When is it OK to refuse another manager's request?

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Question: “A new manager joined our department last year. She has two assistants to help her on daily work and administration. But she repeatedly turns to me and asks for my help. I am her boss's assistant. I told my boss who explained to her that it’s not in my job description to assist her. Usually, she will stop ordering me around for a month and then she starts asking for my help again. Recently, in front of my boss and her two assistants, she asked me to order the office supplies for her during an administrative meeting. I did not totally turn her down because I don't want to hurt our working relationship. My boss is quite upset. How do I tactfully refuse her request and ensure it doesn’t continue?” — Jenny


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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Fixer May 18, 2009 at 9:37 am

As a “boss”, I think that this issue is garnering more attention than it should. I would expect an administrative professional to demonstrate that professionalism by accepting the request and working with that manager’s primary administrative assistants after the meeting to accomplish the task. Be a leader and true professional. Use all of that energy that is being channeled into saying “no” to accomplish the task at hand (which sounds pretty minor as described).

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Genevieve April 14, 2009 at 11:24 am

I agree with some of the suggestions, but you must be careful how you word things. I would reply that I am very busy with projects for (boss’s name), but (as CeeCee said), I will be happy to show your assistants how to do this. I would also offer to give the assistants a copy of my Procedure Manual which describes every procedure and how to accomplish it; remarking that “This way, they should be able to meet all your needs.” I would follow up with an email to her, with a cc to her assistants and my boss, restating the above.

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Rose April 14, 2009 at 10:06 am

My supervisor always tells me that if anyone asks me to help with anything outside of my duties to direct them to her. She then lets them know that I am her assistant and that I do not work for anyone else. But, if they need for me to help their assistants to learn their duties, I will help them, but then they will have to do their own work from then on.

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Irish April 10, 2009 at 3:24 pm

I agree with Dona. “The next time she asks for your help say “Sure, I’ll let ‘your assistant’s name’ know your need that” -or- “I’ll be glad to remind ‘your assistant’s name’ about that.” Then email her assistant, with a cc: to both her and your boss, and offer to help her assistant.” I disagree with other posters when they state that it is the responsibilty of your boss to remedy the situation and they do not offer you a suggestion as to how you can deal with the issue other than to wait on your boss. A huge part of being an assistant is the act of assisting not the act of placing blame and waiting for someone else to handle the situation. Also, your addressing the problem in this manner will show your boss that you continue to be a helpful and positive influence in the work place. It’s a win-win situation.

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Dee April 10, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Jenny, it sounds as if far too much time is being spent in getting the message across to this person that you work for her boss and your time is extremely limited. Your remark to her should be: If you will tell me which one of your assistants you would like to take on the responsibility of ordering your supplies, I will be happy to instruct them on the process to get that accomplished. In stating this, you are letting her know that you are offering your help and therefore not really refusing her request to order the supplies for her. Also, if the problem is that she feels both of her assistants are not competent enough to handle this task, you might suggest that she speak with someone in Human Resources about getting these two people the training they need for replacing them with people who can perform an administrative assistant’s job duties.

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Betty Brown April 10, 2009 at 1:41 pm

I think your reply is about as innapropriate as the request was. As a supervisor, if I heard your response, I would call you into my office and coach you on better responses/communication skills with upper management.

“I’m sure you’re assistants are capable of handling the job. We wouldn’t want to insult them in insinuating that they are incompetent in doing so. And, if they don’t know how, this would be a perfect opportunity for professional development so they can grow.”

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Diana April 10, 2009 at 1:40 pm

2 thoughts here:
It would have been appropriate for you to ask the assistants during this meeting if they were having issues ordering supplies. If so, then they could be addressed.

Secondly, it is obvious this manager has chosen not to support her boss’s requests to not order you around. If others were present at this meeting, it would have been appropriate to suggest that perhaps you and your manager could meet with her and her assistants after the meeting. If it was only the five of you, then you had the perfect opportunity to discuss this problem with everyone present.

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CeeCee April 7, 2009 at 5:03 pm

I’d just casually respond by saying, “I’ll be glad to show ___ & ____ (the names of her 2 assistants) how to handle that for you…”

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Jocelyn April 7, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Um…her boss who is your boss is upset and knows this is happening. It is 100% their responsibility to correct this concern, geeze, you have to have some backbone or you staff is going to walk all over you. Which is happening here, she is doing this right infront of your boss and they do nothing. How frustration is that, it would have been the opportunity for your boss to speak up and have her direct her request to her assistants vs. you!

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Anon April 6, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Jenny, if your boss is behind you there is nothing wrong in stating you will send an email or let her assistant(s) know what she needs and if they need help on how to do the job function you would schedule it in to help them learn. I would also cc my boss so he would know how often this occurs.

I would also suggest a meeting with your boss and the new department head in order to better understand who does what

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Claudia April 6, 2009 at 1:26 pm

I’ve had similar problems in the past and it was resolved when I offered to teach his assistants various duties so they could better assist him with ordering supplies, scheduling meetings, etc, and possibly help them divide their duties better. Of course, I did this in front of my supervisor. He took the hint! Good luck!

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Angie April 6, 2009 at 11:14 am

I don’t think it is your place to tell her its not your responsibility. Thats why you have a supervisor, she gets paid to supervise and she needs to take care of it.
Maybe the other 2 admins tell her they don’t know how.
You could also make up a cheat sheet for her with specific duties that you and the 2 admins do and who to contact for what.

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S Duran April 6, 2009 at 10:49 am

You should discuss the situation with your boss and suggest that you meet with this manager. Your boss should ask this manager if there is a problem with her two assistants and go on from there. Your boss needs to set the ground rules and you can then feel confident about telling the manager no or redirecting any tasks she requests back to her assistants.

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gohughes April 6, 2009 at 9:13 am

If your “boss is quite upset” he/she should put a stop to her asking you to do things that she should be directing to her assistants.

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Virginia April 6, 2009 at 8:50 am

Why not tell her you’ll do it with assistance from her AA’s so that the next time they’ll know what she desires and she won’t need your assistance.

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Lisa April 3, 2009 at 7:24 pm

I think this should be “nipped in the bud” right away. This woman has not just one, but two assistants! There’s no reason she should be asking you to do anything.

I disagree with Gloria. I like to help people whenever I can, but in this situation, if you keep saying yes, there’s no reason for her to stop asking you.

I agree with some of the other posters, that she probably thinks that you’re very good at your job, and it’s probably easier to ask you than her own two assistants. I would get together with your boss, and discuss the situation, devising a “plan of attack” for the next time she asks you to do something. I would suggest asking her if she would like your help in training her assistants, if she’s unsure of their skill level.

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Rachel April 3, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Smile and say, “I’d love to, but [your boss's name] has asked that any requests for my assistance go through him/her for approval; if you will ask him/her and he/she approves the request, then he/she will assign me the task directly.”

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Gloria April 3, 2009 at 6:02 pm

It could be that she finds you more likeable and your work more competent than her assistants. Based on what you said, her assistants know that she asked you to order the supplies. So you’re not really stepping on any toes.

Might I ask what’s stopping you from ordering the supplies? Are you that busy, you can’t take a minute and order them? Like you said, ” you don’t want to hurt your working relationship’. Besides, she’s new and needs the chance to get acclimated.

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Mark April 3, 2009 at 5:35 pm

It sounds like your boss is not very assertive. He or she should be putting a stop to this immediately.

As other have said, I would say to this person something like, “I’m sorry, but my supervisor has said that any requests would need to go through him/her first.”

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Kristie Lee April 3, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Jenny –

One of the hardest things for an admin to do is to learn how to say “no” – especially since the entire purpose of our position is to assist! They actually write books and conduct classes on teaching admin staff how to say that little two letter word! It is a hard lesson to learn – but once my admin staff can learn how to say ‘no’ and redirect the work through the proper channels – their value to the company and me (as their supervisor) quickly escalates.

In the scenario that you provided with your question “Recently, in front of my boss and her two assistants, she asked me to order the office supplies for her during an administrative meeting.” I have to agree that if this was in a larger meeting – that would not have been the appropriate place to redirect this person. I would have talked to this person after the meeting and just say something like “I just want to remind you that our boss has asked that you utilize your admin staff for these types of requests. If you need me to write out the steps/procedures/information your staff may need to complete the task, please let me know.” After the talk – follow it up with an email to the same effect and cc your boss on the email. Keep it professional and you’ll be fine.

(I would however, have a meeting with your boss about this. If they have told you specifically to not perform work for this person – and they were in the meeting – find out why your boss didn’t pipe up… or ask them if they addressed the issue with that other supervisor later on. Again – keep it professional. Make sure your boss knows that you realize that the purpose of your position is to be an assistant and you don’t mind at all helping out where/when needed – but let your boss know too that you don’t want to get in a position where you are repeatedly relied upon for something that may cause a delay to your other workload.)

Regards,

Kristie

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Amy April 3, 2009 at 5:14 pm

I am confused as to why your boss doesn’t do more to stop the behavior. If he is in charge of her, he has the power to make it stop. Even if he was caught off guard as Joyce commented, he still has the opportunity to go to her later and explain why she should not be making those requests of you. Perhaps you should use the suggestions posted to defer her, but also document each incident and take that information to him. Maybe your boss just doesn’t realize how much it is occurring and therefore, isn’t being as forceful as he needs to to make her understand.

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Jessie April 3, 2009 at 5:09 pm

I would tactfully remark that I was busy at the moment and you may want to ask one of your assistants to do this for you. I would also make sure that i was making eye contact with her.

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Ilja Kraag April 3, 2009 at 5:09 pm

I would take her out to lunch and find out why she keeps asking you for help instead of her own “two” assistants. It seems odd to me that, even when her own “boss” tells her not to ask you for help, she not only continues to do so, but even in front of her boss and her two assistants. If no logical answer is given and she keeps asking you for help, I would proceed as Donna suggests, by rerouting every request per email to her own assistants with a cc to your/her boss. It might even “up” your position to become supervisor of her two assistants.
I’m interested in getting a follow up on this situation.

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Sharon April 3, 2009 at 5:08 pm

I would pass the request on to her assistants. This happens to me at work – I’m the Office/HR Manager but the partners ask me to do things that their assistants (who I supervise) should be doing. So, I’ll send an e-mail and say “Will you do such-and-such for your partner?” If I know the assistant is busy, then I’ll take care of it if I’m able, but otherwise, I have my own job to do and doing their tasks isn’t part of it.

Not knowing all the details of the hierarchy of your office, I’m not sure why your boss (who is also her boss) is upset. Is that because he/she feels like they can’t control their subordinate? I really think that as long as your boss will back you up, then just sending the work right back to her assistants is the way to go – learning how to delegate is an awesome skill. Maybe she asks you because she thinks you’re better than her assistants and what better way to change that perception than to have her own assistants doing the tasks she wants done?

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Joyce April 3, 2009 at 5:03 pm

I’ve actually asked people to please put their request through my boss so my boss knows why his work may be delayed and/or what I am working on, since he does my review. Very rarely does anyone take that next step. You could also say “I’m sure you’re assistants are capable of handling the job. We wouldn’t want to insult them in insinuating that they are incompetent in doing so. And, if they don’t know how, this would be a perfect opportunity for professional development so they can grow.” If it happened in front of your boss, I’m surprised he didn’t jump in and say you were not available and her assistants should handle it. He was probably caught off guard. You and your boss should put your heads together and discuss a game plan so you can back each other up and aren’t caught off guard like this again. He might put in her next evaluation, “need to work on utilizing and communicating with her staff better.”

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Joyce April 3, 2009 at 5:03 pm

I’ve actually asked people to please put their request through my boss so my boss knows why his work may be delayed and/or what I am working on, since he does my review. Very rarely does anyone take that next step. You could also say “I’m sure you’re assistants are capable of handling the job. We wouldn’t want to insult them in insinuating that they are incompetent in doing so. And, if they don’t know how, this would be a perfect opportunity for professional development so they can grow.” If it happened in front of your boss, I’m surprised he didn’t jump in and say you were not available and her assistants should handle it. He was probably caught off guard. You and your boss should put your heads together and discuss a game plan so you can back each other up and aren’t caught off guard like this again. He might put in her next evaluation, “need to work on utilizing and communicating with her staff better.”

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Joyce April 3, 2009 at 5:03 pm

I’ve actually asked people to please put their request through my boss so my boss knows why his work may be delayed and/or what I am working on, since he does my review. Very rarely does anyone take that next step. You could also say “I’m sure you’re assistants are capable of handling the job. We wouldn’t want to insult them in insinuating that they are incompetent in doing so. And, if they don’t know how, this would be a perfect opportunity for professional development so they can grow.” If it happened in front of your boss, I’m surprised he didn’t jump in and say you were not available and her assistants should handle it. He was probably caught off guard. You and your boss should put your heads together and discuss a game plan so you can back each other up and aren’t caught off guard like this again. He might put in her next evaluation, “need to work on utilizing and communicating with her staff better.”

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Lisa April 3, 2009 at 4:57 pm

I would tell her your supervisor keeps you very busy and ask her to ask your supervisor for time for you to do her tasks. From the way it sounds, she may not want to ask your supervisor and delegate more to her own assistants.

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Dona April 3, 2009 at 4:55 pm

The next time she asks for your help say “Sure, I’ll let ‘your assistant’s name’ know your need that” -or- “I’ll be glad to remind ‘your assistant’s name’ about that.” Then email her assistant, with cc: to both her and your boss, and offer to help her assistant if she needs to know how to do something.

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Colette April 3, 2009 at 4:54 pm

I tell them they have to get my bosses permission first and sometimes I have to tell them that I will have to bill my time to their department. That puts a stop to things right away.

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Dale April 3, 2009 at 4:51 pm

My Boss requires supervisors to who request my assistance to go to him and he will confer with me. He tells them that it depends on my workload and scheduling and that he will have me contact them if I am available.

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Victoria April 3, 2009 at 4:46 pm

I’ve had that happen before. Very politely, and with a smile, I told that person, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to ask “their boss” before I can do that.”

I’ve also politely said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. Please ask (their assistant)”. He/She should be able to help you.”

Some people just don’t understand, but that’s not your problem. If you’ve already spoken to your boss about this and she backs you up, you have every right to turn down a request with courtesy.

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