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I took my present position while in the process of recovering from a brain injury/stroke.

My position is well below my abilities but I took it because I needed a low stress environment, and stayed because I like the place and the people.

My problem came in after we were purchased and went through, duties shifted, and I had to take on more work. No problem, I'm recovered and can take on more.

The problem emerged when a coworker, who had been with the company 15 years longer than I, noticed that I have much more knowledge and skill than she thought.

Now, I have someone far more senior than I constantly asking me for advice on how to do HER job, asking me for technical solutions to her problems, and asking me about how to write her documents. The worst part is that I have to repeat myself five times for the point to sink in. Other coworkers hear me raising my voice when I get frustrated with her, and it's making her look bad. Edited to add: Yes, her, not me. People are familiar with the frustrations I've outlined. I rarely raise my voice, and people have asked me what she did.

She sits near me at work, with the COVID plans, she's the closest one to me. She will also call me when she is working from home and is a terrible gossip.

How to I tell my coworker to back off in a professional manner"

UPDATE

I ended up escalating this to my boss. It turns out that this had been an ongoing problem with multiple complaints. My coworker has been let go.

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  • 5
    You should be answering this question sir, not asking this. :) Sep 21 '20 at 13:32
  • 1
    @SouravGhosh We all at some point lose patience. Anyway, any chance of agreeing on a given time slot for her to pick your brain, perhaps with an agenda? Then at least you know when this happens and can mentally prepare for this. Sep 21 '20 at 13:38
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    @guest No, it is not, it is a business environment, a business question, and it is bad form to try to poach questions for other stacks Sep 21 '20 at 14:04
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    @guest ALL workplace questions deal with interactions, and I am not asking an interpersonal question, I am asking a professional question. Sep 21 '20 at 14:33
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    "..constantly asking me for advice on how to do HER job, asking me for technical solutions to her problems, and asking me about how to write her documents." Do you tie her shoes too? There's nothing wrong with helping each other out or asking for advice/opinion every now and then, but constantly being asked to do someone elses work is crossing a line imo - Ask her for half her paycheck next time and see how she reacts.. ;)
    – iLuvLogix
    Nov 9 '20 at 11:01
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+200

I'll take the contrary answer: this is not up to you in the slightest bit.

Your question is basically, "How do I stop doing tasks X, Y, and Z for this coworker?" Uh, no. That's not up to you.

It's your boss's job to indicate priorities to you.

In other words, you shouldn't be asking us How to stop doing thse tasks. You should be telling your boss that you Are doing those tasks, and ask if they want you to continue doing so. And when you and your boss talk, it should be a regular briefing point. After all, it's part of what you're doing each day (this isn't a good thing or a bad thing; it's just what-is.) If you're spending 2 hours each day doing something, your boss should know about it.

Maybe your boss will say, "That's great - I want you to keep helping them." In which case, yes - part of your job is keeping them upright. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if it's an acknowledged part of your job duties.

Or maybe the boss will say, "Wait, you're spending 2 hours each day helping X out? No, I need you working on the Floobar project. From now on, if X needs help, send them to me."

TL;DR - it's not up to you to simply do. It's up to your boss to indicate whether it should be done, and they'll indicate how you should proceed.

1
  • That's what I ended up doing. Best answer + bonus Nov 10 '20 at 20:40
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  1. Make yourself less available. Do this however you need to, be it sitting with a headset on, pretending to be on a call, booking out a meeting room where you can sit quietly by yourself and work, or even moving desks. When she wheel's over, tell her you're in the middle of something and you'll be over when you've finished. If you're working from home, maybe you're away from your desk when she calls? Maybe you're on a call with another colleague? Maybe you're having internet issues and the call keeps cutting off? (Yes, these are sneakier suggestions, but sometimes that's what you need).

  2. Answer questions with questions. How do I do this? -> How have you done it in the past? Has that worked? If not, why not? What do you think you should do? Have you tried Googling / Stack Overflowing it? (I think I just made up a new verb)

  3. Increase her confidence in her own abilities. This may not be appropriate if she really is terrible at her job, but people tend to ask others for help if they're not confident that they know the answer or can't work out the answer by themselves. Praise her for things she does well, when you explain something, get her to explain it back to you in her own words so you know she understands (then make yourself unavailable).

I've been on both sides of this. I've been the person completely lost in what I'm doing and needing to constantly interrupt others for help, annoying them by asking for help. I fully appreciate how scary and distressing it is when you're suffering badly from imposter syndrome, and how comforting it is to be able to ask someone for help, at its worst it feels like finding a tree branch to hang on to when you're drowning.

I've also been the "expert" (ha!), being constantly asked for help and advice and finding that I'm getting frustrated because my own work is suffering, or I've been trying to listen to the same music track while writing code for the past 4 hours, and people keep interrupting me.

If you can, try and look at this as a mentoring opportunity. You can help teach someone to be better at her role by sharing your knowledge, and hopefully she'll not only improve herself, but will be able to answer other people's questions as well.

6

How to I tell my coworker to back off in a professional manner"

  1. Never raise your voice.
  2. Tell her that because you are recovering from your injury you need to take fewer questions and she can help you by:
  • a.) Do as much research on her own before asking a question.
  • b.) Take notes when you give an answer so you don't have to repeat yourself.
  • c.) Don't ask questions after business hours.
  • d.) Ask less experienced people before asking you.
  1. Prioritize your answers to her the same way you prioritize work. If a question she asked is low priority for you then don't answer right away. Tell her you have XYZ that needs to be worked on but you'll get around to her question when you're free. It's not your fault if you need 5 days or 2 weeks to get around to a question. This may motivate her to do a. and d. more often.

  2. Don't participate in office gossip. If she starts trying to gossip just change the topic & pretend you didn't hear anything she said. She'll get the message.

  3. Stop taking phone calls when you're at home. Maybe tell her to only call you for a real emergency & define what that means to you.

4

Now, I have someone far more senior than I constantly asking me for advice on how to do HER job, asking me for technical solutions to her problems, and asking me about how to write her documents.

It's worth taking a step back and acknowledging that to an extent, recognizing and leveraging the capabilities of other employees is exactly how higher level employees are expected to accomplish what the company needs. Doing it all oneself is not scalable, so the higher someone rises in an organization, the more they are expected to delegate and utilize the expertise available around them.

That said, being a resource for this person doesn't sound like something you are enjoying ("The worst part is that I have to repeat myself five times for the point to sink in") and it may not be as well aligned with your official job duties as it is a fit with how this person believes they are supposed to accomplish their job.

In effect, it sounds like you're now practically performing a lot of a different, higher tier role. So in terms of how a business ordinarily functions, the solution would be to work towards being formally promoted into the role you are actually accomplishing.

If that's not a role you desire to have, things may be more challenging - many hierarchical organizations simply aren't equipped to recognize an individual who wants to stay exactly where they are, and that can sometimes be an unrecoverable weakness.

Assuming the person delegating to you is not your manager (or manager's manger, etc), if you wish to simply stay in the present role and be less interrupted by these requests, you may need to seek your manager's help in communicating to this person that you have your own job to do, which needs to be the focus of your time. In a really extreme case, that could need to be formalized as the person having to ask your manager for some of your time to help with their issue; but most workplaces can come to informal understandings for simpler situations.

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Would it help to encourage her to put any questions in writing - such as email?

That way you can respond by the same route. You get longer to think about it, and do defer responding if you're busy. And it may also stop her needing to ask the same question again.

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  • This is assuming the recipients treat email as a slower, asynchronous communication method. Lots of people will expect email responses quickly, and this person's troublesome colleague is in close proximity. Very few things are more irritating that having someone call/pop by to ask if you saw their email yet.
    – dfundako
    Sep 21 '20 at 16:37
  • But once written in a mail, she can go back and read it as many times as she needs
    – Akabelle
    Nov 9 '20 at 12:14
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I think there are 2 parts to this: How to handle a colleague who is overusing you for your knowledge and skills, and how to handle a colleague who is bugging you. The 2 definitely can overlap and have similarities.

It is a great thing when colleagues use each other to build up ideas, poke holes in theories, share best practices, etc. However, it can quickly become a nuisance when someone CONSTANTLY asks for help and doesn't seem to put in the legwork on their own. For this situation, I usually just ask lots of questions and put all the work/responsibility back on them.

Colleague: Hey, I was wondering if you could help me with project XYZ.

Me: Sure, what's up?

C: I'm really not sure where to start, can you give me a hand?

M: Sorry, I'm really busy on things that I have going on right now, and you know this project better than me. I'd be happy to review specifics with you, but I don't have the bandwidth right now to take on reviewing this from scratch. Can you get started and book some time with me when you are ready to review specifics or do a code review?

Then, when you meet for specifics, directly ask them to take notes.

M: Thanks for booking time to discuss project XYZ. Let's get started. Since you're leading this meeting, would you please keep notes on what we discuss in case we need to review later?

C: Sure, sounds good. Here are the 2 things I came up with. What do you think?

M: I'm going to ask you that same question. What do you think about these two solutions? Is one better than the other? Why did you come up with two? Does one solve something the other doesn't? Where are the shortcomings of each of these?

This puts the work back where it belongs: On your colleague. They are then forced to answer their own questions and if they say they do not know, you can again ask them to go work on it and book time with you when they are ready to review the answers. This isn't mean or dismissive or unprofessional in my opinion. It is an amazingly valuable skill to be able to review options and judge which is better to pursue by critically evaluating each.

This also gives you the opportunity to reply when they ask for help multiple times about the same thing:

"I think we already discussed this. Can you review the notes you took during the project review to see if it applies?"

As for the gossip, you just gotta nip that one and shut it down:

C: Did you hear Bob is a flat earther and believes our executive tier is run by the lizard people?!

M: No I didn't. That's bizarre. Sorry, but one of the lizard people requested a report and I need to get it done ASAP. I really can't talk right now.

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So, first things first I reckon, raising one's voice at a coworker will almost never make the victim of the verbal abuse look bad. It will only look poorly upon the person doing the yelling, even if they are "in the right" (debatable).

So, if I've read this correctly:

  • You took a job that was below your skill level.
  • Your duties have increased somewhat from that time due to a takeover.
  • At the new place, a coworker with more time with the company has discovered the first point, and recognizes you for your skills (and knowing your answer history, you're not shy telling people about it)
  • This person is coming to you for help with key aspects of their job
  • This person likes to gossip with you
  • This person is not "far more senior" than you, they've just been there longer

You can do a lot of things, some will probably fly more easily than others.

The gossip is the easiest one to manage, and that's just to nod disinterestedly and think about whatever you were doing before the gossip hit. You can also file away whatever information they talk about in case it's useful later. Peeps who gossip are literally giving you free social points. They like you because you "listen", you get information (quality of said information can be dubious), and you only have to endure 5 minutes or so of it at a time before you can say "welp, I'd love to continue, but I've gotta get back to the grind. Talk to you later!"

As for getting them to stop coming to you for answers, stop having them. You took a job that you say is below your skill level, start acting like it's at your skill level. I reckon that you can't help yourself though, so maybe this won't be the move for you.

One that might be more your style is that you just be direct like you've suggested in previous answers. Throw a little sugar in there like you enjoy helping them, but it's ending up taking up too much of your time that you need to use to do your tasks.

They might be worried that since they know that you're so far above where they are, and you're clearly exasperated with them, and you're willing to yell at them in the workplace, that if they don't do things "up to your standard" or don't get it "pre-approved" by you before it's submitted, you'll cause more trouble or embarrassment for them. I've seen it happen before, and the results aren't pretty.

I mean, what is the desired outcome? What would you do if you find things that you don't like in the work they do? What is your own attitude towards their work like? The line

The worst part is that I have to repeat myself five times for the point to sink in

has me worried that you've caused an air of superiority around you. Are you really having to repeat yourself so frequently for something to click? Are these simple concepts, or complex ones? Would a normal person expect someone of their age/background to be able to grasp these things as quickly as you expect?

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  • I'm not the only one that has to repeat myself. It's a common complaint about her Nov 9 '20 at 12:10
  • Thanks for the last part. No, it's her, and it has been commented on that she should know these things, and SHE is the one coming accross as having the superiority complex, as she won't listen to subject matter experts. Nov 10 '20 at 16:37
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it's making her look bad.

No.

It's making YOU look bad.

When strolling the office, minding my own business, hearing someone raise their voice ALWAYS makes me want to leave for another job. What kind of workplace allows such behavior? I don't care how you feel, you don't raise your voice, not at me, and not at anyone else, because today it's you and her, tomorrow it's my manager and I.

Do not raise your voice. Ever.

raising your voice can never be done

in a professional manner


Having said that, here's how I see what you can try:

You didn't say how competent she is. Does she behave like this because she is incompetent, or because she is lazy, or because that's just the way she is or because she thinks it's a way to make friends with you?

I think it is important to see where she is coming from to tackle this.

I like to assume incompetence over evil whenever possible, so let's assume for a second she really can use your help.
Do not do her job for her. Instead, let her understand that asking you all the time is unprofessional, and offer to teach her how to do what she needs to get done, rather than just doing it for her. Doing it for her will reinforce her neediness. Teaching her, will either allow her to be free of you, or at least discourage her, as learning things is harder than just coming to the well of solutions which is you.

If you don't want to teach her, you can always just tell her. Or the boss.
I personally would talk to her, and state that I am busy right now, and if she is still stuck in X time, I will be happy to help.

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