting the food onto platters when the COO walked in. He looked at me and said, “You’re doing a great job. Sorry I can’t help you since I bruised a rib playing ultimate frisbee this weekend. Bye!” (Didn’t realize that particular injury affected the ability of his butt to sit on a chair and his hands from griping things, but whatever….)

          I’d also like to point out that I was turned down for all raises and promotions I asked for in 4 years but was invited to join the party committee 3 times.

    2. AMG*

      You could always make the most burnt, awful tasting swill they have ever tasted. I favor, ‘Sorry, but I brought mine. I can go with you tyo make the coffee and tell you how I did it though.’ Dileberately doing it badly is a good last resort.

      1. Natalie*

        “I can go with you to make the coffee and tell you how I did it though.”

        Alternatively, “I’m sure you can look up instructions online”.

      2. Amp2140*

        This is what I like to call the red sock in the laundry strategy. I had a teacher in school explain that all you have to do is ruin the whites once to never get asked to do them again.

        1. CC*

          Yeah, I had a co-worker do that once. Not about an optional / extra thing like making coffee though, it was a necessary part of design that he didn’t want to do. Stuff was ordered the wrong size, and had to be re-ordered — at 6 weeks lead time, and the problem was discovered during construction when they were supposed to be installed, leading to delays.

          Sure, he was never asked to do that task again. I don’t know how he wasn’t fired.

          And frankly, putting a red sock in the whites to get out of laundry, in my opinion, should result in the offender being put in charge of their own laundry, their own laundry only, and all of their own laundry. They can ruin their own laundry all they want, their partner or mother or whoever else shouldn’t have to wash it for them because they’re deliberately incompetent.

          But then I subscribe to the theory that both men and women should be equally able to cook dinner, do laundry, clean house, change a tire, use a hammer, and other basic tasks of living.

        2. themmases*

          There is a Shel Silverstein poem about this! But it uses dishes. My old job also attracted unrelated tasks and general assistant-type treatment, and I would tell our new hires (in a slight misquote), “If you hate to dry the dishes, drop the dishes on the floor.”

          I would never deliberately mess up something it was my job to do, but there’s no point in getting known for doing something particularly well if you hate to do it and are hoping not to be asked again. Drop the dishes on the floor for sexist assistant tasks, do boring but necessary work to spec, and save your A game for the tasks that will show up in the ad for your dream job.

    3. Connie-Lynne*

      Ah, so frustrating, with the notetaking. My solution, which I am pleased to say has been adopted by other teams in my department, is to ask at the beginning of each meeting for a note-taking volunteer. And, I keep track in my head, and call out people who haven’t taken notes yet: “Ken, you haven’t rotated through note duty yet, why don’t you do it this time?” Sometimes folks remind me that they have a presentation to give, in which case I say, “oh right, you can take notes next week.”

      For “arrange the food” situations, I simply redirect, “I can’t do it this week but if you need a hand why don’t you ask the admins (it is the admins’ job to assist with meeting food at our company).”

    4. Jubilance*

      I’ve been dealing with the note-taker issue lately with my manager. He clearly favors the men over the women, and in several project meetings he’s “nominated” me to be note-taker. I’ve said no each time and he’s time he’s made a comment about me being so serious & whatnot, but I’ve held firm. Someone else can take notes but it won’t be me just because I’m the only woman on the project team.

      1. Alien vs Predator*

        Good for you. I’ve seen women put in this position many times and I’ve always found it so bizarre. It’s some kind of strange leftover from the Mad Men days where important people (men) would talk and unimportant people (women) would take dictation.

        Aside from the blatant sexism, this is an absolutely abysmally stupid way to run a meeting. If you have a group of people sitting around talking and only one person taking notes, you are doing it wrong. In meetings that are run correctly, everyone takes the notes that they need to take in order to collect the information they need to do the work they are responsible for. I would never in a million years make my work products dependent upon someone else’s interpretation of something that was said in a meeting.

        Having a single designated note-taker at all is just really stupid. If every detail of every utterance is that important you should probably just record the meetings.

    5. Sarahnova*

      This is the kind of stuff I think of and ruefully wince-smile when people declaim, “Sexism is over!”

  6. Sunflower*

    Talk to you manager to make sure you guys are on the same page. Once it’s cleared up that you and Mandy are not supposed to be supporting Jim with computer programs and other things, I would do what AAM suggesting and refuse his requests. The worst that can happen is he reports you for being too busy to help him do stuff he’s supposed to know how to do anyway? Not sure how much weight that would hold.

    I personally would not tell him to ask other people. The problem(I think) is he is asking someone to do work he doesn’t want to do- gender might come into play but that is ultimately the issue that needs to be solved.

    I’m curious to hear more about what happened when Mandy was written up. Did she simply say ‘no’ or did she have a loud outburst and scream at him? I could see that bordering on the ‘unprofessional’ and ‘too loud’

  7. Ann Furthermore*

    I would love to see the look on Jim’s face when the OP asked him if he’d ever noticed that he only ever asks the women in the office to help him.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I almost guarantee it’ll be some patronizing response of “but you girls are so good at this stuff!”

      1. Betsy*

        A friend of mine once wrote this really interesting blog post about modern “women’s work”, and how in academia (and, I would argue, in industry as well), the concept of women’s work as cooking/cleaning has been expanded to “all the fiddly bits that are annoying, don’t require skill, and don’t lead to glory”. In her case, she was talking about a research project, and how at a certain point, the men were like, “Yay! Done!” and the women ended up doing things like layout, cleaning up the graphs, spell-checking and revising, building the bibliography, etc.

        I see it happen a lot on projects — the programming task is done, and now it’s time for Betsy to clean up the CSS and make sure the code is documented while the guys start design for the next component. To their credit, my last few managers have also noticed and essentially banned me from doing people’s clean-up, ordering me to let them fail QA and miss deliverables rather than picking up the slack. But it’s definitely a real thing in a lot of groups.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          and frankly, a lot of the time we do this to ourselves. I like things to be done right so I’ll make sure it happens – often by doing it myself. I’ll do the menial stuff because nobody else will. Oops.

          1. Betsy*

            Exactly! It’s not that people say, “Hey, let the wimminz do it!” It’s that men are more willing to say, “Someone will handle it,” and forget about it than women are.

            The post I referenced above is at, but her conclusion is:

            “So here’s my question: How do we break this cycle? Is the answer simply for women to start saying “no” more often? Or would that just result in a complete breakdown in productivity? Because to a certain extent we’re right in that someone has to do it.

            It just shouldn’t be us every single time.”

            There’s a line in some book about how X always just works and it’s awesome, and the protagonist realizes at some point it’s because someone else is doing the work to make that happen. That’s the case here, I think. The effort that makes these things happen is invisible to those not doing it, and annoying to those who are, but if it stops, things fall apart.

            1. Toothless*

              Oh, god, this just reminded me of a former boss who loved to use the Passive Voice of Invisible Assistants for situations like this.

              “So you want to offer dinner with your class, Boss – who’s going to shop, cook, set up, and clean?”

              “Oh, these things always get done.”

            2. C. Also*

              “It just shouldn’t be us every single time.”

              My solution to that is to have a team checklist. For every project, someone different gets to be in charge of making sure every item is checked. They can delegate if they need to, but every item has to be checked off by the deadline. So if it’s your turn, maybe you’re cleaning up the CSS at 7:00 on a Friday, but next time it will be Gavin’s turn to do that.

              Of course, this assumes there’s a manager who’s willing to make sure everybody is doing their fair share…

          2. Rose*

            Because other people are sloppy and don’t seem to care! It’s like that college roommate who started eating off of paper plates rather than do the dishes. Soooo… I guess I’ll just wash them again.

            1. majigail*

              I actually brought in disposable utensils, plates and cups to our office because I was sick of looking at other people’s dishes in the sink and waiting for someone else to do them. Sorry environment.

              1. manager anonymous*

                As the manager after a few weeks of coming in to make my coffee in the morning and a pile of dishes in the sink, I said to the staff… if you use a coffee mug and you are finished with it, wash it and put it away. And yes, I actually posted a passive/aggressive sign in the kitchen area that read, “your mom doesn’t work here”

                1. Traveler*

                  This is exactly why I also brought in disposables or my own things that I packed up and took home. I never wanted to get in the middle of the passive aggressive note slinging and dirty dish stand offs.

        2. Kay*

          “all the fiddly bits that are annoying, don’t require skill, and don’t lead to glory”

          I guess my opinion is that they DO require skills. Those skills are called attention to detail and follow through, and I think it’s a hugely important thing to have them. I’m not in management, but if I ever end up there, I think I would really look for those sorts of things because they really make a difference.

          Also Betsy, your example reminds me of my HORRIBLE precal teacher in high school. He’d work a problem on the board and only go through until it was algebra (ostensibly because we’d all had algebra and should know how to work the problem from that point). Then he’d turn around and cross his arms and say “I claim we’re done”. I managed to bite my tongue, but I always wanted to say, “But we’re not done. If I do exactly that on my test, it’s wrong.” So frustrating. I’m glad your managers picked up on it so these guys would have to step up.

        3. MaryMary*

          I also feel that when women take care of these kinds of details, they do it quietly, but men make a big deal out of it. I have a colleague who will proofread documents and fix formatting and layout issues, but he complains LOUDLY about it and says things like “I guess I’m the only one who cares about delivering a quality report.”

          1. Judy*

            You mean like if my husband makes dinner, I’m pretty much sure that my mom or his mom will know about it in the next few days. I don’t issue press releases when I cook.

            1. Rose*

              Putting out a press release every time you do a household chore is actually one of the most brilliant ideas ever.

              1. Kay*

                I have started making a big production when I clean the house. I walk my husband around and show him the folded towels in the linen closet and the made bed and point out that the floors are vacuumed, that I did dishes AND unloaded the dishwasher. I get appreciation and respect for the work I do, and he knows how much goes into it. That way when he shows me what he’s done, I can give him my appreciation and it’s not one-sided.

                1. Kay*

                  Glad you like Midge. Once, when I did a huge cleaning and I wasn’t going to be home when my husband got back, I walked around the house and put post-its on everything I cleaned and made him do a “scavenger hunt” to find all the things I cleaned. It was mostly for my own amusement, but he had been out of town for 2 days and I did a lot of deep cleaning and wasn’t going to miss out on showing him all I did. It was actually a lot of fun, and he enjoyed looking around for all the post-its too.

                2. spocklady*

                  My husband and I do this too, and it’s really fun. We both are sort of gold-star oriented people who like a pat on the head and a cookie when we’ve done something right, so it helps us get that. Also it helps us notice (and then appreciate) some of the less-obvious apartment cleaning stuff (dusting/vacuuming off vents, etc.).

                3. Shortie*

                  Kay, I started doing this a couple of years ago. I had started getting so irritated with my spouse’s need for accolades when cleaning up after himself that I started showing him everything I did and requesting accolades as well. It didn’t cure him of his need for applause and thank yous, but at least I started getting some as well. Ha!

          2. JMegan*

            My father looked after my children for a couple of days a few months ago. And he texted me *every time* he changed a diaper. Never mind that I have changed diapers every day of my life for six and a half years, he seemed to think he should have a cookie every time he did it. (And don’t even get me started on the poopy ones! Nothing short of a parade would do to celebrate his achievement in that area.)

        4. Katniss*

          I would love to see that blog post if you have a link and don’t mind sharing. This is something I hadn’t thought of but now that you mention it it seems obvious!

          1. Betsy*

            I posted it above, in reply to Katie the Fed’s comment. It’s in moderation now, but will hopefully clear soon. :)

        5. Rebecca Too*

          I remember in a sociology class on feminist theory hearing this called the shitwork. It’s the work people only notice when it’s *not* done.

        6. Anonsie*

          “all the fiddly bits that are annoying, don’t require skill, and don’t lead to glory”

          Oh god oh god this is the most perfect summary of this effect I have ever seen.

          1. Anonna Miss*

            I like the original author’s longer, and less polite, wording: “The fiddly work, the details, the stuff that takes fucking forever and receives no praise and no reward – that’s ‘women’s work’.”

        7. AcademicAnon*

          I don’t think I have ever seen a man fill the soap dispenser in the lab I work in or refill the paper towel holder either. It’s either me or the other female tech. And the undergrads don’t even seem to notice, male or female. I bet this goes on with a lot of the other labs, because most of the techs are female and I can see them do the exact same thing.

        8. Neeta*

          the programming task is done, and now it’s time for Betsy to clean up the CSS and make sure the code is documented

          That shouldn’t even get to QA, but be rejected during code review. Well… assuming of course you use something like Git, where code review must be required before merging a pull request.

  8. rr*

    I think it’s vital, before anything else, to make sure you and your manager are on the same page that this is *not* your job and that your actual-job takes priority over “helping” your coworker do *their* job. And if your manager hems or haws, start looking for another job, honestly, because if your manager doesn’t stop this, it’s not going to stop.

    I had a (female) co-worker who did this to me, and when I attempted to boundary-enforce on a day when I was on a serious time deadline and did not have the time to help her, she went to the (male) boss. It became this huge deal about how the two of us were having “problems” and how I needed to be nicer and all that stuff, when it was just that I was on a deadline and she was perfectly capable of doing all this stuff for herself, she just didn’t want to. This drama went on for months, with my boss checking up on me on if coworker and I were “okay” with each other. They eventually hired on a full-time admin, whose job was more general office stuff, but who also ended up becoming the co-worker’s secretary basically, despite it not being what she was hired for. So the burden went mostly off me, but on to someone else whose job it really wasn’t to do that sort of thing. And I was still “helping out” that coworker until I left the job.

    1. OP*

      rr, my boss and I are on the same page. He has made it clear that I only report to him, and everything he assigns me will always take priority. I forgot to mention, that most of the time Jim asks me to help him, is when my boss is out of the office.

      1. fposte*

        I’d take that line of discussion even further, if you haven’t–is your manager saying it’s okay to turn Jim’s requests down, and that he’ll back you when Jim complains about it? Or is he saying that Jim’s requests have to wait in line? Those are two different things, and you don’t want to think it’s one when it’s really the other.

      2. Kay*

        That’s a red flag to me that he’s generally only asking when your boss is out of the office. It says the he knows that he shouldn’t be asking these things, and he’s trying to get away with it. You’ve been given a lot of phrasing for answers to him, but based on this information, I think this one might work especially well (especially when he’s asking for substantive work/projects that are huge time sucks):

        “I’m sorry, Boss has asked that I complete XYZ which doesn’t leave room on my plate for ABC, perhaps we could talk to Boss about rearranging my workload. When would be a good time to schedule a meeting with both of us and him to clear this up”.

        It forces him to realize you’re escalating it and if he doesn’t want it escalated, then he needs to back down. Of course, if he decides to go through with the meeting, then your boss can tell him that your plate is full and he needs to do his own work since you’ve said that he has made it clear that his assignments are the priority. I bet he wouldn’t go through with more than one of those meetings…

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yes, that red flag got the eyes rolling on my inner bull. I had this with someone at one workplace. He would whine that he was soooooo busy (to be fair, he was) and just didn’t have time. But it was mostly tasks he didn’t want to do, and I knew he didn’t want to do them. I had to ask my boss about it and she said if anyone wanted me to do extra stuff, they had to clear it with her first. Once I started telling him that, he would say, “Never mind, I’ll do it myself.” I did end up helping now and then, which was fine as long as I had time and my boss was okay with it.

          Of course my boss left, and then her replacement left, and I ended up doing a bunch of those tasks anyway because the coworker took over until they hired someone and he couldn’t do them. Grrr.

      3. rr*

        If he only does it when the boss isn’t around, he knows it’s wrong and is doing it anyway. Can your boss take it up with Jim’s boss and draw the line for you?

      4. Episkey*

        Ugh, that is really infuriating! I agree, he totally knows he’s not supposed to be asking for help if he’s only doing this when your boss is out of the office. I think Kay’s suggestion is a good one. Maybe talk to your manager ahead of time and verify that if Jim does want to have a meeting like this, your manager will definitely back you up and tell Jim that your own projects & tasks are priority.

        1. Gobrightbrand*

          And make the list in Jim’s site. That way he sees your keeping a list of requests.

      5. krisl*

        Since your boss agrees with you, can you just tell Jim that you’ll have to check with your boss before you can work on any task that isn’t in your department.

  9. AM*

    While I agree with some of the scripts Alison gave (though perhaps with fewer “sorry’s”!), I do wish Alison’s answer was more nuanced. Jim isn’t continuing this behavior because the two women are “allowing” it – it’s not the more marginalized group’s fault for not stopping the egregious behavior from a more privileged group, though they can certainly take actions to defend. Jim is continuing this behavior because of JIM’s ridiculous privilege and expectations– AND because the manager(s) in this situation are not stopping this behavior. A good manager (of Jim, or Mandy, or the OP) would know this situation is occurring and do what is needed to make sure it stops.

    1. fposte*

      That may be why he started doing it, but Mandy’s been assisting him for 10 years now. There’s not much reason for him to think she *isn’t* his assistant at this point.

      1. Natalie*

        That, and, OP has no control over what Jim, Mandy, her boss, Jim’s boss, or Mandy’s boss do. The only advice that OP can actually use is advice about what OP should do.

        1. AM*

          that’s true, and that’s why i agree with the scripts. i just also think it’s dangerous/slippery slope to tell those receiving negative behavior that it’s because they are allowing it upon themselves.

          with that said, the OP should still do everything she can to set up boundaries and get her manager aligned with her.

          1. LBK*

            Well, I think there’s a difference between victim blaming (which seems to be what you’re implying here) and pointing out that there are efforts you can make to discourage certain bad behavior. If there aren’t some kinds of steps taken to fight/prevent it, doesn’t that just further normalize the behavior and allow it to continue?

            1. Helka*

              There’s a difference between “here’s how you can defend yourself from this” and “you’re bringing this on yourself.” The problem is the attitude that if you’re not taking specific action to avoid/negate/discourage someone else, you then become responsible for their actions.

              Especially since, as the OP stated, Mandy did take efforts to discourage Jim’s behavior, and received backlash from it.

    2. Observer*

      The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s like bullies. despite the fact that there is a lot of talk about how bullies are themselves victims, blah, blah, blah, the fact is that bullies bully because it works.

      There is more than enough blame to go around, every time a bully does his (or her) thing. And, while the victims are often not in a position to put a stop to it, it strikes me that in this case, the OP does have a chance to put a stop to it. Even “Mandy”, even at this point, probably still has options, although it sounds like her boss is an idiot. I understand not wanting to look bad, but I would have expected her to also realize that letting other departments encroach is a bad idea, as well.

  10. Amp2140*

    It seems like some of these are simple tasks, and he often repeats the same request. Is it work typing or finding instructions?

    I have a woman at work who couldn’t concatenate. Every month she needed it for the same thing, and would even go so far as to not do her work while waiting for me to concatenate her list for her. Once I sat with her and went through it step by step while she wrote it down. The next time she told me that I could do it so much faster (gag!). Then I did it and sent her a video with a how to, and explained to my manager (she and I had different managers, and my manager agreed that it was a colossal waste of time) that I wouldn’t be doing it anymore. She didn’t ask again.

    As an example of this working, another coworker, at a client site with no access to a printer asked me to black out things on a print out and scan it back to him. I did so and added a link on how to do it through Adobe so he wouldn’t have to wait for me again. He told my manager that he thought it was very helpful, and was glad I did so.

    1. Natalie*

      Eh, I’d be wary of spending much time writing instructions or even finding links, as it may reinforce Jim’s seeming belief that he has no responsibility to get this information himself. This would be a great project for an actual admin, if they had one.

      1. Amp2140*

        True. It often happens that I get asked about tasks that it is literally easier for me to google the instructions and send them than do it myself or show them. Going from showing how to concatenate to ‘here’s the link, do it yourself’ was enough to make her stop asking me.

        1. Liz*

          There’s a wonderful website I use for things like that:

          (There’s another, NSFW, alternative, but they work just the same way.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Wait, do you mean the names in the post? I actually don’t know what Ace Attorney is, so that is coincidence (if that’s what you’re referring to)!

        1. saturngirl*

          Klavier Gavin and Apollo Justice… for what it’s worth Kat, I love the games and geeked out a bit too. :D

  11. Lucky*

    “because we’re the women in the office.” Yeah, I didn’t need to read this to know that the letter writer was also a woman. This is totally gendered behavior and needs to be shut down.

  12. Sandy*

    Ugh. We have one of these at the office. And so far, trying to reinforce boundaries has just. not. worked.

    My coworker, let’s call him Pierre, received a request from one of his clients. Pierre and I do not work with the same clients at all, but we did have a joint event where this client was in attendance a few months prior.

    Pierre: Sandy, can you go to the client’s office across town and deal with this request?

    Sandy: Sorry, Pierre. I’m not sure I understand- he’s your client. I am swamped over here with X special project and half of our staff are away with the flu.

    Pierre: yeah, well I don’t have time either. You deal with it.

    Sandy: Hi Pierre, sorry if I was unclear about my message. This is your client, and I am not in a position to assist you with this at the moment due to the reasons I mentioned above. I suggest that if you want it done within the next month or so, you handle it.

    Pierre: well, I’m not doing it.

    Sandy: As I noted, I am not in a position to assist you with this at the moment due to the reasons I mentioned above. If you can’t take care of it, I suggest you approach someone else to help you out.

    Pierre: (No answer)

    THREE MONTHS LATER, the client’s request STILL hadn’t been fulfilled. Client is obviously apoplectic and confused about why he never even got an answer from Pierre. Boss confronts Pierre, Pierre says “well, I told Sandy to do it.” Boss confronts me, I explain what happened, boss is still (understandably) upset, saying that he doesn’t care WHO does it, provided it gets done and the client isn’t upset. I should just be the bigger person.

    Ignoring the part where I honestly hadn’t realized that this had dragged on for so long (because who does that to a client??), I don’t necessarily disagree with the bigger person argument- the problem is that it sets up the expectation that Pierre can do this all the time, which he darn well tries to do, because he knows he can get away with it. He wouldn’t dare pull this with one of the guys at the office.

    1. AM*

      wow, that’s unbelievable. i can’t believe how many poor managers just don’t want to deal with this, thus giving this behavior a pass!

    2. Adam V*

      I’d be so upset, I’d be asking the boss “so how often am I supposed to drop what I’m doing when Pierre asks me to do his job instead? Every time? Every other time? Only on Fridays?

      When he sends me an email and I tell him ‘sorry, I can’t do it for you’, do I need to follow up the next day? ‘Hey, in case you didn’t see my email, I’m not going to do your job for you’? Maybe a weekly email to him, and CC you? ‘Pierre, this week you asked me to do A, B, and C. I told you no each time, and this is my reiteration email to let you know it’s still your job and I’m still not going to do any of them”?

      When you come to me with another task, am I allowed to tell you ‘sorry, I’m doing Pierre’s job instead, you’ll have to wait until I’m free’?

      When Pierre gets an official ‘good job’ email from a client due to the work I’m doing for him, will that offset the negative review you’d otherwise give me because I didn’t finish any of the tasks you assigned me?”

      And then I’d find a job somewhere with managers don’t put me in this position.

    3. Rose*

      Just be the bigger person and do all of his work for him, all the time!!

      What is the point of even having him on staff if he’s allowed to not do his work when he doesn’ t want to, and other people get blamed? What kind of manager is this? You don’t just say “someone do it!” That’s how you create freeloading.

      UGHHH sorry this is a useless rant but I want you to know… the interweb understands. The interweb knows you are right.

      1. Sandy*

        That is actually quite nice, thanks!

        Especially since I was the one written up for it. His boss didn’t see it as a big deal that needed to be written up, mine did. So it’s on my performance review and not his.


      2. Kelly O*

        I really detest the “you should be the bigger person and just let him do this” argument.

        I realize it’s not always about being right, but sometimes there are actual lines of right and wrong, and crossing them makes more work for everyone in the long run. A simple “no and here is why” would resolve a lot of issues. We just can’t have that disagreement… clearly insubordinate and unhelpful.

    4. Malissa*

      Why wasn’t the email or what ever forwarded to Pierre’s Boss when he said he wasn’t doing it?

      1. Elysian*

        Yeah I think around the second reply I would have been cc:ing someone more important than me on that email.

      2. Sandy*

        I actually did copy his boss on email number two, but he was out of town so it really had limited effect. All he could do was see it when he got back and follow up, the latter of which he decided not to do (perhaps figuring, like a normal human being! that surely this had been taken care of by his grown-up employee months ago…)

        1. Outsider*

          As per the principles of CYA, you should have cc’d his boss AND your boss.
          I learnt it the hard way :)

    5. Elizabeth West*

      This sounds like the jerk at Oldjob. He would ignore emails and voice mails and not forward them until the client called, mad, because they didn’t get their materials. Then “Did you get this done, Elizabeth?” WELL I WOULD HAVE IF I HAD SEEN IT THREE WEEKS AGO.

    6. Greggles*

      If Pierre couldn’t do for what ever reason, why didn’t he approach his boss about it? That’s crazy.

    7. Observer*

      Next time, perhaps you do less excusing. Tell him “I can’t do it.” And cc your boss. Then, if / when he says “I’m not doing it.” (and of course HE won’t cc your boss) respond, again, cc’ing your boss “Well, you will need to figure this out. Take it up with Boss.” Or don’t respond and email your boss and ask him if he expects you do take on the job – and what you should drop to make it happen.

  13. This is me*

    I think it’s going to be hard to realign Jim’s way of thinking on this because it sounds like it’s been happening for some time. Since you know that you report only to your boss and not Jim, why not just confront him in the moment? Say something like: I’ve noticed your asking me to help out with X, Y, and Z a lot. Typically we do our own preparation for X, Y, and Z. What’s going on?

  14. MaryMary*

    Between this post and this morning’s, I feel like we need a post for young, less experienced people on how to work well with more senior coworkers. How to recognize having something delegated to you versus being dumped on.How to politely set boundaries when your coworkers ask for help. Don’t call your coworkers dude, honey, or bro. What to do when you’re the only person in your department who can use pivot tables.

    1. Nodumbunny*

      OMG, I’ve been in pivot table hell for months, learning from zero. However, I’m proud to note that despite the fact that I’m an “experienced” worker (read – middle-aged) I’ve managed to learn this new skill with minimal (okay, maybe moderate) whining and lots of Google.

      1. Nodumbunny*

        Also, I can’t talk about pivot tables without thinking (or saying aloud) “Piv-OT, Piv-OT” a la Ross in the Friends episode where they’re moving his couch.

        1. Joline*

          Every single time I hear the word “pivot” I think of that. In any context. And like you I at least say it in my head but more often verbalize it. As time goes on fewer and fewer people understand what I’m talking about.

    2. Lizabeth*


      I’d go even farther to suggest that AT LEAST one class in college should be dedicated to: how to function at work properly, how to manage younger and older people etc… I’m surprised that some colleges haven’t done this already.

      1. James M*

        College isn’t meant to prepare students for the business world; it’s meant to teach students how to think critically.

        But yeah, there should be some highly accessible way to learn the basics of functioning in an office environment (region specific)… like a video game (actually, there already might be one, or a dozen).

        1. MentalEngineer*

          I know people are upvoting Rock Simulator 2014 on Greenlight, but I don’t think anyone really wants to play Office Drone Simulator. If I’m wrong, then there’s money to be made here.

  15. Seal*

    I’m surprised no one has suggested that the OP and Mandy document the number and type of requests Jim makes on an average day. It’s one thing to go to your manager and complain about a coworker taking you away from your work; quite another to go it with documentation to that effect. Ideally, the OP and Mandy and their respective managers would meet as a group and come to a consensus about how to deal with Jim, with the managers following up with Jim’s manager.

    Several years ago, we had an older, very non-tech-savvy employee who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with computers (except Facebook and email on company time – somehow he didn’t consider this computer-related). His previous supervisors allowed him to get away with this for years, but ultimately people were running out of things for him to do that didn’t involve a computer. Eventually, his new supervisor laid down the law (supported by HR), rewrote his job description into something that actually supported the department and told him he would be required to successfully complete computer training by a certain date if he wanted to continue working there. He chose to retire on the spot.

    1. LBK*

      Does it really matter if it’s 5 times a day or 500? No matter what there’s no evidence beyond the OP’s word. If the OP’s manager doesn’t trust the OP enough to believe her, she’s probably not going to believe her whether there’s a number attached to the statement or not. “Often enough to be disruptive to me” is as specific as necessary.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        I’m thinking more along the lines of tallying time. A few interruptions a day can add up to a few hours by the end of the week. And if he is handing out projects that take hours themselves… it will add up. I’d hate to be the manager that finds out I’ve been paying a good salary to a specialist and find out they spend an hour a day being a personal assistant to someone in another department.

      2. James M*

        It can matter. If you tell your boss “Jim’s interruptions and the work he’s shunting to me are consuming 13.5 hours each week”, it adds a concrete value (time) to the equation. Multiply that by your hourly pay and you have a dollar cost attributed solely to Jim’s behavior. Bosses always pay attention to dollar costs.

        1. LBK*

          I really disagree unless the OP’s manager sucks. Because ultimately, if an issue like this is addressed based on how much money Jim’s wasting by eating up the OP’s time, the next question for the manager may be “How much money is it going to cost me to replace the OP when she quits because I decided Jim’s behavior wasn’t costing us enough to matter?” and that figure will almost definitely be higher.

      3. Zillah*

        I agree that it’s worth getting an estimate of just how many requests he’s making and just how much time the OP and Mandy are spending on them is important. Without that, it’s harder to get perspective and so easier to say “helping your coworkers is part of the job” or “just say no.” With it, it becomes clear that Jim’s behavior is a real problem, and that he’s nowhere near as productive as he looks.

    2. Lady Sybil*

      Hmm. Sometimes folks take advantage of helpful people like you and Mandy. He’ll take as much as you’ll give him but I sense that change is on the way! I second both you and Mandy documenting the number and type of requests Jim makes. You need to show your managers that, while you are happy to help anyone the first time, you will both be much more productive if you focus on your own projects instead of complying to his repetitive and intrusive requests. If the managers don’t see Jim’s behavior for themselves it is difficult for them to know if you are exaggerating or not, so quantifying it will help clarify what is going on here. It seems Jim has gone over the line so many times and for so long that he needs his boundaries set for him. I’d say it’s time for the managers to step in. In the meantime, if management hems and haws over their next steps, cover yourself and let them know your plan to use AAM’s suggested scripts. Good luck with this one.

    1. misspiggy*

      In Mandy’s case, this may lead to problems with her boss – but I would do as you advise anyway, because if I were sacked because I refused to do another person’s work that would be absolutely fine by me. However, I don’t have dependents.

  16. Jenn*

    In regards to computer related tasks, I’m a big fan of “How to guides” that I create myself. I know it sounds crazy and it is a bit more work in the beginning but it pays off in the end.

    The best example I can think of this would be my second newsroom job. We had a terribly old DOS system and it was really hard to use. I was a producer so I was in the newsroom all day, using the system and I got pretty good at it. But then reporters/anchors would come back and say “I don’t know how to create graphics on the system” and expect producers to do it. It bogged us down and it was ridiculous because then they’d complain when it didn’t look like what we wanted them to do.

    I ended up creating a “how to” guide by screen grabbing various things – adding in arrows to draw attention with a little bit of description. Over the course of a month, I created “How to add graphics” – “How to fix the system when it’s shut down” and a few others.

    I shared them with the other producers and then when someone would say “I don’t know how to add graphics” we’d e-mail the one-sheet and say “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to do it for you, here are the instructions.”

    HR compiled all of the one-sheets and gave them to new employees and we kept a folder of them at the assignment desk. I was able to put on my resume that I created database training systems that were utilized by HR.

    1. Technical Editor*

      I edit for a group of technical authors and I created a comprehensive document for the writers to look up procedures they’ve been shown how to do before. You’d think technical authors would, you know, READ THE FREAKIN’ MANUAL…but no. I’m surprised I’ve only snapped once.

      1. James M*

        Instructions are for lesser mortals who aren’t all-knowing. The same thing for specifications and documentation: if you can’t summarize it in a 140 characters, it must not be important. </sarcasm>

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I made a style guide, but no one would bother to read it, so I didn’t put it out. :P I just edit to it.

        One thing I do anyway is to make manuals for MY job, just in case anyone has to cover for me. A predecessor did that years ago and it was the best thing ever. Not only that, it helps me learn my job better to take notes and write up procedurals. I had a whole binder for Exjob–my backup only had to call me once when I was gone and he borked a log-in. Since it was a requirement to update existing ones at this job, I’m totally covered when I go on holiday next month–no one will have to call me to ask, “Now how do you find the flimflam in the doohickey database again?”

    2. Gene*

      We have a compliance monitoring software package that I’m the lead on. We’ve all had the same training, but I’m the Admin on the package and have more rights than the others here. My rule is, I’ll show you once. If you need help again I’ll show you again, but you will write a procedure in your own words while I do with instructions for every step, because it’s obvious that the procedure in the manual isn’t working for you. After that, you’re on your own.

    3. Jessa*

      Yeh, I was the queen of making up direction sheets for myself that reminded me of stuff. It’s never long in any job I’m in where they start to be circulated. If someone asks me once, I tell them, if they ask me twice, they get a written “here’s how,” they ask a third time it’s “read the notes, if you need another copy print it from this file.” At which point the boss and I have a talk about “is it my job to keep explaining this to them?” Most of the time the answer is “no,” but when it’s not, they get taken aside and trained by me on it, and the boss has already been informed and asked me to, so any priorities have been re-shifted.

      The people advising the OP to take notes are smart. The bosses need to see the pattern if they’re going to make decisions about it. He’s probably parsing it as a one off, not a constant thing. I used to keep a notebook in my purse, and any time I had an issue it went into it. Whether it was a problem with someone else or a customer saying they liked me, or whatever. I used to haul it out whenever I needed to talk to the boss about something like this.

      The boss needs to see a sheet of paper that says “Monday 10 am asked me to do x, 11:30 am asked me to do y, was not able to do my thing z because of y, etc.” Down to that kind of detail “Interrupted me at lunch today when I was not on the clock, etc.” Without it, all the boss hears, is “I asked for help one lousy time and she said NO,” not “I asked for help the 11th time that day and she had to do project y which is due and critical to the company but she wouldn’t help me anyway, even though y would be late and you told her she’d be fired if she didn’t do y.”

      1. HKGstudent*

        Touche on the patterns, as well as to jot down time of the day/month/semester. It’s about systemized tracking on his (lack of) work performance finger-pointing at his competencies ;)

  17. Anonymous Educator*

    Since there seem to be two issues here:

    1. Jim’s behavior.

    2. Does your manager / Mandy’s manager have your back(s)?

    … maybe the best way to deflect it is to tell Jim to ask your manager if he needs your help instead of asking you directly, since your manager’s tasks always take priority. Then your manager will know exactly how many times and what sorts of things Jim is asking you to do.

    Unfortunately, the sexist piece of this will probably be harder to clean up, since your manager and Mandy’s manager may not manage your male counterparts or manage Jim.

    Best of luck. This sounds like a crappy situation to be in!

    1. Harryv*

      3rd issue is enabling Jim to continue making the requests as it seems you and Many are fulfilling them!

  18. Callie30*

    Hah. I’ve had similar issues with someone who’s senior to me, but I’m NOT his assistant – and we have the same manager. It’s very frustrating, for sure. Definitely be direct and I would also inform his manager of what’s going on.

    In my case, my co-worker lent his key out and then texted me asking to get it back for him, on a Friday night after a long day. I was in the middle of finalizing preparation for several events for the weekend and when I asked why he couldn’t get it and what I was doing, he replied with “Well, you’re the office manager and I shouldn’t even have to deal with this. And I don’t want to track down anyone.” Well, it was HIS personal office key. And yes, while managing the office is one of my many hats, people manage their own keys and what they decide to do with them, not me. At least in my view.

    As it turns out, all it took was going to the office downstairs and asking to get it back. Would have taken him 2 minutes and he had been at the office that evening dropping someone off anyway. How inconsiderate of someone else’s time.

  19. A Cita*

    I’d be tempted to passive-aggressively turn it around on him. Jim comes over and asks me to create a presentation for him. I respond: “Oh! Right! Presentations! Thanks for reminding me; I was just going to come by and see you. Hey, would you mind terribly helping my putting together this presentation for my client? I’m so swamped and would really appreciate it. Thanks, Jim! You’re a life saver!” And then hand him the files and turn back to my computer.

    1. AMG*

      I love this. I would have so much work for Jim to do he would be hiding from me!

      Also, this is a very intersting situation. OP, please give us an update later!

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      I like this idea but putting together a presentation may be too high level to get the point across. Instead, ask him to do these mundane tasks he’s asking you to do. Walk up to his desk and ask him to look up some client information in the database for you quickly, for example.

  20. Malissa*

    I notice no mention of anybody talking to Jim’s manager about his boorish behavior. Does he even know?
    If I were a betting person I would say that Jim’s in sales, and probably really good at sales. Sales people who can rock sales are often given lots of leeway on everything else. If this is the case, maybe y’all need to sit down together and look at realigning how the office runs and possibly if Jim needs an assistant. If he’s not in sales, then disregard.
    My experience with techno-phobes is that they will not do something until that don’t have any other option. If you help him with something, go back to his computer, sit him down and make him do it. If he balks just state you are willing to help him learn, but not do his job for him. I finally cut off one techno-phobe by asking her everytime she asked about something if she googled it first. This was after we sent her to training. she knew, she just didn’t want to do it.

    1. OP*

      Malissa-Jim’s manager is unfortunately not someone Mandy and I could approach about this. Jim’s manager is located in our Corporate office, and has basically allowed Jim free reign, as long as he’s doing his job and reaching his goals. Which, by the way, IS sales. You hit the nail on the head.

    2. junipergreen*

      oh, good call with the Sales role. I’d suspected that too, but wasn’t sure if I was merely projecting my own experience.

  21. OriginalEmma*

    Please stop prefacing polite refusals with “Sorry” – it’s a gendered, automatic behavior for us women that does us no favors. We can civil and direct without it.

    1. Gene*


      Every time I see your name, I think of the Interchangeable Emmas of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

        1. Gene*

          IIRC, you’ll find them in “Guards! Guards!” and “Men At Arms”. It’s Sam Vimes’s term for the well-bred young women who care for the swamp dragons at the Sunshine Sanctuary For Sick Dragons. Sorta like the well-bred young women one finds doing smelly stuff with a big fork around horses on Roundworld.

            1. plain jane*

              Have you seen Mark Reads? He is going through the entire series for the first time and blogging as he goes.

              (Please note, stringent commenting procedures & allowed language in place over there, read the rules first. They keep things very civilized but it’s easy for well meaning newbies to mis-step)

            2. Mrs. Badcrumble*

              Check them all out! I can’t wait til my niece turns 9 so I can start getting her the Tiffany Aching books.

    2. mel*

      Agree! I see this all the time on Not Always Right where there’s a scripted situation in which a customer says something completely out of line and unreasonable and the first thing the poor retail worker says is “I’m sorry, but…”


      1. fposte*

        And I’m on the other side here. I don’t have any objection to saying “I’m sorry” whether I’m truly sorry or not, any more than I have to wish that God be with somebody to tell ’em “Goodbye.” Any cringing attached is purely voluntary.

  22. YoungLady*

    I have this problem all the time. I said the things that you suggested and it made the situation worse. I have since left the office, but when I refused politely to do someone else’s work because they are too lazy to learn it themselves, the co worker picked fights with me, called me names, and has done this to other women in the office. I told management and I got docked for it. Ridiculous. I resent how managers refuse to manage and punish good workers and reward the bad.

  23. Tiff*

    I’m all for just saying no as well. I had that happen with an old colleague – she came to me last minute asking for help with something and I told her “no”, I didn’t have time to do it because I was under strict deadline. I was written up. Had I taken the time to help her and not completed my tasks, I would have been fired. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. That job sucked, the management was bad and fortunately, I got out in time. Sometimes it’s not you, and it’s not about keeping quiet or finding a way to express the obvious in a way that doesn’t insult someone who is clearly insulting you. It’s ok (to me at least) to have a strong (but office appropriate) reaction to a strong offense. By the 5th dumb question I would have begun openly speculating about Jim’s abilities and loudly sighing when he came into view with the “I’m gonna need your help.” look on his face.

    *sees Jim approaching*
    “How can I hold you hand today Jim?”

    1. AMG*

      I love this…but it does should like the kind of place where this can lead to a write-up if Jim complains.

  24. Rebecca*

    Sadly, since Jim has been allowed, by management, to get away with not learning and pushing his work onto others for 17 years, he’s not going to change. Even if management puts their collective feet down and tell him to do his own work, it will be a very long time. Not being able to save a photo to one’s desktop or updating an email signature is pretty lame by today’s standards. I really doubt it’s because he can’t do these things, it’s simply because he doesn’t want to take the time to learn when he can foist his work onto others.

    The last thing anyone wants in this day and age, and job environment, is to be perceived as not technologically savvy or constantly asking how to do simple things. When it comes time for downsizing, you may as well hold up a sign that says “Pick me! Pick me!”.

    Case in point – we’ll call her Faye. She was 62 years old, and sat in the cube next to me. Every week, several times a week, it was the same thing: “How do I do X?” “What do I do when this happens?” “How do I attach a file to my email?” “How do I enter a formula in Excel?” On, and on, and on. Many of us offered to teach her how to do things. We said we should get a tape recorder, record the instructions, and when she asked again, press play to save our breath. She would laugh and say “I’m just an old lady. That’s what I have you for.”

    Our company was purchased by another company. She was the first to go when they downsized, and it wasn’t her age, as older workers were kept. It was her skill level. She downsized herself.

  25. female.*

    Hmm…. why am I the only one who seems to have thought of this? You are all women.. is it not possible that this man is a creep who tries to spend his time around women for basically sexual purposes? It sounds extremely fishy to me. Also, if the person was written up over nothing then someone has made a false allegation which is extremely serious, and it seems like it was this man exaggerating a normal rejection in order to punish and scare you into complying in future, which does indeed seem to have worked. This, regardless of his reasons for annoying you, all fits into a pattern of the type of person he is. He is probably used to doing things like this along with his other unethical behaviour such as hanging around women. This includes whether or not he flirts, which he may not even be able to manage if he is so lame. If he does flirt or do anything inappropriate, I would suggest starting up a sexual harassment thing instead. Asking you simple things like the desktop thing seems like he just wants to spend time around you and is using any excuse… more than being annoying, I would be finding this extremely creepy. Given that he is targeting you as women anyway, something dodgy is definitely going on.

    I don’t know why the other worker did not challenge her boss over what happened the last time. If the managers are working together to allow this type of thing to happen to you then they are equally responsible. Especially if they are relying on your fear of being punished again to keep it all going. I actually doubt that he feels you are beneath him though, if that makes you feel any better.
    I am also puzzled as to why anyone would need to ask for advice on how to say no to someone? You just SAY NO. No excuses. Just say you’re busy and turn around. No more talking. If he continues to talk to you I would tell him if he does not leave you alone you will report him, and do so. Unless it is part of your job, he is harassing you. HOWEVER… since you taught him that this is okay, and since saying sorry means he is being TOLD not just taught that he is not doing anything wrong and in fact YOU are, then this could have been better controlled at an earlier stage and will now be tricky. However the real problem here seems to be the boss. It is also perfectly plausible that the worker DID over-react by telling him to get lost after he had annoyed her so much, even if she didn’t realise. Although you say this wasn’t the case, and I believe you. It is understandable even if this was the case, but should have been dealt with another way. I can also guarantee that if it is not sorted out then someone is going to snap (or snap again) one day, which will only get the snapper into trouble (if they do not take steps over the annoying person first).

    I would just send an email (or letter) to all the bosses asking for a list of job duties and who you should ask for help with things like desktop issues etc, because it is happening a lot and interfering with other tasks, with some staff having a disproportionate amount to do. Say that you wondering if there is a training programme or guidelines that staff can reference. If you are feeling brave you can even suggest that the guy needs a basic course on how to work computers haha! Then it is on paper and you all know. Bottom line is that he is not fit to work there if he cannot work by himself, but I doubt that you would want to come out with a statement like that to the managers, so this is the best I can come up with. If you can and regardless of the reasons for the women being targeted, make sure that the gender issue (you two being singled out) is in writing somewhere, even if you are let go after this. I would just blank a person like this, but he will likely report it. However if he does, think how stupid that will look? “blah blah was not looking at me when I asked her a question, she was just totally ignoring me as I stood there humiliated as I asked repeatedly with no response!!” boss: “what did you ask her?” “oh, just to do my work for me/how to get a cursor shaped like a football”

    1. LBK*

      Wow. I disagree strongly with almost everything in this comment. Extremely adversarial approach and not likely to get the results the OP would actually want.

    2. Aisling*

      He is probably used to doing things like this along with his other unethical behaviour such as hanging around women.

      You do realize that “hanging around women” is not unethical, right? How does one avoid half the people in the world?

  26. AB Normal*

    Like AAM and other commenters have suggested, I strongly recommend talking to the manager first. This way, you don’t risk getting in trouble like your coworker, or appearing to be uncooperative if Jim or his boss later complain to your boss without giving you a chance to explain the circumstances.

    Here’s what I’d say to my boss:

    “Boss, Jim keeps coming to me to ask for help with tasks X, Y, Z. I wouldn’t have a problem with helping [shows you are willing to go above and beyond your duties and be a “team player”] if I had the time. But if I’m to meet my deadlines with projects A, B, and C, I can’t really take the time to do these tasks for him. Because it happens so frequently, and it’s starting to affect my ability to perform my own job, I wanted to ask how you suggest I handle these types of requests when I already have a full plate. Should I ask Jim to contact you first, so you can maintain visibility into my workload and decide whether these requests should indeed be handled by me?”

    Any reasonable manager would want to be in the loop when someone from another group is asking one of his/her reports to perform tasks for them. And if your boss says that Jim (or his boss) should talk to him/her first, next time Jim waits for your boss to leave the office to approach you, you’ll be able to explain that the process has changed and to please get in touch with your manager first. But in order to be able to push back without fearing disciplinary measures, it’s important to know that your boss has your back.

  27. AcademicAnon*

    OP I suggest you and Mandy go on a 2-week vacation during a time when Jim is busy and not you two and see how much work gets done. Then when whatever manager asked, why didn’t this get done, you have a legit reason why you both couldn’t do it.

  28. EG*

    If your boss says you should assist Jim when requested, I’d do so. Then, when your own projects are behind, be sure you have documentation from your boss that you were instructed to assist Jim on his projects. Therefore, you were following your manager’s orders. If your manager gets heat from above, he’ll quickly realize that he needs to rethink your priorities back to your own tasks.

    1. Artemesia*

      Nah — the OP will just get bad reviews. These old boy networks where women are assumed to be placed on earth as their personal assistants don’t learn from failure; they just blame.

      1. EG*

        I politely disagree, since the manager would have directed OP to assist Jim whenever needed, or provide limits on assistance. Time is a limited quantity, and it’s the manager’s job to allocate it properly for task completion.
        If a negative review results from doing what your manager instructs, it’s time to job hunt.

Comments are closed.