my boss’s boss keeps asking me where she is

A reader writes:

I work on a temp contract in government. Recently there have been some restructures in my department as well as a machinery of government change, and there is a new executive director (new to my team, not new to the organization). She’s taken on our area as well as directing two others, so is very busy. She was previously in a different office but has now moved to sit in the opposite cubicle from me.

I’ve never met her or worked with her before, but she seems very stressed with all the recent changes (there’s been lots of activity around the machinery of government change) and has to do a lot of time-sensitive work across the different teams. She’s often asking for someone urgently or calling people at lunch or asking to track down staff members whilst muttering “far out” or “oh for God’s sake” under her breath.

I’m on a team that works with longer timelines, with each staff member on a dedicated project/program, with a laid-back boss (who still gives good advice and keeps us accountable). The new ED will often ask me where my boss is, when she’ll be back, where other team members are, or for the statuses of work or meetings that are not mine. I often answer by just referring to my boss’s diary, which the ED can also see (“she’s offsite at a meeting at X and it looks like she should be back around Y”) but she still will ask me where my boss is and when she is getting back (even if my boss has just gone to the bathroom or kitchen for five minutes). We have a flexible workplace policy with core hours where people can set their start time and my boss starts late; the ED will often ask me where she is. One time I took a look at her desk and her computer was logged out (which she does for security when not at her desk) and there were some high heels and a gym bag underneath and I took a guess that she was just getting a coffee and would be back soon. Five minutes later, my boss let the ED know she wasn’t well and would be in soon. I told my boss in hearing of the ED that I assumed she was getting a coffee because her computer was lit up and her shoes were there, kind of with a laugh, to signal that that’s what happened.

But I’m worried about looking incompetent, unhelpful, or unaware, whereas previously I’ve just not had to track my boss’s or colleagues’ whereabouts or work. My colleagues also get asked and try to refer the ED to the right person for the right project but have said that they end up just getting asked again or agreeing to a request and passing it on to the right person.

What’s the right way for me to handle this if I’m asked again — be more on top of people’s movements? Should I check in with my boss and say something like “Hi boss, I just wanted to check in with you about how to handle questions from the ED about your and other team member’s movements or work when you’re not in the office?”

At the moment it’s low-grade stressing me out and making me look bad.

You probably learned this lesson, but definitely don’t guess in the future without explicitly saying that it’s a guess — or you risk giving the ED inaccurate information that she then plans around, and that can cause problems and/or end up reflecting badly on you. (In fact, that’s a good rule for guesses in general. They’re often fine, but you have to be clear that it’s a guess, not information you know for sure.)

Beyond that, though, I’d just check with your boss about how she wants this handled. You could say something like this: “Jane frequently asks me about where you and other people are and when you’ll be back. Sometimes I’m able to check your schedule for her, but I don’t always know. When I don’t know, is it okay for me to just tell her that I don’t know, or is there some other way that I should be handling this?”

And if you’re worried about it, you could also say, “I’m worried that I look unhelpful or unaware when I’m not able to answer her questions.  Is it worth you explaining to her that with the way our work goes, we don’t necessarily know where people are when they’re away from their desks?”

But unless your boss specifically tells you otherwise, don’t worry that you’re now expected to pay more attention to people’s comings and goings. Many, many bosses will ask whoever is closest and seems most likely to know where person X is, but generally they’re going to be fine with hearing “I’m not sure.” Reasonable bosses understand that it’s not part of your job to track your colleagues’ movements; they’re typically just asking in case you happen to know, since that’ll be helpful for them, but they’re not going to hold it against you if you don’t.

{ 117 comments… read them below }

  1. what*

    Who mutters “far out” under their breath? I can’t picture what kind of person this is, haha.

    1. Purest Green*

      I can’t even put that into context. I thought “far out” had a positive connotation, and thus wouldn’t require muttering under your breath.

      1. Gen*

        I’ve known lecturers of a certain age do this and it’s usually sarcastic with a hint that the idea/statement/news is so absurd they must be tripping.

    2. Kathleen Adams*

      I’m guessing it’s a thoroughly sarcastic “Far out.” And that’s my favorite part, too!

    3. Parenthetically*

      It’s pretty common among the Aussies I know. My husband uses it as a general expression of frustration and dismay.

      1. Adlib*

        My boss is Australian and uses a bunch of colloquialisms and things that I sometimes have to look them up!

      2. Kyrielle*

        Oh wow. I have learned something today…for me it has always (only) meant “really awesome” and maybe – but not necessarily – a little weird.

      3. MillersSpring*

        Maybe the OP is Australian–she said “whilst” and boss’s “diary.” :)

        1. OP*

          Good catch, I am indeed Australian! And ‘far out’ has negative conmotations here and is a polite workplace stand-in for ‘fuck’.

          However if I hear her say it in future I’ll mentally append ‘groovy, maaaan’ which should help my stress levels.

        2. OP*

          Good catch, I am indeed Australian! And ‘far out’ has negative conmotations here and is a polite workplace stand-in for ‘f***’.

          However if I hear her say it in future I’ll mentally append ‘groovy, maaaan’ which should help my stress levels.

            1. OP*

              Hahaha nothing like a good MOG.

              I honestly had no idea ‘far out’ had anything other than negative connotations (the ‘groovy’ thing would NOT have occurred to me) so I had quite a giggly commute to work this morning imagining a tripped-out hippie ED. (Basically the opposite of the current ED)

              1. what*

                LOL this makes so much more sense now. I figured it must have been a regional thing but as I’m not Australian, I really couldn’t figure it out. (I am now thoroughly enjoying the idea of muttering “far out” in a grumpy Australian accent.)

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            I love Australian English. As much profanity as American, but dry, like the Brits.

        3. Julie Noted*

          We are divided on ‘whilst’. My suspicion is that it may be along class/school type lines, but I’m not positive.

          Had no idea that ‘diary’ was Australian.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            “Diary” is British English, but I’ve seen it used frequently in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, and parts of Kenya and Uganda.

          2. Elsajeni*

            “Diary” in American English is only used to mean “private journal” — looking in your boss’s diary here would be very weird! Using it to mean “calendar” is British/Commonwealth English.

      4. Julie Noted*

        I was coming here to say just that. Likely Australian, and of a particular generation. It’s the ‘sugar’ or ‘shivers’ equivalent for f#%!.

        I work with a woman who says “far out” every day, which in context unfortunately indicates that she’s overwhelmed by the basic tasks of her job :/

      5. Liz*

        Aussie here — it’s often used as a work-appropriate substitute for other phrases that start with F.

    4. Christine*

      Does the new executive director have access to OP manager’s calendar? It’s something to consider. Or she doesn’t want to take time to look at it.

      I recommend that a list of all projects be made, the name of the manager / individuals working on each project, and their contact information be given to the ex. director. It might limit a lot of the questions.

  2. Feathers McGraw*

    Definitely check with your boss. And also ask if you should instead direct the ED to email her.

    Sorry you’re stressed. I would be, too!

    1. KR*

      I agree – this would stress me out. In my most recent job, I was in charge of knowing where my boss was when people asked. It was less complicated because the people asking weren’t his boss, so after a while I realized that I could be vague and say that he wasn’t in the office right now and that he was attending to something without being rude. I agree with Alison also that OP shouldn’t be afraid to say that she’s not sure where people are but grandboss can email/call a cell phone/leave a note/ect.

      1. Venus Supreme*

        ExBoss would up and leave or not come into work without telling anyone. Like, one time he vacationed to France without telling me. OldJob didn’t keep a calendar for others’ whereabouts either (it was a 3-person org). One, *ahem*, particularly special Board Member would call and ask to speak to him and would get noticeably angry when I genuinely had no idea where he was. It was worse for the poor interns who answered the phone and were shell-shocked by this Board Member’s snark and rage. In her case, I gave her his cell number to contact him directly. One of the many reasons I don’t work there anymore.

        In this case, I agree to check in with Boss and figure out a system of communicating to ED that works out best for the three of you! Follow her lead.

        1. IANAL (I Argue Nightly About Llamas)*

          Woof. I had a couple of those at a job where I was the receptionist. It made me look like a dumdum when someone would, say, come in with documents for Boss and I would assume Boss was there because the light in his office was on, only to find out 20 minutes of waiting later that he was gone for the week.

          I eventually started a company calendar and said, hey, put your appointments/days off on this calendar or let me know when they’re going to be so I can a) know where you are and b) be at the desk (because some job duties required me to be away from it) when people come. I believe the response to that was, “who the (expletive) does she think she is?”

          Wow I hated that place. :D

      2. Christine*

        My boss just ups and leaves for the day and doesn’t say a word. She’s down the hallway. I asked her to let me know when she leaves so that I can handle people looking for her & her response was that she didn’t work for me.

        I got so I tell people that I have no idea, she must of left. That’s on her.

    2. Saguaro*

      Maybe once the OP’s boss is aware that the ED is almost constantly looking for her, Boss will try to keep the ED in the loop as to her whereabouts to lessen the burden on the OP and the ED can chill a little. Then “far out” can reflect a positive emotion.

    3. paul*

      This *still* happens with us, despite our boss having repeatedly told our CEO to call her cell phone.

      So frigging stressful.

  3. Episkey*

    Can you just say something like, “I’m not sure, she keeps her own calendar/schedule.”

    I’d also probably always modify things with, “I’m not sure” as in, “Jane generally gets into the office later, usually around 10 am, but I’m not really sure.” If she asks what time she’ll be in, you can just repeat, “Like I mentioned, since she doesn’t make a habit of checking in with me, I’m not really sure.” Maybe she will stop asking you eventually if she never gets answers.

    1. Parenthetically*

      Yeah, I really like, “She doesn’t make a habit of checking in with me,” maybe with an added, “…but I’m sure you can check the iCal since she’s usually pretty good about keeping it updated.” I use a version of this a lot — “I dunno, it’s not my day to watch her!”

      1. EddieSherbert*

        I’m a big fan of all of this, along with including some version “have you checked her calendar?” (like, let’s redirect her to figure it out herself).

      1. Megan*

        The original question is getting to be obnoxious, so I don’t know that’s unreasonable.

    1. Parenthetically*

      I said the same above, but I really wouldn’t recommend it with a boss. I say it when my students are expecting me to keep track of other students and staff for them during break times.

    2. Robin B*

      Reading the title I thought a grandboss was so rattled she was asking where she, herself, was, at any given moment :)

    3. Venus Supreme*

      LOL my siblings always ask me where Mom is, despite the fact I live the farthest away from her. I always say “I’m not her keeper.” I’ll keep this in the arsenal too :)

  4. Admin Assistant*

    Ugh, I hate feeling unhelpful or like I’m out of the loop, and I feel that way a lot as an admin assistant who sits at the front of the office. My office’s culture is very laid back, and we have a front and a back door that people use interchangeably. My workstation is at the front desk, but I’m not chained to it and I am often doing tasks in another part of the office where I can’t see who’s coming or going. Sometimes people tell me they’re leaving and when they’ll be back, sometimes people don’t even mention to me when they’re out sick or took PTO. It’s not an element of my job to always know where everyone is, but I’m usually the person most likely to know where someone is/when they’ll be back, so I get asked a lot.

    Thankfully my office is so laid back that my grandboss can be like “where is Cersei?” and it’s OK if I tell her the truth, that I haven’t a f-ing clue, but I still hate constantly having to say “I don’t know.”

    1. TootsNYC*

      When people get asked by the cashier, “do you want to donate an extra $1 for hungry kids?” or something, the advice is often to not say just “no,” but “not today.”

      It’s still the same answer, but you don’t feel (or appear) as though you are a callous individual.

      So what about, “That’s not something I know this time”?

      1. Jan Levinson*

        Ha! I like that answer for the grocery store donation question. I always feel like a terrible person just saying “no.”

        1. Partly Cloudy*

          Me too. I need to remember this! I usually end up saying “no, thank you” which is more polite than just “no” but makes absolutely no sense.

          1. Saguaro*

            I simply cannot say no to any kind of charitable request. Salvation Army kettles, food drives, coat drives, toy drives. I guess I feel it’s a small way to give back. It does drive DH nuts though.

            1. Partly Cloudy*

              Funny story:

              I was once in line at the grocery store behind a woman who responded with this when asked if she’d like to donate to March of Dimes or whatever it was: “I don’t donate to HUMAN charities. I only donate to ANIMAL charities.” In a super snotty tone. After she walked away and it was my turn to pay, I told the cashier “I don’t usually donate, but today I will, just to spite her.”

              1. Saguaro*

                It was probably my mother. She would give her last penny if she thought some animal would be helped. She never gives to any other kind of charity.

            2. Elizabeth West*

              I’m quite comfortable with saying “Sorry, no” or just walking right on by them, thanks to large amounts of panhandler fatigue. SA doesn’t get any of my money because they have a history of anti-LGBTQ policies (they’re a church). I’m always polite when I refuse, though. If they’re on the pavement with a sign and not accosting me, I just sail on by. It’s my money (when I have some) and I donate to other things.

              1. JessaB*

                SA and a few others because of LGBTQIA policies and Komen because of that garbage they pulled a few years ago with Planned Parenthood. Also the national ASPCA and all because they really funnel none of it down to the actual animals in need. I usually donate to shelters near where I live. Because they ALWAYS need stuff or money.

          2. Mike C.*

            I always dislike those because many times it’s a large company gathering money for their customers so they can donate it in their own name for additional tax write offs. Yeah, I’m sure the money helps eventually, but it always seems dirty or inefficient to me. Or I just don’t like being cornered in public.

        2. A*

          I see the general desire to not appear callous, but realistically, I say “no” because I do not care what some grocery store clerk, whose name I do not know and whom I will likely never see (or even notice if I did) again, thinks of me. I’m a nameless, generally faceless customer to them; surely I don’t matter to them, either.

          1. JessaB*

            I say a polite no to the cashier but I will absolutely bug corporate and the store management if they keep giving in store room to Aunt Sally. I cannot STAND them.

      2. Mags*

        Or “No — if I donate directly, I get a tax receipt” whether or not that happens to be one of the charities that I normally donate to.

        1. JessaB*

          That’d work unless the cashier is a smart one, because if it’s done as added to your order, the receipt for the order would show the charity and that would be sufficient for tax records. If it’s a box for money on a counter like for the Actor’s retirement fund* and stuff at the theatre, yeh you won’t get a receipt but usually that’s too little money to really care if you get one. Like in the old days before computer cash registers and you stuck a dime or quarter into a slot on a card for March of Dimes.

          * I always give a buck at theatres who put the charity can on the counter, because the old days of passing around the rattling can like a church donation plate drove me insane. I do not like to be a captive audience to a charity push unless I actually go to a dinner or something for them. So I make sure to A: noticeably stuff a buck in and B: clearly say “Thank you for not subjecting us to this during the previews.”

      3. Chaordic One*

        The sad thing is that the poor cashier has to say that as part of her job, similar to having to ask customers if they would like to apply for a store credit card if they use any other credit card to pay for their bill. “You’ll get a 10% discount on your initial purchase!”

        Many years ago I had the misfortune of working in a grocery store where I was written up because I didn’t “upsell” to a secret shopper.

    2. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

      The phrase I use (as an admin who is constantly being asked where busy people are) is “I’m sorry, she’s not at her desk right now”. At first I thought people would push back or think I was being rude/unhelpful. I make sure to try sound genuinely apologetic. Seems to work like a charm.

      Even though, to me, it sounds like the stupidest response. Obviously she is not at her desk! They’re either asking because they can see that or b/c I’ve intercepted their call. No one seems to question it though.

      1. Gadfly*

        Maybe because on some subconscious level they feel like that means you agree that person should be at their desk, and if they are not, no one knows where they are. It makes you a peer, also wondering why Fergus isn’t there where you would expect him to be, like he ought to be…

  5. Mononymous*

    This is reminding me of the letter a while back where the coworker was constantly asking the LW where she was going and when she’d be back every time she got up from her desk. Maybe someone had done to that coworker what the ED is doing to today’s LW!

    This would totally stress me out. I hope your boss has some good suggestions on handling the ED’s constant questions.

    1. sam*

      yeah – back when I was in my first year as a lawyer, we all shared offices, in a configuration where one of us was at the “front” of the office and one was at the back. I was at the front desk. My officemate had a habit of coming to work fairly late and disappearing for long lunches and, well…sometimes taking naps under her desk (we worked really long hours).

      Other people would come into the office looking for her, and because I was sitting there, automatically ask me where she was. Thing is, we were both in exactly the same job – I wasn’t her keeper, or assistant, or whatever, and I had enough of my own work to do (and I wasn’t going to rat her out when she was napping either). It got REALLY annoying.

      I figured out how to get out of that office situation pretty quickly before it turned into a permanent resentment.

      Here’s the best part – we’re lawyers – we all had actual secretaries too (I just started redirecting everyone there).

    2. EddieSherbert*

      I used to have a ROOMMATE like that. Hahaha… couldn’t move around the house freely at all. It took me awhile to get out of the habit of announcing “I’m going to the bathroom!” whenever I leave a room…

  6. Corky's wife Bonnie*

    I get asked this every-single-day because my boss is an executive assistant in addition to being the office manager so her boss asks constantly in addition to everyone else saying a light bulb needs replacing, there’s no coffee creamer, or the a/c isn’t working. It’s gotten to the point that saying a simple “I don’t know” is the only answer. I can’t even speculate because if I think she may be eating lunch, and they go stomping (yes, stomping) into the lunchroom and she’s not there, they come stomping back out and demand to know where else she might be. You have no idea how much I want to say, “I don’t have a bell on her.” It got so bad one year that when we had a company social picnic, I made a game of it and developed a “Where’s Waldo” game and made it a “Where’s Lucinda” and those who completed the puzzles got a prize. Everyone got a kick out of it, including the executive and he even helped me with the game. :-)

    1. Bantha Pudu*

      Oh my gosh, your username. Just this morning I was wishing I had a Remains of the Day lunchbox.

      1. Corky's wife Bonnie*

        You get a prize…you are the first one to comment on the name and know what it’s from! Kudos!

    2. Gadfly*

      At OldJob we did make jokes about how we kept trying to GPS chip and GeoFence Boss but hadn’t been able to catch her long enough yet because she was busy like that.

      1. Nolan*

        I volunteer for a convention and our chairman does not wear a radio at all during the event. So whenever a manager needs him they call for a Chairman sighting over the radio and anyone who is with him or has seen him recently will reply with a location. Thankfully he’s started carrying his phone on the floor, so some of us have a direct line to him if the Chairman sighting system fails.

  7. CM*

    I would make a point of showing the ED that you don’t have access to any more information that she has. As much as you want to be helpful, this is really information that it’s not your responsibility to know and you don’t have a good way of finding out. So you could continue checking your boss’s diary and saying, “It doesn’t say where she is at the moment,” or for other coworkers, pulling up their calendar (if you have access to it) or saying, “I’ll walk over and see if she’s there. Nope, not there.”

  8. V*

    I wonder if different phrasing would help here. I am also uncomfortable saying “I don’t know” frequently, but I’d be more comfortable with something along the lines of “Her schedule says X; I don’t have details beyond that.”

    1. a big fish in a very small pond*

      +1 Yes! This is advice I’d be comfortable following in this situation. I don’t want to say “I don’t know”.

      1. a big fish in a very small pond*

        and maybe add, “would you like me to call or email her?” (but only because it is the boss)

        1. OP*

          This is what I’ve ended up going with! Or asking if the task is anything I can help with.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Yep, this is what I would do too, it sounds like more than “I don’t know” but it really means the same thing.

  9. jm*

    If your boss wants you to assist the ED by being The Keeper of Everyone, perhaps your boss or the ED could ask the major players to share their Outlook calendars (or whatever y’all use) with you. That way, when ED asks where someone is, you could just report what is on his/her calendar.
    (This won’t work for bathroom and coffee breaks, unfortunately)

  10. Jan Levinson*

    I understand where you’re coming from!

    In my office, I sit nearest the front door, which I think gives the misconception that I always know where everyone are, just because I tend to see people walk in and out. I used to worry about sounding incompetent, too, by responding with “I don’t know”, but I’ve learned that people are generally fine with me not knowing – it’s not a part of my job description to track where everyone is at!

    1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

      Oh I also used to sit by the entrance too! I used to feel guilty, or that I was supposed to be tracking EVERYONE’S movements. I finally realized that it was just me, I was putting my all that pressure on myself. People are asking in case I knew, not because I was supposed to know.

    2. hayling*

      Ugh, being in a high-traffic location is the worst. At an old job I sat by the fax machine, and people would interrupt me to ask if their fax came through! I wasn’t in any type of administrative function, I just happened to sit near it. It was so annoying!

    3. Maxwell Edison*

      Years ago, when I worked at an ad agency, my cubicle was right by the door of one of the managers. I was editorial and he was production, so we never interacted, but people were always asking me where he was because he was never there and I was right nearby. I got so annoyed that I made a sign that said, “No, I do not know where Production Manager’s Name is” and hung it at the entryway of my cube. And some people STILL asked me where he was; I’d point at the sign without turning around.

  11. Gene*

    Just as “No”, “I don’t know.” is a complete sentence.

    If it’s so important to the ED that she know where everyone is at all times and when they’re likely to return, she needs to do something about it. Maybe your basic In-Out board?

    1. Cat*

      We don’t know how important it is though. Plenty of people ask questions and are okay with getting “I don’t know” as a response. Doesn’t mean it was unreasonable to ask.

    2. Allison*

      I have trouble with this though. If someone needs help finding someone, they need that information, and if someone appears to be in a capacity to help, and that person can’t help, the person looking for information is confused and disappointed, and is nowhere closer to getting the information they need. “I don’t know” helps no one, even if it’s true. I feel like I should at least point them in the direction of someone who does.

      It helps that right now I’m super new, so I can just say “sorry, I’ve only been here for a month, and I don’t work in her department, you should ask someone else.” But I won’t have that excuse forever!

      1. Halpful*

        But… well, I suggest you read Marisol’s comment 1396332 below, it explains better than I can. :)

  12. Queen of the File*

    We had a great-aunt-boss (is that a thing? Equal peer of my grand-boss?) who used to call everyone’s phone in the department when she wanted someone, demanding to know where the person was and then asking whoever she’d called if they knew the status of x thing she had just asked that person for, when they would be back, etc. It was a bit of a micromanaging nightmare and came across like that person thought we were all just out doing whatever all day instead of working. We eventually came to an agreement about how we would communicate with each other (set meetings for check-ins) and what to do if she needed someone in our department urgently so we weren’t all answering 2-10 calls a day like this.

    1. Cassandra*

      Yipes. I wonder if an agile-style short start-of-day meeting would be a tool for dealing with this?

      Really, though, grand-boss ought to have had a word with great-aunt-boss, whose behavior was Not Okay.

    2. Willis*

      At first I was like “this aunt boss doesn’t sound so great, calling everyone seems really annoying.” Then, I understood :)

    3. Gracie*

      We had something similar. The manager of another department worked closely with a teammate and if she couldn’t get her, she’d go down the phone list until one of us answered and get angry because we didn’t know the status of Super Important Project that none of us had heard of (And wasn’t important at all) our supervisor finally gave us all permission to ignore her calls since we never dealt with her directly in any situation anyway and if she complained he told her we were in a meeting/on a call/coincidentally missed all her calls

  13. Sarah*

    I tend to get this in my office when our receptionist is not in, because my office is the closest next one in behind his desk. I’m not sure if this would be helpful in your situation, but I usually try to add to my “I don’t know” with some low-effort advice for the other person. For example, “No, I’m not sure when Sansa will be back, but you could try leaving her a note?” or “I don’t know if Tyrion will be in today, so email might be your best bet.”

  14. Marisol*

    This doesn’t sound like something worth worrying about to me, OP. First of all, your grandboss is stressed out and her behavior is motivated by that stress; her questions are more of a desperate “lashing out,” an attempt to get answers to gain greater control, or feel more in control, of her situation, rather than an actual sign that you’re doing anything wrong and going to face consequences. It’s about her emotional state, not your job performance.

    I’m an experienced admin, and I’ve noticed newer admin trying to take responsibility for things they couldn’t possibly be responsible for. When you’re just starting out in your career, it can be hard to know exactly what your responsibilities are at the nitty-gritty level, so when people huck random questions out of the blue at the admin that they couldn’t possibly answer—“where’s-so-and-so,” “what’s the temperature outside right now” “does Joe want to order 3 widgets, or 4,”–that sort of thing, it can make the admin feel like she failed to fulfill a duty, when in actuality, she didn’t.

    There is a balance to strike between being on top of things, and feeling neurotically responsible for things that aren’t part of your job, and I think well-meaning newcomers err on the side of being too responsible, i.e. they overfunction. As I progressed in my career, the tendency to overfunction dropped away. This is also about negotiating a power dynamic—the person who can say “I don’t know” with confidence and poise looks more empowered than the person who looks nervous and insecure about it. (I have a lot to say on this topic, but one sentence will have to suffice here.)

    Now I don’t know what your position is. If you’re an admin, then my advice applies of course, but if you’re NOT an admin, than my advice still applies because 1) I think this tendency to overfunction is universal and 2) grandboss is treating you like an admin. If you’re not in a position where tracking your boss’s whereabouts is normal and customary, then the expectation that you do so is actually inappropriate. So you should really get comfortable with saying “I don’t know where Boss is.”

    By all means, check in with your boss to see if there is anything she’d like you to do differently. It’s good to be conscientious. It’s wonderful in fact. But once you’ve gotten clear about what your boss expects, then let go of any worry that you’re doing it wrong by not knowing the answers to grandboss’ questions. You’re not a mind reader, you’re not omniscient, you don’t control other people, etc., etc.

  15. puzzld*

    I sometimes mutter “Far Out” myself in response to “crazy, insane, weird, strange” happenings.

    Why yes. I am a child of the 60’s…

    We use “She’s not at her desk right now. Would you like to leave her a voice mail? Or we can leave a note for her???” If they choose a voice mail, I dial the wayward boss’ direct line and hand them my phone.

  16. Mabel*

    This would really irritate me. I think I would say something like “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” Every. Time. Especially if I was, you know, working and trying to concentrate on my work. But I would make a huge effort to be pleasant about it because – boss’s boss.

  17. Lia*

    I used to share a cube in an office where sharing calendars was not the norm, plus we reported to different bosses. Every day, people would wander by looking for Mary and my response was always “she isn’t here now, but I will tell her you stopped by when she returns, or you can leave her a voicemail or email”. Mary had a lot of meetings and unless she was going to leave for the day, rarely told me when she’d return (hey, it was a big cube).

  18. Student*

    It doesn’t sound like it is your job to track your department or your boss to this level. While I know you don’t want to be unhelpful, at this frequency and level of detail, this is more along the lines of either admin work or your boss’s work than ordinary office-worker helping out an ED.

    You should push back, not bend backwards, so you can protect the value of the work you are actually supposed to focus on instead of becoming the living department clock-in point. Tell your boss the ED keeps seeking this information repeatedly and is going to the wrong people for what she needs. Ask the boss specifically to work with the ED to get her information needs met in some way, because you shouldn’t become the department admin just because your desk happens to be near the ED. Ask specifically who you should refer the ED to when she asks, because you aren’t tasked with tracking people’s whereabouts or keeping tabs on different project’s statuses.

    Then, do as your boss instructs for handling the ED. Maybe that means you do ultimately end up having to track people’s whereabouts and other project’s statuses for the ED. If your boss is reasonable, thought, probably not.

  19. Critter*

    Any time my boss’s boss or colleagues come in looking for her, and I don’t know exactly where she is, I ask if they need her right away and ask if they’d like me to contact her, and since I have her cell phone number (which she usually carries with her) it’s easy enough. But that’s because we’ve established this, so it’s definitely something to be addressed with your boss. It kind of sounds like your boss and the ED haven’t established what their collaborative style is, and that’s got nothing to do with you unless your boss somehow makes it to be.

  20. OP*

    Hi everyone, thanks for your comments which have a lot of great tips, and of course thank you Alison for addressing this. Since I wrote in:

    * I saw a little bit more about how the ED works – she kind of seems like a stress-head in general and struggles with things like finding emails, locating documents in our internal management system, printing spreadsheets etc. If I hear her muttering I sometimes ask her if she would like help. I think she is a ‘think out loud’ worker so sometimes I just ignore her muttering or questions unless something specific comes up. She sometimes asks a computer-related question out into the ether and I or another staff member assist. She also doesn’t seem to like flexible work policies (one of which is the core hours work policy that lets my boss get in later in the morning) – we run a remote work location project where government staff can opt to use co-working spaces closer to home, and had a internal newsletter story run about it recently. When my boss flagged the story (good news) the ED pulled a face and said ‘We don’t really want people using these, do we?’

    * I now just pull up my boss’s calendar if her boss asks about her whereabouts and say something like ‘She’s in a meeting at X and it looks like she should be back around Y’. I also ask if it’s urgent and if the ED wants me to email/call her.

    * In my weekly one-on-one with my boss I raised this and my boss thanked me and said she’d never noticed it before but that it was really good to know. I also asked my boss if there was any specific way she wanted to handle it and there wasn’t.

    OK LITERALLY AS I WAS TYPING THIS RESPONSE the ED came in and asked where my boss was and I was distracted by typing this response and said “I don’t think she’s in yet?” and another colleague said “Yes she is, I’ve seen her!” and so I just referred to her calendar. Welp.

    1. Julie Noted*

      ‘We don’t really want people using these, do we?’

      Oh noooo. Bad public service leadership right there. Get with the program or find another job ED!

    2. Marisol*

      so this is two issues. i’m gonna be quick here cuz I’m about to leave work for my commute and traffic will be bad if I don’t skiddadle. first, the issue Allison mentioned about always conveying accurate information: it sounds like you are more of an admin-type and for an admin, accurate trafficking of information is crucial. “I don’t know” is an accurate statement, and is always preferable to an inaccurate guess. the guessing thing makes you look unprofessional. stop doing that, seriously. re-read what Allison said on the subject. don’t make any knee-jerk, reflexive answers–just slow yourself down if you find yourself rushing to make something up.

      second, given the constraints of your job and given that you will be making a good-faith, ethical choice (not shirking any actual job duties) decide what will serve YOU better: 1) always being able to answer grandboss’s annoying questions about your boss’s whereabouts, or 2) focusing on your other more important job duties instead of giving mindshare to that issue.

      I can’t know which is better for you without more information, but you no doubt have a sense of which is better. If you are in a purely admin role, you might want to suck up to grandboss by tracking your boss’s whereabouts, and doing so may help to sooth the scatterbrained grand boss and get her off your boss’s back. If you are not purely admin, or if there is some other reason why you don’t think catering to this particular need of the grandboss has any value to YOU as you advance in your career, then DON’T train the grandboss to come to you for that information. If you prove yourself to be a reliable source of info that she wants, then she will keep coming to you. So decide if that’s what you want. If it isn’t, then do some polite, brush-offy responses like, “oh, sorry, I don’t know!” before cheerily returning to work you were focusing on before her interruption.

      Grandboss sounds like she doesn’t fit in with the culture of your department and frankly, sounds a little unpleasant and annoying.

      hope this makes sense and hope it’s helpful–I’m typing on the fly–good luck!!

    3. Halpful*

      I also asked my boss if there was any specific way she wanted to handle it and there wasn’t.


      I don’t know about you, but I’d be frustrated by that response. Either because I want the answer to a different question, or because my anxiety is messing with my head. Maybe ask more directly, like, “how much of my time should I spend on answering ED’s questions vs [actual job duties]?”

      I also second the advice about suggesting *she* check the calendar instead of checking it for her. Right now you’re rewarding her behaviour by doing the work for her. Try really hard to break that habit ASAP. (unless it turns out assisting her with basic tasks *is* an important part of your job)

      1. Not So NewReader*

        When a boss says there is no particular way she prefers you handle something, then jump in with at least one suggestion and ask if that is alright. If you have several suggestions then tell her, “I had a couple ideas, maybe you would like me to do one of the ideas.”

        I have made it a habit to be prepared for the answer to be “no particular preference”. I think to myself, “Well how about if we use MY particular preference?”

        1. Marisol*

          If a boss tells me she has no preference on how I do something, I don’t ask follow-up questions; I just do what I think is best. To my mind, “I have no preference” = “make the decision yourself” and probably also means, “this issue is not important enough for me to give mindshare to.” So I think asking again could be seen as kind of pestering.

          I like your second paragraph – I would go straight to that–lets use MY preference.

    4. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Is there a way to diplomatically tell the ED that Boss keeps her schedule updated and to just check that? “Far out! Where’s Boss?”

      “I honestly don’t know, I haven’t looked at her calendar lately.”

  21. Not So NewReader*

    OP, don’t let your grandboss’ nervousness become YOUR nervousness. It’s really easy to absorb other people’s nervousness so try to keep your thoughts/emotions separate.

    When you approach your boss with your question of how to handle it, it might be helpful if you can tell her how many times a day this happens on average. “Boss, Jane asks me at least five times a day, every day, where you are.”

    The beauty of saying it this way is that it allows your boss to see the degree of the problem. Your boss can surmise that grandboss needs more points of contact or more ways of getting in touch with her.

    I am lucky. I have a wonderful boss. Most of the time she is not at work when I am. I have her cell. Additionally, she calls, lets me know where she is and when she will be in. (She treats this like religion. I KNOW where she is.) Your solution might be that your own boss contacts YOU more. But let your boss figure this out.

  22. Gracie*

    There has been a lot of good advice on dealing with your ED asking you where your boss is but I wanted to touch on her asking you about the status of the status of work or meetings that aren’t yours. I have had a similar experience.
    I had my boss doing this to me because I sat outside her office so she would yell from her office (yes, so annoying) and ask what the status of so-and-so project is. In my first-professional-job-innocence, I would rush around to find out who was working on it, what the status was and report back to her. As I gained more experience, I learned to redirect the question. I’d ask her who was working on that project and have her call them. Politely of course. Mostly.
    I would suggest when this happens, if you know who is working on that project/work/meeting/etc that you should tell her, “So-and-So is the person who is working on that currently so she would be able to answer any of your questions about it.” And then direct her to ‘So-and-So’
    If you don’t know who it is, tell her that you aren’t familiar with who is working on that right now but your manager is and she should be able to direct her to the correct person. You are being helpful, but keeping yourself distant (in a way) and also teaching her who does what on the team so she knows to go to the correct person for questions.

    1. Matt*

      “yell from her office” … I can’t help but picturing Howard’s mother in BBT: “Howard, where’s Fergus?” – “He’s in the bathroom, Mom!” – “Tell him his froot loops are getting soggy!”

  23. Newb*

    Waking-Up Asks,

    Does anybody have a contact for me, or know who may *?

    Does the Reader refer to someone who may be my “boss” or “ED?,” or a possible unknown co-worker of mine?

    Is anyone local to meet outside in-person?

    How would one even know?

  24. Ayshe22992*

    When I read the title for the first time, my brain didn’t register boss’s boss. I read it that her boss kept asking where she was, as in existential crisis!! Lmao

    Also I’m american so the far out thing threw me off as well. I’m now enjoying visualizing your hippie ED saying far out whilst having an existential crisis!!!

    P.S. Far out will be my new thing at work and school where swearing is no bueno

  25. LizM*

    I feel like you and I could be in the same office, OP.

    The only thing I would add, having been in a similar situation, is that your manager may want to clarify expectations with the ED. There are some projects that aren’t mine, but are related to my work, and are important enough that someone in the office needs to be able to speak to them in an emergency. Because we have a fairly flexible office, the project lead isn’t always available, and I’ve been tasked with staying familiar enough with those projects to be able to provide back up.

    Since our new regional director started, we’ve realized he has different expectations about staff availability. Our direct supervisor has had to adjust some office policies about telework, forwarding phones to cell phones when off-site, and how detailed we need to keep our calendars (which are accessible by our support staff). Our supervisor has done a good job of training the regional director to go to our staff assistant when he needs someone, rather than just whoever he happens to run into. But it’s taken work. If your agency is like mine, there are clear lines of authority, and I think it’s fair to ask your supervisor to help figure out what’s actually expected of your team. That’s part of what they’re there for.

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