19

A fairly common experience is that a colleague or subordinate will ask a question (in person, email, phone, etc) that would have been answered if they would have properly read all the correspondence, accessed the electronic systems, etc that they already know about as clear parts of their expected workflow.

When answering it is tempting to point out that the answer could have been found on their own, and one could argue that this helps train them for the future. On the other hand, I feel it is disrespectful to answer in that way and I would not want it done to me if I would make a similar mistake and would appreciate if the person would just answer the question in a respectful way. What is the best way to handle this?

25

Depends a lot on your relationship with the asker.

If it's the CEO, you should probably just give the information and not worry about it.

If it's a direct report to you, you should probably care a lot more (since it is somewhat your job to actually coach/train people to not do this).

If it's a colleague, you have a vested interest in them not becoming a help vampire.

Example

  • "Hi JoelFan, can you give me this piece of information?" (this information is easily accessible from email conversation or online resources)
    • "Sure, I think it was in the email conversation about XXX - I'm not able to look it up now but you could check there"
    • "Hey John, have you looked at the email from Joe? I think he answered that - I'm not sure off the top of my head, but I would start there"
    • "I think (insert resource name here) has that - I would try looking up (insert search term or process here) - let me know if you aren't able to find it there")

If you get another request on this with no effort, just forward the original communication- I wouldn't worry about being rude at this point, you've already told them it's in that information and they could find it themselves.

Simply delaying your response (via the above) causes people to be more likely to actually look stuff up on their own in the future. You doom yourself if you become an "immediate answer" location regardless of what you are doing.

I have a friend who I've helped enough I just ask him, "what have you tried?" or "what did Google tell you?" when I don't think he's done much work himself - because we're close enough this works for him and does not offend him. I often get back responses after some time of, "found it, thanks" even though I didn't actually do anything at all. Depends on your relationship though.


edit:

Most of the other answers involve enabling someone to ask more of these out of convenience.

You do NOT want to enable people to ask these types of questions more often. Simply giving an answer without trying to change the way people approach questions is not going to make them go away in the future.

You have to respond, consistently, with answers which force people to learn themselves that, "if I ask JoelFan a question, JoelFan is going to recommend I do this or that to solve it myself first" is how that person learns.

  • 1
    I don't generally treat C-Level executives any differently here - An executive Help Vampire is the worst kind, because they can order you to stop doing real work in order to cater to their whims. (Of course one should exercise good judgment - if the CEO needs the quarterly sales figured for an investor meeting that starts in 5 minutes perhaps now is not the time to say "let me show you how to use the accounting package to get that report"...) – voretaq7 Apr 16 '13 at 14:18
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    @voretaq7 they can also fire you or make your life miserable, probably get paid a lot more than you do, and generally have a lot more influence on your career growth than you do. Telling someone who probably gets 10x as many emails and has 10x as many meetings as you a variant of "look it up" is not necessarily the best response. Bring it up at a different time. – enderland Apr 16 '13 at 14:23
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    @voretaq7 I have yet to see someone get in any trouble with their career for being too resourceful for more senior management. In fact, I'm pretty sure it works in the exact opposite direction -> people who are visible and communicate more tend to go higher up in the ladder than those who are sticking to the trenches. – MrFox Apr 16 '13 at 15:14
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    @MrFox I left my last job in part because the work-stream interruptions literally prevented me from doing the job I was hired for, which was affecting my performance reviews (to say nothing of stressing me out) and management wouldn't add resources or quit breaking into the time I needed to get things done. It does happen, especially in the technical fields, and especially when you're a resource that's doing the work instead of (or in addition to) managing it. Your experiences may be different, but those have been mine and I stand by them. – voretaq7 Apr 16 '13 at 15:30
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    @voretaq7 indeed - which is why my comment specifically said Bring it up at a different time. You absolutely should discuss this with management who makes your life miserable through bombing you with interruptions. But the context for properly addressing that is different than when colleagues or subordinates ask unnecessary questions (which is what this question was about). – enderland Apr 16 '13 at 15:37
9

Two things irritate me in the workplace:

  • people who interrupt me and ask me things they should already know or can easily find out for themselves
  • people who use more words and time to refuse to answer a question of mine than it would have taken to answer it

I am aware that these form a contradiction of sorts. If I am irritated at being interrupted, I may refuse to answer in the hope of reducing future interruptions, even though those refusals bother me a lot. But I try not to, because then I am being that person who gives a ten sentence speech about where the information is and how important my time is, instead of just answering the question. People say that answering will just encourage them to ask - that isn't always a bad thing. If your information is not as accessible as it should be, asking reveals that.

Resisting the urge to refuse to answer, or answer only with where to find the answer, the more mature approach is:

  • focus on making information easy to access. If you send an email about a meeting, and you've put the agenda in "the usual place", you may get emails asking what is on the agenda. Either attach the agenda or include a link to the usual place so that people don't have to ask you. These people are not malicious, they just don't know where to find things. People who deserve their jobs will look things up, so if they're not doing so it's probably too hard to find.
  • consider bringing up information flow at a meeting. "I get a lot of emails/phone calls from people asking me things that are in [specific repository]. Is there a reason why people are not checking [repository] and should we be using a different way of communicating these details?" You may change where you keep information, learn why people aren't finding what you think is findable, or get across that people should be looking for these things themselves, all without naming names, confronting someone specifically, or slowing someone down in the moment when they've discovered they're missing important information.
  • if you are asked in a way that does not interrupt you - in a meeting, by email if you check email only at specific times - then just answer. Consider adding "the most recent copy of this is always at [location]" after the answer, but ensure your tone is helpful, not lecturing.
  • if you are asked in an interruption way, focus on objecting only to the interruption. If the person reports to you, you can clearly say "was this worth interrupting me for?" As a peer, you can say "I wish you hadn't interrupted me for this." For your boss, you can answer and then say "I guess I'd better get back to [top priority]" which is as close as you can get to pointing out you were interrupted.
  • if you have firing capability, and one particular person is a bit of a help vampire who constantly asks other people things they really should know, fire them. It will make everyone feel better and behave better as well.

The thing is, what's annoying is not that they were lazy or ill informed or couldn't be bothered to get the info they needed. It's that they interrupted you to get it. Focus on that. And don't with-hold the answer as a way of punishing them, even if you're the boss. That's a great way to make people hate you. Also don't give passive-aggressive answers like "page 53 of [document]" when you're asked a question that has a one-word answer. It might make you feel better for a moment, but it won't actually turn them into people who look things up.

  • 2
    What is the purpose of everything above "However the more mature approach is:" it doesnt seem to add anything to the answer to know what bothers you and it makes the answer seem ranty, which i dont think is what you were aiming for – Rhys Apr 16 '13 at 14:35
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    Maybe I'm missing something but I'm not seeing how this answers the question - What is the best way to handle this? - I know everyone is irritated at people asking annoying questions but that isn't really what the asker is getting at. It's feel-goody but doesn't address how to handle things when asked those questions. And if you are asked in a way that does not interrupt you - in a meeting, by email if you check email only at specific times - then just answer. actually enables people to ask these types of questions more often. – enderland Apr 16 '13 at 14:56
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    @enderland - so they ask questions often? So? If the company doesn't have a system in place that actually works, they will ask each other. You fix the system, you fire the people who just aren't trying, and for the rest, you help those who need help. – Kate Gregory Apr 16 '13 at 15:08
3

I will usually answer the question and provide a reference to the place it first appeared.

A recent interaction at my work resulted in my replying with " and I think this is archived on the website at . Let me know if it's not there and I need to see it get added."

This provided the answer to immediately unblock the coworker, gave them the location of the appropriate resource and encouraged them to check there to see if the resource existed. Many people are more likely to check out the resource if they feel they can correct or add to it, rather than just because someone said it was there.

Things like this have also made it clear when a resource is not well designed or organized if a number of people can't find an item in it.

Most of the time the longer-tenured co-workers now start requests with "I've tried checking and and can't find this info. Do you know...."?

2

How you deal with it depends on past behavior of the offending party.

If this is the first time and it is easy to answer, do so. Also point out that this is answered elsewhere (and where). You can phrase this politely enough so it will not cause offence ("perhaps you missed it - you can also find the information at xxxx").

Persistent occurrences may require more abrupt responses, without the actual answer, in particular if you don't see the behavior changing.

2

If I know the answer to their question without having to look it up myself AND if it takes under 1 minute to type, then I'll send a quick response. If it's a longer and more complicated answer, I might actually prefer to go and talk to them in person because it speeds up communication considerably and saves time on future communication. When it becomes a persistent problem, I find it effective to wait longer and longer each time before sending a response. The most effective solution usually ends up looking something like this:

I think the answer might be $X, but I'm not 100% sure about that, so it's probably best to check on the corporate wiki/email thread/Google/Necronomicon and search for ...

This response shows them how to find the information themselves, but is phrased with a possible (but uncertain) answer so as not to seem too rude and to encourage them to learn to verify (and then hopefully independently look up) information.

Never be rude in this sort of situation, because one day you might have to ask the other person a question that you will want an answer to, and you probably won't like it if they are rude to you.

  • Downvoter care to explain? – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 16 '13 at 14:25
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    Enabling someone by responding immediately with the answer will lead to more of those questions. – enderland Apr 16 '13 at 14:55
  • @enderland: That's why I recommend the increasing back-off times. I don't believe all questions are bad. Sometimes there is information that is not found on Google. When someone asks me "I'm getting error 'check banking module' on the payment system - what does that mean?" I have no problem responding. It's an internal error that is simple to explain, but hard to find the information on (even within the company). When someone asks "What's the not-equals operator for PL/SQL?"... I'll give them 20 minutes and include a link to all PL/SQL operators in my answer. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 16 '13 at 15:27
  • Don't ever hold the door for someone because they'll want you to do it everytime they come and go. – user8365 Apr 16 '13 at 17:23
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    @JeffO: I find that if I hold the door for them today, they will hold the door for me tomorrow. Of course, not every one does, but I stop holding the door for those who never reciprocate. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 16 '13 at 17:26
1

I find it best to answer the immediate question at the time it is asked in a direct, respectful manner.

Then, I follow up with a private conversation or email. I point out where the information is contained, for future reference, in a helpful tone.

So it might go like this:

Colleague: Where can I find the latest copy of the frammis? Me: You can find the latest copy in Library B. Let me also shoot you a note about other objects that might be helpful. (then I send them the information)

If this is a subordinate, and your sense is that he/she is being lazy, you need to take more direct action. Sometimes, the format of the information doesn't work for the individual (perhaps it's contained deep in an email, and the individual gets many hundreds of emails daily). Perhaps the individual doesn't understand what your expectations are. When in doubt - talk it out!

-3

I generally answer the question as asked, in a respectful and civil manner. I then point the asker to the documentation:

'see document xxx, page yyy, where this subject is discussed' etc...

The question is answered, but this gentle hint seems to prevent too many 'repeat offenders'. Most of the time, when they read that, they think 'oh - it's right there...' and feel foolish for asking.

On the other hand, I happen to like it when people ask me questions, as long as it doesn't become incessant. This lets me know that they consider me a good source of information, and I add value to the team in that way.

  • 1
    I fail to see how giving them the answer will stop them from asking you more obvious questions in the future. – Rhys Apr 17 '13 at 9:12
  • Because by telling them 'see...' you politely point out to them that the information was already available so they needn't have asked. – Vector Apr 17 '13 at 16:21
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    Very curious to know why this post was downvoted with no explanation, when my answer is actually quite similar to several others that were upvoted, although mine was here quite early on.... – Vector Apr 17 '13 at 19:53
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    I did comment as to my down vote, and commenting on why, while encouraged, isn't mandatory. In addition we encourage high quality answers that address all aspects of the issue so these are the ones that will attract upvotes, rather than questions which were just around from early on. We also like to encourage the 'why' as well as the 'what' and this answer doesn't seem to contain this explanation. In addition, please keep rude remarks out of the site, they don't add anything of value to the site, which is what we are after. Thankyou and welcome to the WorkPlace. – Rhys Apr 17 '13 at 23:40
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    Hi Mikey, I edited your comment to make it more constructive. Please leave the name-calling elsewhere. I'd suggest focusing on explaining why answering the question would be helpful in this situation to solve the asker's problem. Well, written and descriptive answers tend to get more upvotes than those that leave out a lot of details. On our Q&A site, the "why" is never self-explanatory and is a requirement as per the faq. In addition, I also edited your post to fix some grammar, which may help get the ball rolling. Hope this helps. – jmort253 Apr 18 '13 at 5:31

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