my coworker is pushing help on me that I don’t want

A reader writes:

I work under a general boss, as well as a project manager. I do more of the day-to-day technical tasks, whereas my project manager handles budgets and dealing with vendors/stakeholders, etc. However, she is either super-effective or there is not enough project-management work to keep her busy all of the time, so she helps on things that I would normally do. I have a decent amount of work to do at this point, but not to the point where I feel like I need help. It’s somewhat disconcerting to open a query two minutes after it’s arrived to find that she’s already on it. Also, I either have to spend time walking her through performing the technical nitty-gritty stuff, or I have to spend time correcting things, when it would have been more efficient for me to just do it. I just wish I could do my own thing.

Am I not being a team player here, or is this unusual? If it is unusual, how do I go about addressing it? It’s especially hard because she’s a lovely person.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. addiez*

    OP#4 – Could you say you don’t have a detailed enough memory anymore? After six months, it’s realistic to expect that you can’t remember nuance and it might be easier to explain that way.

    1. beefy*

      That also seems like a pretty nice way to point out that it’s been *6 months* and maybe it’s time for baby bird to fly, and time for a non-employee to stop doing work.

      1. Amber T*

        Like Alison said, I’d email back to say check the notes, everything’s there, please stop bugging me (much nicer, of course). Afterwards I’d stop answering completely. I don’t think that would tarnish your reputation with your old boss – old boss probably doesn’t even know she’s emailing you and would probably be mortified that she is. I’d continue my relationship with old boss as normal.

  2. John*

    While I agree that 6 months is waaaaaay too long to assist one’s successor(s), I don’t think I’d want to draw a line in the sand for fear of becoming the perceived jerk. (And Old Boss may not understand why asking OP for help at this late date is ridiculous; after all, someone gave this person OP’s contact info!)

    I’d stick to saying something like, “I believe you may find the answer in the notes I left. It’s been such a long time since I moved on. I’m kind of fuzzy on all the procedures, which is why I memorialized everything for the benefit of those who followed. Good luck!” And don’t be quick in your response. Then I’d respond to future questions with variations on, sorry, it’s been long, I really don’t remember, good luck!

    There are situations like this where good people like OP are set up to be the jerk simply by refusing to be taken advantage of. Sometimes it’s safer to avoid being direct, IMHO.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      I don’t get the impression the boss is/was the one encouraging new person to contact Op, but am wondering more why she can’t just ask boss or another coworker these things? That just seems odd to me.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        The cynical side of me wonders if the new person is in over their head and trying to hide it from the boss. Six months is more than enough time to stop bugging co-workers or ex-co-workers about stuff that’s documented.

    2. Artemesia*

      I suspect the boss would be a bit shocked that she is still being called on by the new person; it is time to drop the dime on her. I would be vague as suggested and direct her back to the notes and be slow in response. If it continues, I would be inclined to bcc the boss on the next response of the order of “As I noted the last couple of times you contacted me for questions, it has been 6 mos and I need you to consult the notes I left; I have been away from Teapot cataloguing for a long while now and it isn’t fresh in my mind and I can’t continue to be a resource on this.”

    3. disconnect*

      No, the OP is not at all being a jerk by saying “sorry, can’t help anymore”. The current situation involves the OP providing material assistance to company X without compensation. The jerk behavior is actually on the part of the employee who keeps taking the OP’s resources. If anything, the social contract is being used in an unethical manner here (“but OP, I can’t do my job without your help! it’s unfair for you to stop helping! you don’t want to be unfair, do you??”).

  3. Lauren*

    If an offer is in an email, isn’t it inherently not a ‘verbal’ offer, even if it’s not particularly formal?

    1. HR Pro*

      Yes, that’s exactly what I came here to say. We email all offer letters now. I’m sure that ours are more formal than the startup in the OP’s question, but if it’s in writing in email, I’d consider that to be a written offer.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh! Yes. I skimmed right over “via email” both this time and when it was originally published, apparently. I’m removing it from the Inc. piece so it doesn’t cause confusion there, but yes, that IS a written offer.

  4. Mockingjay*

    #1: I wonder how confident the project manager is in doing her own work. I’ve seen instances in which an overwhelmed or unskilled manager or coworker latches onto your tasks, because they perceive them as doable compared to their own.

    Or, could be simply that she’s very efficient, finishes early, and wants something else to do. If that’s the case, she should ask her boss for more work, not nab the OP’s.

    1. Amber T*

      Agreed with your point two. When I was working as an admin there often wasn’t enough work for me, so when something new came my way I jumped right on it and attempted to learn as quickly as possible. But yes, as Mockingjay said, that should be her boss’s conversation with your boss or you.

  5. TootsNYC*

    One other thing I often see is that managing the project doesn’t actually take as long as doing the project. And yet the project manager has all the pressure, is focused on the time, etc., and gets antsy.

  6. AyBeeCee*

    I’m in the same situation as #3. I’m not administrative but I’m part of a larger group where almost everyone else does work that can be easily quantified and analyzed, but my work is a lot more qualitative. The rest of the team gets incentives. One of the more popular silly things is there will be pop quizzes in meetings for less common SOP stuff and the person with the correct answer gets something from the Target $1 bin like silly pens or a toy dinosaurs. Once in a blue moon there’s something that will get them an extra hour PTO, but they’re hourly and I’m salaried so that doesn’t really mean much for me. I think my boss gets worried that I feel left out sometimes, but the benefits of being just a little bit different from the team are enough on a day to day basis that it doesn’t bother me. I’d MUCH rather have the schedule flexibility and the higher pay, and I was able to score one of the toy dinosaurs so it’s all good.

  7. Us, Too*

    Chiming in on the project manager situation… I can think of plenty of situations in which this would be exactly what I’d tell a PM to do.

    For example, it might be the case that there isn’t a way to give the project manager more PM work without putting other folks in the organization under water. It would be highly unusual to have a project that wouldn’t also require non-PM resources – resources we might not have. Therefore, I’d ask a PM to help out in other ways if she found herself with some extra time:

    1. Is her own project on time? If not, help whomever is most behind on a critical path item first.
    2. Is there another PM that needs help on a behind schedule project? If so, help there next.
    3. Is there another project that is behind schedule that needs non-PM help that she’s capable of doing? Help there.
    3. Is there something I can give her as a pet project for her to work on? Do this next.

    I might switch these around depending on organizational needs, but in general, this would be my approach.

    I am sure there are some orgs where there is expected to be more strict roles/barriers, but in my world, we’ve historically helped out where we could when we could to optimize the team’s performance.

    I fact, just a couple days ago I was in a meeting with one of our super-technical architects. We outlined an approach on a white board for a fairly important initiative, and then agreed that the next step was to document it. He was in meetings all day whereas I had an hour to spare before my next meeting. I offered to do the first draft for him. Theoretically, this was “his” job, but it was something I was capable of doing that helped get our work further along and I had the time right then whereas he didn’t. No big deal.

    1. Us, Too*

      Whoops, forgot to add: this only works if it is HELPFUL to the project. If it’s a time suck, that must be addressed. And I’d do it boldly:

      “Susan, when you take on tasks that aren’t in your area, I have to spend more time fixing them or helping you figure them out than if I just did them myself. You’re jeoparidizing the project. Can you help me understand what’s going on here?”

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