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I am a software developer and I have an older coworker (60+ years old) that comes to me every time he has a question about anything involved with computers. Most of the time I am busy and I have no idea what the answer to his problem is, but no matter how many times I tell him this he winds up asking me the question two or three more times and always comes back with more questions later. he is also using these questions as a way to start idle conversations and I would like it to stop. How do I communicate to him that I cannot and will not help him with his problems (as it is the IT departments job) and more importantly make him understand that I believe that idle conversations are not O.K. for the workplace especially when everyone is busy? I'd like to avoid being too direct with him as at least three other developers sit near me and all of them would hear me putting my foot down.

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Amazing... there are other people in this world like my coworker. Only, he's not 60, he's 28, and he comes to me for everything. Also, he happens to be another programmer, and tho I'm not his manager, or the lead developer, or the architect, he still asks me how to do almost everything. Also, he constantly forgets everything, just today he forgot the entire data structure of our primary application even existed when we just had a big deal over it a couple of months ago. There may be help for Paul, but for me, i fear there may be none. –  Jrud Feb 27 '13 at 19:08
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@Jrud I'd imagine it is because companies like to pay the lowest amount for labor, and so he was the lowest "bidder" when your company was hiring. It is probably better to hire 4 great programmers for the same price as hiring 5 bad ones, but convincing management of this fact is difficult (10 amateur artists can't paint the mona lisa, you need a da vinci to do that). –  Paul Brown Feb 27 '13 at 19:56
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I love the mona lisa-da vinci analogy, very well put. I want to use that haha –  Jrud Feb 27 '13 at 20:07
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Paul, it sounds like your coworker is using you for rubber duck problem solving. Give him a duck. –  Amy Blankenship Mar 3 '13 at 19:55

5 Answers 5

up vote 47 down vote accepted

Don't be "The IT Guy" or some other technical void, be a human being. That can help with the worry of being too direct. I suggest getting up and walking this person over to the desk of the person who can help. Feel free to chat along the way. Offer to address other questions that you can help him with at another time when you're not so busy.

Side Note: Idle conversations are OK and are the only way to build relationships with other people. Like everything else, too much is bad, but don't dismiss a practice that has been going on for centuries. Other departments/people are going to make requests and have problems which it is your job to fix. I want them to know they're asking Jeff O to handle it and not the "programmer' or the IT dept. I'm the guy that drinks too much coffee, loves football and movies. I'm nice to you; be nice to me. Although I do care about fixing problems to make other people's job easier, I go home after work, sleep at night, and do other fun things over the weekend, so don't expect me to work 24/7 on your problem - I'm not a machine.

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It sounds like he thinks you are approachable and knowledgable, this is generally a good thing.

If you want to handle this gently then you're going to have to drill a little deeper and figure out the root of the reason he comes to you. Here are a few things that I've seen (or done) and some suggestions that might help:

  • He may not like interacting with the IT guys. I've known a number of IT guys and there is a small section of that population that thinks everyone else is an idiot. You might try walking him over to meet the nicest of the bunch the next time he has a problem. When you indtroduce them to each other make sure to compliment that IT person on their knowledge and patience when solving your IT problems.

  • He may be bored and need a break. If this is the case then your best bet is to NOT become instant gratification for this need. Always politely say you'd like to finish what you're working on and then you'll walk over and see if you can help him find an answer. Then your desk is not the place that answers come from, it's not the place for social interaction, and it's not a good place to stroll over to because nothing happens for him there.

  • He may not know the best way to get the answer. If this is the case you may be stuck teaching him how to use the tools (do it at his desk) or you can always walk him over to the expert (or ask the expert to come over to his desk) and make a polite introduction and a polite exit.

  • He may just want a friend. If you don't mind being his office buddy then try to cut the chitchat short but offer a time when you can chitchat, like take a break at a specific time and make plans to go for a walk. If you don't want to be his office buddy then you may end up in the awkward position of playing 'office buddy matchmaker' and trying to introduce him to someone with similar interests. That's hard to do tactfully, so they may get the hint you're trying to pawn them off. It's not 'putting your foot down', but it can still be awkward and hurtful so be wary.

  • He may be a clueless social leech. You may want to set up a rescue system where someone calls you if he starts going on and on. Best if this is a couple of different people that can be on the lookout and take turns making the call for you to come over to their desk and look at something for them.

It's probably a combination of several of the above and you'll have to adjust your strategy accordingly.

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We had a rescue system. I actually built in a hotkey into one of our internal applications that would send out an email to a few people to get rescued from this type of person. He was nice enough, and he certainly had plenty of work to do, but he could get stuck on a tangent and talk forever. –  Dave Johnson May 20 '13 at 21:32

Two fairly straight-forward solutions, here:

  1. If a business question, just let him know that you are working on something and would like it if he could send you an email about whatever the ask is so you can address it later.

  2. If it's a social call, stand up and go get some water/coffee. Lead him away from your desk to an area where it's acceptable to be social. Give him a minute or two and then leave him in the social area. If he tries to follow you back to your desk, politely let him know that you are busy working on a project and will catch up with him later.

Hope this helps.

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+1: If it's a social call, stand up and go get some water/coffee. Great tactic. –  Jim G. Mar 4 '13 at 3:39

"Putting your foot down" does not have to be condescending or rude. Just say in a cheerful tone "I'm busy right now." And say this every single time he disturbs you during working hours.

Eventually he will get the message.

Consider that entire days can be destroyed by people who chat incessantly, and those days can easily turn into weeks of mild to poor productivity. Don't forget the 15 minutes to refocus rule. You're so busy looking out for the other guy and not hurting his feelings, that you're completely ignoring self-preservation: if this guy chews up hours each day, he could be badly hurting you.

To preserve the social relationship, you should answer his question and within 5 minutes, ask him out to dinner to continue the conversation. If I'm right about this person, he will say no, because people like this are actually trying to burn time, and are using you to do it.

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Downvoter, you should explain –  bobobobo Mar 4 '13 at 15:50
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Maybe that's why they can't get their annoying coworkers to stop bothering them –  bobobobo Mar 4 '13 at 18:06
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@bobobobo - The downvote is for suggesting simply being rude. –  Ramhound Mar 5 '13 at 12:48
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comments added to post: Hi bobobobo, I added your last two responses to your answer, as it greatly improves it by explaining your reasoning. Hope this helps! –  jmort253 Apr 27 '13 at 3:08

No one is born as a genius.You learn from experience and mistakes and you move on.Unless your maturity level makes you consider yourself the ideal person in the world who don't make mistakes, doesn't need anyone else's help(which obviously reflects from your statement), you don't have to put your foot down or talk down on a coworker who needs help and unfortunately thinks you are the person to ask for.

I agree with one other poster about walking the guy over to someone who can help resolve the issue or even finding a contact number for them or a website link if they have one.That's what I had done in the past, so the next time the guys asks me help, I will inquire if he used any of the 3 resources I provided before.

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Hi decent guy, welcome to the Workplace SE, a Q&A site. How should the asker solve this problem? On The Workplace SE, answers posted should answer the question in full. Consider using this edit link to answer the question? This will prevent your post from being removed by the community. Good luck! :) –  jmort253 Apr 27 '13 at 3:03
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Would also suggest changing your avatar to really fit your nickname. –  Deer Hunter Apr 27 '13 at 18:31

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