Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where we sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening.  Today we’re talking about frustrating requests at work.

Dear Muffle, 

I’m concerned about the increasing number of frustrating, time-consuming tasks at work. These come from requests regarding two main kinds of information: 
  • simple and readily available, or;
  • complex, but has already been critical to the requester’s job in the past and, in my mind, should be something they’re prepared to handle without coming to us. 
These individuals are long-tenured, so “being new” isn’t an available excuse, and I grow frustrated because I view my or my colleagues’ involvement as unnecessary. 
I know work isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, and maybe the annoyance is just from an unusually high volume, but are my expectations too high? If they’re not, I still don’t want to be a dick about it. Do you have any tips for staying cool when one of these pops into your Inbox?
Short-Tempered Expectations

My first instinct when I get questions like this at my job is to immediately leap to uncharitable assumptions about the person asking.  “That lazy son-of-a, they could have gotten this in five seconds!  But noooo, they have to ask me because they’re too [special / important / lazy / old / mean] to do it themselves.”  This is generally followed by more grumbling and kvetching about it to people on my team while I fulfill the request and sign off with a cheerful “Thanks!” to hide how irritated I am.

Ignoring the fact that this isn’t a particularly kind or productive response, it’s also probably not what’s actually happening.  While there are certainly people out there who are total jerks too entitled to lift a finger to do their own jobs, what’s likely happening here is a more universal human failing: they’ve either forgotten that they had/have this information, or they have too many balls in the air to keep everything straight and they’re turning to you to juggle just one of them for just a second.  This seems all the more likely because your letter doesn’t indicate that it’s the same few people coming back to you again and again, but more recurring behavior spread across multiple individuals; to each one of them, they’ve just asked you one question, but to you, it’s an insidious pattern of laziness and incompetence.

That still doesn’t mean that it’s your job to spoon-feed them, though!  And the fact that these requests are coming from multiple individuals means that there may be a fundamental misunderstanding of your precise role in this process.  What it does mean is that the askers deserve a gentler response than would be appropriate were they just being total, unrepentant dicks.

What I would do in your shoes is this: the next time you receive a request like this, provide the information, but also tell the requester where and how to get it themselves.  E.g.:  “Hi, Greg.  Here’s the data you asked for!  As an FYI, Kathy distributed this information to the team on [date], and her email is the most up-to-date source for this kind of thing moving forward.  Thanks.”  That’s helpful, but it also reminds Greg that he didn’t need to bother you in the first place, and he can get what he’s looking for more quickly in the future by just going to the source rather than navigating through an entirely extraneous middle man.  If that particular person keeps repeating these requests, you can get a little more terse, while still staying professional:  “Hi, Greg.  That information can be found on the team intranet.  Let me know if you need help tracking it down.”  

Some people won’t get the hint, but I think a lot will.  And if these requests are interfering with you doing your actual job, you should say so: “Hi, Jim.  I’m tied up with other projects at the moment, but you can access that information directly in the file directory.  Let me know if you still need assistance, and I’ll try to help when things free up.”  Having professional boundaries isn’t rude, and by maintaining yours, you’ll ultimately help streamline these processes for the benefit of everyone, including your company.

Snark and tipples,


Got a question for Muffle? Send it to mufflemayi@gmail.com.