Distracted by An Assistant’s Chatter

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about non-work talk:

I have a new assistant that starts the day with idle chitchat and every chance she gets tells me senseless info about her family and other employee’s. I don’t have time for the distraction or care about this stuff. May I repeat she says the same things over and over also, help?
She has a kind heart but just finds the need to talk to me and everyone about idle chitchat.
She got the job with non of the qualifications we really need for the job, so I think this is her way of avoiding the truth.How do I get management to get her to understand she is impeding my thought process and not a help to me what so ever. I have to concentrate and get into a project with out distractions.
Once I’m in the zone I don’t even ask her for assistance because I don’t want to hear the same old topics and stories again and again. Easier to just do what I need and faster.
Any advice would be helpful.

Signed- Distracted By Assistant

Dear Distracted By Assistant:

Apparently, those above you have assigned you an assistant because they appreciate your performance. Your frustration is understandable. Your assistant rather than assist is a distraction. You don’t say if you have tried to help your assistant understand or train her–to know how she might help you. I’m sure you have not firmly told her she is distracting by her chit chat. I assume if you have not it is because you don’t want to hurt the feelings of this individual, I’ll call her Jan. You likely have correctly diagnosed the cause of her filling the time with personal talk is a cover up for her lack of know-how required to do the job. So what are your options? Here are three that are overlapping.

  1. Confront Jan. Kindly and candidly tell her her endless talk distracts and to stop it. Inform her that she was hired to assist with tasks assigned you not to chit chat. Tell her you know she is good hearted and means no harm. Provide examples of what is appropriate and what is distracting. Designate a trial period of a day or two in which you will signal her to stop her chit chat the moment she begins. In order to know if she understands what you have said, ask her to rephrase what and why you have confronted her about this topic. Ask if she will cooperate.
  2. Ask your superior’s advice on what to do. Inform him/her that Jan is of no assisance whatsoever, that she rather distracts you from doing good work. Ask that Jan is replaced by someone who is capable. If not, discuss how Jan might obtain the necessary training. Be prepared should your boss indicate she/he wants you to train Jan. Be upfront with how much training Jan will disrupt your performance and disclose if you think training her is a realistic possibility. The problem you have with Jan is a management problem, not yours alone
  3. See this as a workgroup communication problem. Request that you staff place communication on it agenda. Such a topic might be simply phrased: What talk about personal matters is acceptable and what is not? Or what communication makes our productivity effective and what does not? Perhaps your staff has regular staff meetings and the issue of communication might come up when talking about what is going well and what is not as effective as it might be. Up, down communication, memos, emails, use of Internet and phone are important topics of a work group. One-on-one communication inevitably comes up when discussing the general topic of how the service and products of your group meet the needs of your internal and/or external customers  This third option is not pointed at anyone individual such as Jan and it might help the workplace atmosphere to be more professional while still being friendly.

I hope spelling out the way that I as an outsider see the problem you describe. I predict it will help you choose what to do or will prompt you to think of what else will work best. Then after a few days or weeks, please tell me what you  have done–what does or doesn’t help you work through the frustration you are having with your assistant. Working together with hands, head, and hear takes and makes big WEGOS, and that’s what you want.   –William Gorden