That's Not My Job


When trying to complete a task, nothing is more frustrating than insufficient documentation of the process. Well, maybe the coworker who knows the process but is unwilling to help you can be just a tad more irritating. Unfortunately we run into these problems daily. People try to do more with less, which can severely stall or prevent completion of any task. In this week's column, Peter Clark recalls how he helped a coworker through similar hassles and what he did when others claimed that helping coworkers was "not their job."

Bill stormed into my office, barely visible behind the huge box he was carrying. He dumped the box onto my desk with an audible thud and paused to catch his breath. Bill, normally neat as a pin, was dirty and disheveled.

"I've been trying to ship this equipment to our office in Indonesia all day," he wheezed. "It's an international shipment, which requires export licenses, customs forms, insurance . . . it's a nightmare! And nobody will help! People keep saying, 'That's not my job.'"

I got him a cold drink from the kitchen cooler while he fanned himself in my office chair. As he recovered, he told me the story. He and his box had been on a voyage of discovery all day, shuttling from department to department, trying to get the computing hardware shipped overseas.

He started at shipping and receiving, and they told him that he needed a customs form. When he asked for the form, he was told that he needed to talk to the people in worldwide production control. Worldwide production control referred him to legal, so that he could get the forms for export control. Unfortunately, each of these offices is on a different floor of our building.

"And all the forms were on the intranet! I'm sure that the dummy in shipping could have showed me what I needed to fill out! I mean, people in shipping see this stuff every day!"

I told him that shipping had lost several people in the last reorganization and they were understaffed. I asked when he had gone down there, and he said at 11:00 a.m. I pointed out that's when they get their big shipments and they were probably busy.

We all experience problems like Bill's every day. Everyone is trying to do "more with less." Positions are eliminated, and no one is assigned to take over the function. Or work instructions change and aren't effectively rolled out to the entire organization. e wander around lost through our organizations, and no one seems willing to act as a guide.

In this atmosphere, people immediately assume that you want to make your problem into their problem. They understandably avoid accepting the burden that they perceive you are placing on them. How, then, do you get the cooperation you need?

First recognize that, in his eyes, what you are asking for is a favor. You wouldn't go over to your neighbor's house some Saturday morning and demand that he help you paint your garage. You shouldn't expect that sort of service from your coworkers.

Call before you show up at desk. Give them the opportunity to adjust his busy schedules to fit in your request. Establish what you need to do and how they can help you do it. Pitch this as an opportunity for him to teach you how to do something. People are always more likely to teach you how to fish than to just give you a fish.

So how do you handle people who won't help you when it really is their job? Confrontation rarely helps - it just makes them less likely to help you. Attempt to find out what is preventing them from doing their jobs. It could be that they have higher priority tasks. If you disagree with their set priorities, it is best to discuss the situation with their supervisors.

What do you do when somebody comes to you with a task that you honestly believe is not your job? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • If I can't help him, who should, or reasonably could?
  • If I can help him, is his need a higher priority to the company than what I am working on?
  • If I can't help him now, when can I?
  • How can I train him so that I don't have to do this in the future?
  • Is this a sign of a broken process? If so, how can it be fixed?

Once Bill cooled down (both literally and figuratively), we discussed the shipping process. We examined the shipping work instructions and found that there were significant holes in them. I called the head of shipping to find out what Bill needed to do to ship his box and arranged for Bill to meet with one of the shipping clerks, who would walk him through the process. Bill was much less tense when there was a definite end in sight.

I told Bill to document the missing steps in the international shipping process. I arranged a meeting between Bill and the head of shipping to review the process. I also asked Bill to submit a process improvement suggestion to QA with the amended procedure.

Most of your coworkers want to do a good job, and they sincerely want to help you when they can. Work with them and fit your issue into their schedules. You'll probably get the help you need.

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