Can You Say No To Your Boss?

Last Updated May 11, 2011 5:11 AM EDT

The description of duties on your official job description are nothing like what your boss asks you to do each day. At least that's the problem that many people face. SmartMoney calls this "Extreme Multi-Tasking" and it is definitely a big problem for many.

Take the case of Eric Dale, a pastry chef in the Denver area:

Ever since his boss, chef Jen Jasinski, discovered that Dale is handy, she's had him doing double duty as the maintenance man. He's spent hours repainting the oven, fixing the plumbing and installing a garbage disposal. And that's just the start. He used to manage the dessert operation at one restaurant. When the recession hit, his boss asked him to take on a second location; now he's up to three. All told, Dale says, his hours have expanded by a third, to more than 60 a week. The industry has changed, Dale says, and kitchen staffers can't afford to be "fat and sassy."
Now, normally, I'm in favor of doing above and beyond behavior, but as soon as my boss wants me to start doing plumbing work, I'm out of there.

Of course, I say that, but I'm not working in a kitchen where garbage disposal problems could be, well, problematic. I have unjammed copiers, complete with inky hands and kneeling on the floor and sticking my head into a piece of machinery. I have made coffee (which I don't even drink) for others. I've stuffed envelopes for literally days. Days, I tell you.

And all of this is just in my professional career.

Some of you are not amused with my sufferings, which I know are not great. Michelle Gerdes at the Wall Street Journal writes about overburdened journalists, which actually doesn't evoke much sympathy from me:

What's more, rapid-fire tech advances and the demands of a 24-7 global economy mean that many of us must pile on more tasks to our already overloaded job descriptions. Many of my fellow journalists, for instance, must now tweet, blog, make videos and podcasts, and write regular updates for the Web and global editions, in addition to their basic job descriptions of reporting or editing stories.
I should have more sympathy, though. I do much of that work myself, but I'm primarily an advice giver. And I think back to Dear Abby and Ann Landers who had staffs and considered their 7 columns a week a full time job. You'd think with that much time on their hands, they could have come up with better advice.

But even in a 24/7 economy, we still need down time. And switching between too many tasks can actually increase weight gain. Plus, when you accepted a job, you did so on the understanding that you'd be doing tasks related to the actual job description you read before applying.

So, can you say no when a boss asks you to do something that is clearly not part of the normal job description? Well, a better question is "Should you say no?" There are consequences to our actions and going against a boss's request will have consequences. Here are 7 things to consider:

  1. Is it important for the success of the business? If you're working in a busy restaurant kitchen and the sink gets clogged, it's critical that it's fixed, even if that means the chef has to get out the plunger. However, if you work in an office building and one out of the 4 bathroom sinks in the women's bathroom is a bit sluggish, that's not critical and can wait for maintenance. Evaluate if this is something that matters.
  2. Can you give something else up? Not all the tasks done in any given company are critical. If an evaluation of the "out of job description" tasks shows that it's critical to the business' success, is there something else less critical you can give up? Be willing to give a critical eye to your tasks and (if you're the boss) the tasks of your employees and figure out what can go.
  3. Is this easy for you to do? If you're the first one in in the morning, it makes sense for you to make a pot of coffee, even if you don't drink it. If you're doing 3 graphs based on one set of data, it makes sense for you to do the fourth as well. You already understand the data.
  4. Is this temporary or permanent? If you're asked to prepare a power point presentation for a client meeting because the marketing manager is on maternity leave, that's very different than being asked to permanently take over client meetings.
  5. What's in it for you? If these new tasks are ones that will give you new knowledge, skills and abilities that will ultimately help your career advance, there's far more motivation to take on a new, even difficult task. If it consists of things you did 5 years ago, you may want to suggest that a junior colleague who would grown from these tasks take them over. You can also ask for an increase in salary and/or title to go along with the additional tasks.
  6. Is it reasonable or unreasonable? Adding 15 minutes to your work day is acceptable. Adding 3 hours, not so much. Helping payroll with year end tax forms, reasonable. Taking over payroll in addition to your duties as a research scientist? Not so reasonable.
  7. Is your boss a rational person? If so, you can have a good conversation with give and take and come to a conclusion. If your boss is irrational, it may be better to suck it up and do the stuff while you look for a better job. Burnt bridges can cause problems in the future.
If you decide to say no, there will be consequences. Here are some suggestions for making it go more smoothly.
  1. Don't say no immediately. This isn't just a negotiating technique. This gives you the chance to truly think over the problem.
  2. Present an alternate plan. This could be someone else doing it, outsourcing it, not doing the task or giving up something else. This needs to be more than, "I did blah, blah, blah last time. It's Jennifer's turn!"
  3. Show how your time is more valuable elsewhere. It doesn't make sense for the lawyer bringing in $350 an hour to clean out the file cabinet. Keep in mind, though, that if your boss just wants an exempt employee to work longer hours, this argument won't go anywhere.
Your boss wants you to think that she has all the power in a situation like this, but keep in mind it's far more expensive to recruiter, hire and train someone than it is to hire a plumber for a couple of hours. But, also remember that if the company goes under because people weren't willing to take on additional tasks, you'll be just as unemployed.

Photo by MoToMo, Flickr cc 2.0