columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

My team's administrative assistant, Olga, is incredibly impatient, and expects me to quickly complete things that I don't have any control over. For example, I work often with her on finalizing the contracts for freelancers we work with. She will create the contract and I will email it to the freelancer, as I'm their main contact for the organization.

Freelancers have other clients and may take a few days to get back to us, but Olga is impatient. She will ask me if something has been returned to me only a few hours or one day after I've sent it out. I will say, "I understand that we need to have Fergus's contract returned for him to be paid, but we just sent it to him on Friday and it's now Monday. I am planning on following up with him later this week if he doesn't return it."

Her response to this is often defensive, like, "OK, but all he needs to do is sign it." I understand, but I'm not in the same room with the contractor and I can't force them to complete a task for us immediately!

This happens with many different tasks, and not only with contracts. She will demand to know why someone hasn't responded to my email, or why I haven't finished a non-urgent task she asked me to do only an hour prior.

I think that Olga is just grumpy and is taking out other frustrations on me. I don't know what to do to stop being the target of this, and even though I tell her that I can't control what another person does, the problem isn't going away. It also feels awkward that although I'm senior to her, I'm also much younger. What should I do?

Green responds:

Age doesn't matter here! Olga is your team's assistant, and you have the authority to tell her how you want this stuff to work. You just need to be clearer.

For example, when Olga bugs you about freelancer contracts, say this: "In general, assume that it may take a few days or even a week to get freelancer contracts back, and sometimes longer. They have other clients and we're not their only priority. Plus, we want people to take the time to carefully read over contracts. If we rush them, it looks like we're trying to push our terms on them without giving them time to think. I follow up if I haven't heard back after a week, but please assume that I'm on it."

Then if she does it again, say, "Like I said before, I don't expect it back by now. You often follow up on these quickly, but please don't check back unless it's been more than a week."

If she asks why someone hasn't responded to your email, say this: "I'm not concerned since it hasn't been very long. Is there a particular reason you need this urgently?"

And perhaps: "I've noticed that you often check in on items I'm waiting for from people, but I prefer to track these myself. If there's something you need to hear back about and it's been several days, feel free to check with me. But otherwise I prefer to manage this stuff on my own."

If she asks why you haven't finished a non-urgent task from earlier that day(!), say this: "I've got a bunch of other priorities that I need to deal with first. Did I misunderstand the urgency?"

And if that keeps happening: "I'm on top of everything that's on my plate. Going forward, can you assume that if you've asked me for something, I'll get it to you, and you don't need to keep checking back with me? Of course, if it's time-sensitive, please tell me that initially so that I know from the start and can prioritize it correctly."

In other words, be calm, clear, and direct about how you want her to handle things differently.

I know that it's easy to feel awkward about telling someone older than you that you want them to do something differently. But really, age is not supposed to be a factor in working relationships -- experience and authority and relative roles are what count. You probably don't want people changing how they deal with you based solely on your age, right? Same thing here -- don't do it to other people. Good luck!

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