58

Here's the situation. There is a person on Team X. They share some hardware that I also work on.

They're trying to create a setup for something and struggling big time with it. It's none of my business, but I know that they are struggling. And on a couple of occasions they ping me asking for details about that machine's setup. Whenever they quiz me on something I provide the answers. But over time, I feel like helping them.

So finally, I ask them how their work is going because I know that they're struggling with it. They tell me their problem and I give them a solution. And what follows is a surprise. They start throwing their problems at me one after another. There's no please, or gratitude. In fact, it appears that they're speaking to me as if it is my job to solve their problems.

In the ongoing discussion I get the impression that they're turning around their problems into "I don't know the setup on this machine, but it's your job and you have to help me out with this" and "I need to do X for this setup, so how do I do it?" rather than searching for their own solutions.

I help out whatever I can and end the conversation. I get the feeling that they don't want to put effort in figuring out how to go about doing stuff which is easily google-able.

At the end she says "I'm going to bug you again tomorrow".

How can I communicate that I just went out of my way to help them, and they took my help for granted and that I will not be helping them again tomorrow?

  • 24
    Talk to your manager maybe? – Rohan Mar 22 at 12:06
  • 1
    Do you have a good relationship with the person's boss? – Gregory Currie Mar 22 at 12:06
  • @GregoryCurrie Nope. In fact this person's boss is an equally self-entitled person. She then just demanded that we share our hardware with her. When I took it up with my manager he said "We should let them use it. They need to use it." Overall, on multiple ocassions, I've found her to be quite rude and entitled. – Mugen Mar 22 at 12:10
  • @newguy What do I tell me manager? I wasn't supposed to be helping them. I'm not expected to help them. I went out of my way to help because I saw them struggling. And now after their entitled behavior, I don't want to help them anymore. – Mugen Mar 22 at 12:11
  • 4
    "I get the feeling that they don't want to put effort in figuring out how to go about doing stuff which is easily google-able." How badly would they take it if you responded with a relevant LMGTFY link? – Mason Wheeler Mar 22 at 15:54

10 Answers 10

71

It's sad but true: people take the path of least resistance and effort needed.

If the repeated requests are taking up your work time in a way that makes completing your own work difficult, please be firm and straight about it and push back. Say something like:

"Hey listen, I understand you got this problem, but I have this other assignment which is expected out of me. If you feel you are really stuck and can't progress without some help, why don't you talk to your boss about the help you needed? I'm sure (s)he will understand and make the necessary arrangements for you to get help. In case I am the chosen one, I'll be glad to discuss the same with my boss and have the assignments allocated accordingly. Till then, I really need to get back to what I was doing, thanks."

The case sounds like, they just want to use you and your expertise for "free", without investing any effort from their side. The moment you bring up the point to make it official, you'll see either

  • They will stop asking for help every now and then and try to revert to doing the trials at least.

  • or, in case they already tried, they will make it an official request, for which you'll be assigned the work officially.

  • 2
    I kinda disagree with this kind of "let's go through our bosses" approach, except as a last resort, in other words when personal communication doesn't solve the problem. – hyde Mar 23 at 7:21
  • 12
    It is your boss who decides what you work on, therefore if you invest hours into something, they need to know. – Fabian Blechschmidt Mar 23 at 7:52
  • 7
    "It's sad but true: people take the path of least resistance and effort needed."Well, ... considering the fact that nature also chooses the path of "minimum effort", expecting the opposite from a product of nature would not make sense. – onurcanbektas Mar 23 at 19:31
  • 1
    @hyde: When in such a situation, I'm usually willing to help as long as I don't get in trouble for not completing my own task. I don't mind taking a day to help someone get started as long as no one blames me for not doing other work during that same day. This is why getting your boss to sign off (or anyone with authority to make that call) covers your own ass. – Flater Mar 25 at 10:23
  • 1
    It's not sad. I am very comfortable with it. Also, asking someone who knows a solution is a way of solving the problem. – busman Mar 25 at 16:42
65

You should speak to the person:

"Hey listen, I understand you got this problem, but I have this other assignment which is expected out of me. If you feel you are really stuck and can't progress without assistance, speak to your manager and they should be able to sort something out for you"

If they keep bugging you, that's when you go to your own boss.

There is no harm in confessing you already helped them a little. But make sure you clearly explain how much time this person wants to take of yours.

  • 6
    This is the answer... Tell the person first, they may not even realise they're doing it. Then move on to your boss if they continue. No need to escalate immediately +1 – Twyxz Mar 22 at 12:18
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    I may have stolen some of it from @Sourav :D – Gregory Currie Mar 22 at 12:19
  • 13
    It you take content from someone else, you must credit them. This is plagiarism. The worst kind, in fact, where you copied verbatim. – jpmc26 Mar 23 at 15:53
  • 2
    @GregoryCurrie I don't get your comment about the edit history. The other post contained almost the same text before you posted this answer. It looks very much looks like you copied that part without credit. – kapex Mar 24 at 14:38
  • 9
    @GregoryCurrie Don't assume that everyone reads comments (they don't). Don't assume that comments are permanent (they're definitely not). It's plain good manners to acknowledge that you've taken someone else's idea and worked on it some more. Otherwise, you just get a reputation for stealing other people's internet style points. – user44108 Mar 25 at 7:30
23

Ask your manager what he or she wants you to do.

Obviously helping out another team is going to take time, particularly if they have an ongoing set of problems. It's going to cut into whatever else you are working on. It's your manager's job to decide whether you should take that time or not.

Talk to your manager, without bringing up the attitude of the other team or the other manager. Just lay it out... you've spent this amount of time so far, you think it will take this much more time, and likely there will be additional issues that will require more time. Should you break off what you are working on and help out the other team?

Your manager gets to decide, and is also up to date on how the schedule is impacted. And if the answer is "no", your manager is the one who talks to the other team's manager and lets them know you aren't available.

  • 9
    This! This is the correct answer here. Saying "No" or "Yes" is wrong, because you're making a judgement call you're not in a position to make. Because this isn't really "Should you be spending X hours helping person Y" but "Should you be spending X hours getting project Z off the ground." And your manager is the one that needs to be making that decision. As someone who has often assisted other groups on tasks that are not at all related to my usual duties, I can tell you this: sometimes what you're asked to help with is surprisingly more important than the rest of the stuff on your plate. – Kevin Mar 22 at 16:00
  • 1
    Presumably the OP has had tasks already allocated to them? – Gregory Currie Mar 22 at 16:59
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    @GregoryCurrie - the problem with that logic is: it assumes the importance of the OP's tasks and the Requester's tasks. If the manager hasn't been asked or apprised of the situation, it's entirely possible they would respond, "Oh, Project XYZ? Yeah, that's a corporate level task - that has to be finished by end of year. Give Pat all the assistance they need, I'll understand if your other tasks slip because of it." Might not be likely, but the priorities are set by management. Saying "No" or "Yes" without getting their input isn't smart. – Kevin Mar 22 at 18:07
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    No, this is the wrong approach. By definition their manager doesn't want them to do anything about it, because it's assigned to another employee on another team; OP has no dependency on that task for their own job, nor has their manager ever said "I want you to help Y with task Z". Asking this sort of question will only confuse /annoy your mgr that you are not working on your own tasks (this is extremely likely). (At most you might say "Coworker Y keeps bugging me for help with their team's task Z. Can you please ask them to stop?" But it's better to first directly say that in writing to Y) – smci Mar 23 at 2:05
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    @Mugen: What Kevin says is that your manager is the one who tells you whether to help them, and how much to help them. If your manager tells you to help them 40 hours a week, you do it. And if your manager tells you to not touch their work, then you don't touch it. That's his job as a manager. – gnasher729 Mar 23 at 13:08
17

"Sorry, I'm busy with task X"

Don't elaborate. You want to keep the conversation firmly grounded in the current reality and avoid any comments that give credence to the idea that you might be in some way involved in their project (e.g. "I don't want to help this person who could use google" implies that you could or should help them).

If you are later accused of being unhelpful then stick to this line. Don't refuse to help, just say that you tried to help but felt obliged to prioritise your own work. i.e. to do the thing you were told to do.

Ultimately you might be tasked with babysitting the person but you can and should make them go through formal channels to request the babysitting.

  • 1
    This might help with interpersonal relationships - like requests from your neighbour - but in a workplace, there is a common goal, and your boss might prefer that you do help them. – Oddthinking Mar 24 at 22:47
  • Sure. But the OP has already tried this and is being sucked into something less productive. – P. Hopkinson Mar 25 at 9:09
  • @Oddthinking I work for the common goal in small things, or when having time to spare. If it is taking a significant amount of time or getting out of hand, as the OP describes, the right approach is escalating it to your manager as this answer suggests – Rui F Ribeiro Mar 25 at 9:12
  • @P.Hopkinson: I am not convinced it is less productive. Take it to the boss to decide. – Oddthinking Mar 25 at 9:26
  • @RuiFRibeiro: This answer suggests being stubbornly unhelpful, and only relent if they go through the right channels. You are suggesting the first step is to escalate to one's own manager. They are quite different answers. – Oddthinking Mar 25 at 9:28
8

I would take a couple approaches at the same time:

  1. First, teach her to find her own answers. This may seem odd and "not my job" but it's a way to help others help themselves and take some of the burden off of you to fix all their problems. Ask questions like, "What did you find when you googled that error message?", "Have you googled how to configure X?", etc. Given time, that will train others that you expect that before they ask you a question, they will do at least some initial research and won't receive help from you until they do.
  2. Second, put the responsibility back on her and explain (briefly) why.

    When I helped you before, I had hoped to offer a few quick tips to get you unstuck. I'm sorry I can't be more help but I haven't been tasked by my manager to help with your project and don't have more time to spend on it without my manager's approval.

At this point I think you can go a few ways, you can 1. approach your manager to ask for time to help, 2. put it back on her to ask your manager if you can help her, or 3. just leave it there.

If she persists, talk to your manager. Explain your initial attempts to help but that you don't have the kind of time to spend on a regular, ongoing basis to help her. That said... be prepared for your manager to say to help her. In that case I would stick to #1 but help after a reasonable effort has been put into finding a solution.

  • +1 for having a manager decide how much time to invest in helping her. There's always a chance that the work she's doing actually is more important than what you're doing and it's in the company's best interest for you to drop what you're doing and help her see her task through to completion. But because that affects your ability to deliver on your commitments, that's a decision your manager needs to make. – aleppke Mar 22 at 20:18
  • +1 for 1., teaching someone to fish, etc. In this way, you provide help, but they have to take responsibility and complete the task, not you. Even if the question is What is 2 + 2? – Peter Mortensen Mar 25 at 12:42
8

This is a case where corporate bureaucracy can be your friend.

Them: How do I check if a file exists?

You: Great question. If you need our team's input, create a Task in Company Task App so my manager can put it in my queue. Thanks!

  • 3
    This is perfect. You can also have a team secret flag like "High priority" which the teams reads as "Don't worry about this", but keeps the other team from bugging you because they think you are doing your best to work on it. – aidan.plenert.macdonald Mar 22 at 21:19
  • I literally laughed when I read this. Noice! – Mugen Mar 23 at 4:53
  • But don't call it a "great question" when it isn't – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 24 at 18:38
  • Yes, but don't overload the work queue with a string of trivial tasks that will chew up more of other people's time than they would of yours if you just helped out. – Matthew Barber Mar 27 at 0:05
3

At the end she says "I'm going to bug you again tomorrow".

Response:

Actually I'm going to be pretty busy tomorrow. I've been happy to help out so far but maybe you should talk to $Boss about getting some more assistance? I kinda need to focus on my own work now! Sorry…

This is deliberately tailored for the scenario you describe, and I wouldn't use it except that they've started bugging you frequently, with evidence that they've stopped really bothering to try to solve things on their own (right down to the declarative, and frankly entitled nature of their parting line). It's fine to be firm and to push back. And if that feels unfair, just remind yourself that you're also helping them in the long run.

I'd also casually mention what's been going on to your own manager, not by way of complaining, but by way of laying the groundwork in case the colleague doesn't stop and you have to bring in the heavy guns later on. Though this suggestion depends: if my manager were trigger-happy and I got the impression this might get the colleague into trouble or otherwise cause more of a reaction than necessary, I'd consider just keeping it to myself for the time being. After all, you don't have to report every workplace conversation to your manager, until it's genuinely become a problem.

1

I faced the quite same situation, and I'd like to share how I get out of it.

At first, I got asked for questions from time to time. Later, I became the "automatic" question solver man. Since this situation installed gradually, I started gradually pushing it back:

Step 1: Delay my (too many) answers

  • "I can't check with you now, but you can get back later. Can you please come back at ...?"
  • "I may have a solution... I'll get back to you later."
  • "Can you please send me an email with details X and Y. I'll reply back."

Step 2: Re-orient towards another problem solver

  • "The document 'XXX' has exactly your answer. Check page 7..."
  • "Let's check together. This web search engine spits out quite interesting links. What about you checking this result or this other one?"
  • "I'm sorry. Please see with person Z (or service Z). They know this subject better than me."

Step 3: Give a clear push back (to the insisting askers)

  • "I don't know."
  • "I don't have a clue."
  • Check your head quickly from left to right as "no-no".

This last action gets the last insisting askers out.

  • 2
    The last action, while good, does not work unless you're face to face. – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 24 at 18:43
  • Thanks for sharing this. I use the delay method but I find the re-orient one tougher to implement because half the time they usually mention how much time going through the document is going to cost them and request that I explain it to them because it will only take me 5 mins max. – Mugen Mar 25 at 6:35
  • @Mugen "CTRL+F" is their friend. Show them how to go through the (potentially huge) document fast. Bookmarks (either physical or in browser) can help them. If the document is read on screen, virtual print (pdf creator) the interesting parts... – Stephan Mar 25 at 7:00
  • How about simply linking them: stackoverflow.com/help/how-to-ask and or whathaveyoutried.com if they don't get the first hint? When I become the de-facto problem solver for someone, I start doing that. Don't mind helping people, unless they haven't done anything to solve it themselves. – rkeet Mar 25 at 11:33
  • Re "Check your head quickly from left to right as 'no-no'": This is not true in all parts of the world. In some it has the opposite meaning (literally). – Peter Mortensen Mar 25 at 13:09
0

You have indicated that multiple people on another team have been floundering for days on a problem and that you could, in a day, resolve their setup issue.

The right thing to do is to help them. It will, eventually, unlock their productivity and help your organization as a whole.

That said, yes, I agree it was not right for them to take an entitled attitude with you, and they should NOT expect unlimited ad-hoc help from you whenever they request it.

I totally disagree, however, with some other other answers and comments that each team has their work and that you should "cut them off". The proper thing to do, is to put a structure and limits on your labor to help them. This may mean management needs to be involved and that both you and the other team need to formalize the arrangement.

I know folks on Stack Exchange sites like the Stack Overflow philosophy that dismisses questioning and knowledge-seeking without some very high standard of prior-proof-of-work demanded of the asker. But that's not how workplaces actually function.

You're paid, they're paid, and the organization needs work done. If you refuse helping them and it is later discovered that they burned months of time doing something that you could have helped clear up in hours, that will reflect badly upon you more than them.

  • 1
    "If you refuse helping them and it is later discovered that they burned months of time doing something that you could have helped clear up in hours, that will reflect badly upon you more than them." No it will NOT be judged that way. This answer is invalidating, it completely negates my feelings, it ignores what was asked in the question and I find it to be along the lines of "flying monkeys" speaking. It adds to the abuse that I explained in my original post. – Mugen Mar 25 at 7:52
  • @Mugen, sorry that mine wasn't the answer you wanted, but the main "what to do" aspect is the same as the accepted answer. The difference is that in the last paragraph I have explained the rationale for why the organization could want you to assist the other team. For people who are responsible for the success of the business as a whole, it is an unacceptable to have one department flounder simply because having another department help them out is "not their job". If you don't understand that, that's OK, just do what your boss says. – teego1967 Mar 25 at 10:07
  • I haven't heard of such selfless acts of helping from other companies in my country, less alone having seen them in offices. However, I have read about such great co-operation between teams being present in Japan. – Mugen Mar 25 at 13:54
-2

All of the above answers have been a "hold the high ground," but for someone who demands your help and gives nothing back, they will have a higher chance of eventually taking credit for your work too. The best outcome is for them to leave the company or group.

Approach 1 - Their Boss Gets Mad

The passive aggressive, highly competitive response is to provide answers that are wrong, unproductive, or will make them look stupid. If they are thinking about the problem and call you out on it right there, then treat them to an overpriced coffee[1] and talk about help being a two-way street.

If they blindly take your deliberately bad advice, because they are in over their head only to fail, they will cast the blame on you for sabotaging them. If it's known that you have helped in the past, they will still blame you for their failure. If possible, you need to deny ever providing any substantial help at all, because you have clear direction to focus on your task, even though this may be a lie.

Approach 2 - Your Boss Gets Mad

Alternatively, you can start to tell your boss that they have been trying to sabotage your work because you refuse to sacrifice your project schedule. This is lying, but moves the focus back to the other employee. It also gives you a chance to be creative at work.

Discussion

Both cases assume that management on both sides lacks the backbone to resolve this problem, a situation I see frequently.

I don't personally have the stomach for either approach as it goes against my ethos, but book and TV script authors[2] seem to think that these things work. I would probably end up complaining to HR that this individual is creating a hostile work environment. A competent HR manager should recognize as a threat of lawsuit brewing and work down through senior management.

But narcissistic and belligerent people can be unwilling to change and must ultimately be evicted; make them cost the company money or embarrassment if management lacks the courage to do the right thing early.

Or, you can read Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People". Learn. Apply.

[1.] This is a psychology trick to incur a social debt which can simply be repaid by the individual learning to be grateful. When they learn to show gratitude, another psychology trick kicks in and they will learn to respect your time.
[2.] The TV show Billions comes to mind.

  • 3
    "I would probably end up complaining to HR that this individual is creating a hostile work environment. A competent HR manager should recognize as a threat of lawsuit brewing and work down through senior management." This is way overkill, zerolagtime. If anything, it's actions like this that provoke a hostile work environment. – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 24 at 18:44

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