how to say “that’s not my job”

A reader writes:

I am more senior in my role here at my company, and a lot of colleagues like to reach out to me for help. They find it easier to ask me for help than to figure things out on their own. At times, I’m being ask to do things outside of what I’m responsible for. While I always want to be a team player and help, it’s getting to be too much and my work/personal life are suffering, and I don’t want folks to constantly lean on me and take advantage of my helpful nature.

My manager is not very good at providing us with firm direction on what we’re responsible for and what we’re not, so I can’t find help there.

How do I politely tell a colleague, “That’s not my job, that’s yours (or someone else’s, I don’t know who and I’m not willing to go figure that out for you)” without sounding like I am not being a team player or being rude for not helping even though I’m senior and I may know how to help?

A lot of people would have you believe that it’s a cardinal sin to ever say “that’s not my job”; somehow that’s become ingrained in people as an absolute workplace don’t.

And it’s true that refusing to do a particular task because it’s not in your job description is a good way to lose the support of your boss. Job descriptions aren’t comprehensive, and most people end up doing work that doesn’t fall squarely within their job description. Insisting on sticking rigidly to your job and nothing but your job usually doesn’t end well.

But there are times when it’s appropriate — and in fact necessary — to communicate that you aren’t the right person to do something. That’s especially true when dealing with coworkers, but it can be true with you’re communicating with your manager as well (although usually that should be rarer).

In doing that, you don’t want to simply say, “That’s not my job” — or you would indeed risk coming across as being overly rigid. Instead, you want to explain why you’re declining.

In your situation, I’d use language that refers to having other priorities that you need to focus on. For instance:

* “Right now I need to focus on X and Y so don’t think I can be of help.”

* “I’m swamped and realistically don’t think I’ll have time to weigh in on this.”

* “I’d have to spend some time digging into that to figure it out, and unfortunately I can’t right now because I’m on deadline.”

If you can, try pointing them in the right direction (like, “try checking the X document on the server — it should help”). But if that’s not feasible (because you don’t know or would need to invest time in figuring it out), it’s fine to skip that.

More broadly, in some contexts you can try:

* “I’m not usually the person who handles that. You might check with Jane to see if she can point you in the right direction.”

* “I’m not usually the person who handles that. I’m not sure who is, actually!”

(Whether or not those last two are appropriate will depend on the nature of your role. If you’re the CFO and someone is asking you about making a change to the website, this is probably appropriate. If you’re an assistant and your boss is asking you this, you probably need to find out who the right person is to consult.)

In other cases, this might end being a conversation to have with your boss. How you’d handle that depends on the specifics of the situation. For example:

If your boss is asking you to do more than you can reasonably take on without neglecting bigger responsibilities: “I noticed that you’ve increasingly been asking me to help with X and Y. It’s hard for me to take that on without decreasing the amount of time I have for A and B, and I’m worried about giving short shrift to those since we have big deadlines coming up on both. Is it possible for me to punt on X and Y, at least until we’re over the hump on A and B, or should I be prioritizing things differently?”

If your boss is asking you to do things you just really don’t want to do (and which you reasonably thought would not be a part of your role): “You’ve been asking me lately to get more involved in talking to the media. I get why it would be useful to have another person on the team who can do interviews, but I want to be honest — I really dislike interviews and actually changed into this field to get away from doing them, and I hadn’t realized it would be a part of my role here. Is it something that you’re committed to having the person in my role do or is there any flexibility there?”

If other people keep bringing you stuff that you want to turn down and it’s become a pattern that you want to address with your boss: “A lot of people have been approaching me for help with X. In theory, I’d love to help, but in reality I don’t really have the time to offer much help and still juggle X and Y. I wanted to flag for you that it seems like people might need more guidance with X or better resources for tackling it, and also to check with you to see if there’s someone else I could be directing them to.”

But in general, it’s reasonable to speak up when something would detract from bigger priorities. When your boss is the one doing the asking, that doesn’t mean totally declining to do it — but it does mean opening a conversation about trade-offs and what path makes the most sense.

{ 182 comments… read them below }

  1. SMT*

    I’m in a situation right now where I’m getting the impression that my manager would like me to provide some extra guidance to my peers to have them taking on some of the tasks I’ve taken initiative to do myself (these are basically tasks that we were all asked to undertake, but apparently I was the only one who did). I don’t mind sharing what I do with my peers, and have several times, and I definitely don’t mind helping newer team members with taking on those tasks, but I’m not sure how I’m supposed to ‘help develop’ my peers when I don’t have any authority. This was part of a discussion on a possible future promotion for me, so I understand wanting to see me ‘take charge’, but I know I would be resentful if one of my peers started to try telling me how to do my job.

    1. TootsNYC*

      First, come up with some ideas for how to teach people (one idea follows), and before implementing go to your manager and say, “I want to achieve this–how do you see me making this concrete? I have some ideas, but I’m also worried that people won’t realize I’m acting at your direction. Could we alert people that they need to learn these things, or something?”

      And here’s my idea for a plan (it’s what I’m in the middle of doing, and it’s what I’ve done):

      Put together a few training aids, and then approach people individually and say, “I want to walk you through how to do this thing. I need about 20 minutes–do you have time today?”

      Actively go seek them out and walk them through it. (Have them “drive.”)

      Or the next time one of these tasks pops up, call your latest target over to have them observe, or take it to them to do with you as observer.

      Also, ANY time people ask you to do something like these tasks*, seize it as a training opportunity: “Oh, I’m happy to help, but I want to show you how I’ve been doing it, because it works well, and I want you to be empowered to do this without having to interrupt yourself to come ask me.” (hint: you’re also interrupting me)

      *make sure these are truly tasks they’re responsible for, so you don’t end up like our admin from a couple of days ago whose eagerness to empower her non-admin colleagues was making people think she didn’t want to do her job.

      1. Erin*

        I too was thinking of training aids or guides. That’s probably only realistic for certain things, though, and obviously you’d have to take time to do them. But if people are continually asking the same sort of questions it could definitely be helpful.

      2. Judy*

        Something useful in the training realm is what they teach the Boy Scouts, the EDGE method.


        So you talk about what you’re going to do, you show them what needs to be done, you have them do it while you watch and then let them do it by themselves.

      3. periwinkle*

        To give another version of what Judy mentioned… Merrill’s first principles of instruction for adult learners uses this sequence:
        1. Tell me
        2. Show me
        3. Let me
        4. Watch me

        If I’m trying to learn a process, I like having a combination of someone to walk me through it the first time (or two) and a written/online job aid available for reference.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Ooh, I love this. I HAVE to do Let me, or I won’t remember and I have to ask again and I hate that. I shall save it in case I have to help someone else. Going through all the steps seems like it would cover almost everyone.

      4. Stranger than fiction*

        This is great advice. Especially the part that the boss needs to tell the team they need to do this with her, and about empowering them to learn how to themselves. And also she should add it to her work plan or job description if she has one on record

    2. GS*

      I agree with Toots, but I’d also recommend talking to your manager about this and having THEM communicate this new facet of your role to your coworkers and that they should be taking on some of these tasks. Then, it’s a matter of you following your orders from boss, not you injecting yourself on their work.

    3. Aardvark*

      Is there buy-in for the task across the team? Is this something other people don’t necessarily see the value of? If someone shows me how to gild a teapot handle, but all the chocolate teapots I build are for structural integrity testing, I may not understand why I want to learn that skill. However, if you explain that the gilding process can create fat bloom and reduce handle strength, I’ll be a lot more interested.

      Starting off with the “why” when presenting a new concept to a team member, or when sharing training materials (adding “Hey! I’ve been testing out new gilding processes on my milk chocolate teapots and noticed that my handles are getting melty. I’ve been chilling the surrounding air by five degrees using this tool and it decreases my melt rate by 10%–want to take a look and see if it makes sense for the 73% cocoa solids teapots as well?”) might help them see it as collaboration rather than another. new. thing. to. do.

      1. Lexi*

        Aardvark – Wow – I really have to say that your comment was amazing! It was completely relevant to the question and included excellent chocolate teapot-ness!

  2. GS*

    I worked somewhere like this for a time. One of the more challenging parts of my experience was when the co-workers would come to my cube and ask for help on things that were not my job and, after I explained that I didn’t know and redirect them to a specific file or person, they would JUST STAND THERE. I imagine it was (intentional or inadvertent) just pressure to have me figure it out for them. One thing I used to do in this scenario was to also stand up. This also works if you have your own office, but it makes the most impact in a cube. (Though, granted, this was before the popularity of standing desks, so if you have those perhaps this won’t work.) Many of my coworkers found it extremely confusing if I stood up in my own cube as they’re standing there and would pretty quickly move along, but if they didn’t get the hint, I’d excuse myself to a meeting (with myself, in the restroom/kitchen) or “to drop this off on Boss Jane’s desk” or whatever.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I have experienced this! Or people just repeating the question in the hopes the answer will be different this time. I think sometimes people’s minds just shut down and we’re seeing the little hourglass on their metaphorical screen.

      1. alter_ego*

        I experienced the question repeating a lot when I worked in retail, and I was giving people an answer they didn’t want. A frequent conversation was
        “do you have x”
        “no, we’re out of all models of x”
        “yeah, but I want it in grey”
        “We don’t have grey, we don’t have any colors. We’re out of x completely”
        “What about in 16GB”
        “We don’t have any sizes or any colors. We are all out of X”
        “yeah, but I’m a doctor/lawyer/politician. I really really need it”
        “Be that as it may, no more of x exist, in this location. I can show you how to check for when x will be back in stock, but I cannot provide you with x today”
        “But I neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed it”
        And then I cry myself to sleep every night until x is back in stock.

        1. LBK*

          I’m having the most horrible flashbacks to working in Big Box Electronics Store on iPhone/iPad release days.

          1. alter_ego*

            How did you know! I worked directly for the fruit stand, but this was VERY much my experience at every new product release

        2. Engineer Girl*

          I see both of you talking past each other. When I go into a store, I know what I want. So the questions I’m really asking are:
          * Does your store still carry make/model/color/capacity I want?
          * Do you have it in stock?
          * If you don’t have it in stock, when will it be in?
          * Can I sign up and a list and have you call me when it is in?
          So the questions you need to ask:
          * What specifically are you looking for make/model/color/capacity?
          * We do/don’t have that in stock. (suggest alternative if needed)
          * We expect it to arrive on (date).
          * We can/can’t sign you up on the waiting list via website/phone order, etc. for notification when it is in.
          By taking control of the conversation in a friendly way you eliminate a lot of the squishy dancing around each other. Of course, there will be unreasonable people, but if you do the above you’ve really fulfilled reasonable expectations. Sleep well at night!

          1. alter_ego*

            I mean, in the specific example I’m mentioning here, a person wants an iPhone the day after a new model is released, I say “we are completely out of iPhones” no amount of specificity will get you an iPhone the day after they’re released. If you’ve spilled water on an iphone of technology and it won’t turn on, no amount of telling me how important the data that was on it will allow me to magic into existence again. Of course we go through the trouble shooting steps (here’s how to preorder/did you make a backup) but that’s never enough. Sometimes, the answer to a question is just no, and people really really really really really really hate to be told no.

            1. Engineer Girl*

              At which point you need to give yourself permission to not feel bad about it. They are making themselves unhappy with their unreasonable expectations. You can’t fix that. You can only say “no” kindly, the rest is up to them.

              1. LBK*

                I think anyone who works retail for an extended period learns to relieve themselves of guilt for not being able to satisfy Sisyphean customer needs but that doesn’t prevent those needs from sounding unreasonable; it’s less about feeling badly and more about being perpetually baffled at the level of entitlement and delusion some people can exhibit.

                You just have to wonder what people think you’re going to do when you say “We don’t have it” and they respond with “Well I need it”. I truly do not understand what they think your next action will be short of cunicularly pulling it out of a hat.

                1. alter_ego*

                  I think sometimes customers who have never been in retail have this mythical perception of what “in the back” looks like. Like it’s some warehouse 13 of shelving going out into infinity, and I’m just not going back there because I’m lazy or something. Because I’ve worked everywhere from electronics stores to clothing stores, to a farm that sold pies, and at every one, there were people who, when told that a popular toy was sold out the day before christmas, or we were out of apple pies the day before thanksgiving, or out of iphones the day after launch, were sure that if only I’d just look in the back for them, I’d be able to find one. As if we’re just saving the ones “in the back” for the special people who know enough to ask, because that’s how capitalism works.

        3. Turtle Candle*

          Wow, this is giving me flashbacks to, of all things, working the reference desk at my university library. People would come in two days before a term paper was due and find out that, gasp, all the books on the topic they’d wanted to write were checked out. (It was a huge library, but that could still happen with particularly niche topics, especially if those topics were particularly topical or popular.)

          If they came in early enough, even if all the books were out we could do things for them: put a return request on the book (the student who originally checked it out could keep it through their initial check-out but not renew the borrow) and reserve it for them, make an interlibrary loan request, or, in the worst case, help them come up with an entirely new topic. But with a day or two before the paper was due there wasn’t much we could do. (Well, sometimes we helped with the new topic anyhow, but for classes where the paper topic had to be signed off on by the professor, that was also trickier two days out than two weeks out.)

          And yet so often the students would just stand there, as if expecting me to magic the book into existence for them, or possibly track down the student who had planned ahead and borrowed it two weeks prior and force them to hand it over. (One actually asked me if I could call up the student who’d borrowed it first and tell them they had to return it. Well… no.)

          In one case the only way I got the person to accept that we did. not. have. the. book was to search for the books in the city central public library, write down the call numbers, and then actually write out directions for taking the bus to the central public library (thankfully, it was only about a 15 minute bus ride away). Otherwise I think he’d still be standing there.

    2. anonanonanon*

      I’ve experienced this, too. It’s always worse when the same coworkers ask you again and again, as if you’re somehow responsible for finding an answer to their question.

    3. LBK*

      When that happens I usually just turn around and go back to work…which is probably kind of rude, but it’s also pretty rude to just foist off doing research onto someone else because you’re too lazy to do it yourself, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

      1. T3k*

        I do this a lot. I’ve had coworkers that are all “I need this done” and if I’m working on a more urgent piece, I tell them it’ll be awhile. When I first started, one didn’t take the hint and sat down behind me one time (there’s a spare metal chair for some reason in my little office which I’ve since folded up and tucked away). He quickly learned that I’m going to continue working on the urgent piece first before getting around to him, even if he sits there so now he’ll just go “when you can get to this, here’s the sheet…” and leave. I don’t feel any awkwardness in those situations, I guess because I’m used to being awkward myself.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Similarly, if I get chat messages or emails about troubleshooting from coworkers who should know how already (I’ve trained them), I conveniently ignore them since, if they’re on a call it forces them to do it themselves. Passive aggressive as it is, it works!

    4. Allison*

      I once had someone come by my cube and ask whether so-and-so was in. I’d never even heard of so-and-so, let alone met him, so I told him I didn’t know. But rather than move on to another cube and keep asking around, he just stood there and stared at me, as though expecting me to make some calls for him and find out where he could find so-and-so.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Ha! I do end up finding general info on people sometimes–I work at a large university, and there’s a common misperception that we’re, like, the small corner store, and I’ll obviously know who Jane is and whether she’s in. Sometimes Jane is actually in my department or at least my building. But sometimes when I check the directory, Jane is way on the other side of campus in a not even tangentially related department.

        1. Sascha*

          There’s a professor at my university who would call me to ask about so-and-so’s schedule (usually it was, we have a meeting! where is So-and-So!), even after I kept telling her 1) I don’t know who that is 2) I don’t keep anyone’s schedule 3) Contact that person directly. She did this several times, so I just stopped answering when she called. She finally got tired of that and left me alone.

      2. Arjay*

        I used to sit in the first seat on the first aisle of cubes. I would constantly have random people from other buildings ask me where conference rooms were. Eventually I posted a building map outside my cube so they could help themselves find whatever they were looking for. Note that I pulled this map off our intranet, so they had the same ability to look at the map BEFORE they started wandering around this floor, but they lacked the foresight to do it.

        1. the gold digger*

          OK, but in their defense, it should not be hard to find conference rooms and offices. There should be (in my perfect world) a map at each elevator and stairwell and the numbering should be logical.

          And for the love of God, if you have the identical floor plan on each floor, give the rooms the same numbers. That is, room 418 should be right above room 318. 418 should not be on the other side of the building from 318. The main irony of this? It is at an organization dedicated to implementing quality principles (ie, six sigma).

          1. jpnadia*

            I work in a building over 100 years old. Throughout the course of the renovations, conference rooms got sensibly numbered according to the next set of available numbers, so say 21, 22 and 23 are next to each other on the 2nd floor. During the next renovation, 24 and 25, also on the second floor and next to each other, were constructed all the way across the facility. Then, later, another conference room was built between 23 and 24, and no one wanted to re-number the existing conference rooms…

            1. Engineer Girl*

              Sounds like when my Dad was doing work in Korea after WWII. The first house built was #1, the next #2, etc. So house #30 could be anywhere in the village. It really bothered his engineer brain.

          2. T3k*

            You’d have LOVED my college major’s building. In short, it was 2 separate buildings (one of which was not a regular rectangle shape) combined into 1. They each had their own separate numbering systems, and the irregular shaped building had hallways that were like tree branches in how they branched off, so if you were trying to find room 315 and it only went up to 314 on one sub-hall, you had to go back to the main hall to get to the next sub-hall that 315 was on. Professors were very used to re-directing lost students the first few weeks of classes.

            1. Kelly L.*

              And then you get the ones where buildings with completely different ceiling heights get frankensteined together, and you can walk right from the 2nd floor of one to the 4th floor of the other without taking any stairs.

              1. J.B.*

                Ohh, ohh and there is only one women’s bathroom in the entire building, which is on the half floor between G and B!

                1. Kelly L.*

                  (And then I worked at a women’s college for some years, and it was kind of amusing to have men’s rooms be the endangered species for once. We had them, but probably 3x as many women’s ones.)

              2. T3k*

                Oh god, I forgot they did that too! One building had been on a hill behind the other, so when one used the connecting area, you went from the 2nd floor of one to the 1st floor of the other.

                1. Persephone Mulberry*

                  My office building is like this. The parking garage is on 1, but after you cross the breezeway, you’re on 2. I spend a fair amount of time telling people to “go up one floor” to get back to the garage.

              3. oldfashionedlovesong*

                You and T3k both sound like you’re describing a building at my beloved alma mater. The myth we were told about this building is that two brothers designed it but they got in a fight over something halfway through, so they stopped collaborating and we ended up with this insane house of mirrors. That’s obviously untrue, but what I do know is that I did two degrees in six years at that school and got lost almost every time I entered that building, all the way into my very last semester. I would also often be on my way to a classroom or office and come across a cool courtyard or piece of artwork or hidden bathroom, and never be able to find it on subsequent visits.

                1. oldfashionedlovesong*

                  Haha if only! Funnily enough, one of the original buildings on campus (the only all-male dorm– no women above the ground floor) was actually nicknamed Hogwarts due to its uncanny resemblance to that august institution. One of my friends always got a kick out of saying she was off to hang out with her boyfriend in the visiting parlor at Hogwarts.

              4. Lalaith*

                Heh. One large building on my campus was basically built into the side of a hill – or maybe more accurately a valley, since the “top” of the hill was the flat area where most of the campus was. So if you entered the building from the main campus side, you walked in on the 4th floor.

                1. Ad Astra*

                  My campus had tons of buildings like that, including our student union and some of the dorms. Once I was visiting a friend at a dorm I’d never been to, so I asked the front desk attendant what floor I was on. She looked at me like I was a total idiot and said “The… first floor?”

            2. Ad Astra*

              My university had a humanities building (so, lots and lots of gen ed classes in addition to several specific departments) that was originally designed to be a parking garage. At least that’s what they tell me. Each classroom number had four digits instead of three, for whatever reason, and each floor was split in the middle by a stairwell. You had to exit the stairwell from the correct door to get to your classroom; you couldn’t just walk all the way around and eventually get there. Which means you have to read the arrows painted on the stairwell wall, but you can’t stop and think about it because there are 300 people coming up or down the stairs behind you.

              What a place to send freshmen. Poor souls.

          3. Emily K*

            You would love our office…we don’t have office numbers. Or rather, I have seen some building blueprints made by the building owner which number the rooms, but our company doesn’t use numbers and there are no physical numbers printed on any of the doorplates – just the name of the person whose office it is. People in the same department are generally seated near each other, as space permits. Some teams are more spread out than others. We’re such a large office that most people don’t know where anyone not on their team is located, especially not the interns and assistants who sit in cubes and look more available for questions from passers-by than the folks shut inside their offices.

            And since none of the rooms are numbered, there’s no location listed in their intranet profile, so you pretty much have to dial someone’s extension and directly ask where their office is in order to find them. And you’ll get an answer like, “In the new wing of the 7th floor, near that small glassed-in conference room, just past the intern cube farm,” or “At the far end of the 6th floor, past reception, past IT, near the east copiers.”

            1. Emily K*

              Oh – and our conference rooms are named after things related to our work. You just have to memorize the locations of “Spout City,” “Chocolate Waterfall,” and “Teapot Terrace.”

          4. Elizabeth West*

            And for the love of God, if you have the identical floor plan on each floor, give the rooms the same numbers.

            We do not! It’s like rabbit warrens and has a general layout, but then everything on each floor is different, because it’s all cube farms. I get lost on other floors and I’ve been working in this building for two years!

        2. Elizabeth West*

          I had someone ask me at the front desk yesterday where a conference room was, and I had NO clue it even existed. It was on the other side and I had said, “I don’t know if there is a conference room over there.” Then the other desk person came back and said it was over there.

          I felt like a clod.

      3. Tilly W*

        Being a late-20s female working on the executive floor, it’s assumed I’m an admin and manage all the executive schedules. I’ve had people get quite annoyed when they stick their head in my office wanting a meeting with so-and-so and I point them 20 feet down the hall to the executive admins who has access to their calendars. I’m a mid-level manager so the sexist assumption gets a little old.

        1. Allison*

          we haven’t really gotten rid of the assumption that every young woman in an office if there to help you with whatever you might need.

          1. SL*

            I’m on the younger side of 25 and female. I was on my way into a meeting (with my boss watching me walk towards her through the conference room windows!) when I was stopped by a visitor who asked if I could bring him a Diet Coke. Do I look like your waitress?!

            I immediately said, “No, but I’m sure our front desk admin will help you out soon.” I don’t know how long that guy waited there, but I sure hope he never got his Diet Coke. And I hope he felt some shame when he clearly saw me sitting inside the conference room, very much not in an admin role.

        2. Engineer Girl*

          I got pretty perverse about this. I would cheerfully state “Oh, I’m the engineering team lead. You’ll have to talk to the admin for that information.” I loved the expressions that came across faces. Some were pure horror that they made the assumption. Some were annoyance that a woman wouldn’t help them. It was a great jerk filter.

      4. themmases*

        Ha, I have this often as a grad student! My cube is right outside the offices of some active researchers. I don’t want to say no, I don’t work with them, because technically I guess I work on their huge project but in effect that means I’ve met them twice. I don’t have access to their calendars, my cube doesn’t have a phone, and the way I get work done is by tuning out their comings and goings so I often don’t even know if they’re behind that closed door or not.

        There is nowhere good to wait except maybe an empty cube (obviously the junkiest ones, that’s why they were last assigned). It is sooo awkward to effectively tell people that I know nothing at all, can’t help them find out, and actually I can’t even suggest a place for them to perch and wait. Then turn back around.

    5. Sunshine*

      I was coming to post something similar. Usually for me, on the phone.

      Caller: “I’m not sure if you’re the right person to handle this, but could you tell me where to find the new Vanilla Coffee cups with the logo?”

      Me: “Sorry, I’m definitely not the right person.”

      Caller: …. Silence….

      Me: *sigh* “Try calling Persephone. I overheard her mention this yesterday.”

      My CS background makes it very difficult for me to say “No, I can’t help you” without offering some alternative. I try not to be an enabler.

      1. Victoria, Please*

        “I’m not sure if you’re the right person” sort of implies “If you’re not, can you point me in the right direction.” Suggesting to call Persephone isn’t enabling, it’s polite.

      2. Persephone Mulberry*

        The irony of having a completely random poster tell someone to “call Persephone”, because this Persephone is the unofficial Director of Answers to Everything in her actual job. LOL

        1. Sunshine*

          I thought about you after I posted. Didn’t mean to steal your name, but cheers from a fellow Unofficial Answer Queen!

  3. dancer*

    OP, I’m sorry your boss doesn’t have your back on this. This used to happen to me when I first started my job and I wasn’t clear what my responsibilities were. I was getting increasingly time-consuming requests from some of our customer support reps and I finally got one request for help that was so ridiculous, that I went to my manager. I found out I shouldn’t have been helping them at all unless he assigned it to me. He chewed out the offending people and there hasn’t been an issue since.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Well, it’s not clear that the boss even knows this is a problem. As you found out–you have to tell the boss before she can act.

      1. dancer*

        Actually that’s a good point. I’d assumed when the OP said “My manager is not very good at providing us with firm direction on what we’re responsible for and what we’re not, so I can’t find help there.” it meant that she had tried talking to her boss. If she hasn’t, I think it doesn’t hurt to try.

  4. Snarkus Aurelius*

    This is another OP who I’ll assume is a woman.  (Seriously, I’ve been on this earth for 35+ years, and I’ve never ever seen a man deal with this problem.)

    In addition to what AAM said, I’d recommend you read Pat Heim’s book.  “Hardball for Women in Business” I think it’s called.  She has an entire chapter on how detrimental the constant helping is for you but also how it negatively affects how your boss sees you.  The latter is something I never considered.  Constant helping makes bosses uncomfortable because you don’t look focused or as though you have a spine and good judgment.

    All this aside, keep in mind what you want to be known for. The more time you spend helping others, doing minor tasks, etc., the less time you have to do your own job and making big strides.

    There’s a difference between saying, “not my job,” because you’re lazy versus not wanting to be a doormat.

    1. Annie Orange*

      That’s a really interesting point.
      However, I personally have seen a few men have this problem… but I would tend to agree that it’s much more commonly faced by women. We sometimes feel the need to help everyone or to be “compliant,” even when we know it’s not our job.
      Btw..going to look into that book you mentioned – thanks for the suggestion!

      1. Kelly L.*

        Yeah, and once in a while we get a commenter here who, inadvertently, illustrates where this idea comes from. The “Don’t you EVER say that’s not your job, peon” Internet-tough-guys/ladies. :D

        1. Snarkus Aurelius*

          You know what really boils my blood? The people who say that never ever consider that telling some to shut up and do what you’re told could ever be used to manipulate or ensure an employee never succeeds in the workplace.

    2. LBK*

      I am a man who deals with this problem! It’s one of the traps of becoming The Person Who Knows Things in your department. I’m sure I deal with less bristling when I turn people away than a woman would (it’s that assertive vs. abrasive double standard) but I definitely deal with having to redirect tasks that aren’t my responsibility elsewhere on a regular basis.

      1. the_scientist*

        I have a feeling this may be the crux of the issue, here; men and women probably get these out-of-scope requests in close-to equal amounts, but women who push back are “abrasive”, “unhelpful”, “not willing to pitch in” “rude” and other negative adjectives, whereas a man who pushes back is probably “assertive” “smart” “a strategic thinker” “focused” “dedicated” etc. etc.

        1. Snarkus Aurelius*

          Bingo. That’s why I’d rather be quiet and not pitch in than make a stink about how such requests are targeted at certain people.

        2. Allison*

          I see this here as well, where a woman will complain about people going to them for admin/secretarial tasks, and she’s basically scolded for not wanting to do these things “Hey, in my office we all help out!” or “Come on, you gotta be willing to pitch in occasionally!”

          1. the_scientist*

            I think I’ve mentioned this before here, but in grad school I had an office at a satellite location. I was not a secretary, didn’t really know any of the staff at this location (beyond the ones I worked with) and my office was in a side hallway. The building had a dedicated reception desk at the front. And yet, probably 1/4 of the times I was in there someone would ask me to help them find so-and-so, and the asker was ALWAYS an older man. One even said to me “oh you must be so-and-so’s secretary!”. Um, no. I was however the youngest person in that hallway and the first woman most of them would come across after entering the building, which clearly made me a target for well-intentioned but clueless questions.

      2. Adam*

        Agreed. I have been described as The-One-Who-Knows-Everything in my department. I don’t know why. I certainly haven’t tried to claim such a title (and if it’s true, then why do I make the least amount of money around here?), but still if people don’t know the answer for a customer I’m usually the first person they will send them to. Being at the bottom of the totem pole and trying to actively maintain a helpful worthwhile image here means I often say “yes” to a lot of things, but it does get a little much sometimes.

        1. More Cake Please*

          Hmm yes. As the resident “Techno Wizard” (not a typo, someone actually gave me a kudos with that dubbing) and also at the bottom of the totem pole, I get frequent requests for assistance that are beyond the scope of my job (or even the services my company provides). I can handle requests that come directly from customers, but when my coworkers promise the moon to someone and then trot them up to my cubicle to ask me point blank, I cave. I think I’m too used to being helpful to my coworkers, and the awkwardness of having the customer standing there watching… it’s too much.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          I’m the department admin, so I get many questions I have no answers to. It can be hard to determine who does what in our company, so I’m not sure who to refer people to sometimes.

          I try to find out for them, because if it relates to our department, then I’m sure my boss would want me to answer, but it’s often a challenge of monumental proportions. Especially with billing. Urg. Just because I track it doesn’t mean I know what a completely different department did with it!

      3. TootsNYC*

        Maybe his point is that you don’t struggle with it as much–sure, you get the “not really your job” inquiries/requests, but your conditioning as a man probably makes you less likely to stress over it.

        And, as you point out (and the_scientist does as well), you don’t get the negative reinforcement, so it’s easier to learn how to push back.

        1. LBK*

          Eh – I think my conditioning as a control freak and a people pleaser still make me likely to stress over it. The negative reinforcement is definitely more gendered, but I don’t think being torn between a desire to help and a desire to not cave in to every request is uniquely female.

    3. Kyrielle*

      It does depend on what you’re “helping” with. Simple things that should be part of your job can be taken badly, more complex things where you’re the Oracle on that part of the system can be viewed really positively. My previous boss really approved of my helping others on and off the team and felt it made the team and company more productive, and that was messaged in my reviews and presumably affected the compensation got (hard to be sure as other positives were also messaged).

      If you’re constantly helping peers or lower-level people do tasks they should be doing on their own, especially over and over, or something totally outside your wheelhouse, then no, it’s probably not good optics (or a good use of your time, which is why it’s not good optics!).

      If, on the other hand, you’re the Expert on something and are helping people with tricky areas and spending 15 minutes of your time to save a teammate three days, it’s probably going to be a real positive. (And even then, you shouldn’t be doing more than they need, and they shouldn’t ask you to. This is not “let me walk you through how to do a four-layer etch on your chocolate teapot lid” this is “Oh man, that pattern! It needs a four-layer etch – you can find the notes on four-layer etches in the filing system under ‘four layer etch’. It’s a real pain, but the writeup is pretty detailed – let me know if you have any questions. Make sure you read through it before you start, though, and you’ll have to contact supply for the special masking material. They usually have enough for a small run on hand, if you know you have a large run coming up, warn them and make sure they have enough in stock or order it.”

      1. Engineer Girl*

        I love to teach, so many times I’d put together classes for common problems. I’d create “how to” docs, a set of training charts, and then hold a class on the topic. All with my manager’s permission of course. I’d frame it as “I’m seeing a pattern where people don’t know how to do X. How about I put together a class on it to train them?”
        This did several things:
        * It put the responsibility back on the individual. I held a class, they have the material, they are now responsible for it.
        * I can keep referencing the class/material when people have questions. Every time people come to me with a question I refer to the documentation and go over it with them. Either they learn it (99%) or they just quit asking because I won’t do their work (1%).
        * I make sure I put it down in my performance review! I list it under several categories: leadership (personnel development), knowledge management, mentoring. I make sure it looks proactive. It shows that not only am I doing work form my manager, but I’m also creating value for the company as a whole.

        1. Kyrielle*

          Yep! I disseminated a series of informational emails and documentation with much the same idea. (I couldn’t fit classes/training into my schedule very often at all – it wasn’t a priority to my boss – and in any case the people I needed to reach were spread out over several geographic locations, two or three time zones, and often on tasks that made schedules incompatible – so I settled for documentation and emails. Often, I would send one out based on questions I’d been getting, but sometimes it was just a topic that seemed useful to get out there, if I hadn’t done one in a while.)

  5. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    Yes. The problem with “it’s not my job” is that it’s become a cliche for someone who is rigid, difficult to deal with, and doesn’t take responsibility for the overall success of the company. This does not mean that you have to do everything that comes your way. Sometimes it’s just literally a matter of not using that phrase.

    It’s sort of like how the question, “how does that make you feel?” has become a cliche way of making fun of therapists – poking fun at the idea that they just ask the same (potentially intrusive) question over and over. So the question itself pushes people’s buttons, while in most cases, a therapist asking someone about their feelings in a different way is totally fine.

    1. Ad Astra*

      Ding ding ding. “That’s not my job” leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, but “I wish I could help but I’m swamped with the Butkus account. Maybe Lucinda could help you” is totally palatable for most reasonable people.

      My office has a culture of being particularly helpful, so people will often walk you through the steps or print something out for you or otherwise go the extra mile when you could probably do it yourself. Even so, I get plenty of “I don’t know, ask Bill” replies, and it’s absolutely fine.

  6. Allison*

    What if it’s your coworkers asking you to do stuff that either someone else usually does (and not explaining why they’re asking you and not the person who usually does it), or asking you do to things for them that they should be doing themselves? I usually mention it in my one-on-one meetings with my manager when it happens, but I wish there was a tactful way of addressing it to the person directly. I don’t mind helping occasionally, but I really want to avoid someone on my team seeing me as their little helper.

    1. TootsNYC*


      “Why aren’t you asking Jane? She usually does this.”

      “Do you really need me to tackle this? Can’t you handle it?” in an inquisitive tone, with a bit of disbelief throw in.

      And just don’t be helpful. “I’m sorry–I’m in the middle of something else. Isn’t this something Jane or you can do?”

      1. Erin*

        I feel like these are kind of abrasive questions. I couldn’t imagine saying, “Can’t you handle this?” to a coworker.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          I also have a hard time imagining saying that. I would have no problem, however, saying, “I’m not able to help you with that,” full stop. Sometimes, like if it’s your boss asking or it’s something that might reasonably fall into your job but you’re just too busy with your own duties, you do need to give a reason. But I find that people who have the chutzpah to ask for something they shouldn’t be asking for, often know full well what they are doing, and a simple “I can’t help you” is enough to make them stop asking (or at least stop asking ME).

          I’ve also had good results with, “I’ll help you do X, but I can’t do Y.” Often I’ll get requests that are a blend of things I might reasonably be expected to do, and things that the requester should totally be doing on her own. In that case, telling the questioner that you can be helpful, just not give her everything she’s asking for, seems to work.

      2. NJ Anon*

        The difference in what is acceptable/not acceptable phrasing is interesting. I was born in NY and have lived in NJ most of my life. I would have no problem saying this-with the correct tone.

        1. Ad Astra*

          Yes, there are going to be some regional differences about phrasing. People in the Northeast tend to be direct, people in the Midwest tend to be polite, and people in the South tend to be downright friendly. It’s definitely a “know your culture” situation.

    2. Gwen*

      If it’s something someone else usually does, I usually go “Jane usually handles X!” and CC her if it’s an email. At that point they’ll either go “oh okay” and ask Jane for something, or if there’s some compelling reason they aren’t asking Jane, I can determine whether it’s one I find sufficiently compelling for me to do the thing

    3. LBK*

      Playing dumb works wonders for me here:

      “I’m a little confused – isn’t this something Jane usually handles?”
      “I’m not really sure what you’re asking me here – is this a different task than what you usually do?”
      “I just want to clarify – is this just doing X, Y and Z? I want to make sure I’m not missing anything since this seems like something you/Jane would normally handle.”

      1. hbc*

        That’s my preferred method too. It’s a nicer way of saying, “There’s no way you would just ask me to do X, so I’m not budging until I hear a good explanation.”

      2. Elizabeth West*

        Yes, this is good, and that last one can elicit more information, in which case you can then say “Oh, I know who you can ask; go see Professor Sprout.”

      1. Jules*

        This one has backfired on my in the past.
        “Oh, I can wait, let me know when your deadline has passed and you have time for this!”
        “Last time we had this issue, you were too busy, so I’m bringing it to you earlier this time.”

        There’s a real risk this only deflects the problem for a bit, and then it will be back.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Then you go to: “I’m sorry, I’m swamped and realistically won’t have time to tackle this anytime soon. If that’s going to cause a problem, I can talk to (manager) about priorities, but I suspect she’ll want you or Jane to handle it.”

  7. TootsNYC*

    I once started getting forwarded all the random calls that the receptionist for our entire division didn’t know how to handle. She started sending them to me because I’d had some random interaction with her, so she knew my name. She started by asking me who to send the person to, and ended up just forwarding me any old person.

    At first I’d think, “Oh, poor person, they’ll never get where they’re going if I don’t help.” And I’d dig around in the phone list and figure out where to send them. I had a really good view of the company, so it wasn’t terribly hard.
    Since she never got the calls back, she sent more of them! It got so disruptive. It took me a while to realize what she was doing. I asked her to stop. She sent more.

    So I decided I’d just send them back to her. At first, I’d say to the person, “I’m going to send you back to the receptionist; ask her to forward you to Jim Smith/the Marketing Department.”

    But I was still getting those calls, of course, because she was still getting the help she needed. I asked her to stop. She didn’t.

    You all know where this is going: I had to start sending them back without anything but an “I’m sorry, I don’t work on that, I’m going to send you back to the receptionist.”
    They tapered off.

    So I agree–just be too busy.

    Or, if you outrank them, you could do what my mom did: “You can do this for yourself–you don’t actually need me to do it for you. What would you do if I wasn’t here?”

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      I once had an extension (in a new building) that was four of the same digit. Also, our department was the first one to get set up in that building. We got all the interoffice mail that no one could figure out where to go (bit of a waste of money sending stuff from the main campus to us so that we could send it back – about a 10 mi. round trip, but it kept the company mail van busy). And I got all the calls that no one could figure out where to route – including calls that had nothing to do at all with my division or department. (One supervisor in an area we did deal with admitted that he always just called me because my extension was easy to remember, but at least he only called about issues that were related to my work, and he was easy to deal with so I didn’t mind.) Unfortunately, our phones were not set up at the time so that there was an easy way to transfer people, and I had no way of even telling where they originated from, so I had to tell some people that I couldn’t help them and they’d have to call back. (I later thought *some* of the calls were accidents when someone meant to dial an extension that had three of the same digit followed by a different digit, but they accidentally hit it four times and got me. But that does not explain the misrouted interoffice mail.)

      I think there are nice ways of indicating that something isn’t one’s job, but really, sometimes it really isn’t. And trying to make it someone’s job when it shouldn’t be is just a bad business practice.

    2. Snarkus Aurelius*

      The most irritating detail of this story is that the receptionist could have figured this out on her own and it would have taken less time.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Except that she was a major, major ditz. I’ve worked with skilled receptionists, and she was not one of them.

    3. Anony-turtle in the half shell!*

      I had this same thing happen where I used to work. The receptionist stressed out if people were out of the office and didn’t want to be the one to tell them that the person they were calling for was out of the building a lot of the time, so she sent them to me – someone in a completely unrelated department. I had already tried saying, “Oh, I’m sorry! I believe the receptionist must have directed you to the wrong person. Let me send you back, so she can find who you need to talk to,” and then sending the person back, but it didn’t even slow the calls down. In fact, one day I had so many of them (a lot of people were out for a major event that our company was putting on) that I finally went to talk to the receptionist face-to-face and told her that I couldn’t continue taking calls that she didn’t want to deal with. She said, “But what if someone is out?” I told her to tell the person that they were out and she’d transfer them to that person’s voicemail. (I never knew if someone was out or not, so if I transferred them, it’d ring and ring before going to VM, so it was even more annoying to the caller.)

      The last-ditched effort after I talked to her in person was her calling me and saying, “I don’t know what to do with this person! They want to talk to A or B, and they are both out today, so there is no one in their department! Will you take the call for me?!”

      I calmly said, “I will not take the call. I cannot help this person, because I am not remotely related to that department. If you send them to me, I’m sending them directly back to you, so don’t even try it.”

      She still tried sending me nightly VMs that she didn’t know what to do with (even though she knew more about what was going on in each department than I did), so I would just forward them back to her. I later found out that she moved on to a new victim after I stopped helping her figure out where calls were supposed to go, but at least it wasn’t happening to me. She even tried doing it to my boss, who was at upper management level, but that was shut down pretty quickly.

  8. Tasha*

    I just have to say that Alison comes up with the most fantastic wording: deals with the issue, is polite, and can be used across a variety of situations. It’s almost always about making the boss/manger confront and deal with the tradeoffs of doing X instead of Y, and can relieve so much of the stress that letter-writers have when they feel they have to figure out a difficult situation by themselves. I wish all HR people were like she is!

    1. Annie Orange*

      This makes me wonder…how much time do you spend on an answer, AAM? Is the wording in your posts usually what you think of right off the top of your head, or do you have to come back and answer questions after you’ve thought it out?
      I feel like I’m one of those people who says something less than stellar in the moment, then thinks of the perfect comeback hours after the event and curses myself for not thinking of it when it was useful!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Mostly I write it and am done, but my husband is no stranger to the just-before-bedtime words “hold on, I just realized I want to change something in a blog post.”

            1. Elizabeth West*

              I have got to stop commenting on things with Facebook and then going to bed. I get up and have 89 replies when I open Facebook and think, “Oh gah, am I going to get yelled at first thing in the morning?” I can’t even look at them until I get home from work.

              Also, who the flegnard is up in the UK at three a.m. GMT answering my comments on the Metro blog!?!

  9. littlemoose*

    I think it might be useful to figure out why you think your coworkers are repeatedly requesting your help. Are they understaffed and/or overworked, with unrealistic deadlines? Do they not have adequate training on doing these particular tasks? Or, do you think your coworkers are just trying to foist work off on you out of laziness? The reason might inform how you want to talk to your manager about it, and what kind of solutions you could suggest (such as refresher training on the tasks in question).

  10. bopper*

    You want to do the Help and Defer (act helpful but really defer)

    “Show me what you have done on this already.” (have you even tried?)
    “I have a lot on my plate…I would need to talk to boss about my priorities.” (do they want boss to know they aren’t doing it?”
    “Have you tried doing X/looking in the TPS report?”

    1. catsAreCool*

      I usually tell people about good places to find info. I figure they can search it as well as I can.

  11. Pickles*

    Sometimes being overly helpful results in bosses having a negative perception as well as overload. What I’ve found helps me is developing training guides. It’s well worth the extra up front effort because then you can hand people a user guide and shoo them off to figure out how to implement it for themselves. It makes me look super proactive to my boss, addresses a real need, and marks me as the go-to person for more advanced questions that I actually want to handle. Plus, people know I mean it now when I say I don’t know and/or point them to someone else.

    Not always practical, though. And finding that up front time is a struggle. Plus updates are key….still, it helps.

    1. Adam*

      I second this suggestion. I used to get a lot of questions forwarded to me from our general customer service center that were SUPER simple and they should have been able to handle no problem. In fact we had met with them a couple times and showed them how our website modules worked, and while they’d say they understood it at the time it just didn’t take because they would continue to forward those calls to me.

      Finally I carved out time to make an FAQ that answered all of these common questions, got my manager to sign off on it, and then sent it to them saying please refer to this before you forward a caller on. At first, the calls continued to come because they just weren’t using it, but after (gently) stating over and over that “This exists now; use it” the volume went way down.

      So if you can manage it, investing the time up front can save you loads of time and interruptions later.

    2. Ad Astra*

      I love training guides and documentation. God bless the souls who take it upon themselves to put these things together.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        + a million. Someone did that for the person who took over her job because she left before they replaced her (she was moving). It turned out to be me, and I was forever grateful. This was the job in the laboratory, and while it wasn’t technical, it was particularly fiddly with lots and lots of details. She left a whole drawer full of procedurals all organized in lovely folders. She came by once when visiting friends in the area and I got to thank her for that.

        Since then, I’ve made my own for subsequent positions, both to help myself learn the job faster and for anyone who might need to cover me. When Exjob ditched me, I left an entire tabbed notebook full of how-to’s behind, which I hope helped because former coworker told me they were making the sales reps do stuff I used to do for them.

  12. Amber Rose*

    It’s less “that’s not my job” than it is “that’s someone else’s job”. Even though that’s just semantics I think it’s a good way to reframe it in your head so you don’t feel guilty: someone else was hired to do the thing. Presumably they are better at it, and would like to do that instead of nothing.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Pfft, and I just got the most pissy email about just this. “I’ll see what I can do but this has to stop. I’m not [department]!”

      Poor guy. I sympathize. I’m not supposed to be doing this either, and my hands are really tied unless I get help. I don’t have the seniority to get mad. Sometimes I have to find someone who does and annoy them.

    2. littlemoose*

      I think that’s a good distinction to draw. The whole “it’s not my job” thing sounds like a person refusing to do something they think is beneath them. In this case, you’re absolutely right that someone else has been hired to do those tasks, so it’s someone else’s responsibility. Obviously the OP has her own job duties and responsibilities, and that’s what she was hired to do.

    3. Rita*

      Good point on semantics. I feel like “I’m not the right person for this” is another good way of putting it.

    4. TootsNYC*

      They may also need the information they’d glean from handling it.

      I had a colleague who was a little abrasive at times, and because we worked closely, people would bring things to me. I was always saying, “I can predict the answer, but I’m not authorized, really, to say–and besides, he needs to hear this info. He’s going to plan based on it.” (I actually sat him down and said, “You’re missing out on info because people are scared of you. This is going to hurt you. You might want to work on how people perceive you.”)

    5. Ad Astra*

      In my office, that someone else would be pretty heated if you didn’t defer to them. “Why wasn’t I looped in on this sooner?” is probably our No. 1 communication complaint.

    6. Person of Interest*

      Yes to this. If it truly isn’t my job or belongs in someone else’s domain I will typically say something like “Hmm, I can’t really help you with that but I think Jane might be the best person to ask for more info, because Teapot Design is her area. Have you checked with her?” Or, if it’s something the person should be doing on their own I might say “You don’t need to go through me for that, you can just go ahead with it.”

  13. the gold digger*

    Here is what I said, one week after I had started in a new division, after numerous conversations with the man who would become my boss: “You didn’t think to mention that you would want me to cold call in any of the conversations we had in the past three months?”

    I started looking for a new job right away.

  14. LBK*

    Something that helps me prevent this situation from occurring is establishing that something isn’t your job when you *do* agree to help. Example: “I think Jane usually handles this, but let me see if I can figure it out while I have you here” or “Here’s the report – I’m copying in Wakeen’s team since they usually produce it, so they can help you out if you have any questions going forward”.

    Part of the problem of being a person that’s willing to occasionally do tasks outside their strict job is that it blurs the lines of what actually is your responsibility, which makes it harder to say no to that person the next time they have a similar request. Gently letting someone know up front that what they’ve asked you to do isn’t your normal job a) makes them more appreciative of the fact that you went above and beyond for them, and b) redirects the connection between you and this task in their minds. In the event that they do come back to you anyway, it also makes it less jarring to just re-redirect it to the appropriate party.

  15. Golden Yeti*

    Thanks for this, Alison. It more or less answers my question to you from before (though I’m not the OP).

    I am wondering, though: is it ever okay to decline something from the boss on principle, or because you don’t want to set a precedent? How would that be worded?

    It’s definitely tricky being the go-to in the office–especially when you’re the one who usually handles most thing…

      1. Golden Yeti*

        For instance, I was once asked to do the research for my boss’s research paper–for an external class the boss was taking, not related to my job. I wasn’t asked to do that again, but if I had been, could’ve been awkward.

        Or making a website in a single day. That one was tricky because the office accommodated to me and let me work on it straight through, but I also want to make sure they don’t assume that because I managed it that time, I would always be able to pull it off.

        Because I can usually pull off anything that is asked, there is no hesitation in asking me to do anything. I’d like to have something in my back pocket to remind everyone that I am only human, after all, and I can only do so much so quickly.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Yikes, that first one is crazy unethical on the boss’s part, and the second is a huge amount of work!

        2. hbc*

          I think you need to put conditions or error bars around your “yes” responses. Never say “Yeah, I can do a website in a day.” You can say, “Well, if we’re talking about limiting to X pages and Y features, and my calendar is cleared, I’m 90% sure I could get that up by 5pm. But obviously my other duties will take a hit.”

          I don’t think you should ever turn down something because there might be a day where you can’t. You can always say, “Yes, I did it last time, but this time [I’m on a deadline/I can’t stay until 11pm/you’re asking for a lot more.]”

          1. Golden Yeti*

            Oh, trust me, I didn’t say I could do it in a day. That would be redonkulous. I pretty much just said “maybe.” I don’t believe in saying “I will” or “I can” unless I’m 100% confident that I actually will or can.

            It was a weird situation. Old site was expiring at noon in 3 days, and they had to make a call about letting it go or moving to the new I had already made. Except there was an additional part they wanted. Because the addition is very peripheral to the core purpose of the site, I thought it could be done at my leisure. Apparently not (they were very concerned that the addition would be needed over the weekend). I was given 30 minutes’ notice (end of day) on the 1st of the 3 days that they wanted this immediately after all. They asked what it would take for me to have a chance of getting it done. I said if I didn’t have to write my regular weekly article.

            The response was, “If we give you all day tomorrow to do the site, and all day Friday to do the article, could you do it?” I was really disappointed that I was still expected to write the article, too, and nobody was willing to take it off my plate. But again, I just said maybe. And even though I pulled it off, I just don’t want such expectations to become habitual.

            1. E*

              “even though I pulled it off, I just don’t want such expectations to become habitual”

              That’s the problem I’m running into at my job. If you solve a problem (and quickly) when it isn’t yours and isn’t urgent, the next request will be more likely to come your way and they’ll expect a fast turnaround even if the request isn’t urgent. I’ve forced myself to put delayed send on emails that I can answer in 5 minutes or less, just because the requester should already know the answer or be able to find it just as fast. And I don’t want to be the go-to for everything, just what relates to my job duties mostly. Some skills in other areas is good since it has led to promotion/transfer in the past, but I want to grow where I am right now.

        3. moss*

          them: “Can you do X?”
          you: “What’s your timeline on that?”
          them: “Y time”
          you: “If I have 3Y time I could get it done, otherwise check with someone with more resources.”

        4. Ask a Manager* Post author

          On the boss’s research paper thing, I’d say: “Hmmm, I don’t really feel right doing work for a class outside of the office, especially when I’ve got my hands full with XYZ.” If your boss then offers to relieve you of XYZ so you have more time for his paper, you could say, “I’m sorry, I really don’t feel right about doing that.”

        5. Cath in Canada*

          A former boss once asked me to draft a letter of recommendation for a student’s fellowship application. I said “I really don’t feel comfortable doing that – I’m always happy to draft other documents for you, but this feels like the kind of thing that really has to be 100% you”. He said “fair enough” and never asked again.

          1. Artemesia*

            Interesting because I’d not be bothered about that but would find the student paper a major violation of ethics.

  16. Bee Eye LL*

    I am currently in a situation like this where my job title is Systems Analyst but because I know how to do websites, I am also my employer’s webmaster. This creates problems when people expect me to drop everything I am doing to post something online. It also means I end up reporting to EVERY department director instead of just my own, because they all have demands for the website. I’m currently trying to negotiate a raise for the work, but I doubt that will happen. If I were to leave this employer, they’d most likely have to outsource their web stuff. It’s something they’ve never budgeted for because they didn’t have to, and that’s been my argument for the raise. We shall see.

    Staying on topic, though, the problem that really occurs is when you go ahead and do the work first, then start complaining later when people keep coming back to you. Once you’ve done something a first time, it’s harder to say no the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and other times.

  17. The Other CrazyCatLady*

    Thankfully a large part of the workforce at my job is remote (not much of the awkward standing and staring issue other commenters mentioned), so much of this sort of thing comes through email, which is simple enough to redirect. Reply to original request, CC correct person.
    “Jane, I’ll have to defer to Josie’s expertise on that.”

    We also have an IM system, and it’s equally simple to deflect questions about things I can’t do. “That would have to go through [team lead who oversees the process being asked about] to make sure it’s done correctly.

  18. CM*

    I deal with this all the time! If it’s really not something I’m responsible for or they could do themselves, I have learned to give a brief answer with as much information as I know off the top of my head and can give in a sentence or two. I will also point them to another resource. And here’s the key: after your brief answer, don’t offer further help. Don’t be tempted to fill up expectant silences by saying, “but let me check on that for you…” Also, don’t be afraid to say, “No, I don’t know,” without any further direction (if it’s true).

    Example: “Do you know what we’re supposed to do about X?” “I’d check the X report and see what it says.” “Could you check quickly while I’m here?” “I can’t at the moment, but that’s where I would look.” “Where can I find X report?” “I think it was emailed out last month.” “Could you check for me later?” “I have some higher priority work that I need to take care of, but I’m sure you can find the information you’re looking for.” People figure out pretty quickly that you won’t do their work for them and then these exchanges get shorter.

    Exception: Golden Yeti asks about declining something from the boss; I wouldn’t do that in general and would be very delicate about it if it was necessary.

  19. themmases*

    This is a great topic. It can be so hard to push back on truly inappropriate or distracting stuff when I feel like it will just come across as stereotypical “not my job” foot dragging.

  20. Mickey Q*

    Anyone who has brothers and sisters has learned the old “I don’t know how to do it” routine.
    Anyone who is a mom has learned the old “I don’t have time for that” routine.

    1. NJ anon*

      Oh yes! When my kids were little, I would say “I can only do one thing at a time and right now I’m doing it!”

  21. LizNYC*

    I run into this all the time. For my situation, I usually use the two broader replies, like “I know X is handling all things related to Y. You should try them.” And then repeat as needed (especially when X isn’t immediately available).

  22. Anonathon*

    Does anyone else have a similar challenge, but the task is supervising?

    Say, I run Department A, but often need info or work from Bob in Department B. Bob doesn’t deliver and/or delivers something shoddy … and Bob’s manager seems to think that I should be supervising him more closely. Er, wouldn’t that be her job as, you know, his manager? To clarify, this is work that Bob would need to produce either way. I just happen to have a specific need for it.

    1. Technical Editor*

      Perhaps there’s a distinction between “general supervision” of the employee and “providing specific feedback about what you need.” Obviously you manage Bob in a general sense, but you can help with this one specific thing you need to help get the quality you desire.

  23. _ism_*

    I work in a place where nobody has clearly defined roles and nobody seems to know who is responsible/knowledgeable for things outside of normal routines. I’m constantly running around asking for help and being sent to bother somebody else. Often it ends up involving someone from the corporate office (who also systematically fail to communicate who does what to us down here at the factory). My boss herself often contacts teh wrong person at corporate, only to be scolded and told “that’s not my job” herself!

    I’ve tried talking to my manager about this, but given the above, I’m not sure what else to do. Any advice for the peon who has to tap on dozens of shoulders daily?

    1. Jules*

      I’ll second this request for advice! I’m quite new at my job (4 months!) and I ran into a task a couple weeks ago that just had to be done, but no one seemed to know who was in charge, or willing to take the responsibility. I just ran around till I could find someone willing to help even though it wasn’t their job (ha, sorry OP, I hope we don’t work in the same place and I’m one of those people who annoy you!). However, this same task is going to come back in a few month, it’s recurrent thing… and we still haven’t figured out the process for it. I just know it’s not my job (I asked my boss). I need help to push back gently, without looking like the newbie who isn’t really trying…

      1. Kyrielle*

        Ask your boss if you should work on that when it comes back, and if s/he says no, ask if you can say that if you’re requested. In which case the line is something like, “I’m sorry, I’m not very familiar with that and $Boss has said I shouldn’t be handling it, as I need to focus on my assigned tasks.”

  24. Jennifer*

    I would absolutely get new holes ripped in me if I said no to anything in this way. I have gotten in trouble for saying, for example, that I’m not a programmer, don’t work on or even use X Program, and cannot fix it for you. Yes, that’s ridiculous. Yes, I’m supposed to fix it for you ANYWAY, because otherwise it’s Not Good Service.

    In some positions (i.e. clerical peon), apparently saying that no, you don’t know anything about it and can’t point you to who can is bad, bad, bad. *sigh*

    1. Anlyn*

      Is it coworkers/other departments ripping into you, or your boss? If it’s others and you have the boss’s backing, then say “I don’t handle X program, please contact/send an email to…”.

      If it’s your boss, and you don’t want to become an ad-hoc programmer, then run. Run for the hills.

  25. Lillian McGee*

    I’m an office manager, so I get a lot of miscellaneous “no-one’s-job-so-it’s-your-job” stuff. One person regularly brings me garbage to deal with. Literal garbage. Most recently it was an old power strip she no longer needed and a box of toner for a printer that no longer exists. I mean, maybe someone, somewhere might find a use for these things, but… ???

  26. LauraQuinn*

    This would definitely be overkill in some situations, but my husband, who manages a team of four, and based on his role fields TONS of miscellaneous requests from folks, has a whiteboard which shows the team’s current priorities. So at need he can gesture at the board and say “That sounds like a really interesting teapot analysis– we’re pretty full up here, though– where do you think it would fall in this list of priorities?” i.e. whose project would you like me to bump? It might be kind of passive aggressive for some office cultures, but it’s been really effective for him in warding off requests from peers/ directors from other areas, etc, where he doesn’t easily have the ability to say no or the duty to say yes.

  27. Eugenie*

    This rings so true for me right now! I just got a promotion as a result of a departmental re-org and I feel like I spend half my day explaining who’s responsible for the things I used to do! There was a company-wide announcement about the change as well as explanations about how things would work now, but still people refuse to acknowledge that I’m now Director of Teapot Satisfaction rather than Head of Spouts — Joe is now in charge of spouts, you should go ask him! Also, I now have an admin (who is worth her weight in gold) but nobody outside of my department will go to her first with my administrative things — which is totally counteracting the value of having somebody else handling all those things!

    1. TootsNYC*

      There’s power in viewing this as training. So you may need to send people to your admin. Remove from them the reward of having you handle it. Say, “please, would you bring that through my admin?” You can add, “She needs the info of knowing what you want,a nd she’s in a better place to take care of that quickly.”

      It’s a bit like making the teenager come back and pick up his own jacket from the hallway floor. But it’s necessary.

      Couch it as you asking them a favor. Couch is as “want us to get in good habits,” and as “handling this is something that gives people the right information about workload, frequency, etc.”

      Those things are true!
      There is a reason people are assigned tasks.

  28. Renee*

    I work for a small manufacturing company and I run the administrative side. My duties are substantive and complex — I handle HR, accounting, and shipping/exporting. I’m a licensed attorney and the owner pays my fees and relies on me for basic legal matters like contract review and compliance (there’s external counsel for more complex legal matters). I’m viewed as something like a manager, but without direct reports. Cleaning duties are NOT included in my job description and the owner has been very firm about all employees cleaning up after themselves. I do handle some employee morale tasks, like buying cake and ice cream for birthdays and ordering lunches on Fridays. Yesterday was a birthday and I had to leave the kitchen to handle a call. When I came back a few minutes later, the cakes were still in packages on the counter, the ice cream in the freezer, and the employees sitting around the tables, expectantly waiting for someone to serve them cake. When I commented that anyone could have started serving the cake, one employee said that I was the “designated cake server.” Both I and the VP shut him down immediately with that, but still no one volunteered to help. The VP handed the ice cream to the employee in question and told him to handle that part. After everyone ate cake, most of the employees immediately left (including that one employee), leaving a few of us to clean up.

    This has been an increasing problem. It’s not my job to wipe counters, but I do when we have guests coming, and sometimes just because it is gross. I cleaned the microwave a few weeks ago because employees do not clean up their spills or cover their food. We have janitorial service on the weekend, but the counter was already covered in crumbs and spills by 1pm yesterday, and I had to wipe it down before setting up the cakes. I’m not entirely sure how to address the unspoken assumption that someone else will clean up, by default, me. It’s been addressed in general before — that everyone cleans up — but that doesn’t seem to change anything. And, in case anyone is wondering, I was the only female employee here for a period of time. Now there are two more female employees (so 3 out of 10), and those two employees are frequently the ones that pitch in to help me. I often tell them not to, because they are on the engineering side, and I don’t want the guys to continually see the women as the ones cleaning up.

    Sorry, this turned into a bit of a rant. I’m still pretty hot about the cake incident yesterday.

    1. Mockingjay*

      Post a weekly kitchen cleaning roster. Alphabetical, so everyone gets a turn, with instructions in large font. Staff should be able to wipe counters, rinse coffeepots, and yes, wipe the dreaded microwave. “Cleaning supplies and gloves are located under the sink.”

      I’d also reconsider the employee morale birthday cakes. It sounds more like an expectation than a celebration. (The dude just SAT there?) What about your morale? You should be happy at work, too. It sounds like you have a full day’s worth to get through, on top of providing food services. I’d just stop ordering them. If they really want a cake, they can figure out how to order one. (Unless such things are a significant part of your company culture. Then you’ll have to figure out whether to keep this “duty” or fob it off on someone else).

      1. Renee*

        The cake is a part of the company culture and has been since long before I started. And more than just that dude sat there. All the dudes sat there just sort of blinking and looking around. Like helpless little baby birds waiting for momma to feed them. The VP did step in and help, but no one seems to notice that their direct manager is helping with the task they’ve somehow determined is not their responsibility, which is so weird to me.

        The next birthday is not for a couple of months and it is the VP’s. As he is not part of the problem I wouldn’t want to try to change the culture starting with him. It may be something to discuss for next year though (my birthday is first, so I would be the first to forego the perk). The lunches would be easier to stop as the owner is actually inclined to discontinue them. They also predate me but they were apparently a celebratory thing when we got an order, and it’s gotten out of control. They’ve only kept going because I’ve kept doing them and I have them delivered. The person before me used to drive out and pick them up!

        The roster is a good idea. Emptying the trash is also a continual issue so we could have a different person each day check in after lunch and wipe the counters and microwave, and empty the trash. That would also provide incentive for everyone to clean up after themselves as they would have to clean up anyone else’s messes on their round. I think that I could sell that one pretty easily to management. As I said, the VP is often put in a position of cleaning up because he also dislikes the mess.

        1. Emmy Rae*

          I’ve had a similar issue – I am in a somewhat similar position to you (responsible for many things throughout the company) although I am very much an admin. Luckily I have support from above – management often steps in to announce “Here is our list of who will clean the kitchen, that is not solely Emmy Rae’s job and you are all expected to help.” But the staff never figure out that that extends to cleaning up after a celebration or anything like that. So I have to bring up every should-be communal chore, it must be announced and followed up on, etc. That is almost as tiring as doing the damn job myself.

          1. Renee*

            We’ve had similar announcements in the past so it’s not like employees are not aware. Before I got here, employees leaving dirty cups in the sink was a problem, so the company ordered cups with everyone’s name on them, so it’s clear who is leaving the cup. The “not my job” mentality even goes to putting new toilet paper on the roll and replacing the water jug. It seems like certain employees hear the announcements and still somehow don’t believe they apply. It’s frustrating. Clearly I need to start actively assigning tasks and constantly reinforcing that clean up is a communal activity or it just won’t get through.

  29. TootsNYC*

    I think that because you are senior, you can also push this work back on them by saying, “I think it would be good for your career if you could sort that out yourself. Why don’t you give it a stab? If you run into a snag, feel free to touch base and see if I have any suggestions.” Sort of, mentor or advise them to take it on themselves.

    Or if it’s someone else’s job, insist that it go to the, because that’s what’s good for the organization, frankly.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Oh, and…if your boss isn’t good at drawing distinctions, maybe there’s a vacuum you can use to draw those distinctions where you want them. Suggest it to him.

  30. Fluffy Rage*

    Sometimes companies cheap out and try to dump everything they can on people.

    Our company just tried to feed us the line about “it’s never not your job” because we should be able to do everything. Which wouldn’t have gone over well anyhow because in that same breath they also said no more over time and why are we not getting all this work done? Oi.

  31. not telling*

    The key to being a team player but not getting walked all over is to not say NO all the time, but not say yes all the time either. When do you say which?

    Ask yourself: Am I the ONLY one who can solve this problem/answer this question? If the answer is no, then deflect the person elsewhere. As a senior person, you are being paid by your company to do things that other people can’t do.

    Also ask yourself: What are you doing to empower your coworkers to problem-solve on their own? Are you being a martyr–always complaining about the all the work you have to do but never considering anyone else’s work effort even remotely good enough? Often martyrs will make little gestures or comments that undermine people’s confidence to do for themselves. And then they just don’t bother trying.

  32. not telling*

    When I encounter people who complain about being constantly expected to do more than their job, I usual find that they are playing the martyr act to a T. Not always, but most of the time.

    Ask yourself–are you empowering your team to problem-solve for themselves? Or do you make digs about how their efforts aren’t as good as yours, or making critiques that no one has asked for? Do you know that your colleagues have the information to take care of issues themselves, or do you just assume they do? For example, is an org chart available so people know who they should be asking instead of you?

  33. Vicki*

    I had a “not my job” issue at LastCompany. The person who kept asking was a contractor in another group, hired specifically to _do_ the work she kept asking about. I gave her training. She failed to learn. I suggested she take notes. She said she could remember things.

    My manager chastised me for “not being helpful”. The other team canceled her contract; she was puling the same thing on everyone in their team too.

  34. Sweet thing*

    I was hired as a interact administrator to prove commercial support to a big project. As part of one deliverable we were to deploy employees to a different country. Due to budget cuts, the project assistant who was hired to do provide visa and immigration help was let go. My manager wanted me to help until the project hired someone else for that role. I did for a year even though it was not my job and excelled at it. The project considers me an expert and wants me to continue to provide the assistance besides my commercial job. I don’t enjoy doing it and I feel my skillset are underutilized. This task does not add any value to my career. Is it unprofessional to say I don’t want to someone else’s job? I am not getting a pay increase because I covered for the person. I am losing my interest at work because I feel they are degrading me to a lower position by giving admini task. Any help on how to handle this would be appreciated.

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