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A colleague often instructs me to do work for them. While the instruction is precise, I feel it is not at all my responsibility. For example, he has asked me to print a document that is hundreds of pages long and then bind it (I am not a secretary). I am not opposed to helping a stressed colleague, but this is becoming a regular thing. There is usually some justification ("printing doesn't work form my machine", "I have no time"). I suggested going to IT for the printing problem and asking the actual secretary to the binding. The answer always is "Just do it". The same goes for talking about my work or to be more precise, his feedback is limited to "change this to xyz". When I ask why, the answer is - no surprise - "Just do it".

So I struggle with how to deal with this. Of course I am capable of doing these tasks, but constantly debating this with someone who isn't my superior is really getting to me. The rest of my colleagues treat me and each other very respectfully when asking for work or favours. So I guess I am taken a bit by surprise by these "office politics".

So my question is: how do I tell this person politely that it is not ok to ask those things of me (without it becoming the same discussion about why I can't just do it) without ruining an otherwise good work environment?

And: as I usually simply do what I am asked by colleagues due to a very professional and trustworthy work environment, do I have to be on my toes now all the time and question whether every task is someone else's work I am doing?

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When you say "colleague" do you mean "peer", implying no hierarchical/managerial positioning, or does this person have some sort of "power over you" in the organization, to any extent? –  jcmeloni Dec 12 '12 at 11:57
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No power over me in the organization. –  Rathernotsay Dec 12 '12 at 11:58
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Just say "sure" and forget about it, don't do it. Let it bubble up to the next manager. –  user1220 Dec 12 '12 at 14:48
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Have you tried saying no? I do not mean necessarily to say no to the work but when told to just do it that is where I would say no. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Dec 12 '12 at 14:54
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May I ask why you don't just say no? Just tell him that you have a lot of work to do and constantly getting you to do menial task is disrupting your flow. –  andy Dec 12 '12 at 16:25

9 Answers 9

Why not tell your colleague that you need to run it by your boss to see how how, and whether, it should be prioritized against your other work? You make it sound like he is just pawning off his work on you for no good reason, and if this is really the case he won't want you discussing it with your boss at all, and will probably back down on the spot. If not, your boss will probably try to put an end to it. If that doesn't happen, maybe there is a good reason for you to work on his tasks, and at least you will get some credit for them.

If you do talk to your boss, be clear that you are willing to help out a colleague but you don't want to spend significant time on things your boss isn't even aware you are doing. And, by the way, you really shouldn't spend significant amounts of time on things your boss isn't even aware you are doing.

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This is how I've handled this situation in the past. My boss's main job from where I sit is to give me assignments and priorities. If I start to get taskings from a third party then I consider it part of my boss's job to help me prioritize these outside taskings. This kind of problem is exactly why frequent scrums are such a good idea. –  Jim In Texas Dec 12 '12 at 19:27

It seems to me that this behavior may be a form of bullying. If it is, it is likely to continue until you resist.

In the past, I've been is a similar situation a couple times. What I've learned is this takes away from time you should be doing your job, and helps him do his. This helps him look better while making you look worse in the eyes of management. So, yes, be on your toes; generally, it's best to be cooperative, but don't spend too much time doing other peoples' jobs for them.

By taking direction from this person, you have shown that you will do his bidding, perhaps making him feel like he is your boss. This needs to stop, unless it turns out management sees you as subordinate to him, in which case you need to discuss what is really expected of you with your management.

There are a number of possible ways to respond. When dealing with him, remain professional and respectful. (Voice of experience: One of the times I had someone who wasn't my boss try to give me orders he started yelling at me when I said it wasn't my responsibility. After a little bit of his yelling I lost control and started yelling back. While I don't know what was said (if anything) to the other person, I was reprimanded for my behavior.)

One possibility: The next time he wants you to do something that's not really your responsibility say something like "Hey, I seem to be doing you a lot of favors, and thus far I've not needed them returned. How about you buy me lunch at my favorite restaurant." If his response to this is positive you get a free meal at your favorite restaurant! :-) During the lunch, you can have a conversation about why he needs all this help, and mention that it's not all in your area of work and want such requests to stop. Also you can talk about how you don't like how he says some things and would appreciate it if he made his requests more respectfully. You might also talk about the weather, sports, or whatever topic comes up that you two can discuss pleasantly. If his response to your request for lunch is negative, you can say "In that case, I've got enough to do and am tired of doing you favors. It's the secretary's (or IT's or whoever's) job to help you with this. If you really want my help, let's clear it with [YOUR MANAGER]." I suspect he won't want to go to management, but if he does, follow through, making sure to tell your manager that you've been doing several things for him that aren't in your area of responsibility. In whatever direction this goes, he should get the message that you're not willing to continue doing his bidding when it's not in your area of expertise.

Another approach is to just say you're busy and he'll have to get help elsewhere the next few times he asks you to do something. If he persists in asking these things, point out that he isn't your boss and you have other responsibilities. You might suggest that any time he wants your help in the future he should go through your boss. If he continues making these requests, have a talk with your manager about how this guy is trying to pull you into things that aren't your responsibility. Managers often like to see specifics when complaints like this are made, so it may prove useful to have some occurrences documented to back up to your claim. For example: On Monday he asked me to print his TPS report; on Tuesday he asked me to fix his printer; on Wednesday he asked me to staple 20 copies of spreadsheet S; on Thursday he wanted me to edit the document D he's working on.

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I agree with everything here except the restaurant paragraph. having lunch is something that friends do, and this guy is clearly not your friend. You also don't want to give the impression that you only help out if people do things for you. –  DJClayworth Dec 12 '12 at 16:19
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@DJClayworth: Nothing says you have to limit lunch to only friends. Furthermore, it's possible that a friendlier approach to this may lead to friendship. As for the impression left, it seems to me the that the OP has given the impression he is available to help, but the other guy is now abusing that. –  GreenMatt Dec 12 '12 at 16:27
    
I dont quite think this is bullying, atleast, not intentional, its been said he was told to talk to the OP about things as he is 'the go to guy' its entirely possibble this was misconstrued and he thinks he is supposed to use you as a secretary rather than only going to you for your specific fields. You could always give him a gentle nudge to let him know youre a specialist, not a slave –  RWY Dec 12 '12 at 17:20
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@RhysW: You may be right. I made softened that statement. –  GreenMatt Dec 14 '12 at 16:38
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I disagree with RhysW. I think he is bullying you. Bullying in the workplace is not that unusual. Telling someone "Just do it" means they are trying to imply they have some authority over you. And if they don't actually have that authority it's bullying. –  DJClayworth Dec 20 '12 at 14:52

"No, I won't. You're not my boss, and I'm not your secretary."

That should be your answer to any "just do it" command from this co-worker for a clerical task. Similar variations can be derived for commands to do something a particular way when you know how to do it better, or to do tasks that are clearly his personal responsibility.

In short, if there's no supervisory or other over-under relationship between the two of you, then he can do no more than politely request that you help him out. If he makes such a request, consider it, provided you have time and effort to spare. If he crosses the line from request to command, he's also passed beyond polite and you should respond in kind; keep it civil, but unambiguous.

I disagree that you should say "yes" to a task and then proceed to ignore it. That screws everyone up; your co-worker will expect you to get his work done and then be hung out to dry when you don't, he'll blame you saying you agreed to do it (which you did), and you'll catch heat, and in the meantime your boss is catching heat from whomever wants whatever the coworker was doing done, and it goes up both managerial chains from there. Yes, this behavior forces a solution, but there are much more professional ways to address the problem and get it resolved. The solution you are likely to get from these kinds of underhanded tactics will probably include negative consequences for many more people than probably deserve it.

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It could be that your colleague doesn't know that saying 'Just do it' is upsetting you, and so the first step is simply to ask that they stop saying that phrase. This may do the trick, but if not I think it would be good to see if they use this with other colleagues (because if they do you can broach the subject more anonymously), otherwise I would think the only course of action is to raise it with your direct manager (even though this may make things uncomfortable in the short term, the longer term should be at least a bit healthier!)

In terms of them asking you to do a large amount on unrelated work, perhaps a way to approach this is to say something along the lines of "I've noticed that you've got a lot on at the moment, but unfortunately at the moment I am unable to help due to my current deadlines. Maybe we [the two of you and your manager] should sit down and see if we can balance the team workload a bit better?"

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I might have to sit down with management about this. But I don't think it's about (his) workload at all. We have a bored secretary. I guess it has to just be communicated to him that asking a much higher paid expert to do the work of a secretary isn't exactly a good strategy. –  Rathernotsay Dec 12 '12 at 13:02
    
And the bigger and more complex issue is I guess the debate over me not taking "input" on my work without any reasoning. –  Rathernotsay Dec 12 '12 at 13:03
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@Rathernotsay: Be careful. If talking to this colleague doesn't work then don't tell your boss that you're being paid too much to do printing jobs. However, DO make the situation visible to him and let him decide if it's ok. If it is then your choices are to accept that or leave. –  pdr Dec 12 '12 at 13:07

Sounds to me that you're over thinking this. Obviously you've established that you're more than willing to help others and this person is simply taking advantage of you.

It may be out of ignorance, being overwhelmed, or he/she could simply be a jerk. The why really doesn't matter because it's up to you to establish the boundaries and those boundaries are the same regardless of the why.

Simple solution, although it may be awkward for you, is start establishing your boundaries and being more assertive. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying 'No.'!

You can be as polite or abrupt as you like, but you need to make it absolutely clear when they have crossed the line. I'd suggest starting out polite and escalating your response if the bad behavior continues.

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Its not uncommon to come across people who have a highly "directive" style in the workplace; for the most part they don't see this as manipulation or bullying, its just how they have learned to interact with people based on what they have been exposed to. It can also be associated with a drive to get things done as efficiently and quickly as possible.

The problem is that this style is typically associated with a "win-lose" mentality (and the fact he quotes a Nike slogan at you (Just do it) is an indicator here!) which means that your co-worker will relish any direct confontation as a chance to compete.

As you have identified this will escalate, and eventually require management intervention which will reflect badly on both of you.

A few things you can try are to use minimising language and non-confrontational techniques to put your view over. This means using "I" not "you", reflecting what they have said to show it is understood and then inverting to give the outcome you want. Here's a some examples:

"Of course I can print that for you, however I'm in the middle of an urgent e-mail for t a client so I can't do that right now. I know that secretary isn't busy at the moment, and s/he might be able to action it right away. S/he does all my printing and binding, especially on large documents, and is really efficient."

"Sounds like you are really under pressure, of course I can help you on this occasion, however this is happening quite a lot. From my perspective it seems like you are really struggling with your workload as you are often asking for support. I can bring this up with management, if you like."

These both follow the "reflect, however, suggestion" model and have a slightly different flavour, however they both focus on the negative perception you have of the co-worker as a result of their actions.

Both of these approaches also set you up for a simple refusal and redirect ("sorry, not this time I'm busy, can you ask secretary?)"

Longer term, if it continues, then you may have to go to management to resolve this.

You will need to have documented as many cases as possible, and should express your concern about the impact your co-worker is having in the office and their overall lack of effectiveness. The chances are that you are not the only person with this issue. Key points from your description alone would include:

  • inappropriate use of a directive management style
  • the win-lose confrontational approach to discussions
  • the inability to provide positive and constructive feedback
  • the inability to manage workloads without requesting support
  • the inability to address simple IT issues efficiently
  • the failure to delegate tasks to the appropriate resource
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I like the bullet point arguments because one doesn't necessarily need to use them in escalation. You can say "Hey Joe, let's make some time on Wednesday to talk. I'd like to help you learn to delegate tasks appropriately." If this person is intentionally doing this, they will take the hint and back off. Otherwise it will open the door to an actual constructive conversation. –  MrFox Dec 13 '12 at 16:55
    
@suslik glad these help; presenting information to a line manager in these terms makes it easy to focus on the professional outcomes. If you used these directly, the important thing would be to highlight how their attitude could be interpreted "by management" - ie the way they are performing in the office could be seen as a career limiting move. Essentially you are redefining "win" in their "win-lose" approach so that their "tactical" win in getting someone else to do the job builds into a "strategic loss" in terms of limiting their career. –  GuyM Dec 13 '12 at 17:52

The way I see it this is simple.

If he is much busier than you, then he probably needs help, make sure your boss is aware you are proactively helping him out.

If you are busier than him, or you just want to be a pain, tell him you are too busy to help, you have to get your own work done first. Suggest he redirects his requests via you boss. Then ask him to do some things for you, if you like.

Either way, don't complain about it, here or at work, unless you intend to do something assertive about it. Its just wasted effort that makes you look like a passive aggressive complainer.

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You cannot control what co-workers say to you. You can control how you respond. Your situation sounds delicate. Co-workers are expected to help each other, yet there is a line between asking for help and shirking. Furthermore, while the other person is not your boss, you are not the boss either.

If the extra work is interfering with your ability to do your regular job, I would make that the focus of the conversation. "I need to write a report, perhaps the secretary can bind the document."

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It's essential that you be direct. It may be this person was raised very poorly e.g. rich parents who had a paid servant in the home. Monkey see monkey do.

Also confer with coworkers. They may have had the same experience. You may need to complain to a superior in unison to "vote them off the island", so to speak. While many good people are fired in this way, you have described a person who is not good.

If this person presumes authority he/she do not have, so be it: Nobody wants to work with a tyrant, regardless of the original reason for their problem.

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Hi FunnelCake, we prefer to have answers which are more diplomatical in their problem resolution. Getting someone fired is a serious commitment to an issue and should only ever be a last resort. –  RWY Apr 22 '13 at 12:53
    
@Spikyblue, maybe you have for tolerance for tyrants, but when I work with them, most progress effectively stops. They are bad for the company, bad for the industry, and bad for the economy. They are also bad for your mental health. –  Funnelcake Apr 27 '13 at 22:45

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