Editor's note: Inc.com 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:

I work in a small office, seven people total. I love my job and I've always received glowing reviews from my boss. However, I have an irritating, ever-present problem.

My co-worker Jim refuses to learn our operating system, which includes all client data. He will walk up to my desk and interrupt whatever work I'm currently in the middle of to ask me to look up a customer and information about their service. He will even interrupt my lunch break (while I have headphones in) and ask me to look up client information. If he sees me on the phone with a client, he will instead walk over to the only other woman in our office, Mandy, and ask her to look up information instead. He will even call Mandy or me with questions about clients when he is out of the office, at home, sitting in front of his (company-issued) laptop!

Jim treats both of us as his assistants, although neither of our jobs are related to his. He will ask Mandy or me to prepare presentations for customers who neither of us have contact with. He's asked me to help him format his email signature, or to save a picture onto his desktop, and other things that are incredibly simple to do. All of these tasks he has the time to do, but he just doesn't want to do them. Our company operating system has been in place for years, and Jim has had mandatory training on this system. But it's as if he's scared or intimidated by technology, and won't use the system.

Jim has worn a path in the carpet of our office, from his desk to my desk to Mandy's desk, and back. There's nothing he won't ask either of us to do, and it doesn't matter how busy we are. I'm starting to feel like he's using Mandy and I to do his "busywork" because he thinks it's beneath him. He's never asked any other co-workers for help, and I feel like he's asking Mandy and I because we're the women in the office.

How do I politely but tactfully ask him to stop bothering me with tasks he should know how to do? Mandy has worked for this company for a lot longer than I have, and I know it's wearing her thin.

Green responds:

You and Mandy are inadvertently reinforcing the behavior by allowing it. Stop rewarding his behavior with help and answers and instead respond with language like this:

  • "Sorry, I'm on deadline. Try checking the manual."
  • "I'm not sure. Have you asked Gavin or Bob?"
  • "Have you checked the database? That's the first place to look."
  • "Sorry, I've got to get this finished before my lunch break ends."
  • "You want me to prepare a presentation for your client? Sorry, I'm busy with X, Y, and Z. The other analysts do that for themselves, so maybe one of them can show you how they do it."
  • "Sorry, I'm swamped right now."
  • "What have you tried so far?"
  • "Can't help! Sorry!"
  • "Bob does fantastic presentations. Try checking with him."
  • "I don't know anything about those customers -- sorry!"

At some point, you could also consider just asking him head-on about what's going on. As in: "Hey, Jim, I'm curious about why you keep asking Mandy and me for help with these items, since we work in different areas than you. Have you tried asking Bob or Cecil, since they do work so similar to yours?" And then depending on his answer, you might follow up with: "Have you noticed that you only ask the women in the office for assistance?"

That said, before you do this, make sure that you and your manager are on the same page about what your role is. If there's any chance that Jim is acting like you're his assistant because he's been told that it's appropriate to go to you with these things, you need to know that. And you need to know that your manager will have your back if Jim complains.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.