I happen to sit near the secretary who handles the company phone. The secretary doesn't always come to work at my office as she alternates working between multiple offices. Hence, whenever she's not around and the phone rings, I usually answer it since I'm closest to it.

I would like to emphasize that I'm merely answering due to convenience, I was not hired as a receptionist / secretary, answering the phone is not in my job scope, the phonecalls are never for me and honestly I hate answering it.

That aside, I still answer it due to convenience, and I expect my colleagues to do the same, i.e. they should answer the phone if they are close to it.

However, it seems that my colleagues are beginning to think answering the phone is part of my job, as shown when a senior called me to answer the phone even when the phone was closer to him and many other colleagues.

As such, I would like to ask how I can politely express that it's not my job to answer the phone and that I expect whoever is closest to the phone to answer it.

  • 98
    Has anyone discussed with the secretary about auto-forwarding her inbound calls to a company mobile phone, or phone of wherever she goes?
    – user34587
    Feb 1, 2018 at 9:25
  • 140
    Is your boss/management aware that you regularly loose time doing someone else's job ? Have you talked about this to anyone ?
    – everyone
    Feb 1, 2018 at 9:56
  • 56
    What authority do you have to expect that someone else should answer the phone just because they're closer than you? It sounds like you effectively volunteered for this task by doing it without being asked, but that doesn't mean anyone else is likewise obligated. It's not really surprising that other co-workers who've seen you doing it would assume you were asked to. I think the question you should be asking is not "how to tell other people to answer the phone" but rather "how to get out of answering it yourself, since it's not your job."
    – Steve-O
    Feb 1, 2018 at 14:25
  • 6
    Is there a rule about 'phone management' (lacking a better word) in your employee's manual? I've seen a company where you were supposed to answer the phone of your colleague if he wasn't available. It's all about expectancies.
    – Mast
    Feb 1, 2018 at 16:39
  • 7
    Is it actually business critical that the phone be answered? Seems to me that if they hired a secretary who isn't full time to do it, management must not consider it that important for the phone to be answered.
    – Seth R
    Feb 2, 2018 at 13:37

8 Answers 8


Stop answering the phone.

While being inflexible about what work you can do is frowned upon, especially at smaller companies, such covering for your colleagues should not become regular occurrence, for a number of reasons:

  • Your own work will be affected: By getting frequently distracted doing others' work, you won't be able to do your own work well. The company pays you to do the work that you were hired to do, and if your own work frequently falls below expectation, it is a loss for the company, and consequently, for you.
  • You are probably not as skilled at doing others' jobs: Answering a company phone is not a mundane job. You do not always get "easy" calls, the secretary is trained to deal with the "difficult" ones, and also to deal with special situations.

    For example, what if an irate customer demands right off the bat, "John Doe was supposed to call me last week, I want to talk to him right now."? You may not know John Doe, or his extension number, or how to redirect the call. If John Doe is unavailable, you may not know when he would be back or who is filling in for him. The secretary usually has this information, or knows how to deal with the situation when it is unavailable.

  • When you work for free, you get taken for granted: You have already experienced this yourself. When you frequently do other people's job, people tend to assume that it is your job. If you do not actually like doing that job, that situation can never be good. People might even expect you to "help out" with other problems.

  • People avoid finding a real solution: Since you are taking care of answering the phone, management doesn't realize or doesn't care that the secretary is only working "part time" at each office. If you stop doing that, they might soon notice the problem, and make it their priority to fix it. It is also possible that the phone not getting answered isn't really a problem in the management's eyes.

If someone asks why you aren't answering the phone, politely point out that you were doing your own work ("Oh, I am busy with <my own stuff>."), instead of "It's not my job!", or even worse, "Why don't you do it yourself?"

Just like people started to assume that you are the "backup secretary" because you volunteered to do it, they will soon forget about it if you stop doing it. They cannot possibly complain to your manager that you were caught doing your own work.

  • 7
    This is terrible advice. This can ruin a company's reputation if no one answers the phone and may cost business.
    – HLGEM
    Feb 1, 2018 at 18:33
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    @HLGEM to be fair, if the company loses business because no one answers the phone, then perhaps they should. Pointing out that there are solutions to this problem would be nice of course.
    – Mixxiphoid
    Feb 1, 2018 at 19:06
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    @HLGEM I am sure the company would also lose business if their toilets are not clean when some important customers visit. So should the OP start cleaning toilets as well? The company might lose even more business if the OP answers the phone and talks rudely to the customer due to their overall irritation with the phone answering job (especially if the customer at the other end is highly irritated already) as well as the fact that they are not trained to answer the phone unlike the secretary. "Company will lose business" doesn't mean you have to shoulder everyone's burden alone.
    – Masked Man
    Feb 1, 2018 at 19:22
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    Besides, the OP asked for a solution to his problem, which is how he can get out of this phone answering job, and not how the company can ensure that the phone is answered at all times. If the company loses business because the phone is not answered, then they should avoid having a "part time" secretary in the first place, and it is not the OP's responsibility to make up for their management's incompetence and irresponsible behaviour. If such a company loses business, then they thoroughly deserve it and there is nothing "terrible" about it.
    – Masked Man
    Feb 1, 2018 at 19:27
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    @HLGEM actually, how did the OP know it has to be answered? It's so unimportant that the person hired to answer the phone isn't even there! I would say the fact that the secretary isn't there, the phone system isn't setup to forward calls, and the fact that nobody is responsible for the phone calls mean the company don't care about it! If the OP gets into trouble for suddenly stopping, then the OP can repeat what I just said.
    – Nelson
    Feb 2, 2018 at 18:42

In this situation, can the call not go to voice mail or an automated attendant? If you have either of these, let the system handle it, otherwise you could forward the calls to the office where the receptionist is working.

When asked to answer the phone by a colleague, I would reply something like "I cannot right now" and act (or better yet be) busy, "Can you take a turn?". The other option you have is to wear headphones, either listening to music or not, so that people think you cannot hear it.

All of the items I mentioned are helpful to you, but are not long term fixes for the company. I would recommend that you ask your manager about an automated phone system to handle the calls when your receptionist is not in the office.

Alternatively, you could suggest that a schedule is set up where an assigned resources (whoever) is responsible for phone duty on a given day when the receptionist is at another office.

  • 1
    Answering machines also work. Turn down the volume of the ringer on the days nobody is there to answer the phone.
    – Donald
    Feb 1, 2018 at 19:11
  • 2
    @Ramhound In lieu of a proper phone system an answering machine would work. Turning the ringer down is not a good idea though.
    – Neo
    Feb 1, 2018 at 19:13
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    I dislike the approach of "I cannot right now"; what about "that's not my phone"? The former suggests that it is truly your job, your just busy and asking a colleague to do you a favor and do your job this one time.
    – Mayou36
    Feb 2, 2018 at 11:20

Talk to your manager about it. Tell him/her that you have been answering the phone in the secretary's absence out of convenience for the company, but you feel that it is interfering with your other work and you want to know what you should do about it. Ask if they want you to continue answering the phone. You will get one of two answers:

  1. Yes, keep doing it. In that case, it actually is your job to answer the phone. It is your manager's job to figure out how you should spend your time, so if answering the phone is what they want you to do, that's what you should do. It just got added to your job duties. You should come into this conversation prepared to discuss what work you won't be getting done if you are busy answering the phone, and you should work with them to figure out what to do about that. (You may feel that answering the phone is not the job you signed up for, but that's a whole separate issue that goes beyond the scope of this answer. You might find good advice for this situation here.)
  2. No, don't answer the phone. You're off the hook. You have explicit instruction not to answer the phone anymore. Go ahead and let it ring. If anyone gives you flak for it, you can tell them your manager has you working on other things and doesn't want you on the phone.

This conversation will also call attention to the fact that when the secretary is out, there is no clear direction on who should be answering the phone, or if it should be answered at all. It's possible they never thought about it before and didn't realize it was a problem because you have been doing it. It's their job the solve that problem.

  • 1
    @Aaron, I actually wrote my answer from a US perspective, as it's the only one I know. Managing resources (people) is literally what a manager is there to do. It is true your manager can't force you to do something you don't want to do, but that doesn't mean there aren't repercussions. Also remember that much of the US is 'at will'. If you don't have an explicit contract stating otherwise, they can fire you for any reason they want (barring protected-class issues, but that's a whole other can of worms).
    – Seth R
    Feb 2, 2018 at 22:05
  • 1
    It's true a lot of the US is at will work, so you can be fired without being given a reason. But that is not a great argument in this case, as that just works for anything; it even works for "My boss is black-mailing me, and I've got nothing on him. He can fire me at will since I can't prove what he's doing, so I should do whatever he says." In any sane, non-toxic workplace, a manager can not expect everybody to do whatever they say. I assume my manager has the authority to fire me, but in practice he cannot actually do so for the phone reason. I go to HR, he's disciplined not me.
    – Aaron
    Feb 2, 2018 at 22:30
  • 1
    @Aaron, hopefully as an employee you are creating enough value to the company to be worth keeping around. That's the reason you're employed. Your boss actually can fire you, it just isn't in his best interest, because you presumably do a lot of good for the company that makes you worth your salary. Even if you refuse to answer the phone. ;) But at this point I think we are drifting pretty far from OP's actual dilemma. If OP's boss wants him to answer the phone and he doesn't want to, I did edit my answer to include a link that will hopefully provide further advice.
    – Seth R
    Feb 2, 2018 at 22:40
  • 1
    The OP could also present it as a question: "I've been answering the phone a lot when the secretary isn't here, in an attempt to help out. But I've also noticed no one else does it. Who's responsibility is that actually supposed to be?" If the manager says they should be answering it, they could also bring up some of the points in the top answer and explain that they need to be told about information they might be missing.
    – jpmc26
    Feb 3, 2018 at 8:10
  • 1
    Why is this, the most professional solution, not top voted? You need to raise it, this is the sort of stuff that needs an official solution, if the burden is heavy. if we are talking about more than 3 calls a day.
    – WendyG
    Feb 5, 2018 at 10:20

I would like to ask how I can politely express that it's not my job to answer the phone

As long as you're polite and matter-of-fact it doesn't really matter how you express it. Pick any of the following:

  • Actually I'm not covering the phone.
  • I'm in the middle of something right now sorry.
  • I'm not the secretary sorry.
  • I'm not in charge of the phones and don't have time to handle it right now.

and that I expect whoever is closest to the phone to answer it.

This is somewhat trickier, especially since it seems you're one of the more junior people there. In some smaller offices junior people would actually be expected to cover the phones if the receptionist is out. Since you're talking to more senior people you can't really say "I expect you to do X". So you'll have to soften it with something like this:

Actually I often pick up because I'm the closest to the phones but I'm not covering the phone as a rule. I figured whoever is closest to the phone should answer.

But this has potential to blow up in your face: these senior people might tell you to do it anyway, you might end up being assigned phone duties because you ticked them off, they might move you right next to the secretary so you're always the closest person there.

The best approach would be to talk to your manager first and explain the problem:

Since I'm usually the closest person to the phone I've often answered the phone when [secretary] is out. But I've realised that the others in the office have now come to expect me to cover the phone and that's impacting my reputation here. Going forward I'm planning to [no longer answer the phone / sit elsewhere].

Again, the risk is that you'll be told that as a junior profile you should cover the phone despite it not being a typical task for your job. But ideally you'd push for alternatives and make it clear that you do not want to cover phones. But that won't work for everyone or in all offices. Assuming you get his approval to dial back on your phone coverage you can bring that up whenever someone asks you to answer the phone.

Regardless of how this turns out, you should also raise the problems that your migratory secretary is causing. The office phones should be set-up so that they all automatically transfer calls to wherever the secretary is that day. While it can be reasonable to ask junior people to cover a receptionist's breaks, it's not reasonable to use them as part-time receptionists without being up-front about that during the hiring process.

  • 17
    "I'm not the secretary sorry". Like the other options better. This one sounds very definitive. As if you never willing to pick up the phone ever again.
    – Jeroen
    Feb 1, 2018 at 14:13
  • I also don't like "I'm not the secretary" it sounds a bit like "I am not demeaning myself to that job". As you wouldn't be complaining if it was good experience "sorry i am not the tech lead I am not learning that skill" would never be said.
    – WendyG
    Feb 5, 2018 at 10:16
  • @WendyLisaGibbons / Jeroen: It's one of a number of suggestions I gave and anyone in this situation will have to evaluate which will work. A flat "I'm not the secretary" is definitive and fairly strong and won't work for junior profiles. But if you're in an architect role with ten years' experience and people still want you to cover the phone, perhaps because you look young or are female, it's reasonable to push back against that in no uncertain terms. Stating that certain tasks are below your level isn't automatically disparaging to the people who do those jobs.
    – Lilienthal
    Feb 5, 2018 at 10:24

First of all, you don't stop answering the phone because you are not supposed to. You just have to talk to your manager and describe this situation (you may expect him asking to do it anyway), if he agree this is not your job you should suggest he communicate this to the rest of the team.

And, as @kozaky suggested phones calls can be forwarded to any other phone, maybe your manager's, your secretary's or maybe yours :) (at least you won't have to stand up)

  • 4
    It is the other way round. If it was the OP's job, the boss would have told so. Feb 1, 2018 at 18:55
  • +1 for phones can be forwarded. And doing that is something I expect the secretary to do when she leaves office.
    – Hennes
    Feb 4, 2018 at 0:36

As others have said, stop answering when you don't want to. However I'd suggest approaching the resulting conversations differently. You need to emphasize that your assigned work is important, that it requires concentration, and you prioritize. The phone is at a very low priority, just as it is with everyone else.

...a senior called me to answer the phone even when the phone was closer to him and many other colleagues.

Perhaps the response should be:

I'm sorry, I was in the middle of something, can you repeat what you said? (while phone continues to ring - act oblivious to it and focus on them)

If the phone rings in the future, only answer it rarely, if at all. If the phone is important to answer, they will assign someone (perhaps you) to handle it when the secretary is away. At that point you'll have to have a discussion about the impact of answering the phone on your work, and suggest that an automated system with extensions and a voice directory might be a wise investment. Further, closeness to the phone shouldn't matter in a modern office, when the secretary is out the phone number can and should be forwarded to the phone nearest the person who should be answering it in the secretary's stead.

Keep in mind, though, that you need to make a business case as to why you shouldn't be tasked with this. This interrupts your work, costs you time, etc. Just saying that you don't want to will be viewed negatively in many cultures, but putting a logical business case forth as your explanation will be better received.


Answer the phone.

a senior called me to answer the phone even when the phone was closer to him and many other colleagues.

I understand the word "senior" to either mean your "elder", or, probably more likely, your "superior" (ranked higher in the organization). Presuming the latter, if he asks you to answer the phone, you answer the phone. End of decision making on whether you should do that.

Oh, then you can follow up and ask about some process improvement. But while the phone is ringing, in order to lower response times and increase audio peace in the organization, just do what the senior has asked.

If I had a subordinate tell me to do it myself, I probably would... and I would also make a mental note to plan to follow up about the transgression. In fact, since the phone was also near

many other colleagues

such a response would likely result in me making sure to make a comment in front of those colleagues, such as "clearly 'Woofas' and I need to have a talk". (And if Woofas hears that and asks about it, I would note, "another time".)

  • 4
    WHY should he take the phone? I just miss this one thing. For the "lower response time"? To follow orders? What's the real reason he should take the phone?
    – Mayou36
    Feb 2, 2018 at 11:25
  • 3
    So-called senior may simply have noticed OP often answers the phone, and was pointing out that it was ringing, mistakenly assuming that it was part of OP's role - in that case, seniority actually has nothing to do with it, aside from the difficulties of OP simply retorting.
    – Phil
    Feb 2, 2018 at 12:12
  • 5
    Having seniority over someone (which I take to mean you have simply been there longer and have more experience) does not make you their superior. OP answers to his manager. If you are not his manager, you have no power to tell him what to do.
    – Seth R
    Feb 2, 2018 at 13:34
  • 1
    @SethR that really depends on the company and situation. I've worked in a union environment where seniority did lead to scenarios like that with delegation and what not.
    – Robert
    Feb 2, 2018 at 21:51
  • @SethR - Seniority does describe being there longer, better than the word "elder" that I came up with. Still, your comment is not relevant to my answer. You specifically discuss a situation where the person is not in a superior position in the hierarchy. My answer specifically is describing a situation where the person is higher in the command hierarchy, which I specifically address in the sentence after the first quote, and clarify in the next three words. If a person takes a "senior role", that has everything to do with hierarchy and nothing to do with seniority.
    – TOOGAM
    Feb 11, 2018 at 22:46

You can answer this yourself:

Have you ever called a company during business hours, only to get no answer?

How would you characterize this company on social media after such an experience? How would other people characterize this experience in their social media feeds?

Suppose you called and someone did answer the phone, and they told you, "It's not my job to answer the phone." Would you apologize and tell the person on the other end, "Oh, gee, I'm sorry. I'll just put my problem on hold until the person who's job it is shows up." ?

Read the other answers from the perspective of a customer calling the company you presently work for. Would you do business with this company and recommend it to your friends if they did what the other answers recommended?

What if this was your company and you were seeing negative social media comments that were affecting business, making it even more difficult to hire people. Would you approach the person who sits near the ringing phone and remind them of the, "...other duties as assigned..." clause in their job description, or would you simply fire that person for saying, "Not my job!"?

  • 20
    The wrong person answering a phone, or talking with the public can have a far worse outcome then a call going to voicemail when it comes to 'social media'. A person not trained or informed of the right answers to give could cause worse problems. Would you expect the janitor to be able to give useful information if the phones are busy at your bank? Do you want them telling you incorrect information? In many cases, it is far better to wait until properly trained staff is available. The wrong person answering would just waste time.
    – Zoredache
    Feb 1, 2018 at 18:52

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