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Suppose that I have a coworker, Bob, who is a manager. I am a new hire, still low on the totem-pole. But if said manager, who isn't my manager, emails me about some work that he'd like me to do, how do I handle it?

Assume that it is not work my boss assigned to me, or even suggested. (i.e. maybe it's Bob's own pet-project) Should I just ignore the message?

Or should I say "Yes great idea! I'll do my best" and leave it at that?

  • 6
    You should only do what you are told to do by your manager. If you are being asked for favors, then ask them to request your assitance through your manager, even better ask your manager what THEY want you to do. – Ramhound Jul 30 '12 at 14:33
  • i think you should first check out your time table, if you can manage that job in your time table then you should go for it and it will help you enhance your knowledge. – Sharandeep Kaur Jul 31 '12 at 12:03
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    Of course you should reply! Is the question seriously asking if one should consider ignoring the email request?? – Angelo Sep 10 '12 at 17:04
  • Forward the emails to your boss and ask him/her to prioritize the requests for you. Ask your boss if you should cc the requester when forwarding. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jan 14 '14 at 13:26
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    The email might not be intended for you. It's worth knowing who in the company has a similar name to yours or comes just before / after you in the email list and where they work. If you are Joe Smith and Joey Smythe works for Bob, then any emails like that might be meant for the other guy. – gnasher729 May 30 '15 at 14:50
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+50

Assuming it is not trivial (if it's 5 minutes of work, it's likely easier to just do it as a courtesy), there should be a process in your company for assigning and prioritizing work. And that process almost certainly does not involve random managers picking a random employee and assigning work to that employee.

If there isn't a project management system in place to give employees a queue of tasks to work on, the easiest option is to forward the email to your manager and ask your manager how he or she would like you to handle it. Something along the lines of

Manager's Name,

Bob just sent me a request to work on X. I estimate that it will take me 2 days to do X. As you know, I'm currently working on Y and Z. Would you like me to jump on X and delay the delivery of Y and Z by 2 days? Would you like me to work on X after Y and Z are complete? Or should I have Bob talk with you about prioritizing X.

Thanks,

Adel

This makes your manager aware of the request and lets him or her handle the important managerial task of prioritizing work.

  • 8
    I would probably leave off the Or should I have Bob talk with you about prioritizing X? as it might come off wrong. While it seems innocent, email (well text in general) make it difficult to tell whether this is a genuine question, or if it is just being sarcastic. If the boss doesn't want you to work on the task, he will reply telling you so. If he wants to talk to Bob about going through him, he will do that and it will not look like you instigated it. Otherwise great answer though. – Jacob Schoen Jul 30 '12 at 0:12
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    +1 great answer. Yes, I would rephrase the last bit to "Or do you want to talk to Bob about it". It sounds better and more respectful of his/her authority. – Michael Durrant Jul 30 '12 at 0:27
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    In addition to what you've suggested, I also like letting Bob know an approximate estimate and the best way to get this work in line with other things you're working on -- "Bob, this will take about [time] and the best way to get it to happen will be to talk to [manager]. I'll forward your request on to him/her. Feel free to follow-up with either of us." – Nicole Jul 30 '12 at 2:50
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    Unless you have been offered to Bob as an on-call resource, there's a reason he's not asking your manager for help. Maybe he doesn't know who your manager is, maybe he's trying to "expedite" a change that needs to follow normal processes. Either way, you need to bring your manager into the loop. This can become a huge timesink if you get a reputation as the back-door fixer. It seems like job security but it turns out as more of a prison. – lonstar Jul 30 '12 at 5:12
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    +1, I would add that keeping a fair and positive demeanor whether you take-on the work or not, can help you in the future if you ever need something from the person who asked! Out-of-band requests/favors are a fact of life in any large organization. – Angelo Jul 30 '12 at 12:46
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Should I just ignore the message?

Absolutely not! It is unprofessional to ignore the message. Overall, I agree with Justin's advice.

  1. If it is a very short task just do it. (I would say 15 minutes or less because you can easily spend that long discussing priorities)
  2. If it is a longer task, ask your boss. However, if your boss is on vacation or too busy to get back to you within a business day, email Bob back to let him know you asked your boss what to do. This lets him to know he isn't being ignored. I usually kill two birds with one stone and cc Bob on my email to the boss.
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    Great point about time lost talking about it instead of just doing it. I have been in a position where I (as a developer) knew enough about our software product that I was frequently asked by customer support, marketing, product managers or designers for help with something. I usually just fit this in if it was 30 minutes or less. I could be wrong, but I think this is one of the best ways to show you care about the greater company's goals and not just your department or your own personal job. – Nicole Jul 29 '12 at 22:39
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    Not only that, but you should add that the op didn't simply ignore the request: "Yes great idea! I'll do my best". This is an outright lie, and while Bob thinks you've got it under control, in reality Bob may end up with a problem later if he promised others the work would be done because he thought the op was an honest person true to his/her word. – jmort253 Jul 30 '12 at 1:30
  • Note that a lot of very short tasks adds up. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jan 14 '14 at 13:27
  • +1 for "cc Bob on my email to the boss." missed that one in Justin's answer – Herr_Schwabullek Jan 27 '16 at 13:11
17

Rule #1: Don't lie!

Please don't lie to a coworker (or another manager, etc):

"Yes great idea! I'll do my best"

This doesn't build trust between you and others, and it will actually make you look bad when others learn not to trust you or take you for your word. If you told me you'd take care of something, I feel I should reasonably trust that the work will either get done, or you would come back to me and explain that you're not able to help. This applies whether or not I'm your manager or your peer.

Depends on Corporate Culture:

What you should say and do really depends on your corporate culture. In some environments, where departments are completely separate, it would be bad form for Bob to assign work to another department's employee, but since you didn't say what kind of environment you work in, let's assume that you're part of a somewhat flatter structure (but might not know it yet), and "Bob" is just doing what's considered normal.

Where I work, our structure is relatively flat, and most people work within self-directed teams in order to accomplish specific goals. Thus, it's not surprising to see a sales manager ask a developer if she can jump in on a sales call to explain a technical concept to a client, or for that same developer to look into a bug that the sales manager reported. Likewise, it's not out of the ordinary for a client services technician to step away for an hour to help with an in-house promotional video for another department.

What you could say:

The key is that our own work comes first. We have deadlines, and if there's time, we help in other areas for the greater good of the company. If we don't have time due to a deadline, we might say something like this:

Hi Bob, I can maybe look into that for you, but Larry needs me to get that project charter completed and ready for review by tomorrow afternoon. Is this something that can wait until then? If not, why don't you ask Sally? She has experience with that and might be able to help.

In short, don't be afraid to say no, but be sure you don't drop the ball. Instead, pass it back to "Bob" with some suggestions on who to turn to. However, if "Bob" pushes back, then you could try this:

Okay Bob, let me talk to Larry and explain the situation. I'll see if we can either push back the project charter deadline or see if Frank is available. I know Frank can handle this if necessary.

This works really well in our organization, and it should also work in structures that aren't so flat as well. The key is to be honest, be respectful, and if there really is a problem, contact your direct supervisor for clarification.

Lastly, before applying these techniques (or any other techniques from other answers here) I strongly advise you to discuss the proper behavior with your manager. Corporate cultural norms can vary widely from organization to organization, and this is just meant as a guideline or a means of getting started. For instance, in the US Army, an Army Private telling a Sergeant that he/she is busy may not be acceptable, whereas it may be more acceptable for a developer at a medium sized business as part of a Scrum team to tell a marketing manager that he is working on a critical deadline that's behind schedule.

Either way, in most organizations, it doesn't hurt to be honest and ask for clarifications. If in doubt, ask your manager. Good luck!

4

I would reply to it saying that youre currently working on something for :insert your manager's name here: and that if Bob wants you to work on this, he'll need to go through :insert your manager's name here:

This way, you're putting the request out into a non-private medium, and keeping your actual boss informed. It's possible that neither your boss or yourself will want you working on Bob's projects, but the difference is that your boss has the authority to refuse the request without risk.

Obvious exceptions exist, such as if the CEO/CTO asks you to do something, you send an email to/call your manager and let them know, as you start the work.

4

Mail is not 100% reliable, and even mail that is received is not necessarily read. As a general prinicple, all legitimate email that requires some action on your part should be answered.

You should acknowledge receipt of the email, when doing so Cc your manager. Your acknowledgement should not indicate that you will do whatever is wanted, but that you will be checking with your manager to see what you should be doing.

This establishes that you received it, that you read and understand it, that you aren't ignoring the issue, and most importantly, it gets it into the hands of the person that should be deciding whether or not you do some particular task.

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