my coworker assigns me work, says “no rush,” and then checks on it an hour later

A reader writes:

I work as a receptionist/office assistant at a university. A large part of my job is small research projects for other members of my department. I am often working on multiple different things for various different people.

I have one colleague who will email me a task, and then walk down to my office to explain it to me. Which is annoying, but not the end of the world. However, he will often emphasize “no rush” on whatever task he’s assigning me, and then come back and check within an hour or so to see if I’ve completed it yet. He will also say, “no rush, but I assume you don’t have a lot going on,” which seems rude and also inaccurate since I’m working on separate things for different people, and not everyone knows what everyone else has assigned to me.

I’ve tried communicating what I’m currently working on (which is sometimes time-sensitive), or how long I think something will take, asking him if he’s sure it’s no rush, all to no avail. When he comes back and I haven’t completed whatever he wants, he says it’s fine but acts passive-aggresively, sighing, or getting sort of frantic. I’m starting to think it’s some sort of power play or weird, misguided way of communicating his importance in the department. (He is the same level as all my other coworkers who give me research projects to complete.)

I’ve started just putting his task first and trying to complete it as soon as possible, which isn’t fair to my other coworkers. At this point, I don’t know what to do rather than tell him straight-up that his constant checking up on me is only hindering the process of me getting any work done, but I was hoping for a more tactful way to do that.

Ooooh, he’s very annoying.

Say this to him: “I’m finding that you and I aren’t communicating clearly about timelines for the work you give me. When you tell me ‘no rush,’ I’m assuming that means you’re not expecting to have it back today. I’m often working on multiple different things for multiple different people, and so if you tell me ‘no rush,’ I’m going to finish the requests that came in ahead of yours first. But you’ll often check back on it after an hour, which makes it seem like it was a rush. Going forward, if you need something back within an hour or within the same day, please tell me that when you first give me the work. Otherwise, I have to prioritize it relative to the other tasks people have given me.”

I’d also be clearer about timelines when he first gives you work. For example, when accepting a project, say, “I’m pretty busy today so I’ll probably get this to you tomorrow afternoon.” Then if he checks in an hour later, say this: “Did you get my email earlier saying I’d get this back to you tomorrow afternoon?” Say this in a tone of genuine confusion, because confusion is an appropriate response to this.

Speaking of confusion, you should use that when he starts sighing or getting frantic when something isn’t done an hour later. When that happens, say this: “I’m confused — you told me ’no rush’ on this. Did I misunderstand?” Again, use a tone of genuine confusion and then wait to see what he says.

If it still keeps happening after that and you feel like the power dynamics in your office allow you to do this, say this: “Hey, this keeps happening and we need to solve it. Can we agree that I’ll get you work back on the timeline that I originally tell you, but that you won’t check in on it before that? Checking in earlier makes everything I’m doing take longer, since I have to stop what I’m working on to get you an answer. If for some reason the original timeline I give you changes, I’ll let you know, but otherwise please assume that’s the timeline I’m using.”

Also, if he makes any more of those comments about how he assumes you don’t have a lot going on, laugh and say this, “Really? That’s a strange assumption. I have a bunch of assignments I’m working on.” And if he says it again after that, say this: “You’ve mentioned a few times that you don’t think I have much going on, and maybe that’s causing misunderstandings about how quickly I can turn these projects around. I’m generally quite busy and working on projects for multiple people, some of them time-sensitive. Going forward, assume I actually do have a lot going on, since that’s usually the case.”

{ 262 comments… read them below }

  1. CleverGirl*

    Anyone who assumes a receptionist/office assistant doesn’t have a lot going on most of the time has no concept of what that job actually entails. I’m rather annoyed at him for saying this repeatedly.

    1. EBStarr*

      I think it’s just staggeringly rude to say to anyone, no matter what you know or don’t know about their job. It’s basically like implying you don’t think the person is of use to anyone else. The snobbery component of someone who says this to a person in an assistant position makes it even more distasteful.

      1. KarenT*

        Arrogance, too. I don’t get this attitude of “I don’t know what you’re doing, ergo you must be doing nothing.” It’s not unique to the OPs co-worker, as I’ve known a few of these types.

        1. Dolorous Bread*

          I had a boss like that in my first real job, she was horrid and would scream and curse at employees. For whatever reason, she hated the person in my role before me, ergo she hated me too. She looked at me like I was dirt, questioned my purpose, scoffed when I had to ask her questions, wouldn’t greet me, etc.

          Eventually she made me send her an email at the end of every day with what exactly I did all day long. I had to set up a computer widget to ping me every hour so I could note what I was doing , which took time away from my actual tasks which included: compiling production invoicing from multiple vendors to bill projects for MULTIPLE clients, marking up invoices (like physically, in photoshop), putting together a large production invoice to the client with backup that sometimes ran almost 200 pages, making sure each vendor had their OWN backup figures right, then making sure MY backup figures were right, reflecting the markup profit internally, sending the invoices to the client and tracking payment status, as well as helping plan photo shoots for the agency’s multiple artists and managing interns, for barely $10/hr.

          I got out after exactly a year and have luckily never had a situation that toxic since.

            1. Dolorous Bread*

              I cried almost every day but it was my first job in that city so had to stick out my year.

        2. eplawyer*

          Worse, it’s You are not working on MY project so therefore you must doing nothing. It’s very self-centered.

          This guy is pulling a power play. He thinks he is more important than he is and is trying to force you to behave as if he is more important than the others.

          1. Samata*

            And it sounds like he is getting what he wants by her current actions of moving his stuff to the front of the list. The tables need to turn very quickly here and I think Alison’s scripts are perfect. OP has to shut it down; trying to explain that she is doing things almost never works in these situations. Unless she is his personal support person for projects he likely knows her role in the office and is just trying to assert his power over her.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Agreed. I audibly inhaled when I got to that part of the letter. This coworker is extremely annoying. OP has more patience and grace about it than I would.

        1. Jadelyn*

          Seconded – OP, I commend you on your restraint! I think I would’ve let out at least one loud, incredulous “ExCUSE me???” with the “you want to re-think what you’re about to do/say” face front and center, before my work-behavior filters kicked in.

          I’d love to watch someone like this try to function without admins or any support personnel available to him for a week, then see what he says.

          1. Artemesia*

            I suspect the guy standing their sighing actually doesn’t have enough work to do himself and could probably do the task himself if he has time to pace and sigh and make a nuisance of himself.

            This guy would never go to the top of the queue for me; I would make a point of putting his work routinely at the bottom of the queue and letting him know when it would be done.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Agreed! I don’t know if he’s trying to be a squeaky wheel or if he’s just obnoxious (it could be both). But if someone were doing this to me, I would move all their work to the very end of my list.

            2. Gazebo Slayer*

              Oh yes, you think like I do.

              Don’t reward this guy’s bad behavior by prioritizing his stuff.

        2. Just no*

          Same here. I don’t know if it’s just the general exhaustion I feel with tiptoeing around people’s unwarranted expectations lately (possibly aggravated from all the Weinstein insanity) but I read that and imagined myself leaping over the desk at the annoying coworker, Mean Girls style. How full of yourself would you have to be to not only make such an assumption, but to actually vocalize it?

      3. McWhadden*

        It’s so rude!

        The woman in the office across from me is a talker. She’ll spend hours everyday just talking super loudly to anyone who passes by. It’s very distracting. And sometimes in my fantasies I imagine saying “oh, not a lot going on today, huh?”

        Because I know that would be the rudest most gutting thing I could say. She’d be livid. But I never would! Because I’m not a passive-aggressive jerk. We all have evil fantasies sometimes.

        Point being that is such a rude thing to say it’s literally one of the worst things I could imagine saying to someone.

        1. Actuarial Octagon*

          I have a similar evil fantasy! Especially because the talker in my office is often talking about how busy she is!

          1. Butterfly Kiss*

            I had a supervisor like this. She would stand by my desk for 20-30 minutes talking about how busy she was. Like, if you’re really that busy, do you have time to stand here telling me about it?

    2. k.k*

      A comment like that puts my past annoyed and straight to someone please punch this guy in the face. Saying it has such undertones of “you’re not important, the things you do don’t matter, your job doesn’t matter, etc”.

      1. Amadeo*

        If this guy is tenured faculty, that kind of notion isn’t entirely uncommon. I was straight up told this in as many words (“I wish you people would get out of my way so I can teach”). I’m not going to say they all do it, because that’s unfair and untrue, but the attitude is there; there’s at least one on every department.

        1. Chinook*

          It Isn’t just tenured faculty. I had accountants treat me like this when I was a receptionist. It wasn’t until one of the partners saw me during a particular busy moment and managing it smoothly and subsequently speaking up about his observations to those under him that the attitude started to change. Most people don’t understand what a good receptionist does as they often see us during pulls and/or we are doing our job so well that you don’t notice it (like a ducks feet as they glide over the water)

          1. pope suburban*

            Yup. Been there, done that. A lot of people assume that support or clerical staff are just dead weight, doing nothing unless you benevolently assign them a project. There are a lot of classist and sexist assumptions bundled in with that, as well as a lot of self-serving assumptions about someone’s education or intellectual ability. It’s a gross attitude and I’ve seen it across industries, from all kinds of people.

            1. Legal Asst.*

              This x1000.

              I started working as a legal assistant after college to evaluate whether I wanted to go to law school (after many many people advised me against it). I quickly decided that no, I didn’t want to work and be on call 24/7. Every attorney I know is miserable and drowning in student debt. Not worth it.

              I’m still a legal assistant five years later. Not because I’m incapable of anything else, but because I decided that this work setup suits my life for now. I have a little kid and want to go home to spend time with him at the end of the day.

              But I know the assumptions are there. Sometimes I want to scream “I went to a private school! I’m from a ‘good’ family! I graduated from a good college magna cum laude! I have awards and accolades for my work that goes beyond this gig! I made a *choice* not to walk that path.”

              I’ll just let my work and actions speak for themselves.

          2. Amadeo*

            The goofy thing was, I was the department’s web specialist that got treated like IT. I was the first point of contact between faculty and the college’s IT support person. Not that they couldn’t have contacted him themselves, but it was more likely to get done faster if I went to him because he knew I’d already tried.

            Why would you antagonize one of the people that makes it so your decrepit old computer works? Whether directly or inderectly.

          3. Serin*

            Yes. I was a church secretary, and in a meeting once our guest pastor said, “At first I assumed you didn’t have much to do because you never look all that stressed.”

            Which makes me want to bite all those people who spend most of their time at work performing stress, so that that’s what “busy” is supposed to look like.

            1. Artemesia*

              Oh yes. And staying late at the office, and moaning and sighing while producing less than most everyone else. But they are always viewed as ‘working so hard’ because they make such a show of it.

            2. MJLurver*

              This is SUCH a pet peeve of mine: the ones who run around the office talking about how busy and stressed out they are, OMG how are they going to do everything on time, OMG huffing and puffing and sighing and angrily stabbing at their keyboard so everyone will notice their stress….

              Meanwhile, I’ve learned over time (because I DONT’T want to be that person!) to give off the perception that I have everything under control even if
              it’s not true; “perception is everything” was drilled into my head by my first boss at a talent agency and I think of it as a skill I’ve developed over 2 decades to appear calm and in control even when I feel the opposite inside. Alas, while recently working at my new job, my “stressed out, huffing and puffing and OMG I’m so so busy!” coworker (who has been with the company for 9 (NINE!!) years) is constantly praised for how hard she works, she’s constantly given special accommodations, and my supervisor takes her work away from her and gives it to ME because I always appear as if I had my responsibilities under control. So I’m being punished for my ability to stay sane looking and calm while under stress. Does that mean I should become a squeaky wheel too? I don’t really want to be a squeaky wheel- I have mastered the skill of being the OPPOSITE of the squeaky wheel, so why am I being punished?

              1. Baska*

                MJLurver, I feel your pain. At one of my previous jobs, I was super-stressed and overwhelmed most of the time, to the point where I was crying in the bathroom every day because I had no idea how I’d get everything done. But when I spoke to my boss about it, she was super-surprised and had no idea I was struggling at all. Apparently I do an excellent “everything’s under control here, nothing to worry about” impression. :)

              2. Lynne*

                Sometimes you have to be a little performative to get results. Not necessarily in an annoying way, just a visible way. I had a job where the amount of responsibility piled onto it was completely unreasonable – way more work than most people had assigned to them in that organization. A dropped comment here and there – not whining, more along the lines of “I wish I could get to that soon, but I have X, Y, and Z to take care of, so I don’t know if or when I’ll be able to make the time”…and eventually I changed management perceptions enough to get some structural changes made and things reallocated more sensibly. My predecessor had *said* she was busy and had a lot of stuff on her plate, too much to be able to do it all, but she projected that sense of calm and didn’t make it seem like it was something that really needed to change. On an *emotional* level, not a factual one.

                Tl;dr: perceptions do matter, and some people will only be convinced change is needed if you do a bit of strategic performative emoting. I wasn’t lying when I did this, but I did deliberately make a decision to not keep all the stress to myself, because I could see nothing was going to change if I did that.

                I wouldn’t think of it as being a squeaky wheel. More as adopting a communication style that will be effective in getting your supervisor to understand the amount of work on your plate – which, for some people, requires more emotion. Other people will be more impressed by you maintaining a sense of calm – I would, and I totally get the appeal of that, but…it sounds like your supervisor is in the first camp, MJLurver. (I wouldn’t personally be able to stomach behaving the way your coworker does, but in your place, I’d make a point of outwardly showing some of the stress I’m feeling when yet more tasks are piled on my plate. In an I-am-still-a-competent-professional sort of way, not the histrionic way your coworker has adopted.)

            3. Not a Morning Person*

              “Performing stress…”, such an apt description! And unfortunately those stress performers get rewarded if others aren’t paying close attention.

        2. M is for Mulder*

          I know that comment is awful, but it cracked me up. I imagine someone literally jumping in front of a lecturer at a podium, frantically waving their arms to block students’ view of the professor.

          1. Amadeo*

            The urge was strong to do something so he could understand what ‘getting in the way’ really meant!

        3. So Very Anonymous*

          I work at a university, and I have experienced this kind of patronizing stuff and worse from a non-tenured/non-tenure-track faculty member in a department I work with. (That also happens to be my rank, and I actually have more credentials than this person does). In that case it’s felt like they need to prove to themselves that there is in fact someone lower on the totem pole than they were. Which is… really not what I’m here for, thanks.

        4. Blue*

          Tenured faculty certainly don’t have a monopoly on this, but yeah. At least one in every department. As an administrator, I’m walking on eggshells every time I start working with a new prof until I figure out whether or not they’re a rational and reasonable person. Honestly, I think the problem would be dramatically reduced if everyone was required to work outside academia for a couple of years before becoming a faculty member. SO many of them are at intern-levels of ignorance about what professional norms look like, how to interact with coworkers, how to appropriately respect support staff, etc. because they’ve only ever worked in this environment. Some would be jerks regardless, but I think it would cut down on the kind of behavior OP is talking about.

    3. Hills to Die on*

      I had an old boss I finally got away from when I transferred to another department. He tried to assign tasks to his boss’s boss’s admin because ‘she didn’t have anything better to do anyway’. Then he had to apologize to her. Like he often had to apologize to women in the company because he couldn’t figure out how to speak to them respectfully. Bite me, Dan!

      1. OwnedByTheCat*

        “He tried to assign tasks to his boss’s boss’s admin because ‘she didn’t have anything better to do anyway’. ”

        I wish I could have seen how that interaction went… I’m imagining the scary-quiet voice and stony face of our Office Manager when faculty ask her for inappropriate shit or use her desk as their assembly station or…i mean the list goes on and on and I revel in watching her shut them down.

      2. Fuzzyfuzz*

        Didn’t we have a LW who essentially was this person? I think he did end up having to apologize and was cost a promotion…

        1. Hills to Die on*

          Yes, not the same person as the one I posted about. Also, the OP above has self awareness, while my former boss only apologized because he was told to do so. Then continued to be an ass.

    4. blackcat*

      I am wondering if this is a faculty member. My experience in academia has lead me to believe that >50% of academics know nothing of what the support staff does.

      I have heard, on more than one occasion, “I can’t believe admin refused to copy my exams in time! I only needed 200 copies printed by [insert time less than 1 hour from now]”

      1. Artemesia*

        One thing I learned early on was to copy my own exams if I wanted security. I had an AA who fed them to her daughter who was a student in the graduate program. You should have seen how frantic she got the day of the final when she kept asking me when I was going to have her do the exam. It was not unusual for copying to be done by student works, which is another potential security breach with exam copy.

        1. Specialk9*

          Wow that’s scuzzy. I can’t imagine being a mom who was facilitating cheating for her own daughter.

          1. teclatrans*

            ….oh! I…I was imagining a toddler, shoving torn up paper in her mouth. Cheating makes much more sense. *blush*

      2. Kelly L.*

        Yep. This is endemic. A popular variant is the one where the admin gets off at 5pm, the prof drops the exam on the admin’s desk at 9pm, and then expects it copied by 8am, which is when the admin gets in the next morning. We do not live in a box under the desk!

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      I’m picturing the thought process: “I need the admin to research stuff on the internet for me, as is her assigned duty for the entire department. Since she seems to just be looking stuff up on the computer, obviously she is at loose ends and not working.”

    6. Tiny Soprano*

      Plus how busy you are at reception can change in 30 seconds. You can go straight from scrolling AAM to five people calling you at once while three people’s clients all walk up needing contacts and meeting rooms with a chaser of an exec in a panic because they forgot to order catering for 40 for their meeting that’s in ten minutes. And all that comes before whatever projects anyone’s given you to work on.

    7. Quabbly*

      I worked as an assistant for a horrid old lawyer a little while back… after 2+ years of supporting him, one day he came to my desk and said “What exactly is it you DO all day? I hear you typing away but what do you have to show for it?” So. Effing. Rude.
      And it’s precisely this set up, where an office assistant has work coming from *literally* everyone in the office, where people assume you have nothing going on but actually you’re juggling like 15 time sensitive things. Oh and please order more coffee before there’s an office mutiny.

  2. Justme*

    I like the advice, but I think speaking in a tone of genuine confusion could backfire on this letter writer (assuming the LW is a woman). It’s a gender power dynamic thing and can make her look like she’s not very smart.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The point is to force him to state his (highly disordered) thinking out loud. Right now he’s relying on not having to explain/defend/spell out what he’s doing.

      She’s not going to come across as not smart by being perplexed by his perplexing behavior, assuming she’s a clearly capable person.

        1. Here we go again*

          But it IS confusing… The guy could be a jerk, someone who is clueless about social norms or both. At the end of the day, this is a direct, but non-confrontational way to force him to explain his behavior.

        2. JB (not in Houston)*

          But it *is* confusing. If she doesn’t come across as perplexed, how should she frame it–accusatory? “Hey, Bobstopher, you said X and now you said Y, were you lying then or are you lying now?” It doesn’t make her look not smart. If anything, it points out in nondisrespectful/confrontational way that he’s contradicting himself. If either of them look like they don’t have it all together, it’ll be him.

          I’m not one to avoid pointing out gender power dynamics, but I don’t think Alison’s suggested response is playing into something like that.

            1. JB (not in Houston)*

              No, of course not. My point wasn’t clear, but what I meant was–what’s wrong with pointing out what he said is confusing? Why does she have to pretend it isn’t confusing when it is? And how should she frame it instead? Because pointing out the contradiction if you aren’t at all confused by it means you’re pointing out something for the sake of pointing it out. Meaning, if you say something that appears to be contradictory, but I know exactly what you mean and am not at all confused, then me pointing out what you said doesn’t serve any point except to say “you don’t know what words mean,” or at least it can come across that way. But if I am confused by what you mean, it’s a perfectly legitimate reason to point out that you are failing in your communication.

              1. JB (not in Houston)*

                In other words, you can present it as you being confused or you can present it in a confrontational way,* and I don’t know why the confrontational way is better than confused when dealing with a coworker and when you have not previously pointed out that they aren’t making themselves clear.

                *You could also, I suppose, point it out as “I’m not confused but in case others are in the future, I wanted to let you know you don’t communicate clearly,” but I think that would come across as confrontational anyway.

          1. Amber T*

            I agree with JustMe. I think acting confused sets up the power play in his position. I’ve been there – you’re typically met with a sigh, then an explanation of “let me tell you how wrong you are.”

            I think there are ways to shut this down without playing dumb. A polite “I’m working on X and Y now, I should have it done by tomorrow morning” is fine and non-confrontational. So is “I’m working on X for Fergus and Y for Lucinda, let me know if this is more pressing so I can give them an updated timeline.” (Because maybe his work is more pressing? I doubt it – it reeks of a power play – but on the off chance it is…) I’d also shut the behavior of him coming to your desk immediately after emailing you down too. “I’m in the middle of X, so I don’t have time right now, but I saw your email and I’ll let you know if I have any questions.”

            1. Jesca*

              Yeah, I agree. It is tough either way. If it is a power-play thing (and if that power-play is driven by gender, especially) this person may very well get the condescending “sigh”. I have one of these I am dealing with right now. Overall, i have become frustrated with this behavior at my current job because it is clearly gender driven, and I do get a bit confrontational. As in making it clear that yes your repeated requests for attention (not help) is disruptive and annoying.

              So there is not easy answer here on how to deal with it especially when you are not sure of the driving force. Asking him to explain himself further may only make the behavior escalate, simply because “he can’t be wrong”.

            2. Mockingjay*

              I also like to put the onus on the Annoyer to work out any conflicts.

              ““I’m working on X for Fergus and Y for Lucinda which are already in the queue and are due today. Please talk to them about priorities if your task conflicts with theirs.”

              1. Not a Morning Person*

                Yes, this. Make him do the work to convince the others that his work takes priority.

        3. Fiennes*

          Well, there’s different ways to express confusion. Genuine bewilderment to the point of concern could come across as unintelligent; a more cool, pointed confusion will have the effect Alison suggests.

          1. Snark*

            This. The trick is to adopt a tone juuuuust cool enough to imply rhetorical confusion without overplaying it.

          2. OtterB*

            I think OP can be expressing a rational confusion – I’m hearing two different contradictory things, let’s explore why that is and find a resolution.

              1. HR Jeanne*

                Intelligent people can be confused by irrational expectations. Being confused is not the same as being dumb, or playing dumb.

            1. Elizabeth H.*

              Right, there is confusion when you are literally confused/overwhelmed and come off as bewildered or struggling, and confusion as in “You have not explained this clearly, so I’m at a loss for what you are trying to convey, please fix this.” This is the latter type of “confusion.”

          3. Liane*

            I might go with, “Did you not get my email that it would done in 6 hours? Or did you decide/learn after we talked that it was higher priority?”

        4. hbc*

          But…it is confusing. Why is he standing at her desk wondering where his project is when he said it isn’t a rush and he has an email in his box saying that it will be done in six hours? Does he not check his email? Is “no rush” meaningless conversational filler for him? Does he go by Greenwich Mean Time?

        5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I hear the critique, but I think this is one of those occasions where genuine confusion (or a “perplexing” vibe) will be a better tone than anything else. It’s feigned cluelessness, and only someone who is genuinely an asshole will step in it after having to articulate their dysfunctional thinking. And for better or for worse, the gender dynamics (if they exist) might actually make this approach more effective than a “direct confrontation” tone.

          I think this is analogous to someone making an inappropriate (racist/sexist, etc.) joke, responding with a straight face, and then asking in a confused tone what they meant.

          1. zora*

            Also, it’s feigned confusion. *She* knows she’s not an idiot. If I was in this position, this is the moment where I don’t care what he thinks of my intelligence. I’m not trying to convince him I’m smart, he’s being a jerk and I just want to fix the situation so it doesn’t cause me problems, I don’t really care about his personal opinions about me.

            This is just a strategic way to get the solution I want to the situation.

        6. Anonygoose*

          I sort of agree, as a faculty admin myself – I have become a pro at letting my faculty know when I anticipate having something done, and if they come looking for it earlier, I just ask if they got my email, no confusion necessary. Usually they either genuinely haven’t, or they have and are just eager, so it just reinforces that:
          a) I stick to my timelines
          b) The timelines can be found in their email
          c) They should check their email before they come to me.

          Seems to work 90% of the time. I also give myself an extra half day for the timeline for most tasks – therefore almost everything gets done several hours earlier than the timeline I give them, which seems to work!

        7. Grey*

          But what’s the alternative to feigning confusion? If his requests don’t make any sense, you shouldn’t act like they do. You’d only be reinforcing his behavior.

          1. AMPG*

            In the past I’ve used something like, “When you first gave me this, you said tomorrow morning would be fine. Has something changed to make you need it earlier?” The response is generally something like, “No, I was just checking,” which would give me the opening to say, “OK, great! You’ll have it tomorrow morning, like we discussed. No need to check back.”

        8. LKW*

          It’s not pretending to be confused – it’s asking the requester to be more clear. You can’t say “no rush” and “is it done yet?” within 60 minutes. He’s making assumptions about capacity and actual effort required to complete a task but he’s not communicating them to the LW at all. Every time she tries to clarify her capacity and when she can have it done – he ignores or dismisses it.

    2. Hills to Die on*

      I think it’s better than coming across as a smart ass, which I personally would have to watch out for. ‘Did you not say this was no rush? Then why are you standing here at my desk rolling your eyes at me???’ Is what she wants to avoid, so that the focus is on the timeline and not a potential confrontation.

      1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

        I’d have a really hard time not blurting out, “Dude! You said no rush.”

        There may be a reason why I work predominately with spreadsheets and not people.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        We certainly do that, but I think Justme’s concern/critique is fair. I think there’s always a tension between navigating gendered work dynamics and wanting to be free to act as if they don’t exist.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          See the moving story of Keith Mann (pseudonym chosen so male contractors would KNOW they were dealing with a Mann), who got far better results over email than did the two women running the business who made him the fictional head of operations.

      2. Jadelyn*

        Because the commentariat here tends toward the well-informed and socially-aware, and frequently notices when those things have a relevant impact on the topic at hand.

        If you don’t want to address gender imbalance or ageism or any of the various other factors we’ve identified behind something, you’re free to not participate in this part of the conversation.

        1. GrandBargain*

          I believe your comment demonstrates the utter lack of social awareness and well-informed sensibilities that you are so eager to claim. Rather than address the comment (as PCBH did) you instead attack the commenter and invite her to go elsewhere. Perhaps AAM should use your comment to lauch a discussion of “gender imbalance” bullying and intolerance and the ways in which it poisons reasonable discussion between reasonable individuals.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I … thought Jadelyn’s comment was pretty reasonable, actually. Gender comes up a lot because gender is in play a lot. It gets talked about a lot here because we have a lot of commenters who are familiar with how gender often plays out at work.

            That said, it’s true that it can get exhausting to have it come up on nearly every post, as was happening a while back, when I asked for that to stop because it was rarely leading to actionable advice. But that’s different than asserting it’s not in play.

            1. GrandBargain*

              The first part of Jadelyn’s comment seems on topic and within bounds. The second part is needlessly aggressive and confrontational. It is itself offensive and tries to shut down, rather than encourage, discussion.

              IMO, the many commenters are right to point to gender/power roles as one culprit in the difficulties this particular OP is experiencing. Cynthia’s point is reasonable in an overall sense, though perhaps not in this specific situation.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                But it’s true that if someone isn’t interested in a discussion here, the best thing to do is to move on, not complain to the people who are interested in it.

                If I think a comment or discussion is taking us in the wrong direction, I’ll address it — but we can’t have hundreds of people all applying their own rules about how they want the site to run. (To be clear, that doesn’t rule out comments like “I think it’ll be more constructive to focus on X.”)

                1. JB (not in Houston)*

                  Yes, Jadelyn didn’t say “leave the site,” she said you aren’t required to participate in a conversation that is of no interest to you. And that’s true! And something that’s good for all us of to remember from time to time when commenting on the internet.

              2. Jadelyn*

                …I literally, very politely, just said “you don’t have to join this conversation if you dislike this conversation”. It’s a simple statement of fact – when someone’s entire contribution to the discussion is “why are you talking about this? I don’t think you should talk about this.” it’s very much fair game to say “that’s okay, you don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, you know.”

                If Cynthia had actually been saying “I don’t think there’s any gendered dynamics in play in this situation”, then yes, I would’ve been out of line to say “then don’t join this conversation” because Cynthia would’ve been expressing a real counter-opinion on the subject that deserves to be addressed. But Cynthia’s entire comment was a complaint that we were talking about gender issues at all.

                In fact, if there was any attempt to “shut down” discussion, it was Cynthia’s original comment, and that’s what I was pushing back on by gently suggesting that she could keep scrolling if she didn’t want to discuss this and let those who wanted to talk about it, talk about it.

            2. GrandBargain*

              … and (here’s a question)… does it really lead to actionable advice?

              You can say it might point to a set of responses that have been developed here. So, in that sense, it does provide actionable advice.

              But, in another sense, it doesn’t. This situation seems to be more about a crappy co-worker who doesn’t communicate clearly, acts passive-aggressively, does not understand (or try to understand) OP’s workload, and believes his work is always entitled to top priority. Those are not gender-specific concerns. While it could be helpful to understand the gender dynamics, it may well be the co-worker is just an entitled a**hole.

              1. Jadelyn*

                I’ve found that even if it doesn’t change the actionable advice for a given situation, it can help the person in the situation cope better if they’re able to explicitly name the source of some of the BS they’re dealing with. Simply speaking from my own experience, I can tolerate “this person keeps treating me like the office maid because he’s a sexist jerk” much better than “this person keeps treating me like the office maid because they’re personally trying to force me into that kind of role”. It’s easier to let it roll off and not take it personally when you can point to underlying societal causes that have nothing to do with either of the individuals.

                So I do believe there’s merit to identifying and openly addressing the influences of various oppressions and prejudices on a situation, even when the actual “here’s what you should do about it” advice remains the same either way.

    3. MG*

      I had a similar issue at my last job that was partly admin work, not exactly that I would get a “no rush” and then he would expect to be done immediately… But my boss would send me a list of 5-10 items, and no matter what I started with, when I would produce that work, or send him details, whatever, he would ask about the others. I would have to say, “Okay, you sent me this list one hour ago, and I’m showing you the work I’ve done since then. Obviously I haven’t gotten to everything yet or I would be showing you those, too.”

      Waiting until I’d finished ALL items was not an option, because then he would definitely ask for an update before I was done. Felt like there was no right way to tackle his to-do lists.

      I also had to take the tone of genuine confusion, like “when you send a list, can you help me prioritize what you’re looking for first, so I can start with those?” But it was kid of clear that he didn’t really have any prioritization in mind beforehand, it was just that whatever I started on, he would decide he wanted the other thing. It was maddening. Confusion was better than snapping at him.

      1. Baska*

        I realize you’re not in that job anymore, but could a potential solution to that situation be something along the lines of giving a status update on the various not-finished items, even if the only status is “I haven’t gotten to this yet”? I’m envisioning something like:

        “Hi boss,
        Regarding your list from this morning, here’s what we’ve got:
        1. Done, please see attached file and let me know if there are any changes you need made.
        2. In progress, but I’m waiting for some numbers from Jane before I can finalize the report.
        3. Not done, but next on my to-do list — I expect to have it ready in about an hour.
        4. Not done yet
        5. Not done yet


        1. Quabbly*

          I’ve done this exact thing with a very very busy and demanding boss before. She appreciated the update, but still couldn’t wrap her mind around why EVERYTHING wasn’t done. Hah!

  3. Murphy*

    He will also say, “no rush, but I assume you don’t have a lot going on”

    Ugh, that is definitely rude. I always assume our admin is busy! (And I mean “no rush” when I say “no rush”.)

    Question: This may not work since he follows up so quickly, but to the extent that you’re not slammed with work at the moment, can you acknowledge receipt just to let him know that you’ve seen it and that you’ll take care of it?

    1. Anna*

      Internal response: How weird! I assumed you were kind of jerk! I think one of us is correct!

      External response: I’m actually quite busy on projects for [insert long list of names of every coworker in the department].

      1. Specialk9*

        I wouldn’t even list it – that makes him her boss, subconsciously. He’s not her boss. “What a strange thing to say. I’m quite busy. I’ll get to your project tomorrow afternoon.” With a non smiling face and eyebrow raised.

        1. M-C*

          I agree that listing all that’s going on is similar to saying “no, because…” which is a lot less effective than “no”, as it opens the door to negotiation on things that aren’t negotiable.

          It seems to me the issue here is that Darth is in a position of equality with the other people who assign OP work. And he gets preferential treatment by bullying her. So it’d seem this could only be made to stop by putting him firmly at the end of the queue, and leaving him there permanently. Laughing when he comes to ask for a status report would be a good first step “did you think I could get to this today? ha ha! I’ll let you know when it’s done. Meanwhile, every time you interrupt me in other tasks to ask for status is time that you push back the completion of your own too”. And proceed to punish him by witholding the completed work by a subtle but clear amount for every interruption..

          Note that you can also enroll the whole rest of the department in stopping this behavior, by pointing out to them how their work took longer because of Darth interruptions. That should get them motivated to keep him and his sighs away from you.

    2. Helpful*

      I think it’s key to acknowledge receipt in this process. That alone might eliminate the one-hour check in.

    3. M is for Mulder*

      It would take all I have to not shoot back with “And what’s the saying about assuming?”

      1. CM*

        I think that with the right tone, you could pull that off!
        For “I assume you’re not busy,” I think that’s something where you could laugh and say, “I wish that were true!” rather than “Actually, I’m quite busy.” This whole question makes me think that maybe it’s the coworker’s problem, not the OP — yes, the OP should address the annoying behavior to the extent it’s affecting her, but she may also need to learn to ignore the sighs and hand-wringing or whatever other passive-aggressive nonsense the coworker is doing. If the coworker wants an update, they should grow up and say, “Can you give me an update an the project I gave you?” at which point the OP could say, “As I mentioned when you gave it to me, I’ll have it done by tomorrow.”

        1. stk*

          I think “I wish that were true” could work. I’d also be tempted by “If that were true, your request would be at the top of the queue! As it is, you’ll get it back tomorrow.” (Or whatever timeline makes sense.)

          …or, “That’s a weird assumption!”. And then just leaving it. Dude is being awful, HE can deal with the awkward.

    4. OwnedByTheCat*

      Yeah in my mind “no rush” means “I need this thing but it’s not in any way a priority so if you can do it in the next week or so that would be great.” But I also try to give the timeline i’m thinking, whether that’s a day, a week, or a month.

      1. Baska*

        Yeah, even when someone says, “No rush” to me, I tend to give them a rough timeline so we’re on the same page. Along the lines of, “Okay, I’ll probably be able to get to this sometime in the middle of next week. Does that work for you?” I find that some people have vastly different definitions of “low priority” and when they *actually* need stuff done.

      2. Jennifer*

        “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

        Clearly, “no rush” translates into RUSH RUSH RUSH DROP EVERYTHING FOR ME NOWWWWWWWWWWW.

    5. Marillenbaum*

      If he says that, perhaps respond with “That’s inaccurate–I have other projects on the front burner right now, so I can have this to you by X”. Keep your tone neutral, but firm. This is not a discussion.

  4. Amber Rose*

    Funny enough, I have the reverse problem. There’s this coworker who’s usually got a ton of projects on the go, and every now and then I ask his help with something and say no rush, which he responds to by stressing himself out further to get it done within the hour. Even if I say things like “I need this by noon on November 15th so no rush.”

    It’s a certain kind of personality, LW. A kind of… self importance? Like, all that matters is their own martyr complex and sense of being the ONLY PERSON WHO CAN DO THE THING. The type who is proud of being horribly busy and looks for reasons to be upset that nobody is helping out. It’s really annoying.

    Anyways, I have nothing to add to Alison’s scripts, they are perfect. Except, I guess feel a little bad for this type of person. I feel like there’s a strong insecurity behind that kind of behavior. It’s probably not personal even though he’s being super insulting.

    1. DC*

      I know exactly the type of person you’re talking about. I work with one.

      It is remarkably stressful for the rest of us to hear about their stress, offer to help, be turned down, and then keep hearing about their stress. Either let us help you, or shush.

    2. Not a Fergus*

      I also work with this person! I’ve learned never to ask for assistance because I’ll have to deal with her martyrdom for the rest of the work week. She has no concept of what her other coworkers are working on and assumes if we pause for a moment or if we don’t “look busy” she can berate us for not having work to do.

      She is also one of the most insecure people I’ve ever encountered. Also, her work style slows her down and I see a ton of inefficiencies, which makes her comments especially annoying.

    3. Anonymous for this one*

      I work with one of these. He’s also constantly sick, presumably related to the fact that he’s always talking about missing sleep to do whatever crazy urgent work he’s made up for himself this week.

  5. Xarcady*

    I agree. And I’m impressed the OP is still handling this guy calmly and politely. I think I would have snapped quite a while ago.

    I’m also a bit surprised that the OP is being treated like this. When I was a grad student, everyone, from the department chair on down, treated the department admins with great respect–they knew the ins and outs of getting things done on both departmental and university levels and were a fount of knowledge about how things worked. They could console a grad student about a bad grade and turn around and make a full professor tremble in his shoes for demanding his copying be done immediately.

    Life was much, much easier if you were on their good side.

    1. PlantLady*

      Back in the 70s and 80s, my dad worked for a university and he used to tell me all the time…”ALWAYS be nice to, and make friends with, secretaries and janitors.” He didn’t give (much of) a damn about professors and department heads, but he was always nice to the people who, also in his words, “did the work and knew where the bodies were buried.”

      I’ve never worked in an academic setting, but this advice has always held up.

      1. Here we go again*

        I once went to a mentor event and was assigned a mentor for the day. She told me she used to work at a company and was nice to the EA. The EA clued her in and let her know that she had two sets of mints… green mints and red mints. Green meant he was in a good mood and red meant, step away. She always got what she wanted because she knew when to ask.

        1. Drew*

          I love this so damn much.

          And now I know why I never see wintergreen mints in my office. But that’s a subject for Friday.

      2. Jadelyn*

        This holds in any context. Admins know almost everything that’s going on around the company – or, the good ones who pay attention do. I’ve been brought in on confidential things at very high levels before, simply because the executives involved needed to have someone do the implementation work of their top-secret project for them. Janitors have all kinds of access to spaces that are otherwise restricted. And those are two groups of people who are habitually ignored or talked down to, so a little courtesy and recognition of humanity and dignity goes a long way.

      3. M is for Mulder*

        I was also given that advice. It’s never let me down in any setting: academic, governmental, or business.

        1. Specialk9*

          Agreed about always being polite to waiters, admins, and janitors. It’s good for one’s soul, recognizes the humanity of a fellow human, and decent people notice.

          I was very personally loyal to a VP who always stopped to talk, in Spanish, to the cleaning person, organized a Christmas card for her, and started a collection when her husband got hurt. The other VPs there, meh.

          1. AnonEMoose*

            I’m also always nice to building security and to people in IT. Also retail workers and servers in restaurants. For me, it’s kind of a “minimum standard for being a decent human” thing, but there’s also that it makes my life run more smoothly in many ways.

            1. tigerStripes*

              This! I agree that it’s a minimum standard for being a decent human being, and yeah, it does tend to make life easier.

              What especially bothers me is when someone is rude to someone they want help from. When I worked in fast food, a few customers would be rude, for no obvious reason. I was polite to everyone. I thought the rude ones must be very insecure to bother being rude to me. This was people being rude while walking up to give their order, people who seemed to see me and other fast food workers as lower life forms and for some reason felt the need to convey that (without actually saying that, but…). If someone had been irritated by slow service or something, I’d have understood, up to a point.

    2. Fiennes*

      If you’ve ever read the great comic novel MOO by Jane Smiley, in which she examines the inner life of a midwestern university through dozens of viewpoints, you’ll remember how the great power *everyone” cajoled & dearer was not the dean, but the dean’s secretary.

          1. KT84*

            What is with overzealous auto-corrects? Today I invited my friend to a “food” truck event and it auto-corrected to “good” truck event – she had no idea what I was talking about lol.

          2. CM*

            I thought the typo was that it should be “deared,” as in they all called her “dear” and fawned over her so she would like them, and that you were just creatively making up words.

        1. Artemesia*

          Bellweather by Connie Willis is another fabulous take off on the idiocies of academic success.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      Life was much, much easier if you were on their good side.

      Yeah, but this wouldn’t be a truism if it weren’t for the bold few willing to experiment with being on their bad side.

    4. zora*

      I’ve worked in a couple of different higher ed institutions in admin roles, and I would say this is totally dependent on the institution and the administration’s philosophy and it trickles down to the rest of the organization.

      Some places are like you say, there is a respect for administrative staff that is part of the culture of the organization. And others where being an academic is the only thing worthy of respect and the academics treat administrative staff like they are idiots. It really depends on the management.

  6. Artemesia*

    I think you forestall this by always responding with ‘I have several time sensitive tasks for others that I need to get done before I can get to this project so I would expect to complete it by (tomorrow afternoon, Friday by COB, whatever is reasonable).’ If you in fact can work on it immediately, then you say ‘I will be able to do that this afternoon so I can have it for you by COB today.’

    If after you have given him this feedback, he still does this, THEN lay the confused response on him. Also it is not reasonable for him to jump the queue. Don’t let bullies or jerks force their work to the head of the line except in cases where it is both urgent and important to the department. By putting his stuff first, you are penalizing the people who don’t act like jerks to you. I would be tempted with this guy to not give quick turnaround for the next few requests. They will always be ‘I have several projects already in that I need to complete, so I will be able to get this back (tomorrow or later).’

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Agreed. I’d recommend ALWAYS responding with a timeline. If he says no rush, tell him, “Great, I’ll get it to you by COB tomorrow” and no sooner. That way if he comes running over an hour later you can genuinely act confused: “I’m sorry, I assumed that when you said no rush that tomorrow would work just fine. Is it a rush job?”

    2. LKW*

      When I had competing priorities – I would provide a high level outline of my priorities and ask the second requester if they wanted to reach out to my higher priorities and get their agreement that 2nd Requester’s stuff could go first. As in: Bob makes a request. Joe makes a request a short time later. I would invite Joe to ask Bob if he could go first. It was especially pleasant to watch people walk back their urgent requests – especially if the first requester was the VP.

  7. Employment Lawyer*

    The problem is simple: “no rush” is an ill-defined term.

    The answer is also simple. If someone says “no rush” just smile and clarify. “OK, no rush. So I’ll get it back to you by [proposed time/date]. Does that work?”

    Problem solved.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Agree, this is a language issue. I’m probably guilty of it myself when I give assignments. I usually mean something like, “this is not so urgent that you need to drop something urgent to get this done by hell or high water, but I’d like it done as soon as reasonably possible please.” So kind of … if you have time, do it now. Please.

      1. Employment Lawyer*

        That’s literally the first thing I teach my interns: Any time that anyone gives you an assignment, your first responsibility is to know precisely when they are asking to have it back.

        1. Jozie*

          That’s excellent advice and something I wish I’d known. I actually also had a problem with the reverse. Being extremely junior, I’d request items from colleagues who were much more senior to me; I didn’t feel empowered to put a deadline on when I needed the items back, which only ended up causing them to disregard my requests as they needed a deadline (even if arbitrary) to make sense in their own workloads.

      2. Liz Lemon*

        I would urge you to reconsider “no rush” in this way. I would never, ever think that the implication was “if you have time, do it now.” Quite the opposite. (Unless, say, it’s my CEO asking and then I’d probably move it pretty close to the front of the list.)

        1. Sloane Kittering*

          On the other hand, if you’re not doing anything, and someone asks you to do something, it seems logical to me that you would know to … do the thing someone just gave you. My irritation here stems from my junior colleagues, who seem to have literally nothing to do – I see you on facebook, people! Reloading the same windows over and over! – and yet want a week to turn anything around, seemingly just on principle.

            1. Kelly L.*

              Lots of people are on Facebook once in a while at work without getting fired. It’s when it’s chronic that it’s a problem.

      3. LKW*

        I use “no rush” but provide a target date for expected completion. For example on Saturday I took some pants to be hemmed. I know they can turn them around in 2-3 days. I also know that I wouldn’t need them that soon. So I said “No rush, I don’t need them for two weeks”. They can then put other things ahead of my pants – as long as I can get them in two weeks.

    2. Amy*

      I agree with this! Or when he says “no rush” ask for a specific time when he needs it. I don’t think this needs to be a long, drawn out script with feigned confusion. I think it just needs to be a straightforward clarification of deadlines on both sides.

      1. KHB*

        This is what I was coming here to say: He’s the one who’s saying “no rush” and then rushing you, so put the burden on him to clarify the time frame that he needs. If he gives you an unreasonable deadline, then you can say “Sorry, that’s not possible because I’m busy with X, Y, and Z.” But if he says he doesn’t need it until next Tuesday, then he forfeits any right to complain that you haven’t finished it by next Monday.

    3. Jesmlet*

      This is so true and something I’m guilty of. I’ll email our tech guy to let him know we need something done and when he says he’s in the middle of something, I’ll tell him no rush. Then I just never know how long I should wait till I follow up again. To me, no rush means something can wait till the following week, but who knows what it means to anyone else?

    4. The OG Anonsie*

      It sounds like she is giving him deadlines, but he’s still checking in early and being frustrated when she isn’t done immediately anyway.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      My rule at work is everything has a specific deadline so the tasker and the worker are on the same page and can deal with any deadline compliance issues up front. ASAP is not specific. No rush is not specific. In orientation for my staff, asking for or suggesting a specific (date AND time) deadline is part of project-acceptance training; in management training, giving a specific deadline is part of staff- and project-management training.

      I also cover questions and check-ins with both groups. Everyone has a different idea of what the right way to handle questions and status updates is, so we suggest explicit communication. Some people want verbal confirmation their project is going as expected; some people find that annoying and overkill. Since there’s so much variation, the best we can do is make sure everyone’s on the same page for that project.

    6. Councilman Jamm*

      Seriously. Asking “When do you need this by?” every time I’m assigned something has made my professional life so much easier.

      1. Amy*

        100% yes! Life is so much easier with direct questions. Seems like responses lately have been using the “act confused” line. If my coworkers talked to me like that instead of just asking a direct question it would find it super annoying.

        OP- this dude isn’t necessarily going to change his behavior and no amount of confused questioning is going to help. Just be direct.

    7. Hrovitnir*

      Except “I’ve tried communicating what I’m currently working on (which is sometimes time-sensitive), or how long I think something will take, asking him if he’s sure it’s no rush, all to no avail.”

      It’s only “problem solved” if the person you’re working with is reasonable.

      1. Amy*

        But I don’t think laying out for him what else op is working on is a very direct response. He probably doesn’t care. The communication needs to be about his task specifically and don’t let him walk away without a firm deadline. If after that he keeps pestering her I think she needs to talk to whoever her supervisor is.

  8. Jessica*

    I think “office assistant/receptionist” is a misnomer of a title if a large part of one’s duties involves performing supporting research for department projects. “Research assistant” would be a better one.

    Just as a large visual cue, I have in the past put a large whiteboard and written projects that I was currently working on, in order of priority. People could look at that and see what was on my plate for the day, and it was a good organizational tool for me. I’d say that it’s pretty common to have That Person in the office who thinks they’re the only ones giving you projects (we have a few of those in my office) but that doesn’t excuse the behavior.

    Don’t do this guy’s stuff first, don’t apologize for not having completed his stuff an hour after he asked for it, and push back on him to manage his own expectations and feelings. A courteous smile, a ballpark of when you expect to have it completed (best sent over email so that you have a paper trail), and a communication when it has been completed, is sufficient. If he acts passive-aggressive or whatever, suggest that he go back to his teammates to organize a calendar of when they all have projects that require your services, so that he isn’t coming to you at (apparently) the last minute and expecting an unreasonable timeline for delivery.

    You don’t mention whether you have a manager, but it’d be a good idea to bring this up to them so they are aware that one person in the department is trying to monopolize your availability at the expense of the rest of the department…because that’s what he’s doing.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Depends on what kind of research. If it’s something like “can I have our meeting history with Fergus Smith from last year?” or “can you get me Jane Smith’s address?” that’s more admin than researchy in the way people typically mean research.

      But lots of assistants do more research than that, so her title could just mean that she’s an assistant who happens to sit at the front desk — which is not unusual if it’s a place without a ton of reception traffic to deal with.

      1. Jessica*

        I figured that, from the timelines in the letter, the tasks were more research-y than admin-y. But then, maybe not, if the guy is coming back in an hour wondering where their info is.

        On further reflection, this dude also needs to be clearer about his requirements. If he only said, “Hey, I’m looking for XYZ, if you could get that for me within the hour,” it would be much easier for LW to get an idea of how urgent it is, and make it easier for her to prioritize–or to respond back with “I’m in the middle of Arya’s request, but will address yours after I finish with hers, I expect to be done by 11”. His being p/a and huffy about it is not a winning strategy. Use your words, dude!

      2. Dust Bunny*

        I’m an actual assistant in an academic library and I do everything from academic research requests to looking up the location of the nearest public library for people who called us by mistake to finding out when the oldest hospital in our city opened to . . . you name it. We don’t have an actual front desk but I usually answer the door, too. I’m probably a couple of steps closer to what we’d normally call an assistant than she is, but in smaller offices, we often wear a lot of hats. (I also clean the dead bugs out of the light fixtures and bleach the garage drain when it starts to stink.) My guess is she’s probably finding contact information or basic information about [whatever institution] or something like that. It’s still research, though.

    2. Elizabeth H.*

      There are TONS of research projects admins do without being research assistants in the least. I’m assuming this is not research projects like “Please help me research how carbon-dating technology has affected what we know about South American history” but research projects like “Can you find out how many of our graduate students have already taken Chem 3200/lab section and which semester grad students have typically taken it in over the past 10 years?”

    3. Specialk9*

      I love the idea of a whiteboard. It keeps you on task and visually corrects this buffoon’s arrogant assumptions.

  9. nnn*

    If it’s compatible with the nature of your work, you could also start systematically asking everyone what their deadline is, and then do it in order of deadline.

    My workplace has an Outlook form for these kinds of requests, and deadline is a required field. It sounds impersonal, but it actually improved our workflow because all the requests support staff receive are standardized so they can easily skim and sort them. (It also helped resolve the problem of some people being reluctant to ask support staff for help – it feels like less of an imposition to fill out a form than to ask an individual to do something for you – but I don’t think that would be as much of a concern in a university context.)

  10. KL*

    I like Allison’s advice, but I will add that as another office admin in a university, his attitude is just plain rude.

  11. Sharon*

    “no rush, but I assume you don’t have a lot going on”

    “That’s an incorrect assumption.” delivered with either a tone of confusion or annoyance depending on my mood at the time. But I tend to be succinct or terse (depending…). This coworker is a real piece of work.

  12. Demon Llama*

    Co-worker: “Hey, can you do X please? No rush.”
    You: “You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Also, as CleverGirl says – yeah anyone who assumes a receptionist/office assistant doesn’t have lots of stuff on their plate is being wildly dismissive of what those sorts of roles often entail. Many sympathies, LW, your co-worker sounds super annoying.

  13. Menacia*

    I’m wondering if this guy understands what the term “no rush” actually means…perhaps clarification of that would help here? No rush meaning you don’t need it in the next 10 minutes but you do need it within an hour? The concept of time in his universe does not sound like the rest of us.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      $5 says he’s using it totally disingenuously. He knows perfectly well what it means to everyone else, but he thinks his stuff should come first, even if it’s not important, because HE’S important.

      If I were inclined to overthink things that much, this would start to feel sort of gaslight-y, keeping the OP second-guessing her understanding of timelines and expectations. It’s not a huge deal but it’s definitely a jerk move.

      1. The OG Anonsie*

        Yeah, I’ve worked with academics who did this. They wanted me to drop everyone else’s existing work for their low-priority stuff purely as a show of their importance when measured against everyone else. They knew the task wasn’t that urgent, but they felt they should still get highest priority as a rule.

        1. LKW*

          Not an academic but worked with lawyers – I’d let them fight out priorities. I’d tell them I have priorities for person A, B and C and ask them to go back to A B and C and get back to me with who goes first. Until I got an answer, I went with existing priorities.

          Let them fight it out. I don’t care.

          1. The OG Anonsie*

            That didn’t work with mine– if I didn’t proactively put them before everyone else, then I wasn’t on their side and they couldn’t trust me. It didn’t matter if the thing I wasn’t putting aside was a grant application with a deadline that same week and they just wanted me to pull some papers for them when convenient, if I didn’t take initiative to play the game for them then I was betraying them.

      2. Kelly L.*

        Yeah, my money is on passive-aggressive, though there’s an outside possibility that he really thinks a rush is 5 minutes and no rush is an hour.

      3. tigerStripes*

        I think he’s doing this to try to push the OP into doing his stuff first.

        I think some people will behave rudely thinking they get good results. He might be one of them.

  14. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Oh, man. I deal with this a lot. I’ve mitigated a lot of it by just being upfront and assertive about it. I usually respond, “I have several urgent teapot requests. As soon as I am done with those, I’ll take care of the llama grooming. [Insert timeline, with extra time padded.]” The key, though, is to hold firm. Don’t waver on it to appease him. People like that are like sharks…once they smell blood in the water they’ll keep circling.

    1. Snark*

      This is a good response in the moment. “No rush!” “I’m actually dealing with several urgent requests right now, and I don’t have spare time. Do you need this sooner than COB Thursday?”

      1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

        In my department alone, I support 14 people. Add in 6 different managers from all departments, the periodic sales guy, the warehouse, and an occasional engineer….I HAVE to know my deadlines because I’d go insane otherwise.

  15. MuseumChick*

    What a rude person.

    Replies to us for “I assume your don’t have much going on.”

    1) That’s a really weird assumptions.
    2) You know what they say about assuming…
    3) *detailed list of current project in dead pan tone*
    4) Your assumption is incorrect.
    5) Well, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
    6) Why would you assume that? No, really, I’m confused, why do you assume that?
    7) Actually I have a lot going on, it’s rare I’m not working on multiple projects for multiple people.

      1. ClownBaby*

        Yeah. I love #6 as well.

        That’s actually my technique for when anyone makes an offensive remark. For example, if someone tells a racist joke, I will just dead pan stare at them, say I don’t get it, and ask why it’s funny. Shuts them up real fast!

    1. Jesmlet*

      I wish I was this sassy. I could only really do #7. I’d probably just jokingly say “I wish, I’m actually super busy but thanks for asking!”

    2. Purple Jello*

      If you’re supporting multiple people at his level, and he’s assuming you don’t have much to do, then does this mean he’s assuming they aren’t working as much as he is, or that they don’t need you because they’re more efficient?

  16. hbc*

    I’d consider raising it to my manager as well. Not to require action, but just to give a heads up if he starts whining about you being slow or not meeting his (invisible) deadlines. Something like “Fergus has a pattern of giving me projects that he says are low priority but then checking on them an hour later and acting huffy when I’m not done. I tried a bunch of different things but he’s not changing, so I’m going to start emailing him an expected completion time and pushing back harder when he shows up early and interrupts me. This is just FYI in case he complains or you’d rather I did something different.”

    What I would be tempted to do is tell him, “If you show up before I say I’ll be done, I’m putting you back on the bottom of the pile” and then do it, but there’s not a lot of places where that would fly.

    1. Amber*

      This is good advice. I was in the same position and the coworker who wanted her work prioritized (without saying so) would often lament to my supervisor how I never had time to get her projects done. Luckily I had looped my supervisor in and she knew the situation so her comments were always brushed off, but it still could have caused some serious problems had we not been on the same page.

    2. Judy (since 2010)*

      I’d consider doing that, but with a twist. After you’ve tried a few of the things Alison suggests, then go to your manager and ask for advice, saying you’ve tried X, Y and Z and he’s still doing A, B and C. Then ask what methods they suggest.

  17. Christine*

    When he says “No, Rush.” You need to give him a deadline for the next day. When he says, “no rush,” respond with ___”Great” I have so much to do that I will not be able to get to it until tomorrow morning”. ___ You need to train him to not wait until the last minute. He’s passively aggressively training you to give him priority, because you find him frustrating and you do not want him coming back.

    I would put his on the back burner each time he states “No Rush,” give him a time frame to expect it, either the next day or 4 – 5 hours later. That way he knows you are literally taking his No Rush literally, and it will retrain him to not interrupt you, hopefully, an hour later looking for it. This way you can train him with the expectation of you having work for others, without having to verbally inform him of it. You may have to verbally inform him of it, if he still pops in an hour later when you’ve told him you’ll have it to him the next day, etc.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes! Right now he’s “training” OP to prioritize his work by being a giant PITA. It’s time for OP to retrain him and reclaim their time.

      2. AKchic*

        No. No treats! If you give him treats he will start coming around JUST for the treats! Once he has a reason to come around more often (the treats), he has an opening to pester about his projects.

          1. AKchic*

            Cultivate a “Mom Look”. You know the one. That annoyed glancing, withering glare that says “you are annoying me and I will snap and make it look like you tripped all on your own and nobody would blame me in the least even if they suspected me in the slightest of any wrongdoing”.

            Do you know how hard it is to report a Mom Look?

  18. Garland Not Andrews*

    I guess I’m getting blunt in my old age. I’d just tell him, “Do you want the work done or do you just want to stand there and b*tch about it? The sooner you leave me alone, the sooner you will have it done!” If he said the “I assume you don’t have a lot going on.” bit to me, I fall off my chair laughing.

  19. Cheese Sticks and Pretzels*

    He will also say, “no rush, but I assume you don’t have a lot going on”

    This would really piss me off and make me put his stuff on the bottom of my list of things to do. Sometimes you need to “train” your customers :)

    1. Snark*

      That would get a crisp, “Actually, that’s an incorrect assumption, I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. Precisely when do you need this back?”

      “Oh er um an hour from now would be great”

      “Ok, so it IS a rush request. I’m not going to be able to turn it around in an hour since I’ve got four other urgent requests in process, but I’ll try to get it back to you by COB.”

      1. Parenthetically*

        Yes, people like this need the full force of One’s Inner McGonagall. Or indeed any number of One’s Inner Maggie Smith Characters.

        1. Liane*

          You could also try your Inner Mrs. Weasley. I noticed right off that *No One* gave her any @#$%. Well, Bellatrix did, and well…that didn’t go well for her…

          Or my mother in law. At both work & home, she was soft-spoken and kind. But oh boy, did she made sure everyone learned FAST that she was the last person they wanted to annoy. (I am still trying to figure out how she did it. Should have been a better disciple when I had the chance.)

        2. Merci Dee*

          I’m going with the Inner McGonagall. Very tough, but fair. And kind when it was warranted. It almost broke me when she was the one who screamed out at seeing Hagrid holding Harry’s “body” at the Battle of Hogwarts.

          1. Parenthetically*

            I had been sobbing intermittently for about 2 hours by that point in the last book, so yes.

      2. Kelly L.*

        I’m now reminded of my restaurant days, when people would try to make giant catering orders for an hour later. They’d even come in during lunch rush to do it. So if I was feeling snarky, and I knew it was one of the repeat offenders, I’d make a show out of getting out the catering binder and going “Great! We’d be glad to! Now, what day is this for?” and watch them squirm as they replied “…um, today?”

        We usually did it anyway, because the owner was a softie, but it was even right there on the catering menu: 24 hours notice required.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      “Well, I’ll see what I have going in. If I have a lot, as I usually do, you’ll get this tomorrow afternoon. If I don’t have a lot, you’ll get it in an hour.”

      (An hour later): “Oh, you’re checking in now? Turns out your assumption was wrong… again—I do have a lot going on.”

  20. Snark*

    Also, just as a plea from someone who both delegates tasks to others and has tasks delegated unto him: “no rush” or “I need it soon” or “anytime next week is fine” are completely useless phrases when it comes to establishing priority and timelines. Don’t be vague. Be specific. “I need this by COB today.” “I need this by 2pm.” “I would appreciate you turning this around by end of day Thursday.” Don’t wave your hands around, don’t give me a five-day window, tell me exactly when you need it.

    1. Mike C.*

      Seriously this, otherwise you’re going to get it at the deadline (at best), or have it pushed off at the last minute by something far more important.

      1. Chinook*

        Exactly. A clear deadline is a must when you take work from multiple people. I supported 6 people and woyld fetvassifnments throughout the day. Just because I have nothing urgent noe doesn’t mean the next person coming up won’t give me something more urgent and with a higher priority. Clear deadlines are the only way to prioritize a fluctuating work load.

    2. Lil Fidget*

      I would also encourage OP to insert these kind of deadlines for herself, when getting a request with a deadline like “no rush.” OP should respond, “I will get it to you by COB today / I can do it by 2PM / I can get it to you end of the day Thursday.” At least you’ll both be clear on when to expect it … and then when he comes back, you can re-state the deadline.

    3. Brock*

      COB isn’t even specific enough in some contexts – some people really mean ‘4:30pm so I can check and email it before I leave for the day’, some people mean ‘6pm is fine but I can’t leave the office until I get it’, and some people ‘any time before 9am the next morning’.

      It drove me crazy for a while when I moved from a company where ‘no rush’ usually meant ‘I don’t need this asap, but definitely sometime tomorrow’, to a company where ‘urgent’ often means ‘by the end of the week’.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        True, I have had this issue with “COB”! I used to say “this needs to go out by COB” to mean “*I* need to send it at COB (5PM) so I need you to get it back to me by no later than 4:30” – but they then’d usually send it back to me at 5:30, after I’m gone for the day, and pat themselves on the back because they did move it by the end of the day. I find you need to be pedantically clear about deadlines. Also we do have a few people who leave at 4 so their COB isn’t my COB anyway.

      2. Lison*

        Particularly when dealing with several different time zones. “I need this by COB Tuesday” is very different if it is needed in Mumbai or in San Francisco (from where I am). You send me this at 9am from India I don’t see it until I get into work, you send it to me from West coast USA and I can stay late to get it to you for your COB if it is urgent enough. I can’t get the India request done in time without a time machine.

    4. Aurion*

      I’m a purchaser, so slightly different context, but this is my life. I give an ETA on everything I quote, and revise the ETA based on current parameters when I actually put in an order, and always follow up with “is that okay?” because sometimes the deadline is “customer would like to have it by this date, but no big deal if it’s a day late” and sometimes it’s “if you can’t get it to me by 8 am on X day don’t even bother”…and most customers don’t tell sales upfront how hard their “deadline” is. (Most also would like to avoid the extra charges for expedited orders, so it’s a constant balancing act.) And yes, people’s ideas of “no rush” and “rush” differ greatly.

      Quantifying completion times make life easier for everyone involved.

  21. Amber*

    I was in your shoes for 5 years at a college doing the same job, OP. Alison gave great advice- be firm with YOUR timelines. I had to do the same thing when I was in that position, and there was one faculty member who thought all of her tasks should be prioritized over everyone else. Saying something like, “I’m working on a project for Jane that’s my priority until Thursday, so I won’t be able to start on this until then. Will that workable for your timeline or does this need to be moved up?” or even “I have several other tasks for people that I’m working on right now, so I should be able to get it to you by the end of the day tomorrow.” A statement like these should help to clarify that 1.) you have other tasks from coworkers in your department and 2.) gives an idea of when you will be getting to it so he can either agree or give you a firmer deadline.

  22. Dust Bunny*

    I’d love to witness this firsthand to see just what is going on.

    At best, I’d say that his “no rush” is not everyone else’s “no rush”. I suspect, though, that you’re right that this is a power trip. For him to say that he assumes you’re not busy is either totally clueless or totally undermining you by telling you obliquely that everything else you have to do is not as important as his “no rush” request; basically that even his trivialities are so important that they should come before your other tasks.

    I work in a med school library. Doing small research things is a major part of my job and if you tell me “no rush”, I will tell you I’ll get back to you in a day or two (I usually deliver something sooner, but I don’t lead them to think they can expect that every time. People who make these requests often have no idea how much work it is to retrieve the material they want). If it’s something really simple, then, yes, I might have it in under an hour. A few minutes, even, but they’re not to think I can do that all the time. We have one allegedly-retired doctor who wants everything NOW and has no idea how physically difficult it is for us to get it, and sometimes we have to tell him he can’t pick up his stuff until later this afternoon. He tried showing up early a few times but we told him it wasn’t ready and he’d have to come back. He’s tried to get us to open for him on evenings and weekends, too. No dice, man.

    Ask him point-blank when he needs an answer. If he keeps up the “no rush” nonsense, tell him you’ll have it tomorrow. Don’t reward him by putting prior work aside for his sake unless it truly is an emergency.

  23. LCL*

    Well, to date you have rewarded his behavior. You post that you have started putting his tasks first and completing them as soon as possible. Why would he stop what is working for him?

    The only way to deal with people like this is to give them hard timelines. Sure, a timeline is only an estimate, and you should always estimate a little bit long, but give him a realistic estimate. You are the expert on how your job tasks are routed. If it takes 10 working hours to get to a job, tell him. Also tell him every checkback increases the time by half an hour. If he asks why it takes 10 hours to complete a 90 minute task, then you can explain to him all the jobs you have in front of his. It goes without saying that you are courteous and businesslike while you explain all this. He probably doesn’t understand how your job is set up, how he responds to this will tell you what kind of a person he is.
    Depending on what the task is, you could block out certain times in the week and only do that task at that time. Make sure to communicate that, if it is your practice.

  24. DataMiner*

    Wow, these are really professional responses. I’d have a hard time not being snarky when saying these. Good luck OP!

  25. Marietta*

    I was in a job like this for several years in college – providing research and admin support to a number of faculty in an academic department. It is important for your supervisor to help you navigate this when you are helping multiple people. (I was once pulled off to work on a project with one of the department heads, and I assumed the dept head would tell my supervisor. My supervisor just assumed I was AWOL). Also, you’ll want to consider where this person sits on the totem pole – in general, you need to prioritize work for more senior faculty over more junior faculty and postdocs.

  26. animaniactoo*

    “I think we have different definitions of what a “rush” is. Anything that you tell me is “no rush” is unlikely to be completed in under an hour and probably not even that day since I have more going on than you seem to realize. I handle these types of requests for several other people and all of you together add up to quite a lot of work. If you want it sooner than that, you need to notify me that it is indeed a rush and I will prioritize it differently.”

    And then when he shows up at your desk an hour later, very calmly: “Pardon me, I thought you said this is not a rush? Is it actually a rush?” and then if he walks away irritated let him. It’s not your job to manage his irritation beyond a certain point – it’s his. Notify whoever your supervisor is that this keeps happening and see if they want you to do something different, but otherwise it’s just a head’s up that if they come complaining, it’s their own fault for bad assumptions and giving bad instructions about priority levels.

  27. boop the first*

    Too bad you don’t get to have your own little “ticket” system. I like the whiteboard idea above where you physically list the queue, but that would require more time/work to maintain. It would be fun to start handing him a number on a post-it note: “there are _8_ callers ahead of you.”

    1. Lizabeth*

      The one the local grocery store uses at the deli counter is very effective, however I could see everybody standing around “waiting” for their lunchmeat, opps… jobs.

  28. Narise*

    If you always complete his items especially when he states ‘no rush’ you will train him to except his items to be completed ASAP. Instead set a reasonable time line of when you can complete the tasks. Also if he emails you and then comes down to explain what he wants he’s wasting your time and his. You should not have to drop everything when he sends an email and then wants to explain the email or project. Ask him to submit his request in the email so you have it as a reference point and let him know you will follow up if you have questions on what he wants. Not that same day but before you complete the project.

  29. Guacamole Bob*

    OP, I think there’s one more piece that other commenters have missed: accept that this guy is a jerk, and work on letting it not bother you. It sounds like you’ve tried communicating timelines and your other priorities and he gets passive aggressive and makes rude comments about your workload. The right answer isn’t to let it get under your skin and move his projects up the list to avoid being the recipient of his rudeness. The right answer is to ignore his jerkish behavior, do the work on the timeline that he states is acceptable as long as that fits reasonably with your other work, and to realize that him being upset or rude is not your problem and not something you need to fix.

    This is not easy, especially for people socialized as women in response to this type of behavior from men, and especially for people in roles with a customer-service type component in response to people with more seniority. But getting a clearer sense of the appropriate boundary in your own mind may go a long way towards making this situation easier to deal with.

    1. ArtK*

      Good point. Saying “I’m sorry, that won’t be possible” is not a rude answer, even if it feels that way. It’s not aggressive or PA either. It’s a simple fact.

      OP, just because this guy is unhappy with when the work is getting done, it doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong. You aren’t responsible for his happiness; if he can’t communicate a clear and reasonable (and necessary) deadline, you don’t have to bend over backwards to meet his wants.

    2. zora*

      Oh yeah, this, too. I sort of got to this in a comment upthread, but I didn’t really emphasize it.

      You definitely want to work on not letting this jerk bother you. I think that’s one reason the ‘Confused’ tone is really helpful for me, because it helps me reinforce to myself that this is not frustrating me and I am not letting this get to me. I am someone who gets easily annoyed by people, so working on this skill has literally changed my life!

  30. McWhadden*

    I would also definitely keep up the practice of letting him know when you think it’ll be done. And then when he follows up say “As we discussed, I should have this done by Thursday morning.” I know it’s not really doing anything to help the situation but it’s a good practice to keep up.

    And always give the timeline in response to his email not in his followup in person thing. I am sure it won’t but *just in case* this ever gets raised to a supervisor you can always demonstrate that you’ve consistently given a realistic timeline even when told “no rush.”

  31. Professor Ronny*

    We professors can be self-absorbed. Loop your manager in because I can almost guarantee he will take it up with the department chair/dean if you try many of the great techniques others have already suggested. However, I suspect nothing he needs is urgent since you are most likely plugged in enough to really know if it’s urgent and you did not mention that.

    1. Janice*

      “Loop your manager in…” That was my thought as well. LW states that she does work for other colleagues of his, that they are (the other colleagues) are on the same level. What if she went to her supervisor and or theirs’ and listed all the pending projects and asked how they should be prioritized?

      I was in the position of being low man, I was getting work from the lead developer, the project manager and the systems manager, none of whom were aware of what the others were giving me. I went to the system manager with the long list of projects/tasks on my plate and asked which was more important.

  32. ArtK*

    Sounds like his idea of a “rush” is “do it right now while I look over your shoulder.”

    Do not prioritize his stuff ahead of work that you already have in hand — all that does is reward him for bad behavior. You can follow Alison’s script to start with. You can also respond to the initial “no rush” with “Let’s set a firm deadline. I can have it done by X” (making sure that ‘X’ gives you lots of time.) Then let him push back with when he needs it. Negotiate a deadline. If he insists on a timeline that you can’t complete without affecting your other work, it’s perfectly appropriate to tell him to take it up with your boss to resolve. “Boss, Fergus wants project Y done by tomorrow — I have A, B, and C already in hand. The earliest I can get Y done is early next week. Should I put my existing work aside to get Y done on Fergus’ timeline?” Part of this will force Fergus to explain why he wants something done quickly — and no, “because I want it” isn’t a valid justification unless Fergus is much higher in the food chain.

    1. ArtK*

      Follow-up: I would start dealing with the e-mail followed by a walk-in. “I’m sorry, but I got your e-mail. There’s no need for you to come and explain it to me. If I have questions, I’ll ask them via e-mail when I get to your project.” Then turn away and get back to what you were doing in the first place.

      I know that you said that is annoying but “not the end of the world.” It still needs to be dealt with. By giving him attention when he walks in, you’re telling him that his wants are more important than your time. That’s the core to this whole thing. Set a very firm boundary from the very beginning. He’ll complain and fight back, but you are in the right if you set a boundary.

  33. CMDRBNA*

    Ugh, I worked with someone who, while otherwise pretty nice, would do this weird thing where he’d walk into your office, and if you were on the phone he’d stop in the doorway, sigh and huff loudly, and roll his eyes until your call was over. It was very bizarre.

    1. Baska*

      Oh, man, if that were me, and if I had an office with a door, I’d just close the door until my call was done. (Probably would do that anyway, because usually my phone calls aren’t anybody’s business but the person I’m speaking to, but *definitely* if I’ve got an obnoxious person outside my door.)

  34. kb*

    Is it possible he doesn’t understand that most people are just emailing you work, so there’s never a physical line? There’s a tendency for people unfamiliar with these types of roles to assume that if someone working in a front desk set-up doesn’t have a client physically there or on the phone, that they’re killing time/ surfing the net. There’s a high probability this guy is just a jerk, but being really clear about how much work you have in your queue may help him understand and accept your turnaround time.

  35. Fabulous*

    I always try to set expectations early on bso the person doesn’t bug me several times about it.

    Asking, “when did you need this by?” as soon as a task is assigned is essential. Followed by, “Ok, I can get this to you by [insert timeline]” if they answer with No Rush. That at least can make them rethink in the moment what they said.

  36. AdAgencyChick*

    This guy sounds like a real peach.

    Definitely respond to each of his requests with where that request is in the queue and when he can expect it done. (Both estimates, of course.) “Okay, you need this TPS report. It’s in the queue behind the TPS reports for Cersei, Tyrion, and Sansa, so I should be able to get it done by Thursday.”

    Also, loop your boss in that this is happening. Not in an accusatory way, but in a “please help me define my priorities” way. And unless your boss says that this guy’s work indeed needs to be prioritized…DO NOT LET HIM JUMP THE QUEUE just because he’s annoying you. That will teach him to keep coming by your desk and bothering you.

    I have actually said “every minute I spend talking to you about this project is another minute I’m not spending doing this project” to an account exec who wouldn’t leave me alone. She was mad, but she went away. You’ll have to judge whether you have the political capital to get away with saying something like that, but it can be quite effective.

  37. mf*

    Former university admin here. Have you tried telling this guy *exactly* where he is in your list of priorities? “Dan, just to be clear, I’ve got three tasks lined up ahead of yours. I’m working on X for Susie, Y for Jim, and Z for Karen, and then I’ll be able to work on your research. That means I probably won’t get to it until X date/time.”

    When he comes back an hour later: “Like I said before, I’m still working on that thing for Susie, then I need to do some work for Jim and Karen. I’ll let you know when I have your stuff done but it’s going to be a while.”

    You could also refer him to your manager–this is a bit of a power move to remind him that he’s NOT your boss: “Dan, I don’t prioritize one faculty member’s tasks over another. As far as I’m concerned, you are all equally important. If you feel I should prioritize your tasks over those of your colleagues, you should talk that over with my boss. Ultimately, it’s up to him/her how I budget my time.”

  38. RES ADMIN*

    I would avoid prioritizing someone’s work just because they were a PITA. All that does is train him to continue being a PITA by rewarding him with faster turn arounds. If anything, his goes to the bottom…and if he complains, then it should be pointed out that there is, in fact, a lot of work to be done, he specified no rush, others were ahead of him, and he is being unreasonable in his expectations. “I’m really busy right now, however it will get to it as soon as I can.” said with a sympathetic smile, of course. Lather Rinse Repeat

    Some work has clear priorities (a specific deadline, for example). Other work should be treated on a more first in/first out basis. Some things just make sense to do first. Regardless, since only the OP is fully cognizant of her incoming work, she should be setting those priorities rather than letting the fact that someone is being unreasonable push her into making his work a priority.

    I’ve been in that position. For years I had more incoming than could possibly be handled in any sort of timely manner. I learned the hard way that “complaining” is usually not a valid reason for bumping them up ahead of others who submitted more timely. Now if they complained to my VP and the VP told me to just get it done–no problem. And I’d let others know, when they asked, that another job had been given priority by the VP. And since that type generally cannot resist complaining every single time (because they see how effective it is), the VP quickly learned to stop giving complainers priority unless there was a significant business reason to do so.

  39. Anonymous Educator*

    I’ve had colleagues tell me it’s “no rush” (fortunately nobody has assumed I have nothing going on… or at least not said it to my face), and I usually press them for a deadline anyway. “I know you’re saying ‘no rush,’ but it helps for me to have a timeline. Do you want it by Friday? When do you want it?” and 99% of the time, people will give me a deadline when I press them for it.

  40. a different Vicki*

    The other thing that occurs to me is that all those interruptions to ask “did you get my email?” and “is it ready yet?” are slowing your work for everyone else. When you loop your supervisor in, can you tell her that this guy’s interruptions are slowing things for Jane and Fergus, and ask her whether it’s okay to explain that to them the next time something actually urgent is delayed.

    I would also be tempted to respond to “no rush” with something like “okay, you’ll have it by the end of the day Friday” or “do you need it before the end of the month?” Because if something really isn’t a rush, the end of the week is a plausible time-frame, and “do you need it before the end of the month” is a relevant question. That’s an alternative to waiting until he comes back and saying “you said this was no rush. Why are you rushing into my office in less than an hour and interrupting what I’m working on for Wakeen? What does ‘no rush’ mean to you?”

  41. Free Meerkats*

    I’ve started just putting his task first and trying to complete it as soon as possible,

    Stop doing that. He’s trained you to do his stuff first, now you have to train him to expect it when you say it will be finished. As others have said, give him a day/time you’ll finish it and don’t give it to him a minute sooner.

    And when he comes by to check on progress, tell him every minute he’s occupying you hovering is a minute that his project will be delayed. And do it; if you said noon Wednesday and he spends a half hour over the next couple of days checking on, it he gets it at 1230.

    Depending on your office, you might want to let your supervisor in on your plan so she’s prepared for potential blowback.

  42. Marthooh*

    ‘I have one colleague who will email me a task, and then walk down to my office to explain it to me. …he will often emphasize “no rush” on whatever task he’s assigning me, and then come back and check within an hour or so to see if I’ve completed it yet. He will also say, “no rush, but I assume you don’t have a lot going on,” …’

    This guy seems to prefer very indirect communication. I wonder if he’s been saying to himself “Why can’t LW take a hint and finish my projects ASAP? Heaven knows I’ve tried being polite about it!” Because maybe saying “no rush” and “I assume” and showing up in person as a *gentle* reminder is actually his idea of politeness. (NB: I’m not saying I agree!) I’m also curious about the time lapse between him sending the first email and showing up to explain it to you: if there is a lapse, maybe that means he expected you to get it done that quickly!

    But whether he’s trying to be nice or intentionally being nasty, giving him a deadline is the way to end this nonsense.

  43. Butterfly Kiss*

    The responses on this thread are making me skeptical about using the phrase “no rush.” I use it fairly frequently when I have a question to ask a coworker, and I don’t want them to rush over to answer my question if they’re busy. I truly mean “no rush” when I say “no rush.” I thought it was a gracious thing to do, but perhaps not!

  44. nonegiven*

    Repeating from a comment on an earlier post

    My husband had this problem.

    Foreman: I need you in $town today to do x.

    I can order the materials, but two weeks before I can schedule that.”

    Foreman: Really? I saw you loading $materials onto your truck.

    “Yeah, for big client, that’s been scheduled for a month and will take 4 days. Two weeks. How long have you known you’d need x in $town today?”

    Foreman: 3 weeks.

    Eventually, he got it because DH was the only one who could legally do x.

  45. Former Prof*

    As someone who used to be a a young, female college professor, I’m pretty sure this jerk is deliberately doing this as a power play. He is making sure to demean the assistant (“you have nothing going on”), then passive-aggressively saying “no rush,” then checking back as though he’s so important that of course “no rush” means IN AN HOUR, and then all the passive-aggressive implications that she’s not doing her job properly, with the sighs and the eye rolling. It’s all so, so, so familiar.

    He is trying to make himself more important to the assistant–which is pathetic–by bullying her, which is abominable, and also trying to jostle for position with the other professors. It’s all deliberate. She should NOT “put his work first”–that tells all the other, nicer folks that she’ll neglect them because they’re nice. She can’t confront him–she’ll get fired (I know how this works). There’s zero point in having a “conversation about it”–he’ll completely deny it, blame HER for “misunderstanding,” and then he’ll become even more arrogant and bullying to her because now he feels even more threatened. Her best tactic is the (slightly passive-aggressive) “confusion,” coupled with complete, neutral, calm and a pleasant, neutral smile. I like Alison’s suggestion of
    when she gets the docu, saying when she’ll have it back to him. Then, when he comes down to bully her, she should simply smile and say, “Yes, I’ll have it tomorrow.” She should IGNORE his hissy fits–he’ll stop them if she stops responding to them. No matter what he then does or say, she should cheerfully (and “obliviously” say), “Yes, as I said, I’ll have it tomorrow.” Should she respond to his tiresome “you’ve got nothing going on”? It’s key to see that as him trying to put her down, not any kind of misunderstanding or factual error. I think she should simply pretend he didn’t say it–hear it as noise, he’s fanning his feathers at her.

    If it’s the math or engineering department, though, then she can calmly explain to him “I have these six things to do first, then I will do that.” They are clueless (my Dad was a Professor of Electrical Engineering). :)

  46. lokilaufeysanon*

    I would not recommend asking this guy to tell LW when things are urgent, this is the exact type of person who will turn around and make EVERYTHING urgent. He’s already being manipulative with his saying “no rush,” checking in an hour later, and then huffing and puffing when it isn’t. On top of that, he acts like LW had nothing better to do than to work on his requests. This person is not the kind of person who will use good judgment on what is actually urgent and what isn’t. He has also created this problem for himself, quite honestly, with his antics.

  47. Jenny*

    Ughhh. The “I assume you don’t have a lot going on” is exactly the type of thing people would say to the receptionist and other admin staff at my old job. It is unbelievably condescending, I hope this attitude is limited to this one (extremely annoying) guy at your workplace.

  48. ResuMAYDAY*

    Just now catching up on older columns. The receptionist should include this when talking to him, “You may not be aware, but you’re one of six people (insert correct number) that I support.” Lumping him in with others (in an informative and non-confrontational way) will file down that sharp ego of his.

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