my department assistant is grumpy and impatient with me

A reader writes:

My department’s administrative assistant (we’ll call her Olga) is incredibly impatient, and expects me to quickly complete things that I don’t have any control over. For example, I work often with her on finalizing the contracts for freelancers that we work with. She will create the contract, and I will email it to the freelancer, as I’m their main contact for the organization.

While I understand that freelancers have other clients and may take a few days to get back to us, Olga doesn’t. She will ask me if something has been returned to me only a few hours or one business day after I’ve sent it out. I will say, “I understand that we need to have Fergus’s contract returned for him to be paid, but we just sent it to him on Friday and it’s now Monday. I am planning on following up with him later this week if he doesn’t return it.”

Her response to this is often defensive, like, “Okay, but all he needs to do is sign it.” I understand, but I’m not in the same room with the contractor and I can’t force them to complete a task for us immediately!

This happens not only with contracts, but with a number of different tasks. She will ask my why someone hasn’t responded to my email, or why I haven’t finished a non-urgent task she asked me to do only an hour prior.

I think that Olga is just grumpy and is taking out other frustrations on me, rather than actually expecting me to have other people complete things in only a few hours. I don’t know what to do to stop being the target of this, and even though I tell her that I can’t control what another person does, the problem isn’t going away. What should I do?

I wrote back to this letter writer and asked, “What’s your relationship to Olga, in terms of hierarchy? Are you senior to her, or is she senior to you? Or are you peers?” The reply:

Technically I’m senior to her — she’s an administrative assistant and I’m a marketing associate. But I’m much younger than her.

Age doesn’t matter here. Relative authority in the relationships matter. She’s your department’s assistant, and you have the authority to tell her how you want this stuff to work. You just need to be clearer.

For example, when she bugs you to know if you have a freelancer contract back yet, say this: “In general, assume that it may take a few days or even a week to get freelancer contracts back, and sometimes longer. They have other clients and we’re not their only priority — and plus, it can take time for people to carefully read over contracts. It looks bad if we rush them, like we’re trying to push our terms on them without giving them time to think. I follow up if I haven’t heard back after a week, but please assume that I’m on it.”

Then if she does it again, say, “Like I said before, I don’t expect it back by now. I’ve noticed you often follow up on these quickly. I’d rather you not check back unless it’s been a week or longer.”

If she asks why someone hasn’t responded to your email, say this: “I’m not at all concerned since it hasn’t been very long. Is there a particular reason you need this urgently?”

And perhaps: “I’ve noticed that you will often check in on various items I’m waiting for from people. I actually prefer to track these myself. If there’s something you need to hear back about and it’s been several days, feel free to check with me. But otherwise I prefer to manage this stuff on my own.”

If she asks you why you haven’t finished a non-urgent task from earlier that day (!), say this: “I’ve got a bunch of other priorities that I need to deal with first. Did I misunderstand the urgency?”

And if that keeps happening: “I’m on top of everything that’s on my plate, and I don’t let things fall through the cracks. Can I ask you to assume from now on that if you’ve asked me for something, I’ll get it to you, and that you don’t need to keep checking back with me? Of course, if it’s time-sensitive, please tell me that initially so that I know from the start and can prioritize it correctly.”

In other words — be calm, clear, and direct about how you want her to handle this stuff differently.

I know that it’s easy to feel awkward about age differences and about telling someone older than you that you want them to do something differently. But really, age is not supposed to be the operative factor in working relationships — experience and authority and standing are what count. You probably don’t want people changing how they deal with you based solely on your age, right? Same thing here — don’t do it to other people. (And if it helps, pretend in your mind that she’s a year younger than you.)

{ 131 comments… read them below }

  1. Koko

    Alison, how would your advice be different if the admin supported the department VP as their primary function but also provided general department support say, 25% of their time? I have always tended to be more deferential to our VP’s admin, even when it’s not a VP-related project, than I would be if our department had a dedicated general admin, but I wonder if that’s not necessary and I could be pushing back more on certain things.

      1. Fortitude Jones

        Probably because of who she reports to. I don’t mean to speak for Koko, but I’ve seen it happen at my own company where people will often respond to or take on something an executive’s assistant has asked for assuming the executive themselves wants the information, like, right now, and they don’t stop to consider whether the request is urgent or not – they feel like they just have to get it done first or respond right away or hear from the executive (even if that doesn’t end up being the case).

        1. KR

          This is kind of the case here too. Because she reports to the CEO, if she asks me to do something I’m assuming it’s because the CEO wants it

      2. Pwyll

        I’m going to slightly disagree here. Her job is to support the VP and the VP’s leadership of the department, not necessarily the individuals in the department. That’s an important distinction, as her priorities in supporting the department itself (as an extension of the VP) may, in some cases, conflict with the goals of an individual contributor in the Department. In many organizations, that’s really the difference between a Department Assistant (who keeps the department running) and the VP’s Assistant (who administers the VP’s management of the department).

        So, this question really depends a lot of the office norms and internal politics, but I find it incredibly prudent to be deferential to your own VP’s assistant. But that isn’t to say you can’t push back or set expectations with the Assistant. And really, I’m not sure the language would be any different in the VP scenario. The point is to reset the assistant’s expectations and need for followup, or to give her an opportunity to better explain why what she needs is urgent.

        1. Lily in NYC

          Yes I agree. I’d like to know if OP is sure she really has any authority over the admin (OP didn’t mention it but Alison did). I’m an EA and my boss never tells the junior staffers in my department that I don’t work for them so I sometimes have to push back when they want me to do something that’s not remotely my responsibility (like their expense reports). I’m not a department assistant but they assume I am because my boss wishes I were one (but she doesn’t have the authority to turn me into one due to my pay grade).
          Anyway, I think this is such a simple solution – just talk to the woman about it!

          1. EA

            All of this.

            I primarily support 1 VP and 1 director (like 70/30), sometimes team members ask for my help on their work. I’ll occasionally help if they are really struggling (like they are bad at scheduling a complex meeting), one of them seems to have gotten the idea that I am here to help her, which is not true.

            I’m eventually going to have to talk to my boss about this- I think he just thinks I am happy to help and am so helpful. Lily- how did you handle talking to her? I don’t think they get that there is a hierarchy and I am passed general admin.

            1. Totally Anon for this

              I’ve had a lot of issues like this is my last position.

              I was assistant to the Director who had 2 managers and about 15 staff under them. My primary concern was my director, then manager and wayyyyy at the bottom was staff. I don’t care if you were on a higher pay grade than me; you don’t have authority over me. I had my own deliverables and I had to push back with even managers that I didn’t have time for them.

              I had one analyst tell me “But you’re an assistant! Assist me!”. My reply was immediate: “I assist HER!” pointing at my director…. she gave me a high five!

              A good way for the OP to know if she has any authority over the admin would check if she has anything to do with her performance plan. That’s where the power structure is usually is.

              1. Been There, Done That

                Good for you. In these days of limited staffing and fewer people having their own assistant, my experience is that many people see “the admin” as everyone’s one-person clerical pool. And with higher-level responsibilities being pushed from management to administrative staff, it’s ridiculous to assume that “the admin” is there and available to take orders from all sides. Face it, folks–nowadays people have to do more things for themselves. And a huffy attitude toward “the admin” won’t get you far.

            2. Lily in NYC

              I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it! 90% of my work is supposed to be non-admin contract work, but it’s not busy right now so I have more time. Before, I would just say I didn’t have time to help.. Honestly, I’ve been helping out the junior staffers a lot lately because I’m worried about the contract work drying up and want to keep myself viable (I’m a bit overpaid for my role and live in fear of being pushed out).
              My boss is very dominant and tough and the one time I brought it up with her it did not go over well. She just doesn’t understand the difference between an EA or admin and in her mind I should help whoever needs it. And now that my other work is slow, I do it. And my boss seems to love it so I’m just going to suck it up until it gets busy again.

          2. Sadsack

            This is why it would be a good idea for OP to ask Olga what the urgency is. Maybe she’ll find out that Olga is getting pressure from above. And maybe not.

            1. crazy8s

              +1 sometimes admins get a lot of pressure to be sure something gets done. She may also have other projects she is birddogging and she’s just trying to stay on top of everything.

              1. Bob Barker

                Generally when I’m getting pressure from above, I signal that in quasi-subtle ways, to let the person I’m nagging know it’s not just my butt where the bug is lodged. “So-and-so would like a follow-up” or “So-and-so asked me what the status of X is”, nothing serious. But I’m in a position where assistants don’t often get taken seriously on their own authority, so invoking someone else’s authority to get things done is pretty common.

      3. Lily Rowan

        The suggested links on a recent post led me to the original and follow up posts from a new employee who wanted to “borrow” the CEO’s EA. See the responses there for more discussion of this very topic!

          1. LBK

            Oo, I’d never run into that one before in my adventures with the Surprise Me! button. Just looked it up and found it very interesting. I almost felt bad for the OP because it seemed like his expectations had been completely miscalibrated by his first job and he couldn’t make the adjustment to see that even though he in a similar role in his new company that didn’t mean it was automatically a role that would get an assistant.

            Also some weirdly outdated, Mad Men-esque impressions about getting in with the CEO and building very formal mentoring relationships. I have to wonder if some of this was due to getting an MBA before ever actually working, so he’d only learned about what the business world was supposed to look like with no practical experience to frame what he was learning. There was one fairly nasty comment about this being emblematic of what’s wrong in the working world and while I didn’t agree with how sour it sounded, the essence was true – an MBA can’t beat good experience.

      4. Recruit-o-rama

        When our company President’s EA emails me and asks for something, I do it right away because she is requesting on his behalf. She has other support duties that are not directly for him but I see her in the social hierarchy as “over me” even though technically she isn’t. Also, she’s awesome and is the kind of person who engenders respect, a good EA usually has that quality.

        1. Hey Nonny Nonny!

          Agreed. I’m Executive Assistant to a Director (who reports to the college president) and according to our hierarchical chart, I’m above the designers/other “professional” staff members. We’re a small department, so there are no territorial conflicts surrounding that organizational flow (but it’s definitely happened in other offices with other assistants).

    1. Rat Racer

      In my experience, there is much to be gained from staying on the good side of administrative assistants. They put up with a lot of garbage, and in many organizations, the value of their work is dismissed because it’s administrative. But they also have the power to grease wheels when no one else can: when you need an executive to move a meeting, when you need an exception to a travel policy, when you need access to a conference room and every single one is booked, they can work magic.

      My boss’s AA can be a super-curmudgeon, and I sometimes have to summon all my mindfulness to keep from grumping back at her. BUT staying on her good side for the sake of harmony in our department, and remembering that I would totally flail at doing her job, keeps me in line, and it pays dividends.

      1. Pwyll

        I wish I could find it right now, but there’s a really awesome research study that discusses the best way to communicate information in a workplace. If I’m remembering this correctly, it looked at perceptions of how to informally communicate information in a way that ensures everyone will hear it. (So, things you wouldn’t or don’t have authority to just directly announce to everyone, but still want to disseminate or persuade with). The researchers thought the best way to do that was to communicate the information to the CEO or VP’s assistant, because they’d be in the right place to inform not only the top, but presumably the rest of the group. In fact, what they found was that it was best to communicate the information to the people who had cachet with the assistants, because THOSE people tended to have good relationships across the board, and the information would still get disseminated to the assistant, and thus the leadership, but also with a broader audience.

        Really fascinating stuff, but it backs up the idea that being good to assistants absolutely pays dividends.

        1. Babszilla

          from an EA’s prospective this is really eye opening. I am usually a very good 3 way communicator but on a really bad or crazy day and someone is telling me something I can default to “why in the world are they telling me this??” That’s why! fine, even on my bad days I’ll remember to be that 3 way communicator. thanks!

  2. Tennessee INFP

    OP – We had a lady like this where I worked, who would write our vendors 3-4 times per day asking for signed contracts. It turns out that was pretty much all she had to do and she didn’t have enough work on her plate to justify a full time salary, so she was let go and someone easily took over her job duties. I wonder if that could be in play here? Do you have a way of finding out if she just doesn’t have enough to do and she’s bothering you because she’s bored and wants to look busy?

    I know this could be way off base, but the letter reminded me of that former co-worker of mine.

      1. Jaydee

        I was thinking the exact opposite, that she may have more on her plate than she can really handle. I’m thinking of the admin from one of the letters yesterday who kept forgetting to schedule meetings or forgetting to tell the boss about things and the LW wanted to tell the boss to fire the admin and hire her for that role instead. I can see a more conscientious admin who has been warned a few times being absolutely terrified of things falling off her radar as new tasks come in and therefore wanting them done instantly so she can cross them off her list and move on to the next thing without worrying about forgetting something.

    1. AMT

      Upon reading your comment, the first thing that popped into my head was: “Get her a Netflix subscription! Problem solved!”

    2. MillersSpring

      I had a boss like this with no concept of time or other people’s priorities. She was constantly haranguing me to follow up with people (or haranguing them herself) when not enough time had passed for them to respond. Also this boss wanted me to hassle people about their own projects, e.g. to the Vice President of Chocolate Teapots, “When are you going to get back to us about finalizing the hazelnut spout order form you asked us to develop? We need to check it off our list!” And of course the Vice President of Chocolate Teapots had a hundred other priorities and was only going to get back to the order form when it was critical to her.

      And when this boss gave me a project or request, she had no concept of how long time had passed or how long it would take to gather the information or complete the task–asking me at 9:30 a.m. about a request from 5:30 the previous day. Arrrgghhh.

      1. Annony For This One

        Ugh, I am in the middle of this right now! I cannot seem to explain to boss that I don’t have any power over the insurance company or adjuster or time frame for his project to get started (and finished). I keep reaching in for more patience, as he gets more and more annoyed at the situation.

        1. halpful

          Hmm. I had to learn the people-have-lives thing myself, and I’m not sure if I remember how I learnt it. Probably from having a full-time job that ate all my spoons, with a boss that was good at explaining why reasonable things are reasonable. I think… modeling good behaviour with undertones of “just stop being crazy” is counterproductive, while modeling good behaviour with undertones of “I’ve found this gets better results” is helpful.

          I do remember (probably CA’s) advice on frustrated/unreasonable people: Agree with them that it’s frustrating, and they’ll probably respond better. Personally, a joke (aimed AWAY from me) often helps me notice that Jerkbrain is feeding me BS. :) eg. “yeah, we need a mind-control ray to make those guys do *our* work first!”

          1. Ife

            I think it took a few bosses/colleagues saying this directly to me before I got it. “You need to wait more than 10 minutes before responding.”/ “This usually takes several days.”/ “I will let you know when I have an update.”

            I am one of those people who, in school, would complete a “long-term assignment” the day it was assigned, so I thought it was normal and helpful to follow up promptly! Of course you would be on top of everything! Even now that I’ve trained myself out of this habit, I sometimes still have urges to follow up on things way too early.

      2. Bob Barker

        My boss is overwhelmingly powered by anxiety, which has him doing the same thing. On the upside, once I figured out it was coming from anxious feelings, I could use related techniques to slow him down: by appealing to his sense of “what’s normal.” No, of course we shouldn’t write to them again; we just wrote to them yesterday! It would look too anxious to write again so soon. No, yes, you’re right, we’ll wait a little bit longer.

        (I wish he would absorb this lesson without my having to remind him overtly; getting 5 increasingly frenzied emails about the same topic between 5 and 7 AM, when I am explicitly not expected to read email at all till 9, really wears me down.)

    3. INTP

      This is possible, but she also could have just been burned by being held responsible for people not responding on time, and used to dealing with people who don’t respond without multiple urgent reminders, no matter when those reminders are sent. When I had to do admin tasks for high-level people I was intentionally overzealous too, because my work would have been very inefficient if I had always waited a reasonable amount of time. But it sounds like the OP is very conscientious, so I think an email explaining that she finds the premature reminders a bit distracting and please don’t follow up until it’s been a week might be effective.

      1. Hey Nonny Nonny!

        Agreed! The folks that I work with are very artistic/big picture people who don’t necessarily get: a.) what certain tasks require [example: paying someone is numerous steps with very strict timelines because everything has to go through our bursar]. They’re not paid to worry about those things, but I am! So while they think ‘big picture — we need to pay someone by the end of the month’, I’m thinking ‘I need to submit these forms by this date, so please make sure you sign off on the timecard and have it in my hands’. Sometimes that requires gentle nagging. :-)

        That said, I think part of being a good assistant is being able to roll with the punches and communicate in a way that doesn’t come off as ‘curmudgeonly’.

        1. Been There, Done That

          If you were on the receiving end of the rude, disrespectful, condescending way many people speak to mere assistants, I believe you’d rethink the “roll with the punches.” No one should have to put up with that, but people still treat administrative staff that way to prove they’re higher up the heap.

          1. TheSnarkyB

            Um, I think the person posting IS on the receiving end. Bit condescending to assume they have no experience in the issue about which they speak.

            1. Been There, Done That

              Re “rolling with the punches,” what I meant was that a lot of people still treat administrative staff like crap, even (in my office) to yelling at them and insulting them when they’re working their tails off trying to please everyone, and that “being punched” shouldn’t be regarded as an inherent part of the job.

  3. Murphy

    I totally agree with Alison’s advice. I wonder if additionally, and this might be completely off base, if maybe she doesn’t have enough work to do. So non-urgent task that she asked OP to complete may seem pretty important to her because she doesn’t have much else going on. I definitely wouldn’t assume this given the limited information presented here, but it could be a possibility.

    1. Annonymouse

      I’m going to disagree a little with Alison’s advice.

      Age SHOULDN’T be a factor in this equation but AGE OFTEN IS (Sorry, I don’t mean to shout. I just can’t do the italics code thing).

      I’ve been and seen times where someone is in an earned position of authority and people equal to or reporting to them blow them off because of their age.

      E.g I was Head of Teapot Training Program and assigned people their duties and outlined expectations.

      Wakeen, a team lead from a remote team, would come into our office and work with us once a week. He would ignore my assignments and take over other people’s classes or segments (and since it was training it was super awkward to call him outside and switch to a new trainer for the group).

      He ignored me even though I was higher up than him. Why? Because I was 10+ years younger than him and a woman. Even though I was vastly more qualified in Teapot Training than him.

      1. Green

        I’m about 5 grades (or more) above my admin, but she conveys an aura of “don’t manage me.”

        I’ve had good and bad relationships with admins before (my best ones were very independent and expected to adapt to my preferred working style instead of vice versa), and they were all older than me (very common in legal world). I’ve kind of abdicated managing my current admin (I’m one of four people she supports, I don’t need her much and she irritates me — constantly commenting loudly on when I haven’t been in the office much or asking me if I’m pregnant when I gain ed weight and then saying it looked like I was pregnant), but I should have just dealt with the situation earlier, as it’s now coming back to bite me when she’s been giving the lead admin the feedback that I’m not really helping her develop her skills (she’s been here 30 years…) and I was giving her satisfactory reviews (although a lot of NAs).

        Making an effort to resolve situations by managing admins (even if it’s awkward) seems preferable to my current situation of benign neglect in which I get no assistance, she’s unhappy, and I’m accountable for not managing the relationship more directly.

        1. Julia

          Holy crap, the pregnant comments alone would make me give her a stern lecture. Isn’t there anyone you can complain to?

  4. Jessica Peterson

    One thing that I do in HR and I don’t know if it would be applicable in this instance is when I extend contracts or whatever I usually say/ask the candidate- I need this back by XX Date (usually 24-48 hours later) to start X process (payroll, pre employment etc) do you think that is feasible? Maybe by doing this OP can share with Olga that we give XX amount of time to the freelances to sign and send back and that I follow up after that time has passed. it also might help process things like payments and start dates because the OP is giving the freelancer expectations that they need to meet.

    1. michelenyc

      I agree. There is nothing wrong with asking that the freelancer return a contract within 48-72 hours and then tell Olga that you will follow-up with the freelancer once the time has passed but not before. When you don’t give some type of deadline a lot of people will take their time. Yes, some freelancers have many clients but you are also a client and there is nothing wrong with asking them to return a signed contract in a timely fashion. A week seems a bit excessive.

      1. Nanani

        o.O

        I’m a freelancer and while I do try to return things within a few business days, a client explicitly putting a deadline of less than a week on signing a contract would be raising a big crimson flag.

        Contracts are very serious and they are literally my career. I don’t have expectations of severance and whatnot that in-house employees may have. I really really do have to go over it and dot the is, cross the ts, clarify ambiguity and so on before I sign it.
        Also, a contract is NOT an assignment. Once I’ve signed with you, you can set deadlines on returning things, set conditions for check ins, and so on, but until the contract is signed I DO NOT WORK FOR YOU.
        If you want me to work for you, don’t throw up red flags when I still have the power to walk away.

        The only case I can think of where one week (ONE week!) would be too long is if it was a standard contract signed by THE SAME parties many times before – not “this is the contract we send all our freelancers”, but “this is the same contract we signed 1 year ago” . 2-3 days is plenty to confirm that there are no changes (I even have software to check that), but it’s too short for a new contract.

        TL;DR If you want to keep your freelancers, give them the time they need for contracts.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yep — it’s a red flag when people push you to sign contracts quickly because they should want you to take your time to make sure you’ve thoroughly read and are comfortable with the language.

          1. Jessica Peterson

            I respectfully disagree. I don’t see how a mutually agreed upon timeline is a red flag. That is what my comment was about. Obviously depending on what the contract is about, the appropriate time could be 24 hours, 1 week, 1 month etc.

            I do think it would also help with the OP’s Olga because she could say ” We generally give the freelances 24 hrs/1 wk/ 1 month/ 1 yr etc to send back their contract. We sent it over last Wednesday and I will let you know when I receive it.”

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              A mutually agreed on timeline is fine if it’s a long one. But a few days isn’t sufficient when it’s a contract that may need to be reviewed by lawyers.

            2. Observer

              The key here is “mutually agreed”. TELLING a person “I need this back within 2 days” doesn’t quite qualify. Also, as others have noted, 2 days is quite short and I can’t imagine any free-lancer with options agreeing to that. Remember, they can’t “just sign it.” At least not if they have brains.

              1. Candi

                Over on kriswrites, she discusses people who send her publishing contracts -often after they have signed. They checked the date the manuscript was due, the payment of advance/royalties, and maybe the agent’s clause, if they have one*. They don’t get a contract lawyer** that works for them to look at it or negotiate. Then they get blindsided by stuff they didn’t look at and/or thought irrelevant. (Note: a contract is a document where everything interacts.)

                It is imperative to read the entire thing, and have a lawyer check it out. As Kristine says, speaking about the person receiving the contract, negotiate as though the lovely person you’re dealing with will suddenly be replaced by someone who will twist everything to the company’s advantage -because it happens.

                *With the net, you no longer need an agent to open doors for you; you can find the keys yourself.
                **Unless an agent has passed the bar and been licensed, they legally cannot handle legal matters for you. Including contracts.

      2. H.C.

        Agreed with Nanani – to the client company it might just be a “standard contract” but to the freelancer (esp. one you’re working with for the first time) it’s a completely new contract, and s/he needs considerably more time to review the terms and make sure everyone’s expectations are on the same page w regards to compensation, timeline, scope of work, ownership, etc. before signing it (or requesting edits/amendments).

        To put it in another perspective, the client company’s legal team properly took considerable time to come up with the verbiage for the “standard contract” (and more time to review any contracts that considerably deviate from that); from a freelancer (+his/her lawyer’s) perspective, that’s EVERY contract they have to consider.

        1. NW Mossy

          And all that “boilerplate” can lead you down some interesting paths if you actually read it. Mr. Mossy once considered doing some contract work for a former colleague of his who now works for a major research institution. That institution’s contract language would have required Mr. Mossy to purchase a form of insurance that you actually cannot buy because there isn’t a carrier that offers it for sale, at least in the US anyway. Needless to say. much as former colleague is a lovely person who could have used the help, signing that contract would have been a horrible idea.

          1. Rusty Shackelford

            I recently found out that some of our boilerplate is out of date and requires our contractors to attend training that we don’t even offer any longer. I found that out because a contractor read it in the contract and questioned it.

      3. INTP

        I think this depends on the contract. A one-page purchase order committing to the services and payment already agreed upon is reasonable to return within 72 hours. But a longer contract with a lot of provisions requires careful reviewing, and since a lot of freelancers are already working on short deadlines, pushing for a 2-3 day turnaround when there’s no clear reason for it to be so time sensitive (i.e. the project is due to an end client in 5 days) is a red flag.

        1. Nanani

          Ah, sure. I don’t think of a purchase order as the same thing as a contract, but I can see why some might group them.
          A contract would need to be signed before we’re even thinking about POs, plus my clients have usually asked about availability and realistic deadlines before sending a PO for a given job. Not the same situation, as you say.

  5. Temperance

    I’ve worked with and continue to work with, FWIW, pushy admins. They think I’m younger/more junior than I am, so they’ll try and throw their weight around to get me to do tasks for them and/or prioritize those tasks. The most memorable one was someone asking me to fill out some internal forms because it was Good Friday and there were 2 secretaries out on a floor, while I was actually working on preparing someone’s green card paperwork. Sure, JerkAdmin, I’m going to do your secretarial tasks while you paint your nails or whatever, and just let this victim of DV and her son flounder without legal status longer. (This woman is notoriously lazy and actually did do her nails at work on the reg.)

    I’m not sure how familiar you are with children’s literature, but there’s a book called “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”. If you do what a pushy secretary wants, it’s not going to placate her, it’s going to teach her that you’re a pushover who does what she wants.

    1. Lily in NYC

      The situation you describe doesn’t really sound similar to OP’s. There’s nothing here about laziness or admin trying to get out of doing work.

      1. Harriet M. Welsch

        No, but I think Temperance is making the point of feeling somewhat pushed around by co-workers who are much older than you but actually more junior than you when it comes to work-related responsibilities.

    2. Cookie

      I know it looks bad, but I used to do my nails at work too. I was a social worker and had to reassure some very difficult clients who would call me every day for an hour of reassurance, so doing my nails was just multi-tasking.

      1. AMT

        Also a social worker. Have been tempted to bring some knitting into the office for just these occasions.

      2. Temperance

        Okay this is totally different and reasonable. Multi-tasking! I promise you, this is not that. ;)

    3. Rat Racer

      I would recommend caution around (a) painting administrative assistants with a broad brush and (b) assuming that their requests are founded in a belief that you are younger/more junior than you are. I’ve gotten into power struggles with AAs before, and the outcome was … let’s just say not good. That story ended with a senior VP calling my boss to say that I was not playing nice in the sandbox. Two truisms about ever Exec I’ve ever worked for:

      1. They lean on their assistants like a life raft in a stormy sea and
      2. They hate drama

      So, if they are forced to referee a “not my job” fight between an AA and another team member, even under the best circumstances where you (team member) are unequivocally in the right, you still look bad for kicking up dust.

      1. Judy

        I’ve certainly had cases where an AA will come to me and ask me to do things. My job has nothing to do with their tasks.

        Someone can argue that an engineer shouldn’t be doing AA work.

        Someone can also argue that if an engineer has to do it, that it should probably be one of the new graduates.

        Someone probably shouldn’t be arguing that the only female engineer on the team should be doing AA work when she’s the most experienced engineer.

        1. Xarcady

          Oh, dear.

          Where do you even begin to counteract that level of stereotyping?

          Reminds me of when, back on the very first AA/Secretaries Day ever, one of my friends came home from work in a fury. She’s a female engineer. The company decided to celebrate AA Day by giving all the admins flowers. And, for some reason, the three female engineers on staff.

          Management was completely befuddled by the fact that the female engineers were not delighted with their flowers.

        2. Rat Racer

          I’ll just say this, as someone who has gotten her hand slapped on multiple occasions for balking at doing administrative tasks: I’ve gotten much more traction by punting than by being outspoken. Someone asks me to schedule a meeting and I say “my calendar is up to date, so please feel free to book in whenever you see an open spot.” Someone asks me to book a conference room and I claim ignorance at using the conference room booking system. I’m a chief of staff, which is a strategic support role for an executive (as opposed to administrative) and I get asked to do everything from representing my boss in front of our executive leadership team to ordering lunch for that same meeting.

          I’ve let go of being insulted when someone asks me to make copies. I just dodge and go back to my day job.

      2. Temperance

        Oh I can assure you, this is the exact reason. My boss has my back, and she’s the one who once told me that I wasn’t a secretary, and I shouldn’t do their job.

        The gossip I heard was that people were angry that they support multiple people when I just had half a job, because they had no understanding of my role. So they treated me badly and tried to unload work on me.

    4. INTP

      While asking you to do secretarial work when you aren’t an admin was not excusable, many admins are “pushy” for legitimate reasons that don’t have anything to do with age or laziness. They are held responsible for making people respond in a timely manner – if something doesn’t go through on time, it’s not the VP who chronically ignores emails until the fifth red exclamation point reminder or the engineer who refuses to do any paperwork until his boss gets looped in and forces him who gets in trouble, it’s the admin who wasn’t able to get a response from them. So sometimes as an admin, it’s most effective and efficient to use a style that comes across as “pushy”.

  6. catscatscats

    I’d also suggest you ask her why she expects them returned so quickly- if she’s a department admin assistant she may have another supervisor who is asking her to get them returned ASAP so she asks you after they ask her about it. Or she may worry about reconciling billing or something else she is responsible. She may also just be grumpy and expect things done on her time, but I’d ask her to see if its something like above.

    1. Michelle

      I was thinking along the same lines. We have an accounting dept across town and if you don’t get things approved/signed when they want and/or need them done, they will says “Well, it won’t be in the check run this week so they will get paid next week”.

      And yeah, she could just be grumpy.

    2. Alton

      Or she’s used to working with people who aren’t organized or who don’t have time to prioritize these tasks, and is used to being held responsible for stuff like this.

      Of course, she could definitely just be a jerk, or be on a power trip.

    3. LBK

      Agreed. Next time she sends an urgent follow up for something you just got an hour ago, I’d reply and say “Sorry – I just got this from you an hour ago and I’ve been in a meeting/had a deadline to hit/have been on lunch so I haven’t had a chance to look at it. Do you need it ASAP for something?”

    4. Doe-eyed

      Yeah…. I do a lot of this because my boss is extremely Type A and he’s asking me. If he asks me and I say “Oh I’ve talked to Fergus” the job is done.

  7. BRR

    At my current and last job the admin supported the department with an emphasis on the director. I felt it more in my last job but feel it here too that while I was technically senior to them, I had/have no authority. I wonder if the LW is in a similar situation? However, Alison’s language is really good and can work for most colleagues. I think the key is to be confident and calm.

  8. Moonsaults

    On the other end of things, is there someone pushing her to push you?

    I hate the part of my job, where I act as EA, the boss tells me “why hasn’t Pedro responded yet?! I need to know.” “I asked him an hour ago, he hasn’t heard back from his client.” “ASK HIM AGAIN!!!”

    However my approach is always “I know that I asked you before but the Wizard wants to know if there’s any news back yet?” I can see how others would just develop a nasty shell and go into robot mode to pester you for updates.

    I agree to try Alison’s approach and see if she backs off or tames it down. Then if it doesn’t, you escalate to whoever is her direct boss given her attitude and how it’s effecting your ability to work. She doesn’t need to be in your ear.

    However, believe me, there are people who need you in their ear. They depend on it, then you get used to being that way and get smacked down to earth by the person who is like “Actually, I don’t need you to wipe my butt, I can do that much myself.” >_< Being an assistant is all about understanding each person and tailoring yourself to their personalities. Therefore Olga really does stink at that part of her job that's for sure!

    1. Is it Friday Yet?

      My boss does the same thing FREQUENTLY. Luckily, most of our vendors realize this, and when I ask, I try to soften the blow by saying I realize that I only just requested the proposal for new Teapot lids, but when do they think they’ll have it by?

    2. Bad Candidate

      Yep. When I was an AA I’d send stuff out and if I truly needed it by X date, I’d let them know and expect them to be able to handle that. I’d only be following up if it was past that date, a really long time had passed, or someone was pushing me for an update.

    3. MillersSpring

      +1 Olga may have someone who is completely unreasonable about turnaround times for requests, projects, contracts, etc. who is pushing her to push the OP. If so, Olga could soften her follow-up by stating, “Fergus keeps asking” or “Fergus wonders why these take so long to get back.”

  9. Kelly L.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve been Olga, and it’s usually because I’m being pulled from yet another direction. So, to use your situation, when i’m feeling Olgish, it’s because the freelancer isn’t sending the contract back and someone higher up in the organization is calling me constantly to Follow Up(tm) on the contract because they have a deadline and so on. Sometimes, just having a little update for the higher-up (“she hasn’t returned it yet”, etc.) is all I need to get them off my back, and then I’ll get off yours.

    And usually around here, I’m the one having to use the “did I misunderstand the urgency” script! LOL.

    Anyway, I think Alison’s scripts are good. Sorry to everyone I’ve Olgaed.

  10. sam

    Someone should also explain to Olga that when you send someone a contract, they don’t “just need to sign it”. People should be able to take the time to actually review contracts that they are signing, ask questions, negotiate provisions and even (depending on the contract) consult an attorney.

      1. ArtK

        They probably aren’t because the OP is absorbing that pain. S/he’s not pushing the contractor every time Olga asks.

      2. TheSnarkyB

        Agreed that OP is absorbing it, but also there are many different kinds of contracts and people we’d call “contractors” that wouldn’t require much of the above. In fact, for a second I thought this was my old workplace (at a university) where we’d have one-time speaker contracts going in and out all the time. 2 pages, doesn’t require much attention, but definitely wasn’t a high priority for the author, speaker, pundit, etc. coming to talk to college kids for an hour 2 months from now for $800.

  11. Pari

    What might help a whole lot is clarifying who is responsible for the follow up on these things. If Olga is responsible for ensuring contracts get signed follow Alison’s advice and give her a timeframe expectation. If the op is responsible for getting them signed there’s really no need for Olga to follow up at all. She can simply file them or whatever after the op has the finished product.

  12. Meg Murry

    Not saying it’s right, but perhaps Olga is micromanaging OP to a certain extent because previous people in OP’s position (or OP’s current peers) have been flaky in the past and if Olga didn’t nag them the contracts didn’t go out, or sat in their inbox forever once they were returned, etc. Or perhaps Olga even got thrown under the bus in the past with people blaming her for their lack of follow through, or Olga is the one who has to field the phone calls where the contractor calls and says “I sent my contract last week, where’s my money?”

    While OP doesn’t have to do this, it might help to close the loop with Olga and let her know the status. So after Olga emails the contract to OP, OP could either cc/bcc Olga on the message to the contractor. Or if OP is worried about Olga nagging the contractor, she could forward Olga the message to the contractor after stripping out the contractor’s email, etc, and say something like “sent this to Joe Schmoe, I’ll follow up if I don’t hear back from him by Wednesday”. Or OP can do this verbally, perhaps going to talk to Olga with her list and saying “I’m still waiting on the contracts from Joe Schmo, Bob Smith and Jane Whoever, I followed up with them today. I emailed the contracts from Otherperson1 and 2 to you, and I still haven’t heard back from So-and-so about X. I think that covers everything we’ve been working on, yes?” Or keeping some other kind of status list that Olga can check as to what OP has sent and is waiting on a response, etc.

    Also, depending on how the company hierarchy works, OP may technically not really be above Olga. In my past job we had departmental administrative assistants, but I’d say their job was more like 75% Executive Assistants to the top 5 people in the department and 25% general admin duties for the whole 50+ person department. So often they were basically acting as the deputized right hand of one of the bigger bosses – and an lower level person like me in that case (and I’m guessing OP) would not really be considered “above” the AA in that hierarchy. We could ask the AA to do specific admin duties like ship a package or order office supplies or print something on the fancy printer with the official letterhead or to teach us how to do expense reports or to look up a cost code- but otherwise the AA was the gatekeeper to the big bosses and had their ear, and were generally deferred to by the general staff.

    1. PatPat

      I worry that some of the suggestions you made might cause Olga to think the OP reports to her and that her nagging has shown the OP the error of her ways. It’s a weak move when I think the OP needs to demonstrate some calm power and just let Olga know that she’s competently handling things. Olga needs to be retrained, not have her annoying behavior reinforced by the OP essentially placating her.

  13. ArtK

    Several people have proposed that Olga’s doing this because she’s being pushed by someone else. That may be, but I really doubt it from the OP’s letter. S/he doesn’t mention anybody else being involved, only Olga. If Olga’s being pushed, then she needs to make that clear.

    This just sounds like Olga is officious and likes pushing (bullying) younger people because she can.

    My response would be two-fold: 1) “Why are you asking this so soon? Is there some deadline that I’m not aware of?” and 2) “In the future, I’ll *tell* you when I get a response; there’s no need for you to ask repeatedly.” Lather-rinse-repeat #2 every time she pushes. Same words, same tone of voice.

    1. JennyFair

      “If Olga’s being pushed, then she needs to make that clear.”

      Hell no. Admins do *not* throw their bosses under the bus like that. Admins are good to their bosses, and if their bosses are smart, they’re good to the admins. Neither one can function without the other, in my experience.

      1. LBK

        Hmm, I don’t know if it’s throwing someone under the bus to just say “Sorry to nag you on this, Nancy just asked me if there was an update on Joe’s contract – any chance you’ve heard from him?” In that case, you’re just borrowing authority from Nancy without directly blaming her for being annoying.

        Yes, admins are supposed to be good to their bosses, but that also means being a representative for your boss. Projecting an attitude that’s simultaneously nasty and clueless like Olga is doing here doesn’t reflect well on the boss.

      2. ArtK

        Saying “the boss needs this by X date” isn’t throwing the boss under the bus. I don’t know where you get that idea. In this case, an admin hiding that information would be very bad. I’d be completely pissed at an admin who took it on themself to hide the fact that I wanted something. They’re interfering with some important communication and that’s *not* an admin’s job.

        Pet peeve: People use “throw under the bus” in a lot of inappropriate context. To me, throwing someone under the bus is to put the full responsibility of something on someone else when it isn’t appropriate. If I’m responsible for doing X and I tell people that Bob failed to do X, I’m throwing Bob under the bus. If we’re both responsible for doing X, then telling people that Bob failed to do it, again, I’m throwing him under the bus. It’s when you (the thrower) are trying to dodge responsibility by directing it at someone else. An admin saying that the boss wants something by a certain date (assuming it’s true) isn’t throwing the boss under the bus — it’s clearly relaying the boss’ wants.

        1. LBK

          Totally agreed. I find “throwing someone under the bus” is one of those concepts that gets widely overapplied in the same way as “not being a team player,” which in both cases generally translates to “I was trying to hide that I did a bad job and you didn’t play along”. It’s a deflection intended to make it sound like someone stating simple facts is at least as bad, if not worse than what those facts say.

      3. CMT

        I don’t think this is throwing the boss under the bus. If there is a genuine pressure from higher up, LW needs to know that and it is Olga’s job to pass that information along.

      4. Rusty Shackelford

        When my grandboss’s admin calls me and says “Cersei wants to know if X has happened,” it’s not throwing Cersei under the bus. It’s letting me know where the request is coming from.

      5. JennyFair

        Perhaps it’s the phrasing that made it feel that way to me. ‘If Olga’s being pushed’. That, to me, comes across as negative.

        1. TL -

          I mean, if my boss’ admin emailed me and said Boss is pushing for this done by X date – I would get it done by X date. And I wouldn’t assume that the admin was throwing the boss under the bus.

    2. nofelix

      My view on it is that Olga is anxious about deadlines and doesn’t like leaving things unfinished. This may just be her personality, or past experience as mentioned above. Her mind is stressing out when the contracts are pending, because it’s ‘unfinished’, so the fix is to agree that when she hands it over to OP that counts as finished. Albeit this is a bandaid instead of hiring someone with decent judgement.

  14. hugseverycat

    I know I’ve been the Olga before – I pester people for responses to my queries because in my experience, if I don’t, I never get an answer. I try not to be rude about it, and I’ll say I’m just asking for an update or an ETA rather than being demanding, but I know it irritates some people.

    I think it would really help if you had a conversation with Olga about communicating expectations. The OP and several commenters have speculated that Olga doesn’t understand how long certain things take – well then, let’s help her understand! And Olga may have time pressures on her end that the OP doesn’t know about and Olga could do well to explain those to the OP.

    I think it might also help to respond to her as if it is totally normal that she is asking, and totally normal that the request is taking some time. Don’t be defensive at all. If she demands to know why someone hasn’t responded, a good response might be “I”m not sure, they haven’t gotten back to me yet. Is there a particular time you need this info by so I can pass that along to them?” If you say something like “I only just emailed them an hour ago” then that sounds defensive and opens the door to an argument about how long things should take. We don’t want that argument, we just want to know the deadline. When she asks why someone hasn’t returned a contract yet, you could say “I couldn’t say, they haven’t responded yet. It’s pretty typical for them to take a few days to review the contracts. Is there a particular deadline you want me to set with them?”

    1. ArtK

      Why should the OP cater to Olga’s anxieties? They aren’t appropriate here. Answering as if Olga were right in pestering her just sends the message that… Olga is right. If the OP had a history of not following through, that would be a different thing.

      Bugging the OP a day or so after she sent out a contact (or even hours after) isn’t appropriate. It doesn’t recognize the reality of the world. OP goes a week without a response, *then* I could see following up. Following up almost instantly is not appropriate. It’s the short time-frame (without an actual deadline and without acknowledging reality) and the repeated nagging that are wrong here.

    2. Rusty Shackelford

      If you say something like “I only just emailed them an hour ago” then that sounds defensive and opens the door to an argument about how long things should take.

      But if Olga’s requests are unknowingly unreasonable, why not educate her? “I emailed them an hour ago. Typically it takes our contractors about a week to review the contract and sign it.”

      1. Annonymouse

        I think higseverycat is noticing a lot of people giving answers like “I only emailed them an hour ago” with no further explanation as defensive.

        You however, Rusty Shackelford, have given a complete answer with timeline.

        I agree, OP you need to say

        “I have just sent it to them. Typically it takes a week for a contractor to sign and return these as they need their own lawyer to/get legal advice after they review it. Is there a reason you are asking for this back so soon?”

        This opens the door for Olga to say:
        * Boss wants to know timeline
        * If it isn’t in by end of week admin/accounting process won’t be done in time for pay cycle.
        Both of these let you know where her pressure is coming from.

        If she does the whole “they just need to sign it, why get a lawyer” thing you can politely say:

        “Olga, when you started work here did you sign your work contract/employment agreement without reading it?”

        “No! Of course not!”

        “Well it is the same for our contractors who are also juggling a few different jobs at the same time.

        I expect that this will take a week and if I haven’t heard back from them by then I will contact them and follow up. This is the expected timeline for all new contractors.”

    3. LBK

      I don’t see why you can’t take any of the language you suggested and add “I just emailed them an hour ago” at the beginning. I don’t see it as defensive, I see it as making it clear to Olga that she’s setting an expectation that’s not simply out of sync, but wildly unreasonable to the point of incredulity. It’s one thing if she thinks the contracts should be back in 2-3 days and it really takes 5-7. That you can have a calm conversation about. But if she genuinely believes it should only take an hour, you don’t need to have a discussion with her, you need to educate her, because that’s insane.

      I think this is further evidenced by her “just need to sign them” comment, which displays a clear lack of understanding of what’s required and, therefore, why it might take them much more than an hour (but even if they did need to just sign them, an hour is ridiculous – guarantee at least half of the people getting these contracts are in meetings when they’re sent and won’t even have a chance to look at it for an hour).

  15. nofelix

    I’d quiz her on communicating deadlines. Is this the effective deadline or the absolute last minute, or a comfy deadline? Agree when you’ll next discuss a task, and stick to that rather than allowing her to chase you. She sounds too anxious to properly judge the right frequency of follow-up herself, so just take it out of her hands.

    Olga: “I need you to do XYZ”.
    You: “Great, when do you need it back by?”
    Olga: “…Thursday! or Friday.”
    You: “So you’re submitting it to Accounting on Friday then? Shall we talk Thursday morning to check the XYZ is okay? That leaves some time for amendments before you have to send it out.”

    Then:
    Olga: “Did you do the XYZ yet?”
    You: “Let’s talk about it on Thursday morning like we agreed.”

    1. Not So NewReader

      I was event thinking of doing a shared calendar just for status checks for some things.

      For example: I expect to hear back on the Smith project by Thursday. When Olga asks about Smith, I can point to the calendar and say it’s not Thursday yet.

      This might work out well, actually. If Olga notices that the Teapot project is not on the calendar anywhere then she can remind OP that it needs X by Wednesday or whatever. Olga might be helpful to OP instead of nagging.

  16. Valkyrie

    My boss does this. We’re a very small office and I basically run the place (I do all the non-legal work, basically), so I have a LOT to do.

    The power dynamic is a little different in my situation, but I repeat “I’ll absolutely get to that today, it just isn’t a top priority” or “That’s on my list, it will happen before X”–or something to that effect. She gets anxious and sometimes fixates on one item that is really far down my list of priorities–I just reassure her that it will happen and stay calm…and when she’s driving me bonkers about it I take my 10 minute break.

  17. On Vacay

    I’ve also seen instances where they need the info right away, as it takes “x” long to get them entered as a vendor, etc, etc” – so without the contract by a certain time, they can’t meet the payment terms. It can be a real mess when reconciling two different entities best practices!

    Is there a chance Olga could be the person who sends out the contract? I know you are the main contact, but perhaps she could be another contact?

    1. Whats In A Name

      But rushing a contract is never good, even if she does it herself. I would say that as a contractor I know that a delay in returning my contract means a delay in pay but I am ok with that knowing that I have full time to review the contract, not just sign willy-nilly. And while I agree this doesn’t need to be 3-4 weeks, I can’t always reasonably turn it around in 24-48 hours and it’s too critical to “just sign off” like Olga is saying.

    2. ArtK

      If there are hard deadlines (not just the ones in her head), then Olga needs to communicate this clearly to to the OP. It’s not up to the OP to read Olga’s mind about why this is important and has to be dealt with instantly. I’ve found that I get a lot more cooperation from people, especially around deadlines, if they understand why it’s an issue. Saying “I need this ASAP” doesn’t resonate as well as “I need this by X so that we don’t miss the vendor’s payment deadline.” The latter has a clear criterion (“X” rather than “ASAP”) and a clear motivation.

      1. Annonymouse

        also if there is a hard deadline Olga is really leaving it late to get the paperwork out.

        If she needs this signed and returned in 48 hours
        And
        It typically takes a week to get it back
        Olga really needs to get it out sooner

  18. Cat steals keyboard

    “It looks bad if we rush them, like we’re trying to push our terms on them without giving them time to think.”

    This is such a good point!

  19. Christe

    OP, don’t you ask Olga why the rush? Finding out the why of the multiple requests might take some of the tension out of the situation. It might make her think about how many times she’s reached out to you.

    I had someone like that, I had to tell them that by constantly calling the vendor (for example) wasn’t going make them move any faster, it might slow them down. That their multiple reminders was an interruption and a waste of my time; and make the other department frustrated with our department. Think facilities management, you nag them to death they’ll get to you in a month or two versus a week. But this person had got on my last nerve. Should have approached it better. Find out the why, and discuss the interruptions with her, if it’s just her. Higher up, not quite sure.

  20. jm

    I sincerely thought this letter was about my co-worker, Angelica, who is our department’s budget and contracts clerk, until I read that the OP is a marketing assistant.
    I have observed Angelica hound people in and out of the company for signatures, responses, etc. Sometimes 30 minutes is too long a response time for her. She is obsessed with completing tasks quickly and will stop at nothing to get a signature or whatever she needs to get to the next step of a project.
    Like the other commenters, I think she doesn’t have enough to do, so she hyper-focuses on the tasks at hand.
    Also, like other commenters mentioned, there are other steps and deadlines she has to follow after obtaining signatures, but if she was a bit smarter, she would explain these steps to others, so they could better understand her urgency. Instead, she just thinks all other employees/contractors are lazy, inefficient slobs, and she is the queen of the universe.
    I’ve never seen anyone put her in her place, because they’re afraid if they do, they will need something from her, and she will deny them. It’s totally bizarre. I’m just glad my supervisor allowed me to learn Angelica’s job duties, so I don’t have to depend on her for contracts, purchases, etc.
    And Angelica is home sick today (a rare occurrence, since how could our company run without her???), and I’m guessing I’m not the only one who is internally cheering.

  21. NW Mossy

    I see Olga-like behavior happen a lot in cross-functional processes where different parts are handled by different people. Some people get very anxious when they don’t own a process end-to-end and rely on others, and that can manifest as inappropriate check-ins/follow-up because they didn’t touch every part and know exactly where a request is in the process.

    What I’ve found helps my team ward off this behavior is to be highly transparent about our processes and use shared tools to track a request’s status from start to finish. Exactly what that might look like for you would vary based on the task at hand, but a simple strategy is for both of you to have access to a spreadsheet where you log when contracts go out and have it calculate an expected return date based on what’s reasonable for the item. If desired, you could note when you followed up as well. Olga can then see that info any time she wants without having to ask for it, and she could even add her own notes for deadlines/actions that need to happen once it comes back.

    If you were really really fancy, you could take this as far as have contract lifecycle management software with integrated e-signature so that you can do create, edit, deliver, process, and amend all within the same system and see where anything is at the click of a button. I’m looking into this for my own team to manage our contracts, and one of the big reasons why is to short-circuit the Olgas of our org and keep our focus on the valuable work rather than real-time status updates.

  22. Milton Waddams

    My guess is that there is a “soft power” issue. This is frequently an issue with older admin assistants in organizations that don’t watch out for it, who have been with the company for years and years and have a back catalog of favors built up. While officially they don’t have much authority, in many organizations they will carve a little fiefdom out unofficially — they are next to impossible to fire and that they can make your life quite difficult if you piss them off, which gives them an authority disproportionate to their official status in the hierarchy.

    1. Evergreen

      Yeah, this is what I’d watch out for too, before doing what Alison’s suggested above – I’ve known a few EA’s that you’ve described, and the assertive approach is likely to do some fairly significant long term damage with those types.

      OP, maybe see if you can get a feel for the EA’s ‘unofficial hierarchical status’ first, and tread carefully if you see others doing the same with the EA. If this is the case (not saying that it is necessarily) then build your relationship with the EA first, and then see if you can gently push her to step off a little (hey, once she likes you she may trust you well enough that these issues go away by themselves!)

  23. SeptemberGrrl

    My two cents, this seems in the realm of normal conversation to me and not anything that rise to the level of the OP needing to police Olga’s asking questions. This seems like it would be a very reasonable exchange.

    Olga: Did Fergus send his contract back?
    OP: Not yet, I’ll let you know as soon as I have it.
    Olga: Okay, but all he needs to do is sign it.
    OP: Yep.

    the end.

    ‘ Okay, but all he needs to do is sign it’, how is that defensive? That’s like “Ugh, I wish these people would sign stuff sooner’ – that’s mild griping, it’s not about the OP.

    Olga sounds a little irritating. I’ve never worked in a place where most people weren’t irritating to someone. That’s what happens when you put a lot of different personalities together. I think it’s a problem to pathologize every behavior that one doesn’t like.

    To advise the OP to set time limits for when a co-worker can ask her questions about a task seems like it could backfire on the Op and make him/her look like the one who is difficult to work with.

    1. ArtK

      It’s not normal to ask for a status update the day after a request was sent, unless there is some clear urgency. The issue is that Olga is pushing for answers far too soon. This is similar to the situation where someone sends you an e-mail and then shows up in your office 5 minutes later to see if you got it and to hear your answer. Olga needs to back off and let the OP do his/her job without needing constant updates.

    2. Beezus

      The problem isn’t that Olga is irritating, it’s that Olga doesn’t have reasonable expectations for turnaround times on work she’s involved in coordinating. Having the LW set some clear expectations is entirely reasonable.

      Also, it seems like Olga doesn’t understand the particulars of some of the work she’s coordinating. For example, the freelancer doesn’t “just need to sign” the contract – a contract is a legally binding business agreement, so there’s a lot more to it than that. Underestimating the importance and scope of other peoples’ work is really alienating and can hurt Olga’s team and the company. As a senior employee, it’s entirely appropriate for the LW to push back on Olga, set appropriate expectations for turnaround times, and maybe help her understand what goes into the processes they’re involved in a little better.

    3. LBK

      ‘ Okay, but all he needs to do is sign it’, how is that defensive? That’s like “Ugh, I wish these people would sign stuff sooner’ – that’s mild griping, it’s not about the OP.

      I don’t think it’s defensive so much as condescending – as if the OP isn’t capable of understanding the concept of signing a contract even though it appears to be one of her major job responsibilities to get them signed. It’s particularly grating here because Olga’s also wrong that they “just need to sign it,” they actually need to read and evaluate it first.

      Surely you have some aspect of your job where people occasionally say “can’t you just ____?” and the blank is actually a complex and/or time-consuming process that’s going to take you a lot more effort than their question implies. It’s tolerable when it happens every so often and you’re able to easily explain to the person the real situation, but every day? I’d be on the verge of losing it. It’s demeaning and moreover displays a complete lack of understanding of how the business you support operates, which is critical to performing a support function well.

  24. Annie

    She obviously doesn’t have enough to do – that, or she’s been “dinged” in the past by someone elsewhere in the organisation for not being on top of things (fairly or unfairly as the case may be).

  25. Billy

    I’ll be honest – it does not sound like you are Olga’s boss. So you should not be too enthusiastic about correcting what Olga does. I think some questions like “I wasn’t expecting any contracts back for another week – do you need them earlier?” Or setting up an agreed schedule “I just wanted to let you know I received your request, and should have an answer for you by Thursday. Will this be OK?”.

    One thing that a lot of people miss – it is quite possible that Olga is NOT the “department admin”. She quite possibly could be the “Department chair’s admin.” I had a case like this a year ago – some of my department members wanted my admin to fill out forms for them etc, and I had to announce at a group meeting “If XXXXX does not have time to help you, it is because I asked her to work on something else instead”

    1. Been There, Done That

      Thank you.

      My former manager once announced at a staff meeting that the administrative staff did NOT work for the sales reps and the reps were not the admins’ bosses. All the administrative staff had multiple responsibilities in running the office that had nothing to do with sales support. But there were reps who’d get in admins’ faces and tell them what their job was, even to the point of telling them what should be on their desks.

  26. Not So NewReader

    These kind of situations can have an odd twist OP.

    So you are younger than Olga. She could confuse your “deference” to her as your indecisiveness or uncertainty. Her push might be because she feels you aren’t pushing. (Remember we go by what we see, not what is actually happening. She may not see you being in charge or in control of your area EVEN if you are.) If you lay out the frame work for what you expect, she may finally believe that you are indeed in control of the situation and stop her naggy behaviors. She could be trying to fill in what she perceives as your gaps.

    Alison is so right about letting go of that age thing. All you need to do is show basic human decency to everyone through out your workday. That will satisfy what is expected out of you for baseline interactions.

    I hope you smile a tad. I was in my 30s the first time I had to supervise someone who was significantly older than me. She was 20 years older. I had to remind myself each day, ” Jane needs me to be a good boss to her. She does not need me to act deferential because of her age. That will not help her to keep her job and she knows this. She wants me to be in control of our tasks and be on top of things. And this is where I need to keep my focus when I talk with Jane.”
    So I reminded myself of this every day for a while. As weeks/months went by Jane and I fell into a good solid employee/supervisor relationship. I stopped having to give myself daily reminders.

    Set your guidelines/rules of thumb/boundaries. Once she has the overall idea then you can respond to individual situations with, “No, Olga, as we discussed before we give contractors X days to respond [Guideline/rule of thumb]. Smith still has more time. We will wait Y more days before we check about Smith.” Please do not ask about Smith until then.” [Boundary.]

      1. Candi

        NSNR’s comments are generally thoughtful and show the benefit of experience. I sincerely doubt he meant this in that really annoying way.

        I read it as, “Take care you are a pleasant human in your actions with other humans.” Greasing wheels of social interaction behavior.

  27. Been There, Done That

    I’m genuinely dismayed at some of the vitriol I’ve read here toward administrative workers, especially older workers. Sounds sometimes as if it’s open season.

    1. Annonymouse

      My comment was just pointing out that age shouldn’t be a factor but it would be naive to think it doesn’t.

      I am by no means saying every worker with a younger boss/manager/supervisor is a problem. I am saying it can play a part in the junior roles attitude, receptiveness or work if they aren’t willing to set age aside and focus just on skills and roles.

      In fact at teapots training I had a coworker who was older than both me and Wakeen and we got on great!

      We worked well because I wasn’t a “young upstart” and he wasn’t an “out of touch old fogey”, rather we could see each of us had experience the other did not and respected what the other brought to the table.

    2. TG

      Me too. Being an admin can be tough. You have plenty of responsibility and zero authority. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place at times.

  28. AdminMeow

    I find that in situations like this the person admin is hounding is annoyed at being interrupted constantly for updates and the admin is frustrated that the other side isn’t just doing the task so they can get it off their plate (in my position I describe this as “stop using a portion of my brain to remember this tiny tidbit and that I still need it/need to follow up on it”).

    Obviously, it is a little different with a third party involved but I would just find a system where a reminder or deadline is set on when you’ll update her on the status and then actually do so. If she knows you have it handled when you say you will she won’t have to assume you’re one of the folks that needs their hand held every day to get their work accomplished.

  29. WerkingIt

    Honestly, I get the sense that maybe Olga just likes staying on top of her paperwork and she see these contracts as outstanding items and she doesn’t want anything to fall off her radar. It can be annoying, but I doubt she means any harm. Perhaps just chatting with her or someone who has worked wither longer will give you some insight into her process so that you can get a sense of where she’s coming from.

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