how to respond to unclear “let me know when you have some time” requests

A reader writes:

I’m in a sort-of HR role, where it’s normal for colleagues to need my guidance on certain things. Sometimes it’s a quick policy question, sometimes it’s much more in depth, and very often there are legal considerations that mean the question should actually be directed to our legal or payroll departments.

Because I tend to be more approachable than those teams, I often get emails and instant messages along the lines of “let me know when you have some time to talk.” I’m always happy to meet with people (it’s literally my job!) but these types of messages are a pet peeve of mine because they don’t include any context and I can never predict if it’s going to be an easy question or an emotional unloading.

Is there a professional way to say “please tell me what you need so I can tell you if I have the time / emotional bandwidth to have this conversation right now”? I feel comfortable being straightforward to some coworkers I’m friendly with but I don’t have that relationship with everyone and I need to protect my own well-being sometimes, even if it’s just a five-minute heads up that my day is about to go in a different direction.

For what it’s worth, I try to give others the same courtesy and say, “Let me know when you have 15 minutes to discuss X topic” but don’t know how to get others to do the same for me.

This is so, so common and I don’t know why. If you’re busy, of course you need a sense of the topic so that you know how to prioritize it against other stuff you also need to take care of.

And while one might assume that if the situation were urgent, the asker would tell you that … in fact, quite a few people do not! Quite a lot of people (especially when they’re less experienced / early in their careers) use “tell me when you have a few minutes” for important and even time-sensitive things.

It’s not just about urgency, either. It’s also about knowing how much time a topic is likely to take (if it’s about X you might know that will take two minutes and find it easier to just talk right now, but if it’s Y you might want to wait until you have time for a longer conversation), as well as knowing if you’re even the right person for it (there’s no point in making someone wait two days to meet with you and then have it turn out that you need to direct them to a different person anyway).

So what you want is very reasonable. And there is a way to ask for it. The key is just to make sure you don’t sound so harried or put-upon that the person will hesitate when they need things from you in the future.

I’d say it this way: “I can definitely make time! Can you tell me the topic so I know how to prioritize it around other stuff?”

If you do this consistently, over time you can usually train people to start including the topic in their requests up-front.

One caveat: sometimes a topic is so specific or personal that the person can’t disclose it in advance without having the whole conversation on the spot. (For example: quitting. They could try language like “I have some news to share,” but even that is generally interpreted to mean quitting or parental leave.) So if you get the sense that someone is deliberately being cryptic, it can be good to just roll with it.

{ 178 comments… read them below }

  1. The Void Is Soft and Stares Back*

    I don’t know if this works for your role/field, but one tactic I’ve seen work well is to say “Sure! Put something on my calendar.” It makes the requester decide how much of your time they’re going to need, and how soon they need to meet with you. If it’s work that requires emotional bandwidth, that policy might not work as well (since you probably won’t want to respond to all inquiries with “Sure, put something on my calendar”). But it’s something to consider.

    1. Kimmy Schmidt*

      I like this suggestion in general, but I wonder if these coworkers even know how much time their question is going to take. If they think they have a “my coworkers are annoying me” question but OP realizes it’s really a “my coworkers are harassing me” question, it might be a totally different timeframe.

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        The other issue I could see is if someone puts 15 minutes on OP’s calendar and then it winds up that they want to know what the vacation policy is, which (in my company) is something that could have been solved with taking two seconds to send a link to the vacation policy on the intranet instead of scheduling a full on meeting about it.

        But on the flip side, if it *is* something of the “my coworkers are harassing me” variety, OP could always then say “I think we may need some more time to discuss this — let’s look at our calendars right now and schedule another meeting.”

    2. anonymous73*

      I wouldn’t go there until you knew what they wanted to discuss. It may be something she needs to refer to others. I wouldn’t want my time wasted with a meeting if it was completely unnecessary.

      1. LondonLights*

        I have some free slots this afternoon for quick catchups and tomorrow for a longer chat. if you could give me an idea of what its about I’ll work out the best time to meet . If it is more urgent let me know …

        Slight variation on Alison’s response if you don’t want to give the impression that you have to move things around to fit them in …

        1. OP*

          Oh I like this a lot, thank you! The hardest ones for me are when people need to vent about something because the answer is short but the process of getting there is long. I don’t mind being the emotional outpost for that but I do need to steel myself for it sometimes.

          1. SomebodyElse*

            One issue that your “Let me know when you have a chance to talk” people might be having is that they are unsure what they should be including in an email.

            I’m guilty of this with my HR business partner, because quite frankly if we’re talking there is something going on of a sensitive nature that I am unsure if it should be in an email. I know where the PTO policies can be found, I’m not going to ask something that I can find out easily or I’ll just directly ask if you can point me to X policy because I couldn’t find it.

            Maybe I (and my company) is more cautious than most, but I’m not going to write an email with “I think Fergus is taking drugs, embezzling money, sexually harassing his dept, and needs a talking to about his BO problem”

            I think your solution is going to be multi-layered.
            1. Make sure the easy quick answers are self serve and train people to use them
            2. Ask! “Can you give me a heads up on the topic or the amount of time we need?”
            3. Proactively give guidance. Send out a quick email “Hey did you know all of our policies are out in the shared drive. Go there first if to see if it answers your question, let me know if there is a follow up question” “The dress code was recently updated, sorry no more snorkels and swim fins… for the full policy go here”

          2. Not So NewReader*

            Ahhh… I wondered why you needed emotional bandwidth. People are using you to vent. Yes, I do mean using you. If you have to steel yourself for the vent then on some level you actually do mind. I think that is actually pretty human of you, really. Most people do not want to listen to a lot of venting.

            Part of your solution here is to set boundaries. How many endless rants are you willing to put up with? How many problems NOT under your watch are you willing to listen to? Is it the same few people or does it seem more random?
            If you know you have a person prone to ranting can you set time limits? I am not in HR but I had a person who wanted to “talk” with me. Talking consisted saying “but it’s not fair” over and over. The first time I met with the person, I listened for 45 minutes. I could not fix the situation, the person had to take responsibility for their setting, but I listened the first time. The second time, I was called into a meeting with this person and at the 15 minute mark, I said, “At the first meeting I spent 45 minutes going over the particulars. I showed you what you could do here. I have nothing more to add and I have to get back to work. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I have nothing more to add.”

            One thing I have tried to do that seems supportive is to avoid the pronoun “you”. I try to say it as little as possible.

            1. OP*

              Thank you for this! I know people are “using” me but I also not it’s not malicious; I did recently set a boundary with a coworker whose IMs always set me on edge because they really overdid the venting once so now I’m on alert! I could list a bunch of excuses here (I have a lot of contact with early career employees! We’re a small-ish company!) but you’re totally right that I can & should set boundaries.

              I’m going to start by at least asking for a sense of how long it will take because even if they guess wrong I can at least use that as cover of “I only had these 20 minutes for this so we do need to wrap up” if it turns into an interminable venting session.

              1. KAthlynn (canada)*

                I’m going to suggest a template. As someone with little HR experience/access knowing what I need to include will be helpful. Like, is this an issue with a coworker/ fellow employee, issue with medical etc, how every things might be helpful for you to be included.

            2. LittleMarshmallow*

              I see OP replied so this isn’t super relevant but where I work they have what they call “coaches” who are HR adjacent and are there for things like venting when you need a safe space. They usually offer advice and such too but for me it was a really great tool to have available. They were a safe individual to sort of talk things out with that could offer a more neutral ear than a friend or other coworker. It was their job… and it takes a special person to do it well, but the ones we had really loved being able to help people with their difficult situations and sure you’re using them when you use them, but that’s what they are there for. I used them once in my time there and it was really incredibly helpful to have that listening ear when I was so so frustrated with a situation and was struggling to see what to do next.

          3. Baska*

            “…the answer is short but the process of getting there is long.”

            I’m a church secretary, and I empathize with this so, so much. Sometimes people will just want to tell you EVERYTHING about a situation, and I’m sitting there for 15-20 minutes thinking, “What is it that you actually WANT from me right now? TELL ME HOW I CAN HELP YOU!”

            1. Anonymous4*

              And I’m sorry to say it but I’m quite sure that the person who was telling you about X situation knew you were feeling impatient. When I had workplace issues and the person to whom I was reporting them became impatient, I’d thank them for their time, get up, and go. If they didn’t have time to listen, I didn’t need to be talking to them.

          4. anonymous admin*

            I had a terrible coworker (she whined and threw temper tantrums and nothing was ever her fault) and part of the way I eventually dealt with her when she started in on the complaining was to ask her, either after waiting it out without making any listening noises (and sometimes full-on holding the phone away from my ear) or cutting her off before she got started, “What do you need from me?” It might not work in situations where, as Wisteria says, listening is part of what people need, but it might be useful in some cases.

    3. CoolHRLady*

      This was going to be my suggestion! I get this a lot from people, and it helps if they set up time with me directly on my calendar.

    4. anonymouse*

      Came here to say this.
      and to reinforce this: “Sure! Put something on my calendar.”
      This is perfect for the small percentage of people who are grabbing you for a “quick meeting” who will feel like scheduling a meeting with you is overstepping. I was one. I just could not get my head around that asking someone to meet with me by looking at their calendar and scheduling was not helpful/polite/proper and that creating a meeting at a time based on their calendar and inviting them to it was. And then I did it a couple times and realized, it’s not weird, or difficult. You just do it.
      PS: for those of you wondering, no, I’m not the OP from republished letter from the other day from the person who wanted more meetings! /s

    5. What She Said*

      There are programs out there that connect to your calendar without actually showing your calendar that allows the person making the appointment to select a topic then available times pop up for selection. I’ve seen it use by sales people. Do you have general questions about the product (15 minutes) or a demo on x product (45 minutes) for example. You could create some basic topics into specific time frames and let the person select their option. This gives you some idea of the topic but doesn’t mean they need to disclose the actual topic right off the back. For example you could create one for all types of leaves and list the typical one as examples, FMLA, sick, vacation, etc. lumped into one grouping. One for complaints and so on. Even one for “Not sure what I need yet”.

    6. Lauren*

      I have to be at certain meetings as a matter of law, and the people who invite me usually put the meetings for 30 minutes, when the organizer and everyone invited knows these meetings routinely take 60-75 minutes. I certainly wouldn’t rely on random coworkers unfamiliar with policies and HR norms to schedule the meetings and accurately estimate length; I think LW would end up with 60-minute appointments for 5-minute meetings and 15-minute appointments for 60-minute meetings. LW would also end up walking into meetings blind about topics without time to prepare or research policies.

    7. Good Vibes Steve*

      Usually when I reach out to ask for some time, it’s because I’ve checked the person’s calendar and they seem booked out for several days. I do try to tell them what I want to talk about, or an estimate of how much time I need, so they can decide what they can juggle in their calendar.

  2. Insert Clever Name Here*

    I get requests like this frequently (I’m in supply chain management) and I always respond “can you give me an idea of the topic?” Since you’re in HR, I could see where this could be kinda tricky (because who wants to put in an email “my coworker is sexually harassing me, when can we talk?”), but I definitely do not think there is anything wrong with asking people *why* they want your time before agreeing to give it to them.

    1. cacwgrl*

      I normally always use some version of this plus “so I can make sure I’m prepared” simply because sometimes it is a quick question and sometimes I need a little time to research or dig through old messages/files. Most of my customers and coworkers are pretty accommodating to this request without feeling like I’m trying to decide if I’m going to ignore it or not. In my experiences, the ones that deliberately dodged the follow up needed the privacy and vagueness OR they made up for it by being highly entertaining.

      1. Venus*

        Alison’s answer is good, but I prefer this “so I can prepare” instead of “so I can prioritize”

    2. MidwestMJ*

      I was in HR and I used this all the time. It was fine. If it was highly confidential they said so.

      1. Orora*

        This. I’m in HR and if it’s confidential most people either say that, or respond cryptically and I get the idea.

    3. Cranky lady*

      When I reach out to HR on sensitive matters I give a vague “guidance on a hiring matter” or “guidance on a benefits issue” so they have a ball park idea but they also pretty quickly pick up on “I’m not putting this in writing until we chat “.

    4. DivineMissL*

      My previous boss refused to see anyone without an appointment or knowing what the meeting was about, so he could come prepared to meet. So it was my job to be Cerberus at the gate. It amazes me how many people don’t want to say what it’s about – do they expect that my boss was going to just wing it? Or that, even though I was a confidential employee to the CEO and knew about EVERYTHING going on, maybe they couldn’t trust me? A simple explanation of “personnel issue between my clerks” or “find out if XX is in the budget” would suffice. But if they didn’t give a topic, they didn’t get an appointment. Giving a topic makes things flow so much more easily. Just ask!

      1. Unaccountably*

        That’s just weird. I always tell people what I want to meet with them about – especially my direct reports – because “I need to talk to you about something but you won’t find out what until you get here” is so anxiety-provoking.

  3. A Pinch of Salt*

    I was going to say something similar. If you want control so you can prioritize, you can go with a “can you give me a brief summary of what you need so I prioritize our call with my other tasks?” And then you send the invite once you have more info.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      It’s also helpful to know the topic in case it’s something you need to look up, so you can use that in your response as well. “Sure, can you briefly tell me what about in case I need to research anything ahead of time?” You might get the answer you’re seeking re: time in this response as well, but it’s perfectly acceptable to ask about both, IMO.

    2. NeutralJanet*

      Since OP mentioned that sometimes people ask her questions that really should go to Legal or Payroll, she can also mention that she’d like a brief summary of the issue so she can be sure that she’s the correct person to talk to—I find that this often works with external clients because I’m being clear that giving me a summary is helpful to them as well.

  4. Trout 'Waver*

    Reasons I’ve sent a message titled “let me know when you have a minute”

    -It’s a sensitive topic that I don’t want a written record of.
    -The person I’ve e-mailed is known for making wild assumptions and/or gossip and I don’t want them to speculate on the topic prior to talking to me.
    -The person I’m emailing has forwarded my e-mails out-of-context before.
    -It’s a coworker I have a more social relationship with and the nature of the business is largely relationship building and touching base rather than discussing a specific topic.

    1. PizzaSquared*

      Agreed. There are many, MANY HR-related topics that I either do not want to put in writing, or do not want to enter into without the immediate ability to provide context and clarification. Sensitive topics are often better handled verbally, and even giving high level details in writing can start machinery moving (or at least assumptions flowing) in a way that’s not desirable to me. I completely get and empathize with the difficulty of being in a role where people want your time for everything ranging from “what’s the budget for the holiday party?” to “I am considering suing the company for creating a hostile work environment.” But I think it comes with the territory of the job that people very reasonably do not want to go into a lot of this stuff in writing.

      1. PT*

        I had a Grandboss who had access to all of our emails, and would go through them to make sure we weren’t contacting HR, complaining about her, saying anything “off message,” having any conversations whose tones she didn’t like, etc. You had to have these conversations by phone or in person where they were a) off the record and b) where there were no witnesses, in a situation with plausible deniability that you’d been discussing something else. Otherwise she’d think Something Was Up and you’d spend the next 90 days under the microscope.

        1. New But Not New*

          That sounds absolutely exhausting. Condolences. When did boss get any work done with this level of paranoia?

    2. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Because of all of the above and other reasons, for contacting HR if I genuinely could not estimate the time required, I would send a note asking for a 5 minute call to explain a bit more and figure out how much time is needed for a proper call.

      Otoh, she mentions that she often gets other inquiries that are legal adjacent, etc. For those, I write an e-mail to my contact with my question that I ultimately need answered with the overall question in the subject line: REQUEST INFO: Where do I go to answer this (legal/accounting/safety/etc.) question?

      Speeds up things enormously. From her end, probably asking someone to put something on her calendar would help.

    3. OP*

      I understand and am sympathetic to all of those reasons, but just know that the person on the receiving end may need more information — a simple “it’s not urgent” or “it should only take a few minutes” can be helpful.

      And while I am sort-of HR, I’m not *actually* HR so fortunately the vast majority of questions don’t require discretion. I’d be much more understanding if I was frequently accommodating confidential conversations.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        A lot of communication requires trust: In some cases you’ll have to trust your coworkers when they’re being cryptic.

        Also, you’re either HR or you’re not. Sorta HR is still HR for all non-HR employees. If you’re constantly getting vague or non-specific request, it might be for one of the other reasons I mentioned. Maybe talk to your boss or mentor to make sure you’re not being perceived as gossipy or speculative or prone to forwarding these requests to third parties.

      2. Storm in a teacup*

        I think you’ve answered your own question here OP.
        If you get a request you can go back with something along the lines of:
        Sure, happy to engage. How urgent is the matter and how long do you need me for, so I can check my diary? If you can let me know what it’s about that would be great too.
        Then do this repeatedly so people become used to automatically including this info when the contact you again.

    4. Ice Clown Who Lots My Town Crown*

      I am a receiver of these, “Let me know when you have a minute” messages/emails and I always assume these things. Generally, I have an idea based on the sender. Also, these senders generally do not have time* to or ability to leave their posts. Thankfully, my team are good communicators and will let me know if something is time sensitive and/or what a topic is (if they need me to research it).

      *i.e. topics require a debrief of context and you get a better sense of what it is when you verbally discuss it.

      1. PizzaSquared*

        This is highly company-dependent. I have not worked in a company where people had office or desk phones for at least 15 years. And I’m not going to call the HR person’s cell phone (if I even have it) over something like this.

        1. allathian*

          Mmm. We have employer-issued cell phones. But yeah, while putting things in writing can be fraught, I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about sensitive issues where I could be overheard. At the office, most of us share offices with 1-5 other people. The walls between offices are thin, and the cable ducts conduct sound very well, and basically the only places you can count on not being overheard are our single-stall bathrooms…

          I’m also a very poor verbal processor, and in a conversation where emotions are running high, I can’t trust myself to remember what I’ve said, never mind what the other person has said.

          1. Lauren*

            I don’t see an issue with using my office phone to call HR and say “I would like to discuss a conduct issue with a coworker. Without going into it more right now, can we set up a 30-minute meeting for next week?” I would also email that, without a problem. I mean. I’m at a loss for so many comments saying that vague issues certainly can’t be discussed in an email, and vague issues certainly can’t be discussed on the phone, so LW or others reading advice need to accommodate drop-ins and random calendar invites without any idea of what the issues are about. That’s not doable. I guess I’m surprised that so many mistrust their employers, their offices, their phones, their emails, and their HR departments to the point where nothing can be discussed. That’s discouraging and makes me appreciate my employer a bit more.

        2. Lauren*

          Yeah, this is weird to me. I’ve worked in three industries and four different organizations in the last 20 years, and I’ve always had a desk phone or access to a shared office with a desk phone. I’ve never not had my own extension. Never had to use and will never use my cell phone. Huh.

    5. hbc*

      But…those are all very different reasons, and your recipient really deserves to know if you’re meeting to socialize or it’s something you don’t want on record.

      I think the problem here is usually one of knowing what’s in your mind (that you’re justified in not sharing) but the recipient doesn’t really have enough info to answer your question. On one end, I’m too busy to even think about a relationship building meeting until next month, and on the other, we’re meeting by end of day so we can discuss the employee who’s threatening to sue the company.

      1. Allonge*

        Yes, I don’t quite get this either. There is a lot of space between the information content of ‘Do you have time’ and ‘Miranda was filming Bob and Krystel having sex on the photocopier’ and I will need some info to know what you need.

        Otherwise, no, I have worked through all weekends since November and I don’t have time until May.

  5. Alex*

    My boss does this and it drives me bonkers. But for people below me or on the same plane as me in the org chart, i reply with “Sure. Let me know what you’d like to meet about so I can set up the right amount of time and resources for it”

      1. Usagi*

        Me too! It gives me a ton of anxiety, because of stuff that happened at exBadJob. Especially when it’s an email or a IM or something where you can’t hear the tone!

        1. MAC*

          I had good luck telling my most recent PreviousBoss about my baggage surrounding those types of requests. But she was great and I felt safe explaining that to her. She wouldn’t always remember to include context the next time, but she still helped me resolve some of the PTSD I had from other PreviousBosses. I started a new job this week and am optimistic that NewBoss is another good one.

  6. Office Sweater Lady*

    I would imagine there is a hesitancy to put details in an initial email in many circumstances related to HR — problems with co-workers, salary questions, reporting wrongdoing, questions about leave, pregnancy and medical issues. Since you are the person people trust, they might want to get your take on the circumstance before having something in writing/traceable in the wider organization. That doesn’t mean you can’t require more details, just come context on why people are doing this that isn’t just discourtesy/lack of forethought.

    1. OP*

      I absolutely understand the circumstance dictates how many details can be disclosed, which is why they’re asking to speak instead of just emailing their question. But even in those cases, shifting from “Let me know when you have time to talk” to something like “Let me know when you have time to talk, it should only take 10 minutes but I’d like to chat today” is so helpful. Very few add the second part in my organization.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        And that feels like bare minimum to me! It seems easy enough to say “I have a tricky situation I’d like to talk through,” or, “I can’t find this answer online.”

    2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      This. They are tiptoeing up to the issue, don’t trust having it in email that somebody else might be able to see, etc.

      1. SimplytheBest*

        I think people are getting lost in the fact that OP says she is tangentially related to HR. This kind of thing, as you can see up and down this thread and in other similar questions that have been asked on this site, is a problem for lots of people and often has nothing to do with being afraid to put something in writing. Some people are just clueless about how this is annoying.

  7. Scottish Teapot*

    I like the training people to respond to what you need approach. However if they are being slightly evasive, offer to schedule 30mins with them but say if they need longer you could find another time that suits better.?

  8. WFH is all I Want*

    I ask if it’s time sensitive and if they can give me a little context so I can better prepare to assist them.

    I’ve found a lot of people need coaching when asking for time from other people. I gently ask for details before committing myself to giving them time. If it’s a person I regularly interact with, I’ll be more direct.

    1. WFHgoblin5*

      i really like this response because it makes it clear that LW is investing time in and is being thoughtful about the request! i agree with some of the other comments that the phrasing of “so I know how to prioritize it around other stuff” might sound like their question/concern is less important than another.

  9. Christina D*

    My concern with focusing on prioritizing with other things is that people might either take it as “I don’t have time for you” or as an excuse to make things more or less urgent than they are in their next message. Something like “can you give me an idea of what you want to talk about so I can be prepared or have the info you need” might be better for some people.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Yes, I agree. Focusing on preparing for the conversation is probably a friendlier response for colleagues you don’t know as well.

    2. Heidi*

      I also focus on the preparation aspect. I’ll usually ask if they want me to bring any materials or research answers to questions or if I should pull up anything from the databases. This usually elicits more information about what the topic is. Or they may realize that their question is more involved than they originally imagined and they can plan accordingly.

    3. FashionablyEvil*

      Agreed—it brings the focus to how you can best help them. I might also add, “I want to make sure I have time to give this the care and attention it deserves.”

  10. OwlReally?*

    If you can use an ancillary software at work, I’d recommend using a schedule app. Works great. Can I speak with you? Yeah, pick a time in my calendar.

  11. animaniactoo*

    I suggest being straight up: “Will do! But it depends on whether it’s a 2 minute conversation, or a 20 minute one, and whether there are any deadlines on your end. Can you give me a sense of those details?”

    They’re not telling you, go ahead and ask for the broad details that you need to figure out your scheduling/priorities.

    1. Quinalla*

      Yes, when I get requests like these (not HR, but senior so get a lot of requests for a chat), I handle it this way too. If I have time right then, I’ll say something like “I have 15 minutes until my next meeting, want to chat now?” or “I’d be happy to meet, can you send me a calendar invite – I have time today if it is urgent.” I do not usually ask the topic for a 1 on 1 myself, but I’m mostly getting technical questions with occasional “How do I handle this situation/person” questions.

      For my side when I’m asking for time, I specify how much time I think I need and the urgency or I will just send a calendar invite with details or even a mini-agenda if it is going to be a longer meeting. For an ask, a quick teams message like “Do you have 5 minutes to talk now, need to run something by you ASAP today.” or “I need about 15 minutes to talk over X project, do you have time now or should I send a calendar invite?”

      And frankly, if it is something very urgent, I will sometimes just try to call – either phone or video call – first and if no reply then send a follow up message or calendar invite, but I know most people do not take this approach :)

  12. Language Lover*

    Since you’re in HR and people know you deal with sensitive topics, I think you can say:

    “I’d love to set up a meeting. Do you feel comfortable sharing general information about what we’ll be discussing so I can prepare and reserve enough time in my calendar?”

    Stating that their comfort is important gives them an out if it’s something they really don’t want written down. And asking for “general information” gives them the option to be vague. For instance, they might say “harassment guidelines” and it could be about their experience or an experience they witnessed. It gives you some details but it may be vague enough to give the requestor some cover.

    1. ThisIsNotADuplicateComment*

      But what if the person isn’t even comfortable enough to say “harassment guidelines”? Or has no idea that’s what they should say to cover the fact that they want to report witnessing harassment? I get that the OP would like to not have to go into every meeting with no information, but as soon as you start asking for details you’re going to get people sharing more than they really want to because they feel like they have to (especially if they’re young or inexperienced).

      1. calonkat*

        I think the language is wonderful. In your example, the answer to “Do you feel comfortable sharing general information about what we’ll be discussing” is “No, not really”

        1. Language Lover*


          The “Do you feel comfortable” language is an option for people to take a “hard no.” The “general” language gives people an option to be vague.

      2. Cat Lover*

        “But what if the person isn’t even comfortable enough to say “harassment guidelines”?”

        Then they say “I don’t want to share over email” or “it’s private”.


        1. Orora*

          Exactly. “It’s private, but should only take a few minutes” is a perfectly acceptable response. I’m HR. I get that people don’t want to put things in writing. (This is why I always call our employment attorney rather than email.) I’m not asking you for details. I’m asking you to give me an idea if it’s 2 minutes or 2 hours. But if you email me with “I prefer not to put it in email”, I know it could be sticky and give myself some extra time.

    2. Insert Clever Name Here*

      I think this is a great way to handle this issue specifically given all of the reasons people may want to not go into details.

  13. Tupac Coachella*

    I get a LOT of these in my work-people know they need help, but don’t have a great idea of exactly what they need, who can help them, or how complicated it is, so they come to me and just say “can I meet with you? My formula for responding looks like this:
    1) Expression of willingness to help
    2) Ask for more more context
    3) Provide a reason for asking centered around the other person’s convenience, usually based around my best guess of what they might need (I get certain types of questions around particular times of year, or can sometimes do a little sleuthing and get an idea of what it might be, but they didn’t actually tell me that’s what they want to talk about so I can’t be sure)

    Example: “Hey, can I stop by your office tomorrow? I have some questions.”
    “[Expression of willingness] I’d be glad to talk with you tomorrow! [Request for context] Can you give me an idea of what some of your questions are [“them” centered reason for request] so I can make sure I have the information you need ready to go?”

    They still don’t usually give me a full rundown of what they actually want (as others noted, they often have a reason for being vague), but they tend to give me *something.* Even “I just wanted to know more about what would happen if I do X” helps, and it’s usually enough to figure out if I need to direct them to someone else or if it’s a simple ‘go to this link’ question.

  14. No Tribble At All*

    One thing an old company did which was really helpful was set up a ticketing system for HR the same way we had one for IT, so you could set a ticket that says “I moved & need to change my withholding, what forms do I submit?” and someone from HR will get back to you. They can also forward the ticket to legal/payroll as can be.

    Obviously won’t work as well for sensitive topics or if you want to avoid a specific person in HR, but it did reduce people wandering up to the one HR person in their office and bugging them with really long, detailed questions.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I was going to suggest something similar, but maybe not so formal as a ticket system. If you use MS 365, set up your own Form with check boxes for general categories that apply to the OP — Confidential Matter, Employee Relations, Benefits, Vacation/Sick/Leave, Employee Records, Payroll … whatever makes sense and/or maybe something about the time needed in 15 minute increments. Share a link to the form and as a footer, maybe set up a section of links for FAQs. It’s less enterprise level than a formal department ticketing system which may deter people from using it if they don’t want to be “tracked.” If you don’t use 365, I think there are other online free survey forms that you can set up.

    2. FashionablyEvil*

      My company does this, but it’s just for things like I moved/I need to update tax withholding/I need a signature on this form. For things that require more nuance or discussion, each division has an HR partner who’s available to help.

  15. Wilton Businessman*

    If they are inconsiderate enough to not give me any context, my reply usually is: “regarding?”

    I will put time aside for somebody that has personal issues or we need a back and forth conversation, but 90% of the time it can be done with an email.

    1. Critical Rolls*

      Hopefully you don’t work in HR. People often have legitimate concerns about sensitive topics they need to discuss that make them hesitate to be specific on first contact. Not to say that there aren’t plenty of questions that can and should be easily dealt with via email, but starting from a place of “how inconsiderate” would be a poor choice for HR in particular.

      1. Sammy Keyes*

        Yeah, seconding this. Or if your first contact is in a public place around other employees, you may not want to go into detail. Like if I find our HR manager in the copy room, and there are people milling around, I don’t want to say “Hi, could we chat for a little bit later about some pre-existing conditions I’m concerned our new insurance policy won’t cover?”

    2. OP*

      I appreciate that this works for you but it would be very out of sync with my organization as well as my own personal style.

      I don’t view it as inconsiderate, so I’m not trying to mirror their tone. People need help, I am able to help them, but it’s only a small part of my role so I need to protect my own calendar as well. It’s not either/or, it’s and/both.

      1. Attractive Nuisance*

        Yeah, that has a pretty SOMETHING tone. I’d probably say “sure, what’s up?” and take it from there. Then it’s in their court.

        1. gbca*

          I think that’s what the OP’s trying to avoid, though. “Sure, what’s up?” opens the door for the question, and she may have time for a 10 minute quick answer, but not a 45-minute unloading.

          1. OP*

            Yes exactly. For example, someone asked me this yesterday & I was off site so I couldn’t connect; we followed up today & they were just trying to follow up on an email they sent two days ago that I hadn’t replied to yet *face palm*

            If I had gotten the sense that it was urgent, I would have stepped away from the off site thing but in this case I am glad I didn’t :)

    3. Lauren*

      I’ve had two (…women…) coworkers get turned down for promotions AND get taken to HR for a talk about professionalism because of providing curt, direct responses just like that. LW’s mileage may vary. I really wouldn’t recommend it.

  16. Yellow*

    I have a coworker who will message me saying, “Can I ask you a question?”– and then NOTHING. Like they are waiting for me to say yes before they ask me? Nothing fills me with more rage. Just ask the question.

    1. Just Here for the Free Lunch*

      These are the same people who message a “hello” and then wait for you to respond before asking for what they need. I suppose that they think it’s the same thing as knocking on your door/cube and waiting to be invited to sit down.

      1. Anonymous Hippo*

        OMG. We have an I.T. guy that does that. Please please please, just tell me what you want to say.

    2. Pool Lounger*

      Try telling them “You can just ask me—you don’t have to ask if you can ask!” This is one of those small things some people hate and others never even think about. If I knew this was annoying someone I’d stop! But if they didn’t tell me I’d have no clue it was annoying.

    3. Filosofickle*

      Yes, they’re waiting for you to say yes. I don’t actually think this is that unreasonable! It’s asking for permission before launching in, which is a holdover from in-person communications. I like the suggestion to tell them they don’t have to ask, because they likely think they are being more polite this way and the only way they’ll know any different is if you tell them.

    4. Mizzle*

      I think they are absolutely waiting for you to say something. I get that it’s much more convenient if they just ask the question in the first place, but if that was their way of working, they wouldn’t have asked-to-ask in the first place…

      I think you might actually be reinforcing this behavior by not responding. They’re likely to interpret it as ‘oh, apparently, this was a bad time – glad I didn’t bother them with my question.’

  17. Paisley*

    My boss constantly calls me up and asks me, “Are you busy right now?” when he has a project or task he wants to give me. I don’t even know how to answer this, of course, I’m pretty much always busy, but there are busy tasks that are not urgent and can be done later, and there are busy tasks that need to be done now. When I am doing something I can do later, does he want me to reply with a no? I just feel like telling you’re boss you’re not busy is not good, but I also don’t want to say yes, and make him feel bad for asking me to do something. I wish he would just ask, hey, can you help me with this? Then I can say sure, what do you have, and once he lets me know the task and timeframe, I can let him know if it’s something I can do right away or need to schedule. Or, “do you have time to help me,” then I can say, “I can make time,” and look like a hero, lol. It’s not a big deal, just an annoying pet peeve.

    1. Esmeralda*

      Are you busy?

      Yep, right in the middle of the Floofram report — do you need to talk now or can I catch you later?
      Yep, but I need a break from this Floofram report — what’s up?

    2. Green great dragon*

      I wouldn’t worry too much. I bet that ‘Sure, what do you have?’ will work absolutely fine (people don’t pay that much attention to wording). Or tell him what you’re doing with a heavy hint about what you want then let him judge – ‘Just entering the Abort Bomb code, I’ll be finished by three’ if you want don’t want to stop, or ‘half way through grooming Montgomery but I can leave her for now’ if you’re happy to take a break.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      My mom will sometimes call me at work and say “are you busy?” I used to say “no,” which meant “I assume you need 5 minutes or less and I’ve got time for that.” But once day she said “why aren’t you ever working?” so I started saying “I’ve got a few minutes to talk” instead. I wonder if something like that would work with your boss: “I’ve got a few minutes to talk, or did you need more time than that?” or “I’m working on the Sucracorp project – do you need me on something else?” or “I’m finishing up the Sucracorp project but I should be free in half an hour if that works for you.”

    4. The boss*

      I do this regularly because of COVID-required remote working, but only with my reports. I do it because if we were all in the office, I would just call them, which I only do if I need something urgent, or something that they can tell me in a minute or two. But now, since I’m calling them at their house, usually on their own mobile phone that they (not the company) is paying for, it feels courteous to check and make sure that they’re not pumping breast milk or in the middle of some kind of break.

      I have explained to them that I understand that they’re always busy, and I’m just trying to find out if this particular moment is one that they could shift gears. They may hate it and not be telling me. So thanks for making me think about it.

    5. Cheerfully Polite Grey Rock*

      My standard response to this is a smile and “What do you need?”, because usually it means they have a task for me, and whether I can accomodate that task (which is what they’re *really* asking when they say “Are you busy?”) depends very much on what that task is. Once they elaborate, then I can let them know if it something I can do or not, rather than them automatically assuming that the answers to “Are you busy?” and “Can you do ?” are going to be the same.

    6. Mizzle*

      Depending on your relationship with your boss, you could try having fun with your reply:

      “Nah, just slacking off.” (assumed to be ironic)
      “I always have time for you!”
      “I was, until someone interrupted me.”
      “I somehow suspect I’ll be even busier once we’re done talking…”

      Okay, maybe I’m not that funny… anyone have suggestions?

  18. learnedthehardway*

    You could ask people in the organization to send you an invitation on your calendar (if your calendars are shared). That would separate out the people with issues they need to discuss, and ones that just want to shoot the breeze. It would also save you A LOT of hassle with respect to sending your availability, coordinating meetings, etc. etc.

    Of course, then you may end up with a lot of impromptu meetings, but at least you’re not chasing after people.

    1. Lauren*

      I think this would end up with LW’s calendar being haywire, with people scheduling 15-minute meetings for 60-minute issues and people scheduling 60-minute meetings for 15-minute issues. LW will be running late for other meetings or needing to schedule a follow-up meeting with the underschedulers, or have a ton of extra unanticipated time that could have been more effectively scheduled because of the overschedulers. LW would also likely not have a good idea of what the meetings are about and be coming unprepared.

  19. Esmeralda*

    People do not always know how much time (or drama) a particular topic is going to take, so asking for the topic, rather than for a chunk of time, will serve you better.

    1. Wisteria*

      For someone in HR, the topics might have a level of sensitivity that people don’t want to put in writing (or say over the phone in environments with no privacy).

  20. ThisIsNotADuplicateComment*

    Why not sent the person a message back asking them how much time they think they need and if it’s urgent? That way you’re not asking for details they might not be comfortable sharing over email and if it’s something simple they’ll probably give you the context you need (“I just have a quick question about policy X” etc.).

  21. SJJ*

    For me I typically respond with something along the lines of “I’m in a meeting/middle of something at the moment. If it’s something quick – just chat/email me what you need. Else, let’s meet to discuss. My calendar is up to date.”

    I no longer deal with sensitive personnel issues – so this might not work for you.

  22. New Mom*

    I’m an anxious person (I’m working on it but still there) and those vague “can you chat?” requests spike my stress levels so much. I really dislike them and wish people would just give a little piece of info. I usually follow-up with questions on the nature of the request so it’s not looming large in my thoughts.

    1. SushiRoll*

      I was trying to explain this EXACT issue and I wasn’t explaining it right. This so much. I am right there with you!

    2. OP*

      My anxiety would spike when I would get those chats from my bosses in the past, which is why I try to over-explain myself when I ask other people to chat (especially my team!)

      1. Wisteria*

        Do you think that could be part of what is getting you a little bit about these “Do you have a minute?” requests? It’s easy to get resentful if, even subconsciously, you are thinking, “I’m capable of telling people why I need to chat, what is up with everyone else?”

        1. OP*

          Yes!! If everyone could just act the way I want them to… (joking, of course) but it’s definitely something I’m cognizant of when approaching others so I’m probably over sensitive when it comes back to me

          1. Wisteria*

            I am doing this right now–I am resentful that my colleague did not give me detailed instructions on how to do something bc when it’s me, I do that for people. So, the solution is to work on the only thing you can work on, which is yourself. Try to build empathy by viewing them not as people who you wish would just tell you what they want already, but as people who are coming from a different set of experiences than you are, who do not have the emotional triggers that you do, and who therefore do things differently from you. Labelling and acknowledging your responses can help build distance from them so the resentment doesn’t impact your well-being as much.

            And someone up-thread had a script that I *really* liked asking for how long they needed and whether they could share the topic and brought up training people to provide you with this information when they contact you.

    3. Cassie*

      One of my bosses does this, although fortunately the “can we talk” and the talk are not too far apart in time (I don’t think my heart could take it!). “Can you come to my office so we can talk?” makes my heart skip a couple of beats, and all they want is to talk about a simple request that they sent to me in an email. And that I’ve already completed and responded to them about!

  23. SushiRoll*

    People at my work do this a lot but almost never for anything sensitive/off the record/etc. It’s just how they open a conversation when they want to ask you a question or have you do something for them. I hate it because almost no one tells you from the start what they want – if you are sending me a Teams chat, just say hi and tell me what you need or what your question is and I will get it to you. If you need me ASAP or it is sensitive, call me or stop by.

  24. Wisteria*

    Do you really need to know the topic? Or do you mostly need to know how much time to budget? I would change the script to:

    “I can definitely make time! Is 15 min enough or do you need more?”

    1. OP*

      I’m definitely going to do this — I do it a lot when people stop by my office but it feels more difficult to do it via email or instant message.

      I don’t need to know the specific topic, and I’m probably veering into wishful thinking on this one, but on more than one occasion I’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s emotional unloading which is FINE if I have a minute to put my guard up a little. It feels like a cold bucket of water sometimes when I’m happily working on a task & then someone drops in with a lot of energy… some emotional whiplash for sure.

      I know people need an outlet but in my perfect world it would be prefaced with a “I need to vent about something”. It’s a lot to ask for everyone to cater their approach to my needs but if I could just reduce the number of those situations a little bit, it would make a big difference.

      1. Amey*

        Would there be a benefit to you of essentially some kind of office hours? So rather than seeing people in random snippets throughout the day (interrupting your workflow on other things), you could set aside e.g. an hour or two in the afternoon that you can book people into where possible. They don’t have to know this is your system! Try to get timings and topics in advance if possible, but then you could see people back to back and go into the whole set of ‘appointments’ emotionally prepared to be on in that way. I work in a role that is partly project-based and partly advice work, and that kind of system works well for me because I can get into advice mode and be prepared to deal with whatever they throw at me, and I’m not trying to pop back and forth between an intense conversation and a spreadsheet. Like you, sometimes my appointments are unemotional practical questions and sometimes they’re someone who is venting or in an upsetting situation and you can’t always tell which it’s going to be, even if you do know the topic in advance! It’s just a plus if it’s the former and all easily dealt with.

    2. SimplytheBest*

      For this OP in particular where people are going to her for things they really should be talking to legal or payroll about, the topic is probably very helpful. She can head off any meetings/conversations there are just going to end with “you really need to be talking to someone else about this.”

    3. Jacey*

      I think that might be a useful way to handle it if the OP wasn’t dealing with HR stuff, where I think people’s estimates of how much time their question will take are generally worse than for routine work tasks. As an example (loosely based on a friend’s real life experience), Jane just needs a quick explanation of the somewhat arcane and confusing overtime rules, but her boss is on vacation; she asks for 5 mins of Fergus in HR’s time so he can clarify the policy. When they meet, it comes out that Jane’s understanding of the policy is VERY wrong—so wrong that Fergus asks her where she learned about the policy. Further conversation reveals that Jane’s manager has invented her own wildly overcomplicated policies to cover up the fact that she’s been breaking labor laws and misreporting overtime. That quick five minute meeting spirals into almost two hours! That’s a dramatic example, but it’s the kind of thing HR does deal with.

      1. Wisteria*

        Knowing the topic won’t necessarily prevent the type of situation you describe. Jane thought she was just clarifying some rules, she didn’t know she was exposing her manager’s misreporting! When a conversation spirals overtime, it’s really easy to say, “Hey Jane, this is way more convoluted that I thought. I have this afternoon clear, let’s regroup then so I can give it my full attention.”

        1. Jacey*

          That’s an excellent point, actually. I think I got caught up in remembering that story and lost sight of the point I meant to make ;)

  25. Cle*

    If the meetings fall into a few different buckets, you could have them fill out a quick Microsoft form; pitch it as part of your time management. “Absolutely! Could you fill out this quick form? (It helps me manage my time- thanks!)” or, if it’s just a couple categories, it could be a simple “Sure! Most of my meetings are either brief questions on the employee handbook, or they are more in-depth and require more time. Which meeting type would you like, and how urgent is your question?”

    1. Undine*

      That would be really off-putting if I was being harassed or needed to go on medical leave for addiction or whatever. Any form instantly lowers the humanity of the interaction to below basement.

    2. Anonymous4*

      If a situation arose that was bad enough to send me to HR, and I discovered that I was required to fill out a trouble ticket like I do with a computer problem, I’m not at all sure I’d go any further with it.

      First off, if it’s a computer-based trouble ticket, do I have any surety that someone in IT can’t access it, for entertainment?

      Second, what the heck?? That’s about as impersonal an approach as I’ve ever seen, and if I was being harassed, or my erratic boss was giving me fits, or I was pretty sure my coworker was committing fraud, I sure wouldn’t feel confident about typing *any* of that out.

  26. calonkat*

    Can I ask you a question about (an unnamed) thing/person/issue?
    How much of our working lives would be saved if people would be willing to ask the question up front in an email or message? Or in the case of meeting with people whose job involves meeting with you, proposing a meeting time or range of times (I’d like to have a short meeting, would you be available in person or by zoom any morning this week except Wednesday?)

  27. Veryanon*

    I get the “hey do you have 5 minutes?” and I learned long ago that it’s almost never a 5 minute discussion. I always say, I have a few minutes right now, but I have a hard stop at X time. If you think this will take longer than that, please go ahead and set up some time on my calendar. That way, people don’t feel like you’re blowing them off, and you can still draw necessary boundaries.

  28. Beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox*

    I’m probably one of these offenders, but it is usually because A. Explaining via message would take just as long as a call or B. The subject is sensitive and I, frankly, don’t want to send details through an IM. I do try to let people know the general idea of what I need to talk about I think, but I have a LOT of hyper-specific situations that take a lot of explaining come up.

    Since OP works in HR, I do wonder if it’s often the latter? Maybe not, but I just know that, if I were to have an issue with a colleague or needed to discuss switching departments without my boss involved in the decision or something similar, I’d be hesitant to send an IM or an email with those details before actually speaking to the person.

  29. Green great dragon*

    I guess someone in HR might need to be a bit more careful but ‘Sure, what do you need’ ought to do it for 99% of the world. And even in HR – ‘I’d like to talk to you’ is a heavy hint it’s something private; others should be able to give a better idea.

  30. Hotdog not dog*

    I usually respond to vague inquiries like that with, “sure, I can always make time. Anything I should have ready to discuss?” Their responses usually give a strong clue as to whether it’s sensitive, urgent, complicated, or routine and lets me block the correct amount of time and have any files or reference materials handy. (Not HR, but I deal with a ton of confidential information as part of my job.)

  31. ArtK*

    My (not) favorite is being invited to a call with no context and the conversation starts with “So what’s up with the bug, Art”?

    Me: Uh, what bug?
    They: Bug 1234. What’s the status?
    Me: First I’ve heard of it. Nobody’s sent me anything, or asked any question.
    They: The user can’t do ‘X’.
    Me: (Quickly looking up the bug and finding that that’s the entirety of the description. *sigh*) What happens when they try?
    They: It doesn’t work! What’s the cause? When can you have it fixed?

    And they wonder why I’m considered Mr. Cranky. My crystal ball is in the shop and I *hate* playing “20 questions.”

    1. Fellow crankster*

      Them: The app isn’t working!
      Me: Please tell me what error you’re getting so I can assist.
      Them: It’s not working! We’ve been trying for hours!!
      Me: I don’t know why you waited hours to ask for help. But cool. Tell me your error.
      Them: This always happens!!
      Me: I can’t help you if you don’t tell me your error.
      Them: Hold on it was my teammate trying let me get them here. You’re not logging off right?
      Me: I would never.
      Them 2: It’s not working!! Please fix it we have a deadline in 10 minutes!!
      Me: Tell. Me. The. Error.
      Them 2: It’s Error 123.
      Me: Your solution is here, on the help page for Error 123.
      Them 2: Ok let me try
      Them 2: Ok it worked. You’re a genius!
      Me: Yes the search bar is so complicated. Have a nice day.

    2. TiredEmployee*

      Ugh, yes. The worst I’ve had was coming back from a week off to two emails and a meeting in my calendar because “the new widget isn’t working”. I had no idea this new widget was even planned, let alone live and open to the public. They just forgot to tell me, and I had to drop everything for three days to set up the necessary infrastructure.

  32. Ally McBeal*

    As a non-HR person, it has been drilled into my head that emails are NOT confidential, and (depending on industry) any number of people might read them for any reason – usually related to security or auditing, but you really never know. I was once given access to my boss’s emails when she left the company and stumbled across an email from our IT person insulting my intelligence (luckily my boss shut that down, but it forever impacted how I saw and interacted with that IT person). So I would never ever put something highly confidential, like “I think my direct report is coming to work drunk” or “This is regarding sexual harassment I’ve experienced” in an email.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Yes, but I wonder if you could help narrow it down by asking them for very broad categories. “Got a quick question like something about benefits or policies, or something that might need more time to discuss?”

  33. Name Required*

    I know I have sent a vague request like this in a situation where the person I’m talking to has a habit of trying to draw out half of the conversation in email if I give them any details on what I’m asking about. I.e. I ask for 30 minutes to discuss a problem on “y” project, and they respond requesting a detailed synopsis of the problem, and then I spend time trying to summarize something that is better shown over a screen share because it’s complicated, and then they respond back with some short troubleshooting suggestions that aren’t helpful because they misunderstood or that I’ve already tried, and by the time we get to them agreeing a meeting is needed, I’ve spent way more time than a call would have.

  34. Dr. Rebecca*

    I’ve been on the opposite side of this, once, when HR and the dean’s office flat out refused to tell me why they wanted to meet until I starkly said that I wasn’t going into a meeting with my boss’s boss and the only person in the university with the authority to summarily fire me without a) knowing the topic, and b) my union representation.

  35. RagingADHD*

    If you are in an HR role and also route potential legal questions, I think you should probably assume that the majority of such requests are for things that the asker does not want to put into an email.

    Some things are best said in person without a paper trail. Some things, a person may not want to put in company email until they’ve assessed the official HR response first. And some things, a person may not want forwarded to others (accidentally or purposely) without their knowledge.

  36. OP*

    Thanks for all the feedback! I do want to underscore the “sort-of HR” piece — what I meant by that was that I am decidedly not HR but tangential so it’s exceptionally rare that requests need total discretion. I get hit every day with questions that I happen to know the answer to but are not my actual responsibility, and it’s impacting my ability to do things that ARE my responsibility. On multiple occasions, I’ve redirected someone to the appropriate person & they responded with “Yeah but you’re nicer / less scary than that person”. I can redirect more firmly at the outset but if I get in the thick of a conversation with someone it’s difficult (for me, at least) to just refuse to answer a question I know the answer to.

    But thank you Alison & everyone for some scripts — I am getting used to the idea of asking people to schedule time with me. It feels too formal for our org but maybe that’s ok!

    1. Lauren*

      Yeah, I think that’s a boundary issue that you’d be well-served to enforce. In a couple of your responses, I’ve wondered about you saying that people just come to you to rant. That’s a time suck and an energy drain. If they’re coming to you on things that are outside your role, discretion, and scope out of convenience and comfort, my opinion is you’d be well-served to gently but firmly redirect them to the appropriate person. I think you’re also likely to get burned by overstepping someone else’s authority at some point and by not being able to do your job to your potential. It sounds frustrating. Good luck. :)

    2. SimplytheBest*

      It can be difficult to enforce that boundary, but it’s really necessary. Especially since you say it’s impacting your ability to do your own job, whether by taking up your time or impacting your emotional/mental well being. So think about it this way – by not enforcing that boundary, you’re not actually being a good support to your coworkers because a) it’s information you could be giving to them incorrectly or without the right nuance since it’s not actually your purview and b) you’re falling down on your own responsibilities which could mean any number of things (subpar work, late work, etc).

      It’s not wrong or unkind when you get in the thick of things with someone to redirect them with something like “you know, the further we go with this, the more I’m realizing you need to take this to Fergus. He’ll have the most correct information and I don’t want to accidentally mislead you.” Or whatever similar thing works with your situation.

    3. Turtle*

      I have heard the same “yeah but you’re nicer” response myself. I started easing people away with things like, “I actually work in teapots, but I know the llama team can help you out with your llama issue. Here’s their contact info: xyz. I hope that helps” or “I think you can pet llamas on their heads but I work in teapots so I’m not positive on that. If you want to confirm or if you run into any problems the llama team can help…” I phrased it that way even if I was sure of the answer because it would help them go to the right team. And I would maintain a list of contacts (posted it too so others could use it and contribute) so that I wouldn’t need to look up the contact info each time. I was still able to help by pointing them in the right direction but it wasn’t eating up my time. I tried to put entire teams in the contacts list as opposed to one individual, that way they’d be less likely to push back with the “nicer” angle (surely the ENTIRE llama team isn’t mean).

      Good luck and don’t stretch yourself too thin, take care :)

    4. allathian*

      Would you say that you identify as “nice”, and are perhaps unwilling to set firm boundaries if they make you appear less approachable and nice?

      I’m a bit worried about the organizational culture at your employer, if you’re regularly dealing with employees who think people in other departments are scary to deal with. If they’re professional, that should be enough. But yeah, I guess merely professional doesn’t cut it if you simply want to vent.

  37. PT*

    Rather than handle this at the individual level, would it be helpful to make a Reference sheet/webpage of the most common issues that come up and where they should be directed? So that before people even make contact with OP, they have a place to look and see if they are asking the right person? (Plus, it might serve to remind people of other issues they should keep on top of.)

    Pay errors > Payroll
    Harassment policies and reporting > OP
    Medical and parental leave > Benefits
    Temp worker contracts > Legal

    Of course, some people will say “Oh OP is so nice and helpful I’ll just ask her what to do!” and OP will still have to sort things out from there. But it might help if you provide some basic self-sorting tools.

    1. OP*

      We have this! And they do say that! Hahaha my toxic trait is “being approachable” lol. It serves me very well but it does backfire sometimes! One of my favorite coworkers did this to me a couple years ago:
      Me: You know that X is the best person for that
      Them: Yeah but you’re nicer & you usually still know the answer
      Me: Right but that’s because I go to X and ask so you’re just forcing me to talk to X because you don’t want to!

      (We were able to joke about it and I was still early on in my time here. It’s become a bigger thorn in my side as time goes on… and yes we probably don’t have X in the right role but that’s a separate convo…)

    1. OP*

      Wow honestly not sure how I could have phrased this question to Alison in a nicer way, so it’s a strange feeling to have someone read my words & assume I’m bad at my job! (I’m not.)

      I DO let people know I can talk. I always respond to them. As a result of this, a lot of my time is spent on other people’s concerns and emotions *without notice* and it’s having an impact on my own emotions. I was asking for help on how I can keep being this person for people when they need it without sacrificing myself in the process. Alison helped.

      1. Wisteria*

        I’m curious–is being a rantee part of your job? If it is, then you have the problem that all emotional laborers do, which is your own self care. And part of that self care is determining when being the rantee is *not* part of your job and being less available for it! There are other things you can stop doing as well, like being the go to person for stuff that is someone else’s purview. Next time you hear, “But you are nicer,” it’s ok to say, “Well, thank you! That’s really Lucinda’s area, though, and I would hate to get something wrong, so you really do need to go to her.”

        And you need your own rantee. There was some circles theory, I think it was called, where the needy person is at the center of concentric circles, and their network provides support into the smaller circle and rants out at the larger circle. You are a support system for certain functions, and you need a support system for your functions when you are overwhelmed.

        1. OP*

          Thank you for this — I love the language you suggested & it’s a good reminder. And I do have my own rantee & sometimes go into their office to say “do you have a few minutes for me to rant?” Works pretty well! And I think you’re referring to ring theory, or at least that’s what Carolyn Hax calls it & that’s where I first learned about it. Great example.

        2. Boof*

          Sounds like “comfort in, dump out” but usually that’s for someone going through some major trauma, not a permanent set up?

    2. SimplytheBest*

      What a bizarrely unkind comment.

      They’re not being respectful of the person’s time. They’re not letting them know how long they need to speak to them for, leading to either a back and forth to figure that out or scheduling for the wrong amount of time. They’re not giving any indication of the topic which leads to the OP not being prepared, either with the information needed or physically/emotionally prepared. According to the OP, they’re often asking questions of her that should be directed to other departments or simply coming in for a vent session. None of that, nor your comment, is respectful of OP’s time or person.

  38. DKLKEK*

    The answer to this is so different for me because the OP is in an HR (or at least HR adjacent) role. Normally, in my non-HR role, I’d give a “yeah, feel free to book any time on my calendar, and if you can give me some context I’ll make sure I’m prepared”.

    For HR though, my base assumption is that most of these are confidential or at least emotionally fraught topics that people don’t want to commit to writing. They may even be hesitant to reach out at all and I would not want to scare them away with too much process.

    I’d maybe go with an “Of course! Is this urgent? If it is, I can find time to squeeze you in today, just let me know how much time you need, otherwise feel free to book open time on my calendar”.

    1. Hales*

      As an HR professional, this was my thought as well! When dealing with sensitive issues, I send the vaguest of emails to colleagues until we can touch base in person. I like the idea of allowing folks to send OP a calendar invitation. If they schedule too much time, then there’s no harm in ending the meeting early. If they schedule too little time, then OP is there to look at a calendar and suggest alternative timeslots which work for OP’s schedule.

  39. hallucinating hack*

    OP, I absolutely sympathise. I’m not in a HR role, but I do have a leadership/mentoring role on my team, and it’s all too common for people to send me a message that consists of just one word: “Hi”. Then no further details are forthcoming until I reply to them asking what they want.

    I get that perhaps they don’t want to go into detail until they have my full attention, but I find this approach truly bizarre and exasperating in a text medium. 90% of the time it’s because they want to inform me that something has been done, or they have a question about something – the equivalent of sending a completed report for my review or emailing me a paragraph. You wouldn’t leave a note saying “Hi” on my physical desk and wait for me to walk over to you and ask what this is about before you gave me the report…so why do the equivalent on Slack?

  40. Storm in a teacup*

    Hi OP
    One thing we have in my company that works really well for people in roles where we need advice is time in their diary where we know they’ll be available.
    E.G. Aelin always keeps Tuesdays and Fridays 11-12pm free for people to book in time with her / pop in to see her / phone her with questions. So if Rowan needed 20 mins to discuss something he goes onto our shared spreadsheet calendar on Teams and books 20mins of the hour slot.

    It helps both Rowan feel supported and Aileen feel things are more manageable in her diary. Bonus is if it’s quiet she can get on with other work.

  41. Leilah*

    I often respond with “Sure — I have 15 minutes” or something to that effect, so that people know there is a deadline and I don’t have unlimited time.

  42. katie*

    My job is often a collection of “do you have a minute” moments (subject matter expert), which will end up being everything from “I need the link to this process” to things that will take days to unravel. Since my job is to be approachable and available, my response is generally informal.

    And then, I have no issues telling anyone “Okay, I’m in the middle of another task, can you send this via email?” where it gets flagged for priority.

    But if your job isn’t to have that sort of availability, other wording may be better.

  43. Papillon Celeste*

    I’d adapt the script a little:

    “I can definitely make time! Can you tell me how urgent it is and how long it might take so I know how to prioritize it around other stuff?”

    In my experience people usually have reasons why they don’t want to text an issue. And that reason is often related to being shy or insecure. The adapted script is what my boss would say and I always felt much more comfortable and secure to then say for example: well it’s just about shifting that one process and I already have an idea so maybe 15 minutes?

  44. Jonquil*

    For issues where I can’t disclose the topic in writing, I usually say (especially if it’s my boss): “I need to discuss a sensitive (staffing) matter with you”. Add “urgent” if it’s for something like death/family emergency, or give a timeframe otherwise (“can we talk before the end of the day/week?”). You could also use something like “health issue” or “(staff) wellbeing issue”.

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