Maintaining Workplace Relationships: "That's Not My Job"
Updated: Mar 16
I was hired to be a senior-level marketing director for a fast-growing company. I replaced a young woman who worked as a marketing coordinator. She did a great job, but the company decided they needed someone more experienced in the position.
After a month or two, I realized that the woman I replaced was helping several of my coworkers with various small tasks and I guess the company did not properly explain that I would not be fulfilling those same “entry-level” tasks. One of my coworkers, in particular, sends constant busywork my way. He is not my boss or superior in any way. We are equals; however, he was superior to my predecessor. I’ve tried to explain that I’ve taken on larger projects than my predecessor and do not have the time to help him, but he continues to push me. Do you have any advice on how to respectfully decline his requests?
The scene you describe is not atypical when a more senior person replaces a junior person and the job description changes, even if only unofficially. Of course, in this case, the change in responsibilities was official. In all of this, of course, you want to do what you can to facilitate or maintain a decent working relationship.
Although it’s annoying and even disrespectful of him to continue to ask you to do work, not in your job description, we don’t know why he’s doing it. This is a situation in which asking questions, and being genuinely curious and open to the answers, may help stop his trying to push work on you and also create a sense of "team-ness" between the two of you. In essence, they require you to put on your coaching hat to determine—and address--the deeper request that underlies his surface request. (I used the term request because he’s asking for your help, even if it’s not framed as a question.)
Here are some examples of the kinds of questions that might help:
· Is it an organizational issue of unrealistic expectations of your colleague?: “I have my own work to do so I can’t. But I can appreciate that you got used to my predecessor being able to help you out, and it must be frustrating not to have that ‘extra pair of hands’ anymore, given my position is different than hers was. Is your workload more than you can actually do? (If the answer is yes, ask whether he’s talked to his boss about this. In other words, your question focuses on whether his workload is too much for him.)
· Is there an issue with his job responsibilities? If your colleague says the problem isn’t his workload, what is the problem or issue? “As I’ve mentioned before, I have my own work to do, but did you want my opinion or advice about something?” (In essence, you’re trying to get him to take responsibility for why he’s trying to push the work on you. Either he doesn’t have the time/bandwidth/skills to do it, or there’s another reason that you don’t yet know. Maybe he’s really asking for some other type of help.)
· Given you don’t have the time to do the work he’s asking you to do, are there other ways you can help? “Sorry I can’t help with that. That’s what I’ll need to keep saying, given my plate is full of my own work. Should we find some time to talk about how I might help in some other way?” (Note that by saying he’s been asking for your help—which is what he’s been doing—you’re naming the actual issue--but softening it by offering to help in some other way.)
· Say you’ll need to loop in other people to confirm you should actually do the work. “My plate is already full. I’ll need to check with my boss to see whether I should put my work aside to help you with yours. Should I do that?” By framing this as a question, you’re letting him know you’re prepared to escalate it if he pushes, but that he needs to be the one to decide whether you escalate it. If he understands that he’s being inappropriate in asking you, he should say ‘no.’ If he says ‘yes’ or keeps asking you to do his work, it suggests he doesn’t understand what your role is and how it’s different that of the marketing coordinator, in which case it may be a good idea to make your boss aware of the issue. If you decide to do that, you can always say to him “I notice that you’ve asked for my help a bunch of times, even though I’ve explained how my role is different than that of the marketing coordinator. I think I should talk to my boss to help us both understand job responsibilities so that moving forward we are clear. What do you think?” (I made this a question because the hope is that he gets the message and backs off, but there will be some people who won’t get the message, and you’ll need to make it a statement, not a question. )
Reminder: Try to keep an open and curious frame when talking to him about this. We don’t know what he’s thinking and how he sees the situation.
Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.