how to tell someone “this is your job, not mine”

A reader writes:

I’m an admin assistant at a Fortune 500 company. I assist a lot of people and teams, so I’m always busy with a full workload. Sometimes people try to foist work on me that isn’t part of my normal workload. When this happens, I will sometimes loop in my boss to clear it with him, especially if it’s a bigger or ongoing project.

My boss (who’s an excellent manager) is great about ensuring that people don’t take advantage of me or assign me work I shouldn’t be doing. He also makes sure to check in with about my workload to be sure that if I’m taking on a new task/project, that it’s something I can handle without jeopardizing the rest of my work.

However, sometimes I’m asked to do tasks that are fairly small but aren’t really my job. Usually the person who’s asking is lazy and doesn’t want to do it themselves or they don’t know how to and rather figure it out themselves, they ask me to do it for them.

Example: a supervisor asks me to change their car reservation for an upcoming work trip. (I don’t book travel for supervisor- and manager-level employees, only for senior leadership.) I usually just say yes and help the person out, but this can snowball: this person now seems to think it’s my job to book all their travel.

I could loop my boss in, but I don’t want to keep bringing these situations to his attention. I feel like I ought to learn how to (or try to) deal with this kind of thing by myself, and then, if it escalates, of course I will discuss with him.

All this to say: do you have any general advice for me or scripts on how I can kindly tell someone, “I did this as favor for you once, but this is really your job and you need to handle it from now on?”

The easiest thing to do is to tell them before you do it for them that first time as a favor. If you don’t tell them that’s what you’re doing, then it’s not unreasonable that they end up thinking it’s okay for them to ask you to help with it. In trying to be kind and help them out, you’re actually setting them up to annoy you later!

So if you’re going to say yes as a one-time favor, say something like this: “I’m really only supposed to book travel for senior leadership, but I can do it for you this time if you’re in a bind.” Or if you think that will make the person feel guilty and not want to take you up on that (and you genuinely do want to help), you can instead say, “I’m really only supposed to book travel for senior leadership, but it sounds like you’re in a bind — let me handle it this time, and then going forward, you can do it yourself.”

And there’s the “people normally do that on their own” formulation:
* “Oh, people normally handle that type of thing on their own.”
* “People normally get their own coffee — it’s right down the hall!”
* “People generally book their own meetings here — it’s really easy in Outlook!”

(You can add “but I can do it for you this once” to any of those. Just be careful about only adding it on for people who aren’t the types to keep asking you in the future.)

There’s also the priorities framing:
* “I”m pretty swamped with X and Y for Fergus, and can’t take on any other work today without delaying those.”
* “I’m working on X and Y for Fergus. You’d need to check with him about bumping those back.” (This works best for people who are pushy.)

There’s also a middle ground version: “People normally handle that on their own. I can show you how if you’re not sure how to do it.”

With all of this, keep in mind that it’s often not intuitively clear to people what they can ask admins for help with and what they can’t. You’re actually helping them out by explaining it to them (as long as you do it nicely) so that they sharpen their sense of what the division of labor is supposed to be.

{ 130 comments… read them below }

  1. H.C.*

    I’m of the “teach them how to fish” style, as well — it requires the other person to devote their time & energy to learn the process & sets the expectation that they need to do it on their own next time too.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Agreed. Offer to show them once and make it clear that you cannot help them again in the future.

      1. Infinity Anon*

        This is where I fall too. If they just didn’t want to do it they will say no to the offer. If they actually didn’t know how to do it, it solves the problem because now they do! And either way it prevents a repeat of the request.

    2. M-C*

      Agreed. I also make it obvious that I’m checking that they’re taking notes. Including kindly handing them paper and pencil “here I know you’re going to need this”. Or printing a screen shot. Then it’s crystal clear that I expect this to be the last time this topic is going to be covered.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    I’m also a big fan of the “Boss has asked me to stop doing that so I can support him on other projects” response, if someone is being pushy. Then the pushy person is in the awkward position of having to ask you to disregard direction from your own boss in order to help them out.

    1. cncx*

      this is my go-to as well when people don’t take to the “this is normally stuff people do themselves” response.

      I’m lucky too because my boss is super nice and no one wants to be the first person to incur his wrath

    2. Annonymouse*

      I remember reading a comment on here once where a clueless office worker asked an EA for I think a C level boss (I think CEO or COO) to pack up his desk since the company was moving offices and he didn’t want to do it.

      She replied “Sorry, I’m working on x,y and z (you know, her ACTUAL job). You’d need to take your request to CEO/COO and see if he wants me to do that.”

      And clueless worker did and was suitably chewed out.

      Really dude? High level reports and arrangements for a big boss take priority over low/mid level guy being too lazy to pack his desk every single time.

  3. KEG*

    I will use these! I’m also an admin but I do accounting work and people are constantly coming to me for things that should be reception or accounts payable. It’s tricky because I do know how to help, but it’s not my job and I don’t want it to be.

    1. Trig*

      I think in your case, where it’s actually someone else’s job (not the askers or yours), you can refer to that person pretty politely and without stirring any pots! Say “Oh, that’s more of an A/P thing, check with Beleredith!” or “I think Andrefon at reception can help best with that.” Or “I know I did this for you before, but it’s really something Glareth should handle in the future. I don’t want to step on their toes!”

      1. NW Mossy*

        My employees get this one All The Time, so I’ve given them a script for redirects – “Oh, that’s actually not us – Team X handles it. If you reach out to them at [contact info], they can help. If it’s an urgent/escalated issue, they report to Snufanie Sneezleton.”

          1. Snark*

            I actually went back and reread a bunch of her columns, and I actually find Yoffe hugely problematic when dealing with some situations. Current Prudence is bad with employment situations, but at least she doesn’t so badly screw up on advice about, say, sexual assault and harassment.

            1. Trig*

              Yeah, that and her tea-totalling kinda put me off. She had good, straightforward advice a lot of the time, but reeeeeally missed the mark on some of the more modern issues. Which is part of why I think they went in the direction they did with her replacement!

              I’ll admit to being biased in Mallory’s favour, having been an avid Toast reader, but man I am glad to no longer see someone told to write a letter to the DMV.

    2. TootsNYC*

      In this case, you can send them to Reception and Accounts Payable on the argument that these departments -need- to be the ones doing these things.

      They have requirements and knowledge that you aren’t -really- privy too–if the procedure or laws or billing codes changed, you actually might not know.

      Plus, they just need to know what sorts of workload they truly having. Having you do part of their work effectively “hides” that from them.

      Just pretend that instead of saying, “Would you fill out the check-request form?” the person has asked, “Who can help me fill out the check-request form?”

  4. Southern Admin*

    Also an admin here- I struggled with this same situation. Use every line Alison suggested. Another thing I found helpful (which is basically what Alison says) was to ask “Have you cleared that with Boss yet?” Most people did not want to interrupt the boss to ask if his assistant could handle their car reservations, etc.

    One of my worst examples is the manager who did not want to fill out her event checklist because “it takes too long for me to type it in. I’m going to hand-write it and you can fill in the sheet”. I said” Have you cleared that with Boss yet? Also, it’s incredibly insulting that you assume you can give me the things that you find annoying because I’m an assistant”. She asked Boss and he said “No. She does not have to complete your checklists for you. She has plenty of work to do. Feel free to assign one of your direct reports to do those forms for you.”

    1. jmm*

      100% all of this. My boss made it clear that I should only report to her, and am not to complete tasks given to me by other supervisors – unless she specifically asked me to help others. So if someone comes to me with a task, I ask them to check with her first to make sure it’s okay. That eliminates so many problems, and puts the onus on the asker, not me, to run interference with my boss.

    2. Dee-Nice*

      I would NEVER have the balls to reply that way to someone, but it makes me so happy to know that someone, somewhere, is letting people know when they’re being jerks. Thank you. And your boss sounds great.

      1. Southern Admin*

        Early on in my career I would not have responded that way. I’m about 15 years in at my current company and I’ve worked in multiple departments in multiple positions. My current boss basically recruited me for this position. He said that with the expansion he was going to be hiring an assistant and he liked my work ethic, how I handled situations , my organizational & phone skills, etc. He told me that I answered to him only.

        If I have time, I will help other directors and managers. The director in my original comment is notorious for trying to get other staff to do things she finds time consuming or annoying. If you are the organizer of the event, you are to do the event checklist. My boss is the organizer for an event here and he does his own checklist, so, no I’m not doing her checklist because she doesn’t want to take 10 minutes to fill that out.

    3. Green Goose*

      This is good. I’m close with our Office Manager and she has the same issues as the letter writer.
      I also have a job that can be a little vague responsibility-wise and I have a plethora of overworked coworkers who sometimes try to push things off on me or make last minute requests. I’m the type of person who likes to be helpful, and when I was newer at my role I would go the extra mile because I wanted to but it started it bite me when the favors started to become expected.
      I agree with Alison’s advice moving forward, but how I dealt with situations where I had helped a Fergus in the past and then a favor had morphed into an assumed expectation. I would send an email sort of like this:

      Ex email:
      Green Goose,
      I need you to review the teapot order list and pay for all of them by 3pm today. They are due today!!!

      Ex response:
      Hi Fergus,
      Thank you for your email. I unfortunately won’t be able to process the teapot payment today because I have another deadline that I am working on. As a reminder: all payment requests need to be made a minimum of 48 hours prior to a deadline and we can’t guarantee the payment will be made in a shorter turnaround time. Your previous request was processed in a shorter turnaround time because it was during a day I did not have any other time sensitive deadlines which I can accommodate on a case-by-case basis depending on availability but it not the standard turnaround time. I will get to your request within the next 48 hours.
      Please let me know if you have any follow-up questions.


  5. Jessie the First (or second)*

    But for the people for whom she has already done these favors, and did not use these scripts the first time, she needs to be able to say something now so that she doesn’t inherit a new job.

    I think it would be okay to say something the next time one of these favors comes along, perhaps such as “I’ll be happy to do this for you today. Going forward, I won’t be able to continue doing these favors, as I really am supposed to book travel only for senior leadership and my workload just doesn’t allow me to expand my duties into travel generally. Thanks for understanding.”

    1. Sublux*

      I really like this approach! It’s so hard to fix bad behaviour after having let it slide for a while – my coworker doesn’t want me to DO her work for her, but wants to TELL me about literally every project she’s working on. I’ve counted the number of times she comes over to my desk to talk about a project that doesn’t involve me at all – it averages between 6-10 times a day – a few days even hit 13! (In a 7.5-hr shift – minus meetings, etc)

      Being somewhat new, I let it go for too long – and now I’m dreading the super awkward conversation I need to have (I don’t want to take it to my manager until I say something to my coworker myself). But I’m thinking I could use a modified version of your wording :)

      1. FunnyMonkey*

        This is the perfect scenario to use something I learned in a manager training session once. It was probably the only thing I got out of that training, and I’ve never been able to use it. Here’s how it goes:

        Fergus approaches your desk to talk about a project you’re not involved in. “Hey, Sublux! You won’t believe what happened with the tea kettle project.”

        You: “I want to hear about it, but hold on a second.” (Grab a day planner) “My career coach – did I tell you I started working with a coach? I’m getting a lot of good advice – anyway, he told me to write down what I do during the day, so I can figure out how to use my time more effectively.” (look down at day planner, say, as you write “Fergus… distraction.” ) “Ok. What’s up?”

        Of course, it would be best to use this if you really don’t want her coming over to talk to you at all anymore.

          1. FunnyMonkey*

            It was a completely worthless training session. Really, more of an excuse to sell books. After I went, we never sent anyone else there.

            I’m pretty sure the trainer also meant this mostly as a joke. I thought it was funny.

        1. Optimistic Prime*

          I don’t see how this would help. Either Fergus would just get annoyed, or they would just ignore it and keep prattling on. It’s far better to just be direct and ask Fergus to stop coming over so often to talk to you about things that don’t involve you.

          1. Edith*

            And being openly rude to Fergus while telling him you’re seeing a career coach is a good way to get him telling everyone you’re looking for a new job.

            Not to mention– I know the career coach is imaginary, but why on earth would they tell you to say “Hang on, I need to write down that you’re about to distract me” (pause) “Okay, go on distracting me.”??? Wouldn’t this imaginary career coach instead coach you to not allow Fergus to continue with the distraction? Not only have you then invented a life coach for yourself, you’ve invented an incompetent one!

        2. My Name is Bob*

          Writing “distraction” is kind of mean, but I liked this up to that part. Saying “I want to hear about this, but I can’t right now,” and then pulling out the planner to say “let’s schedule a few minutes to talk later today” should take the wind right out of her sails. Especially if you don’t mind actually having one (not 13!) social debrief with her.

          I say this as a person who gets excited about minor epiphanies in my own work and might be guilty of interrupting my work pals to share. Telling me “I’m happy to talk to you, but catch me at a break, and keep it to ten minutes” would be a great strategy to limit the problem, while still retaining a positive relationship.

    2. OP here*

      “But for the people for whom she has already done these favors, and did not use these scripts the first time, she needs to be able to say something now so that she doesn’t inherit a new job.”

      Yes, this. Allison’s advice is excellent for preventing these kinds of situations, but sometimes it doesn’t occur to me that when I help someone out with something, that they would then assume it’s my job. One thing that worked me for me in this particular situation (booking travel for the manager) is to say, “Oh, I won’t be book your travel by your required deadline because I’m working on projects for Boss, but here are some resources and information that you will find helpful.” The person took the hint and booked their own travel–they haven’t asked me to do it for them since.

        1. The Supreme Troll*

          It’s OK. I think that you’re thoughtful and want to help out as much as you can, but it is not fair or right for it to interfere with your main job duties or even have to continuously be a personal inconvenience for you. The advise that AdAgencyChick gave above is very helpful too!

        2. MillersSpring*

          Maybe, “Actually, everyone is required to handle their own travel, including changes, so I need for you to resume handling that yourself.”

          If they push back: “I can point you to the right place, but it’s not something I can fit into my responsibilities.”

      1. BlueWolf*

        I’m in a similar boat, except there were times where I didn’t realize that something isn’t actually my job, so it’s hard to tell people I shouldn’t be doing it going forward. I am still relatively new to my job and had to kind of learn on a case-by-case basis when I should be forwarding certain things on to others. In my previous job I was essentially a department of one (it was a small business), so I was used to just doing everything on my own. It has taken some time to get used to being in a more specialized role in a larger company. I don’t want to seem like I’m being unhelpful or trying to foist things off on others, but some things do need to be done by the people who have the resources and background information necessary to do it correctly.

        1. the gold digger*

          Our admin (who was with the company for 35 years or so) just retired. She would tell us she was swamped. She always got everything done, but she always seemed so stressed.

          They gave her phone extension to her replacement and discovered that at least two phone numbers of people she was not supposed to be supporting rang directly to her line.

          She was still doing work – including answering the phone in an age of voicemail – for people she was not supposed to be supporting! And she never said anything!

          1. Been There, Done That*

            It’s not always easy to say something. Or it may simply not do any good. The boss doesn’t always back up the assistant.

            1. the gold digger*

              Yes, I can understand that happening. But in this case, her boss (who is also my boss) was very supportive and wanted to her not to be doing extra work. He would have happily gone to bat for her had he known.

        2. BadPlanning*

          Seems like the truth works for you well here.

          “Hey Fergus, I know I filed the ABC reports for you last week, but WakeenBoss let me know that’s not one of my job duties. The ABC cabinet is on floor 2. Sorry about the confusion!”

        3. SarahKay*

          BlueWolf, I’m always happy to be told “sorry, you actually need to ask GreenWolf for that one, I only cover x” – from my point of view that is helpful! Granted, I work in a huge company, so a lot of the time it’s a case of best guess for who to ask which is why I think a good redirect is helpful, so YMMV, but I don’t think you should feel bad for doing it.

      2. Green Goose*

        For reoffenders you could say, “Sorry, I won’t be able to consult with your (travel itinerary) again. I was able to last time because I did not have any deadlines so I was able to offer some extra help that last time.”
        If they get pushy, or it seems like they are not clear that its not actually your job, you could say:
        “When my primary work is lighter I can sometimes help other people with (example) on a case-by-case basis, but that falls under the individual employee’s responsibility.” and then send them resources.

        1. OP here*

          Thanks! This is a great script: ““When my primary work is lighter I can sometimes help other people with (example) on a case-by-case basis, but that falls under the individual employee’s responsibility.”

  6. Ramona Flowers*

    It’s always possible their last employer was somewhere the admin/s did do this, and they don’t realise it’s different here.

    1. Kit*

      Or whoever trained them on their current job told them admin handles x or y. I was trained by my predecessor to ask our Store Admin to do z task and it turns out I’m supposed to email the File Maintenance Admin who works in another location. I only learned this because the Admin Assistant told me she had been trained never to do z task and Store Admin just does it to be helpful. It’s just as easy to do, I just didn’t know I was talking to the wrong person.

    2. HopefullyUnrecognizable*

      YES! In my previous organization, the first few trips I took were with my boss, the CEO. I truly believed that her executive assistant booked all of the business travel for managers and it wasn’t until I got in trouble for asking her to book my travel that I found out I was wrong. I wasn’t trying to be lazy or give her more work to do– absent any other information in the handbook (there was none), I just went with my experience. If she had said something like what Alison proposes, I would have been embarrassed but grateful.

      1. CMDRBNA*

        This. I started a new job and I have no idea who does what, got literally zero onboarding, and there’s nothing to refer to. So if I ask someone to do something, I’m not asking because I’m malevolently trying to offload work, it’s because I literally don’t know (I always preface it with “I’m not sure who does this” but I feel like I can only do that for so long before being new isn’t an excuse).

        1. KellyK*

          I think that if there’s nothing to refer to, you’re always going to be asking someone the first time you have to perform that task. That’s something your employer should expect if they don’t have processes written down anywhere. When you find out, I’d write it down somewhere so you don’t have to ask again. (If you end up creating an unofficial “how to get things done” guide for yourself, then later, once you have more experience, you can ask about converting it to an actual process manual to help others.)

          The first step might be to ask a coworker in the same role who’s been there longer, “Hey, do you know who handles XYZ?” If you end up having to guess and ask the person who you think probably handles it, you can soften the request with, “If you’re not the person who handles this, would you happen to know who does?” As long as you’re not treating random admins like *your* assistant, most people are willing to either help you out themselves or point you in the right direction.

    3. Mairsey Doats*

      That happened to me at my previous job; the lady training me said “Once you’ve done these reports, give them to Admin to scan to the network drive.”

      Later Admin politely mentioned that it was not actually her job to scan reports to the network drive, but she would be happy to show me how to do so. I was glad to have such clear information, and I took her up on the offer.

    4. Gadfly*

      I’ve noticed that admin/assistant can be a particularly idiosyncratic job title. And it really is going to vary for company to company and how much your bosses support you. It can be hard enough for you to know what your job is, let alone expect anyone else to know what it is.

      1. Been There, Done That*

        I’d go so far as to say it’s a BS job title. It says nothing anymore. My own boss lumps all “admin” into the same heap, from the entry-level receptionist to the head honcho’s executive assistant (who primarily does event planning), because they’re in that job category. At my last job, “department admins” spent more than half their time on functions that directors used to do.

  7. Cookienay*

    Alison, you are so right that it is not intuitive on what is ok to ask of an admin! In my field, we have a role whose job it is to answer phones, gather information, relay information, etc…
    It’s easy to ask them to do things I can do for myself. I didn’t recognize this in myself until I witnessed a coworker doing it and was like “Wow. I need to stop!”. I do enjoy a bit of seniority and influence in my workplace so I am trying to influence that. If someone with 20+ years of experience and a knowledge of workplace norms can make that mistake, then anyone can. Thanks for this blog!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, to complicate it, you might actually be doing the right thing! In some offices, admins do handle stuff that others could technically do on their own, but where you should delegate it to the admin because your employer wants your time spent on other stuff (which can make a lot of sense). So you really need to know your office on this one. You could probably just ask your admin whether this is stuff that’s okay to give to her or whether most people handle it on their own.

      1. Chriama*

        Quite frankly I’m a pretty junior person (both in rank and tenure) in my office so I would also expect the admins to tell me “you do this yourself” or “actually, we have x and y procedures”.

        1. OhNo*

          As someone who is also pretty junior, I actually get a lot of these requests myself, and I don’t always feel comfortable redirecting them if the person asking is higher on the totem pole than I am.

          That’s why I always start off my questions to admins with, “Do you know who I talk to about _____?” Sometimes the answer is them, sometimes the answer is someone I’ve never heard of. Either way, I don’t like to assume anything is their job, because it can vary a lot and I don’t want to put pressure on them if I can avoid it.

      2. BlueWolf*

        Very true. For example, in a law firm attorneys are trying to focus on client-billable hours, so they shouldn’t be spending their time doing accounting or other non-client work tasks if it can be avoided.

      3. Cookienay*

        It made me feel a little relieved when you pointed out that it is not intuitive. Someone in that role in another setting would definitely be expected to handle such requests, but I am certain now that is not the case for mine. For one, our phone rings with multiple incoming calls at once. Furthermore, there is one of her and about 15 in my role, 6 others in a level above. It was pretty clear to me that I should be calling for my own equipment or supplies.
        Goes to show that there are always things to learn and sometimes the way we think it is really isn’t the way it is!

    2. AndersonDarling*

      So true! When I was an admin, a new salesperson asked me to wash the windows in his office. I forwarded the email to facilities and asked for them to put in a ticket for housekeeping, but the facilities person blabbed and the salesperson never lived it down. He was teased for a year because he didn’t know the difference between an admin and a housekeeper.

  8. Nervous Accountant*

    For some reason I’m remembering the letter from the person who wrote in wanting to use the admin for his own work–he was under the impression that that admin is *everyone’s* admin.

      1. Murphy*

        My mouth was wide open after reading the original letter, but what an update! Looks like he really took the advice to heart.

      2. Nervous Accountant*

        Wow, reading all the comments in the original post, it really looksl ike things have softened now. quite a few harsh comments in there!

    1. Jess*

      When I was briefly an admin at a university alumni office, an alumna once called my desk out of the blue and told me she needed me to go to the achool’s library, gather up a ton of books she wanted, find info on XYZ in all of them, scan all those pages, and email them to her.

      I was like, “You want me to do what?” and she said, “You’re an admin in the alumni office and I’m an alumna so you’re there to do whatever alumni say.” I suggested she talk to the librarians about doing this research for her and she said, “They already said no! Now do your job!”

      People can really turn weird and entitled when they hear the word admin.

        1. Jess*

          Well, because I was new, I put her on hold and then went and asked my boss if part of my job was being a research assistant to alumni because there was a lady on the phone who wanted me to spend at least a week in the library compiling research for her. My boss laughed and said, “What? No!” and then realized I was dead serious and had me transfer the call to her, where I assume she set the alum straight because I never heard from her again.

          1. Stardust*

            Wow. I’m glad you went with your gut and checked with your boss because that request was bonkers.

  9. Chriama*

    I’m definitely guilty of asking admins to do stuff that’s not in their purview. One thing to think about is what the process is like. For example, we’re supposed to put in a facility request for certain tasks and a technology request for others. The admin team does tech requests and facility requests is another team. Is requesting a new monitor a facility or technology request? Sometimes it seems like it changes depending on the phases of the moon. Also, I’m supposed to have access to the facility request system to put my own requests in but my account doesn’t work. So the one time I need help I ask the admins, who figure it’s easier to do it for me than track down who owns the facility request system to try and fix my account access. Of course that means that if I need to do another facility request in 6 months I’m going to ask the admins. Multiply that by all the people in the office and suddenly it’s not a tiny amount of time. If they could get in touch with the facility system owner and establish a process for referring people to them to explain how it works and reinstate their access, that might save them a lot of time.

    So what I’m saying is, if certain things are coming up a lot, it might be worth having a procedure or something you can always redirect people to so it takes up less of your time. Documentation, a screencast video, or the contact info of whoever handles the reservation system.

    1. SusanIvanova*

      My friend the Wonder Admin maintained a lot of in-house wiki pages on How To Do That Thing. But the process for filing a help request for IT or repairs – or even “it takes me 10 seconds on crutches to get from the badge-reader to the door, which relocks after 5 seconds” – was a frustrating mess even to her. (It wasn’t enough to file it with facilities, you had to put the correct links to other departments who’d recognize the magic ADA citation and escalate it to *now*, instead of a month from now when I wouldn’t need it.)

      I griped once that after several minutes of looking I couldn’t even *find the web UI element for starting the request process* (buried in some menu that didn’t have any sort of visual “I am a menu” appearance – no borders, shadows, nothing!) – and I am a UI designer! So she filed both the original request I needed and one that said “UI designer can’t navigate your UI, do something” :)

    2. Julianne*

      One of the administrators at my workplace has taken the time (with permission from her boss, in between other projects) to create documentation with visuals for so many of the things people previously asked her (or anyone else with administrative duties) to help with, and they are a fabulous resource. There are a lot of data-based tasks that we only have to do at most 1-3 times per year (mostly stuff involved in setting up our grade books), so it takes time to master because brain-space is precious. :p It was a lot of work to create it all, but now we can just go to our school’s wiki for a reminder on how to do things.

  10. Bend & Snap*

    My SVP’s admin does light support for other senior leaders, but it is very clear what she does and doesn’t do for the rest of us. She’s also great about pointing us to the right resources. I never ask her to do something for me, but I do ask her what’s the best way to do something/what the process is, etc. She’s always very helpful and I don’t come across as entitled when I’m trying to figure out how to get stuff done.

    OP, feel free to point people to links, people, departments, whatever. Punting is one of the joys of working in a Fortune 500 company.

    1. Jubilance*

      I do the same – I’ll ask our admin the process for doing something (requesting a room, for example) and ask her for any resources. Sometimes she’ll just do it for me, and sometimes she’ll give me the info and I do it myself. But I never presume that she can or will just do it for me.

    2. J*

      I always start with the “what’s the best way” question. Mostly because I have poor management skills and it’s so much easier if someone shows me how to do it so I don’t have to remember to ask the admin in a sufficient amount of time to take care of something. If you teach me, then my “get this letter on letterhead and out the door today” emergency stays my emergency and doesn’t impinge on the admin’s workflow.

  11. AL*

    What could the “askers” ask to make sure what they’re asking is within this person’s scope? I am asking (ha) this because I often have technical questions but am never sure if I am asking the right person and if they reply out of politeness or really because it is part of their job. (English isn’t my forte, hope the question makes sense!)

    1. OP here*

      I think it’s totally fine to ask as long as it’s really a question instead of an assignment: “Hey, would you be able to help me with X task?” is better than “I need you to do X task for me.” You can also be upfront about the fact that you don’t know if this is in their scope: “I have some questions about X. Are you the right person to talk to about that?”

      If the task isn’t in the person’s scope, this gives them the opportunity to point you to the right person or resources.

    2. TootsNYC*

      Ask them “Is there a way I can get some help with X?”
      Or, “Is there someone who helps people with booking travel?”
      or “I need to rebook my travel; is there anyone who might be able to help me?”

      “Are you the right person to ask for help with this?”
      Or the casual: “Help! I have this question and I’m not sure who can answer it.”

      1. periwinkle*

        That’s exactly what I do with our admin. She primarily supports the director but handles other administrative work and knows everything (or at least it seems that way). “Hi Sansa, I’m trying to complete my expense report for an international teapot conference but the expense software isn’t letting me input room taxes and the help file skips right over that stuff. Do you know of a good resource for that info?” She either knows or knows who knows, or in this case has already put together a step-by-step process doc (with screenshots) because she’s heard this question a lot.

        Actually, that’s what I do with a lot of requests for help. “Are you the right person or do you know who might be able to help?” In a company as large as my employer, sometimes this daisy-chaining is the only way to track down information, so it’s smart to do it with courtesy rather than demands or entitlement. Not everyone has figured that bit out…

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      “I’m not sure if you’re the right person to ask this…” works just fine. I get these sorts of requests all the time and have no problems saying “You’ve got to talk to so-and-so.”

      Keep in mind that sometimes this isn’t just about protecting your time and your priorities. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you will do it “right.” If I start doing stuff that’s someone else’s job, I may step on her metaphorical toes.

      1. JessaB*

        Or worse than stepping on metaphorical toes, absolutely bollix up something that will take hours to untangle. It doesn’t always take a big, obvious error to really really screw things up for someone.

        1. Chinook*

          “absolutely bollix up something that will take hours to untangle. It doesn’t always take a big, obvious error to really really screw things up for someone.”

          And that right there is why the two admin type people on our floor (me and the other one) do some of the paperwork that the engineers are capable of doing. We do 20 of form X a week and a given engineer may do one every couple of months. Not only do we have the ability to do it fast, but we also know where/how it can go wrong and troubleshoot as we go. The odd time we have someone try to help out or too impatient to wait one day the odd time we are both out of the office (which is rare), invariably something goes wrong and she or I spend hours trying to figure out what went wrong (especially because neither of us have the backup paperwork).

          As a result, we are more than happy to enter the paperwork because it is just less work in the long run.

  12. Margaret*

    I think it’s also a kindness to point this out – I’m sure you can tell if some people are just being lazy or trying to take advantage of whatnot. But especially as I move up in my career, I sometimes don’t feel confident in knowing what I’m supposed to do myself, what I should ask professional staff below me to do, and what I should ask admin to do, that’s the overall best use of company resources.

    Especially when I’ve been told by superiors to delegate more (there are definitely aspects that I can pass along, but often feel like it’s “easier” – in the short term – to just do myself, and I struggle with feeling like I have the authority to delegate as much as I ought to be doing), I try to do so, but that might include passing something to admin that I ought to be doing myself or asking a staff member to do. I don’t mind you telling me that it’s not your job! I’m just doing what I *think* is supposed to happen.

    1. Jenny Next*

      I would argue that, as you move up in your career, the expectation that you should delegate certain tasks should, in an ideal universe, be accompanied by having your own administrative staff.

      I think it’s part of The Great Understaffing of America that executives and professionals are often expected to do their own admin tasks, and this particularly falls on women.

      1. Been There, Done That*

        I’d throw in that it needs to be recognized more that administrative staff also want to move up as they grow and learn, not necessarily from Admin I to Admin II, but into non-administrative roles. I think The Great Understaffing has led to an assumption (in some places anyway) that Jane loves her admin role and would never want to leave it, because she’s so good at it and everyone appreciates her so much in that role.

    2. OP here*

      Most admins (myself included) are willing to go out of our way to help people of more senior rank because we know they are busy, have packed calendars and a long list of responsibilities. So you definitely shouldn’t feel bad about needing more help as you move up in your career.

      1. Chinook*

        Plus, if nobody delegated work to their admin assistant, we wouldn’t have jobs. :)

        I can’t speak for others, but if you show honest gratitude/enthusiasm for someone willing to do your more basic tasks, it means a lot. I still remember the look on the face of one of the guys when I told him I would be happy to code his invoices so all he would have to do is review and sign them (this also meant I knew who had the invoices, so I wasn’t just being nice). I swear it was a mix of awe and glee. He, as a junior engineer, never thought he would have this type of help. And now, 4 years later, he is still happy when I give him something he just has to review and sign.

  13. Janelle*

    I have been there. I am an admin in a sense as we have three small businesses so small means most everyone does everything. Since I happen to know how to do all of the admin stuff I find this happens a lot. The worst is hearing “but you can do it so quick”. PS I will never again tell someone how fast I can type or about my editing skills. They assume that means I’ll do all of that for them. Ugh. And usually last minute.

    Also I happen to suck at training so it is difficult for me to properly teach someone how to do it themselves.

    Over the years I have tried, not always succeeded, at just saying no. Scripts help but at the end of the day you do just have to say “I am so busy I can’t do that today”. Something along those lines. This of course is easier for me now as I am their boss but I still rarely can get away with no with my other owner. The saving grace being that we are close enough that I can kind of put my foot down when push comes to shove, but realistically if it is urgent I end up having to do it.

    To an extent I think this is just one of the pitfalls of admin work. You become so skilled at what you do that it just happens. I agree that very clearly staying to the boss “I have a, b and c that need to be done and this will delay that” is one of the most useful tools in the arsenal.

    I must also say that although my career has moved beyond most admin work, I truly enjoy that I have this wealth of knowledge. One of the more undervalued positions that has some of the greatest impact. I love knowing I don’t need help and I can get almost anything done without asking. The further you move in your career the more empowering this becomes. I see people struggle with a lot of these tasks and love knowing I can run my businesses myself because I know this.

  14. Feo Takahari*

    I see it as a matter of priorities. When I have invoices that need to be dealt with today, I need to focus on those. If I’ve bashed out all the stuff my boss needs, then I can help out with things that aren’t usually my job.

  15. ByLetters*

    I’ve always been a huge fan of looking really surprised that they asked, and then saying in a tone of slight confusion, “Do you need someone to show you how to [book travel, file that form, use the coffee machine, etc].” Implying that the only reason that they’d ask would be because they didn’t know how to do it themselves. If they honestly don’t know how, fine; I can either show them or point them in the right direction. If they know how and are overwhelmed or lazy, their answer will help me decide whether to offer assistance or not.

  16. TechAdmin*

    I’m an admin. I’ve been in the company one way or another for the last three years, and I seem to collected enough company trivia to be considered a walking wiki. I always say, “Oh! I know where to find that! I’ll send you the link!” then I’ll email them the appropriate page from the intranet or internal wiki. I don’t have to do any extra work (the questions are frequent enough that I have a OneNote with all of the links), and I keep my reputation that I know everything.

    1. NW Mossy*

      My dad was an executive at a Fortune 500 company before he retired, and he once told me that he found people like you to be the most important people to cultivate relationships with – those who can make those connections between The Person Who Needs a Thing and The Person Who Can Do a Thing bring tremendous value through their networks.

      He once proved his point to a visiting executive from another organization as they had lunch in the headquarters cafeteria (based in the US). He bet the visitor that he could ask one randomly selected person to find someone who could speak a specific obscure language and send them over before they’d finished their meal. Sure enough, it only took a couple hops for the question to find a deep-network employee who immediately thought, “Hey, I know just the guy!” and sent him over. The visitor had a bit of a hard time believing that my dad and the language-speaker had truly never met before (they really hadn’t!), but I love the story because it goes to show that knowing who is 85% of what’s needed to accomplishing something in a company.

  17. Been there*

    I have to admit I’m clueless about when to ask an admin to help with something. We have ‘group admins’ and admins that support only certain people in my organization. As a rule I only approach admins who support only one person if that person directs me to.

    But the group admins are another bunch entirely. It seems so random what they do and what they don’t do. Some will get mad if I don’t ask them to arrange lunch some get mad if I do. Some are happy to help with projects some act as though I’m asking for their kidney. Some will push back if I ask them to help with something, but turn around and do it for someone else (in the same level and group). I truly don’t know if I work with a squirrelly bunch or what.

    So I guess on behalf of all confused but well-intentioned people in your workplace I suggest you be clear and consistent with the level of support that

    I’m just resigned to the fact that I will be forever on some admin’s sh#t list for doing or not doing something.

    1. Been there*


      *that you give

      Also to clarify the things I’m asking for are not day to day stuff that I can and should do myself or within my team (like book travel or project work).

    2. Morning Glory*

      I am not sure how much control you have over which group admins are available – but is there any way for you to figure out which admins want to help with project work, etc. and go to them first with it? If you try seeing them as individual colleagues (some good, some bad) rather than a mysterious and un-distinguishable group, that could help you figure things out. I am an admin who does X as my core job, but would be eager to get a chance to work on Y project even if it’s not a requirement. The other admin on our team does X as his core job and wants to just stick with X.

      Also, you could try going to the person who directly manages the admins to find out if there are official policies on what admins do and what level of support they give to each position.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      If there is some who oversees the admin pool from whom you could seek guidance? That’d give you a sniff-test on whether you’re asking them to do the wrong things or if you have squirrelly people trying to avoid a job. If you’re not getting consistent support and you’re not asking for the wrong things, their manager should now that they’re not consistently helpful.

      1. Been there*

        Nope, they all report to random people. No pool. I think it’s just my company and some of the particular admins. Typically admins aren’t common in my company, so the few that are here are either Executive (which of course I wouldn’t ask to arrange a lunch) or legacy group ones without a clear manager or a manager that manages in name only. It’s really a bit odd. So I err on the side of caution and don’t ask for anything, I figure it’s better for me to be on the sh#t list for not asking for something than for asking for something.

        That’s why I’m suggesting the OP and any other admins out there be clear with the people they work with. Don’t make people guess at what you do and don’t do.

        1. Been There, Done That*

          Sad to say, in some cases the admin may not be sure and may be feeling their way along. My long-ago boss the New Manager genuinely believed the company didn’t have a job description in place for me and thought she could make it up as she went along and change it day to day. Bleah, said Charlie Brown. She’d give me instructions re the rest of the team, and sometimes they’d get p.o.’d and complain to New Manager about my actions or inactions, whereupon she’d demand an explanation from me. “You told me to/not to” didn’t swing much weight. A big joke now, not funny then.

    4. OP here*

      You could always send out a group email to the admins: “I’m working on a X project and would really appreciate any help I can get. Would any of you be willing and able to work with me on this?”

  18. Dee-Nice*

    I think a lot depends on how the ranking person reacts to your pushback, and whether they’re a repeat offender. Alison’s scripts are great. As someone who’s hoping to increase her visibility and move up in my company, I often go with “I’ll help you this once, but in the future…” etc. And if someone is very pushy, I’ll go with, “I need to check with [my manager] to see if he’s okay– I’m really supposed to be working on [other project].” It usually ends there.

  19. Polymer Phil*

    I don’t understand why admin assistants are becoming a thing of the past. The savings of getting rid of an admin position are lost when people making 6-figure salaries are forced to do their own Xeroxing and other routine tasks.

    1. Jenny Next*

      I have a theory on that! It’s because the pay level for exemption from overtime is so low (around $24,000 per year).

      A company doesn’t have to pay anything for an exempt employee to arrange travel, make photocopies, schedule things, and so forth . . . so they figure that they save money by not having to hire support people.

      As I mentioned above, although it falls on people of both (or all) sexes to not have support, I believe that professional women in particular have ended up having to just add the admin tasks to their duties. This is in part due to the reason above, and in part because women aren’t (on average) trained to expect someone to take care of the details for them.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Because things have gotten easier to do yourself (e.g., creating your own documents/presentations in an office productivity tool versus handwritten edits and typing; online booking sites versus travel agencies/calling the hotel and travel companies separately; phone messages versus voicemail and email transcription of voicemail) and administrative positions tend to be entirely overhead and non-exempt. Plus, the volume of photocopying and mailing has decreased significantly in a lot industries.

      We still have administrative personnel (and some amazing ones), but the support ratios are much higher and they tend to support the people who are less facile with technology.

      1. Chinook*

        I agree – a lot of what an admin/secretary would have done in the past is now done by Microsoft. The problem is that a lot of the other softer tasks (like having the knowledge and contacts NW Mossy and TechAdmin mention) are hard to show as an asset on a balance sheet. Within a year of working here, a lot of people asked “what exactly do you do” and my answer ended up being a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of making sure nothing falls through the cracks. Could my department do what they do without me – of course. But I ensure that they can focus on their actual job while I spend time chasing paperwork, calling vendors about insurance, compiling reports and filling in blanks.

        As for the change in support ratios – I work on a floor with 5 departments (with 45 people in office and another 45 in the field) and one vice president and we have 1 admin. assistant, 1 catch all support person (me), and 2 budget analysts (who only deal with the numbers). 10 years ago, there would have been 6 admins. to support them all. If we had that many now, we would all be bored,

      2. Jenny Next*

        I agree that all these individual things are now easier to do, and this is why numbers of support staff have gone down. But, for the person who doesn’t have solid admin support, collectively it’s like being nibbled to death by ducks.

        If a person has to make their own travel arrangements, send their own faxes, format their own Word tables, figure out how to print their own Excel docs so that they are readable and not ugly, arrange to schedule meetings with 8 other people, and all these other seemingly small but actually important tasks, before you know it, their energy is being sucked into all of these things and isn’t available for their main work.

        Even if they are really good at getting each of these individual things done, there’s wisdom in having division of labor once it gets past a certain point.

  20. Ms. FS*

    I wanted to comment on how you can do approach this with your boss on a long term basis rather than come to them with individual issues. I would tell my boss, “hey sometimes I get requests for things that aren’t my job like (throw in common examples here) and here’s how I’m handling them (describe how you handle them). Does that make sense to you and should I be doing anything differently? I just wanted to let you know in case you hear about any situations like this in the future”. This approach shows your boss that you are thinking proactively about problems and providing solutions, and let’s them in on the scope of the situation just in case somebody comes complaining to them. That way they are aware ahead of time!

  21. Candy*

    Is there an admin person whose job it is to do these sorts of things? If so, I would just reply with “I’m forwarding this to Susie, who takes care of your travel arrangements.”

    If not, I would definitely use some version of “Most people normally handle that on their own” with a dash of surprise and wonderment that they don’t already know it’s their job to do. And repeat as needed.

  22. Lisa*

    I had this same experience when I was a temp Financial Analyst. People wanted to give me admin work since I “was a temp” and should do what was needed. I talked with my supervisor and they sent out a group wide email clearly stating what were my duties and what were not my duties. They really didn’t want me calling for dinner reservations at my hourly rate lol :) Worked like a charm and whenever anyone asked me to do something out of my scope I referred them to the email.

  23. livingtheneweconomy*

    I second the notion of somebody developing some procedures for basic functions. -My office has virtually nothing written down in a “HOW TO” manual. Everything is in somebody’s head–usually some admin who has been around and survived the budget cuts and hachet jobs. We do oral history around this joint.

    So…I do something once a year maybe. I cannot find any written procedures on how to do it. Somebody shows me and I thank them. Next year I need to do it again, and I am not smart enough to remember how to do this one thing and I didn’t realize that I needed to write it down the year before. (now I do) . On the other hand, the admin does this thing about once a week for the people he supports (who is not me–new hires dont’ have any admin support). . I think “AHA let me ask Sam! he does this all the time!” But Sam is not my admin. He is frustrated because I asked, but honestly, I don’t know how else to get the thing done. I can either spend a day figuring out how to do something, and ask a dozen people, or I can ask Sam and find out in about a minute.

    The organization has set this up badly. And now nobody has the bandwidth to write a procedures manual, because admin staffing has been cut to the bone. What do we do in this case?

    1. Friday*

      Ask in a way that’s respectful of Sam:

      Ask to schedule a 15min training session with Sam
      Ask Sam when he’d be available
      Send the meeting request yourself
      Thank Sam, and tell him you are good to go on this procedure from here on out and also would he like a copy of your notes to give to others who ask.

  24. Elder Dog*

    What worked on me (sheepish grin) was the admin said she had a lot of work and wouldn’t have time to do that for me, but she could book a training session on it for me, and when would be a good time.

  25. Random Poster*

    Please say something! I was on this from the other side — I was promoted into a job where I was given many of the responsibilities, but not the title, of my predecessor (I had a lot less experience). Since the admin had always done X, Y and Z for my old boss, I assumed that when I took over the job she would do X, Y and Z for me. I realized pretty quickly that she was kind of irritated at my requests, but I didn’t really know why — until months later when she got snappish and told me she was only supposed to do things for people at a certain level or above. Which I wasn’t. But I really had no clue.

  26. crunchybits*

    years ago someone handed me a file and said “here, you have a certain order for these.” I held his eye contact for several moments and clarified: “alphabetical?” He filed it himself.

  27. Elizabeth West*

    There’s also a middle ground version: “People normally handle that on their own. I can show you how if you’re not sure how to do it.”

    I like this one best. Even said in a friendly tone, it is much more straightforward and leaves no doubt that the person is expected to do their own tasks. The softer versions tend to leave an opening for them to come back again and again, always saying “But I’m in a bind!”

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