Career Talk: How I stopped being the office helpline

Do you field multiple texts a week from coworkers asking you for basic information? Do you dig things out of your inbox that most assuredly landed in theirs just to forward them info they missed? Do you find yourself linking the company website, tech tutorials, and other Google-able information to people who won’t go get it themselves? Fellow female faculty members, you know what I’m talking about. I used to do this, too. Before I made a decision…

Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations with friends (both in and out of my own workplace) about why 2020 is so exhausting. Beyond The Times We Find Ourselves In, though, a repeated gripe is the rampant case of “let me google that for you.” It seems that if you are a woman and/0r other underrepresented person at work, people can’t help but ask you to help with things that you figured out for yourself.

This is a problem I am not a pro at navigating yet. The number of questions I field has dwindled now that I’m a newer employee. But in my old college department, this was frankly something I spent a lot of my energy on.

At first I didn’t mind–not one bit! If you, like me, are part of a group that has been socialized to be happy and helpful at all times, people asking for help is the best. Especially when you know the answer to their question. Now you look helpful and competent.

But when times get tough in my own work, the emails and texts really overwhelm me. I am not joking about people asking me to forward emails they definitely also received and didn’t read. Often, the questions were questions that I also had at one point, but with a little digging around on the web I found the answer easily.

I know I’m not alone here. There’s been a lot of talk about who carries the mental load in the pandemic. Especially among younger (and often lower on the corporate chain) workers as they answer tech support questions.

It was also hard for me to acknowledge that some of the people who asked me to find answers for them were only interested in talking to me when they wanted my help. It’s just not sustainable to keep fielding Google-able questions just in the hopes of making someone nicer to you. It was time to stop. Which was when I started to unleash my secret weapon:

“I don’t know.”

Gulp. This is a really hard phrase for me. The fact is, I like being competent at work. Is it a lie to tell someone you don’t know the answer?

For the most part, not really. The problem with the Q&As I receive is that I’m pretty conscientious, so even if I have a sense of the answer I usually go dig through the department handbook, university website, etc etc to confirm before following up. In other words, I do all the things that someone who doesn’t know the answer would reasonably do to find the answer.

So I stopped. I say I don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong–there are questions that are distinctly in my wheelhouse and I’m still happy to answer those. And there are people I have and had great relationships with where the help flowed both ways. I’m more able to reflect on that now that I’ve drawn boundaries that save me some time and sanity.

The best part? When you don’t know the answer to a couple of questions, people stop asking. You’re no longer the go-to managing nagging administrative tasks for others. The hardest part? The lingering guilt. I guess it just takes practice.

5 thoughts on “Career Talk: How I stopped being the office helpline”

  1. Oooh, I’m like this, too, except that I will answer literally any question even if there’s no way I could possibly be the one to know the answer. Speculation and random “advice”spewed into the atmosphere isn’t always helpful! So I’ve had to take a step back and let other people answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooh this hits me in my very soul and I’ve absolutely had to learn to say no to this as well. My approach is: “oh I’m not sure but I think the Faculty Handbook/email we got last week/etc. might have something about that.” Basically the Midwestern nice version of “look it up dude.”

    Can you do a post on how to avoid handling logistics for meetings that are supposed to be run by disorganized (almost always male) colleagues next? Kthnx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When I left my old job – I got a lot of “you were so helpful and responsive – we will miss you!” And I was like… is that the legacy I want? I would rather make an impact in some way or have smart ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

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