Does "Additional Duties as Required" Mean They Can Make Me Do Anything?

Last Updated Apr 1, 2010 8:00 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady, What, in your view, does "additional duties" involve? (As in a job description: "provision of technological solutions, supervision of workforce paradigms, and additional duties as required.") It could conceivably mean just about anything, but my interpretation restricts it to relevant duties. For example, an office receptionist, in addition to the stated duties of greeting visitors, handling correspondence, answering telephones and doing some basic filing, might also be asked to become the office first aider or handle low-level petty cash. It would be unreasonable for management to expect such a receptionist to pitch in on the shop floor with a spot-welder, give pedicures to the board of directors, or do courier work in her own vehicle. Is there any validity to that line of thinking? Would it be safer to assume that "additional duties" can mean anything HR wants it to mean? Are employees able to quit with cause or sue employers if "additional duties" cause their job to be too far removed from what they were nominally hired to do? The additional duties clause in many job descriptions is a very important one. It helps prevent stupid lawsuits over being asked to do something extra. My favorite is the receptionist who claimed asking her to make coffee put her in a "subservient female" role. She lost, by the way.

And while it would be easy for me to type, "No receptionist will ever be asked to give a pedicure to the board of directors!" (and in fact, it was easy), I can foresee a situation where that would be a reasonable request. If it's a beauty related company and the receptionist is, in fact, licensed to do such things, it wouldn't be crazy to ask her to do this. If it's at a plumbing supply company, that would be bizarre.

There are two things that are important to remember. First, nobody can predict the entire range of tasks for every job. You don't know, when you're writing the job description, that your toilet is going to overflow at 10:00 a.m. and the janitorial staff is a contract service that only works nights. You can't go all day with "debris" on your floor, and there isn't a single person in the company whose job description says, "clean up malfunctioning toilets." Somebody has to do it, and it might be you. (Although, I recommend you schedule important off-site client meetings for times like this.)

Second, your job description is not legally binding unless there is a contract involved. At almost all jobs in the United States, you are an at-will employee. You can quit, they can fire you, and duties and responsibilities can shift. I can eliminate your position and put you in a new one without batting an eyelash -- and I have been involved in such changes in the past.

If asked to something you deem unreasonable, can you subsequently quit and receive unemployment? How about a big, fat "maybe"? The state determines unemployment eligibility. If the company doesn't fight it, they tend to grant unemployment. But if the company fights it, it's probably going to come down to whether this was a "constructive discharge" or not. This is where the company makes it so miserable to work there that any reasonable person would quit. Unless the "additional duties" are extreme, you probably won't win. In your examples, being sent to do spot welding without proper training would fall under this category; being asked to deliver a few packages would not.

It's in a manager's best interest to keep duties related to the core function of the job. It's in an employee's best interest to do what needs to be done. That doesn't have to mean you roll over and take whatever they throw at you. You can speak up, you can point out that this isn't the best use of your time, and you can make terrible tasting coffee so they won't ask you again.

And on a random note, when the toilet overflows at an office with no janitorial staff, the person who caused the problem should fix it. If that person ran and hid or denied culpability, the boss should do it.

Readers: What's the craziest "additional duty" you've ever had to do?

Photo by Pink Sherbet, Flickr CC 2.0