my coworker treats me like I’m their boss

A reader writes:

I’ve got a question that I’ve encountered in reverse a few times but never in this direction: I have a coworker who treats me like their boss.

“Alex” is constantly asking me for approval on projects that I not only don’t have the power to approve or disapprove but am often not even involved with in the first place. They ask me for feedback and edits on their work; they come to me when projects reach a fork in the road to ask me which direction they should go in; they redirect client inquiries about their work to me. I always respond by telling them that this isn’t my area of expertise and passing the questions on to our boss, but it’s reaching the point where it’s becoming frustrating rather than just baffling.

Alex and I started within a week of one another and are both pretty junior employees, so it’s not like this can even be explained by seniority.

Even weirder, we have completely different jobs! I have no experience in their area of work and don’t understand why they keep coming to me. We don’t work in marketing, but if we did, think graphic designer vs. copywriter. I couldn’t meaningfully weigh in on their questions even if I wanted to and it was appropriate for me to approve and advise on their work!

We’ve both been at the company for about a year and a half. We’re also both about the same age, late 20s/early 30s. They’re a really nice person overall. This one thing is just so baffling to me. Do you have any idea how I can get my coworker to stop acting like I’m the boss?

My guess is that Alex is insecure about their work and needs a lot of reassurance and, because you’re close in age and started around the same time, sees you as a kind of comrade-in-arms … or sees you as a generally competent and together person and thus a good choice to lean on. That doesn’t make it okay — they’re asking you to do a lot of labor that isn’t your job — but it’s likely what’s happening.

It’s extra baffling, though, because you haven’t been giving them that reassurance; you’ve been explaining you can’t help and directing them toward your boss. Usually with this type of question, I expect to hear that the person in your shoes has been trying to help because they want to be kind — and as a result they’ve inadvertently trained the coworker to keep coming to them, because the coworker gets what they’re looking for from them. In those situations, the solution is usually to just stop providing it — to be disciplined about saying you can’t help every time it happens. But you’ve already been doing that (kudos, by the way) and Alex keeps coming to you anyway. So I join you in being baffled!

If you want it to stop, it sounds like you’ll need to address it very directly. The next time Alex comes to you for approval or feedback on something, say this: “I should have asked this a while ago, but since I don’t have any experience or authority in your area of work, I’ll never be able to give that kind of input. I’ll always need to tell you to ask Jane instead, so I would rather you go straight to her rather than coming to me first.” (Personally I would not be able to resist digging for an explanation, so I would probably end this with, “Is there a reason you bring it to me?” to up my chances of finding out the answer. But that’s not necessary; it’s enough to just tell Alex to stop.)

If it keeps happening after that, hold firm to your boundary: “This is the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense to bring to me.” And later, if necessary: “I’ve asked you a few times not to bring this stuff to me, so I feel like I might be missing something. What’s going on?” You can say this nicely, but do say it — not only because you’re entitled to insist Alex stop but also because it’s a kindness to Alex to hear that it’s become a problem before you get more frustrated, and before they do it to someone who won’t be as patient as you’ve been.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. High Score!*

    Are you passing their questions on to the boss acting as a go between? Or telling them to ask boss? If it’s the former, just tell them that it’s not your area of expertise and refer them to the boss. Refuse to be the messenger.

    1. PollyQ*

      Yeah, I think co-worker may be intimidated by her actual boss more than she thinks of LW as her boss, and she’s using LW as a go-between. So I agree that LW needs to not be involved in solving co-worker’s issue at all.

      1. allathian*

        The LW and Alison both refer to Alex as they.

        In the past I’ve worked with an Alex, and I had to involve both my then-manager and Alex’s manager to get the behavior to stop. My Alex used to send long, rambling emails that were frustrating to read, because sometimes Alex had a question in them that was directly related to my work and that I needed to answer.

        What worked was only responding to the relevant bits of the email and pretending that I hadn’t seen the other stuff.

      2. Hygge Hygge Hippo*

        That was my read, too. Alex is intimidated by the boss and/or insecure about their work, and LW is a peer with similar seniority, so Alex sees them as a safe source for asking questions and getting feedback…but it’s not benefiting anyone, including Alex. It sounds like LW has been redirecting Alex to the boss, which is great. Now it’s probably time for LW to surface this directly to the boss so she can intervene. (And LW didn’t say anything about the boss but presumably they would have mentioned if the boss were a tyrant and Alex was reasonably scared to approach her.)

  2. BadWolf*

    I really want this to turn out to be a Joaquin (pronounced JOE-a-kwin) and Wakeen situation where Alex thinks the OP is Joaquin and their teamlead is Wakeen. So they keep asking OP when someone says, “Run it by Joaquin.”

    1. BadWolf*

      Oops, I guess I got the name funny reversed. OP would be Wakeen in this scenario. I think.

    2. CatMintCat*

      I learnt the correct pronunciation of Joaquin from this blog. I would have said it Jo-ah-kwin without that, if I’d only seen it written, and not made the connection with Wakeen.

      We see very few Spanish names in outback Australia.

      1. Boof*

        I learned how to pronounce Joaquin by literally doing the “who is Wakeen” thing at work after moving to texas (and before discovering this blog!)

  3. Dust Bunny*

    I have a coworker who does this and I just keep redirecting her to our actual supervisor. Yes, it’s because she unsure of her work (sometimes).

  4. Bunny Girl*

    Woah almost the exact same thing happened to me in my current role and I was never ever to figure it out either. I had a coworker that started a few weeks after me and we worked in totally different programs but she came and asked me very program specific questions multiple times. I think I counted 15 in a couple weeks. The only difference is she was about 20 years old then me. I kept saying “I actually don’t do any work in that program so I can’t answer that. You need to speak with Jane or Kim.” I said that every single time but she still kept asking me. It’s been about 4-5 months and she has tapered off asking questions about her program but every couple weeks so will come over to ask something really basic and odd. It’s strange.

  5. FormerAmazonian*

    I’d also check with your manager and make sure she isn’t directing the coworker to go to you as a sort of misguided “mentorship” opportunity for you or because she doesn’t want to deal with them.

    1. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

      That wouldn’t make sense though since they do not have any experience. Why send a graphic designer to a copywriter for suggestions on the graphic? And wouldn’t the employee have said something like “but I was told by Jane to ask you?”

    2. oranges*

      Definitely check with your manager. They may be telling Alex to “be resourceful” or “leverage your matrix”, and she might not have any idea how much of your time they’re actually taking.

  6. MirMirMir*

    To me, this feels like Alex might have a crush on LW. They recognize that it would be inappropriate to take their working relationship to a personal level, so they just use any work-related excuse to reach out.

      1. MirMirMir*

        I would think so too, except LW has already been pretty assertive about their boundaries and responsibilities. The continued persistence is what seems weird.

    1. Mockingjay*

      I don’t see that. I see an insecure employee reaching out to a peer because they perceive the peer to be less intimidating than the boss. It’s not uncommon when someone is new and hasn’t established a comfort level with Boss – “OP seems to know the answers already, so I’ll ask them instead.” (See this myself.) But 18 months is far too long to deal with this.

      1. allathian*

        In this case that doesn’t fly, because a part of the problem is that the OP doesn’t know the answers, they’re working on different programs.

        The OP is passing the questions on to the boss. Maybe Alex feels intimidated by the boss and doesn’t want to contact her directly. If so, the first thing OP should do, IMO, is to ask Alex to contact the boss directly.

    2. Ebbe*

      If not necessarily a romantic crush, i could see a socially awkward person doing this in an attempt to start conversations with a plausible work related reason.

  7. VP of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

    We had a guy who did this. Our answer was always, “What did Boss say?”

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      OP ^this. Put the question back on Alex.
      “I haven’t shown it to boss yet, because….”
      and then just reply about Boss having the answer and bean dip out of the conversation.

  8. Scott*

    It sounds to me like Alex is afraid/uncomfortable with going to the boss so they ask LW the questions so LW can pass the questions on to the boss (similar wording used in the letter). I think Alison is right about insecurity as well and it’s likely a combination. JMHO

    1. Mr. Shark*

      Yes, I agree with this. Alex is insecure, so she knows that LW started around the same time, so is comfortable going to LW for questions and approval. That gives her some support even if it turns out she has to go to the boss for final approval.
      Alison’s direct approach makes sense, and then the LW maybe even speaking to the boss and making it clear that they need to direct Alex to bring the questions directly to the boss, rather than bothering LW for stuff they have no authority and experience on.

        1. Kit*

          “They” is a valid personal pronoun – whether the LW opted for it to anonymize the situation or because that is Alex’s identity, let’s respect it and stick to the singular they rather than assigning a binary gender to Alex!

    1. Purple Cat*

      Right?! Noone wants this short end of the boss stick.

      Terrible advice coming – OP should go “full bad boss mode” on Alex. Berate them for coming in late, deny vacation days, tell Alex the work is all wrong.

  9. Jester*

    Ugh, my BOSS does this to me! She’s our director and has been really good at running things, but she hasn’t been good at managing things if that makes sense. I was in the middle of an impossible situation with a coworker and she keep mediating things instead of telling someone, anyone what to do. Last week someone was asking our team to make a decision and she looked at me! Lady, you’re in charge here!

    1. purple pants people eater*

      My boss is doing the same thing to me lately too! I know (in my case) part of it is that she’s new to managing people and we’re of a similar age, but it gets really old really quickly. I’m not the manager, I have zero say here, and also, I don’t want to have a say, that’s why I didn’t apply for your job!

      1. Also not a fan*

        Oooh yeah, this. I very intentionally do not accept supervisory roles and it is nice to be able to walk away from workplace troubles that aren’t directly related to my duties.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        This sounds like a job for a discreetly shared link to Alison’s manager book.

    2. Princess Xena*

      Oh geez. My managing partner will do this every now and then – I’ll bring up a challenging problem or my manager will and my partner will ask, “what do you think?”
      Man, I don’t know, I’m a new staff and just passed my CPA exams. You’ve been a partner for longer than I’ve been working in this profession. I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you!
      The saving grace is that he’s a genuinely nice man; he’s just been looking at big picture topics for a long time so he’s less practiced with the smaller details and doesn’t always realize how it comes off.

      1. P*

        They may be trying (ineffectively) to coach you, or at least understand your thought process to better know how to help. Is it that you genuinely have no idea, or more that you have one or two potential thoughts and want a senior steer?
        “I thought A but realised that wouldn’t work because X” is a reasonable answer here.

  10. Purple Cat*

    LW I can’t tell if YOU”RE passing the questions on to your boss, or insisting that Alex ask the questions of your boss. If it’s the former, please shift to the latter. In addition, I think you need to have 2 very blunt conversations. First with Alex and ask them explicitly why they keep coming to you with questions you can’t answer. Return awkward to sender. Next with your boss. Make sure boss knows how often Alex is coming to you first. I’m sure it’s disruptive to your actual work.

    1. VP of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

      I always go beyond that: Instead of telling her to talk to the Boss, pretend she already has and ask what the Boss said.

      1. Anonym*

        Somehow in my mind this translated as “What does the boss say?” to the tune of “What Does The Fox Say” and I imagine OP singing it to Alex several times a day until Alex is too weirded out to keep asking.

        1. si*

          ‘Jane leapt from her chair and yelled AHEEAHEEHAAHEEEEE and I don’t really know what she meant by that.’

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I’d answer with a question: “Why are you asking me?”.

      OP, don’t be afraid to say, “Well, like I said before I really can’t answer your questions for you.” Some times reference to a previous instance jars people back into reality. They do not like being reminded that they have been told something already.

      I see stuff like this and I tend to think this is a person who is really floundering at the job.

      1. Happily Retired*

        “I have no idea! Why on earth are you asking me?” Said with a genial but utterly baffled smile.

        Wash, rinse, repeat as needed, using these exact words and expression , over and over and over.

  11. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    TBH, I might lead with asking why Alex has been doing this. In a “hey, I noticed you’ve been coming to me asking about X, Y, and Z even though it’s not part of my position/expertise, what’s up with that?” kind of way. The answer could help it all make a bit more sense. Not guaranteed, of course, since people aren’t always forthcoming or even clear themselves on why they’re doing things.

  12. BluntBunny*

    An effective response may just be “sorry I have no idea”. Without listing who could help them further. Also could take longer to respond to it since you have already given the same response .

  13. anonymous73*

    “What did say?” Whenever someone comes to me first (even if I know the answer) I force them to realize that the answer is somewhere else/they have the ability to figure it out themselves. Do this enough times and they stop asking. If she says she hasn’t gone to boss explain that you don’t share roles and can’t help her with specific job related questions. Repeat as needed. If she still won’t stop, take it to boss and make them handle it.

    1. anonymous73*

      that was supposed to say “What did “boss” say? I guess my symbols around the word made it go away LOL

  14. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

    OP, Have you talked with your boss about this? If you’ve been the one to pass messages along you need to stop and tell Alex that he needs to ask someone else. If you have talked to him and he is still doing this I think you need to rope in our boss, because this is getting out of hand.

    I could see occasionally for example: “Hey OP what do you think about this color scheme” like he just wants to get someone else’s opinion on it, maybe someone who isn’t a graphic designer to get another perspective. And I think that would be fine occasionally. But it sounds like its way more than that, especially if he is redirecting clients to the OP. Not cool.

  15. Goldenrod*

    I definitely agree with Alison that it’s an insecurity thing. For whatever reason (immaturity? lack of work experience?) this person doesn’t feel confident just making a decision and going with it – so even asking the wrong person feels reassuring to them, somehow.

    I feel like that is something I had to learn at work (when I was first in the work world) – it was difficult for me at first to use my common sense and just going with it, instead of “checking” that everything was okay. I think Alison’s script will likely work to solve this.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I think that it’s nerve wracking at a new job to figure out who to ask what type of question. It’s definitely a learning curve in a new place. OP’s coworker has yet to start going through the learning curve. “Like I said before, Coworker, I am not the appropriate person to ask these questions. You need to find someone else.”

  16. Christy*

    Oh I so needed to read this today. I was on the website searching for advice on how to get my coworkers direct report to stop coming to me.

  17. Emm*

    This is something I almost definitely did as a young and insecure employee, although to a much less persistent degree. It’s so much easier when you feel like you’re shooting a casual question to a coworker than when you’ve built up a huge pressure around facing a figure of authority. I used to swivel around in my chair to other interns and ask things like, “Hey, Boss told me this, but what do you think that means?” because I was too intimidated to just ask for clarification or feedback, even though obviously they couldn’t really interpret my supervisor’s words any more than I could. I wish someone had been direct with me and told me that they would never be able to help me.

    1. oranges*

      I’m very much a “can I talk this through with you?” kind of person about ANY decision. I still do it with my family and friends, and I have no doubt I did it as a young employee too.

      For me, it’s less about insecurity and more about indecisiveness, empathy to all sides, and a genuine interest in the advice of others. (Mostly because I LOVE being asked for my opinion. Come to me with your all conundrums! I have Thoughts!)

      I’ve learned over the years when and who can handle being my incessant pro/con sessions (husband) and who can not (sister). If LW doesn’t have the time, capacity, or interest to be a constant sounding board, clearly tell co-worker and pass them directly to boss 100% of the time.

  18. The OTHER Other*

    I think one possibility is the LW is actually more competent (or seen to be so) than they give themselves credit for. I would look at this situation as a potential positive. Yes, it may be annoying, and detract from your other work, but on the other hand you are still a new employee and you already have another person looking to you for answers and leadership. I was in a similar position years ago, other people were lining up at my desk to ask me questions and I had no position or authority, but I had knowledge and was glad to help when I could.

    My manager asked why I was spending time talking with these people, and I said a better question is why are they coming to ME, I was not even in their group. IMO someone higher up should be asking where is the support the people on this team is supposed to have that they are doing this? The answer was their own manager was mostly incompetent, and the assistant manager was nasty and rude, making her unapproachable.

    Is the manager in this letter available? Approachable? Helpful? It could be this is not entirely an insecure coworker problem, but a bad boss problem.

  19. Jean*

    I’ve started pushing back on repeated questions with “What do your notes on this topic say?” or “What did your search of your email archives turn up?” With pretty awesome results, I must say.

    I have a coworker who is technically a peer, but who started after me and whom I was tasked with mentoring, who had a bad knee-jerk habit of asking me how to do the same things over and over. Even after she had been in the job for well over a year, almost 2. So I got real with her one day after she asked me how to do something that I had already gone over with her multiple times AND provided her with written reference material on: “Consider this an opportunity for professional development – this habit of compulsively asking me how to do your job doesn’t help your credibility. Check your resources first, before asking. 9 times out of 10, you will find the answer and not have to ask.” She looked stunned for a second but seemed to take the message on quickly and clearly.

  20. TootsNYC*

    I wonder if the Letter Writer originally gave an opinion, or even just advice. And if they are a confident sort of person. And so Alex just keeps coming back to them, even if the time of getting advice or opinions is done.

  21. Free Meerkats*

    “I always respond by telling them that this isn’t my area of expertise and passing the questions on to our boss,”

    I’m not sure if this means you’re taking the question to your boss or just saying, “take that to the boss.” If it’s the former, stop doing that. If the latter, say that and don’t engage any further. It may feel rude, but it’s not.

  22. FDS*

    There seems to be an unwritten expectation of emotional labor coming from Alex. I’m sensing this constant need for reassurance even though OP really doesn’t have standing to provide it since she is not his supervisor. In any case it must be exhausting. OP needs to firmly tell Alex that this really isn’t the scope of what I am supposed to be doing and that they should go check in with their boss for guidance. It will probably take a few times for it to firmly sink in.

  23. Tiger Snake*

    I wonder if the LW may be at least partially seeing Alex looking for formal approval where Alex is just looking for collaboration, too.

    Bouncing thoughts about direction to take projects are and asking people to look over something you’ve written are very common peer-to-peer behaviours. Even when the roles you do involve utilising different skillsets, it lets you get fresh perspective. Most of the examples the LW give are things that it’d be quite common for many types of jobs and roles to just discuss while composing a plan or response for.
    Perhaps its as simple as having this sort of coworker equal collaboration is just more common in Alex’s type of role than the LW’s, and that’s why the LW finds it odd?

    If its something you don’t have time for, then you can say so – these sorts of getting a second opinion siutations are always with an inspoken, inferred ‘if you have five minutes’, but the only thing the LW listed that seemed out of place was them passing queries and questions onto the LW. (Unless that is explained by the difference in roles – aka, Alex thinks those questions are ‘copywriter’ questions in the first place).

  24. Hrodvitnir*

    Excellent advice as usual – and much sympathy to OP. I am the kind of person that attracts this at most jobs, which has lead to the dreaded semi-official supervisor situation; but it’s true that it’s baffling when your jobs are totally different, and you haven’t actually been welcoming to it at all!

    I can only guess it’s like the first comment suggested, perhaps any level of go-between-ness has encouraged the behaviour. I would be curious for an update!

  25. Uncle Sam Nomad*

    I had a situation where I really thought one of my coworkers WAS a manager for a month or two. She was just so assured and confident, it seemed like she was a boss! (I mean, she is a BOSS, but wasn’t my boss.)

  26. Anima*

    Uh I think my coworker wrote in.

    One of the causes might be that Alex boss isn’t responding, or even available and Alex questions end up not getting answered. I had that happen in an old job of mine. My current boss is more responsive, but sometimes I just don’t want to run small day to day stuff by him (like “this blue or that blue, I can’t decide on my own”), and run it by a coworker. Which I should really, really cut back on, got the message, ooops.

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