How to Ask for More Work--Without Sounding Expendable

Last Updated Mar 8, 2010 4:38 PM EST

Dear Evil HR Lady, I was wondering what a management professional should do if she wanted to take on more responsibilities or greater challenges at work. Normally it would just make sense to ask a supervisor for more/better projects and duties, but this is a lot trickier during a recession. On one hand, you don't want to look like you're not busy or don't have enough to do when people are being let go left and right. On the other, a slower pace of business (due to fewer orders, fewer projects coming in, and the slower economy overall) makes for very boring days at the office. How to proceed?

Bored at work Remember when you were 7 (or 12, or in some extreme cases 25) and you were bored, so you ran to your mother and said, "Mom, I'm bored"? And what did she say? "If you're bored you can do the dishes/vacuum the living room/weed the garden/scrub the toilets." Right? And so you pretty quickly learned not to tell your mother you were bored because she always had another task for you to do.

This effectively teaches children two principles. The first is that you better darn well find something do on your own, because whatever it is, it will be better than what mom has in mind. The second is that mom always has a stack of tasks for you to do.

Somewhere along the line, when we became adults and got real jobs, we forgot lesson one and remembered only lesson two: Mom (the boss) will always have a task for us to do.

You're right -- when business is slow and the company is looking for more ways to cut costs, announcing that you're bored could be dangerous. Chances are, if you don't have enough work to do, neither does your boss, and she would quite like to keep her job, so getting rid of you and taking on your tasks would make her invaluable. We see your dilemma.

But, let's look at the first lesson: You better darn well find something to do on your own, because otherwise the boss just might send you to file for unemployment.

This can actually be a fantastic opportunity for you. You already have a job, which puts you ahead of a lot of people. Now, pretend you don't have a job. Pretend that you're going in for a job interview for the job you already have. The manager asks you, "What can you bring to this organization?" Stop and think about that. If you were competing against 20 other people for this job, what would you offer to do that would push you over the top?

Figure out the best thing you can do for the company. Perhaps it's something outside of your normal duties. Figure out what you, specifically, can do to help pull the company through the tough times. Come up with a solution. Pretend you've been asked to do this as an official job assignment. Do the research, run the numbers, think through the potential problems and their proposed solutions, and present this to your boss.

This doesn't have to be a job you could carry out on your own. What this has to be is a sound business proposal that will help the company. If it would require other people's input, all the better -- because if you're bored, they're bored, and in the end you all want the company to do better.

So come up with something that will make the company more profitable. Present it and prepare to carry it out. And always keep in mind the first lesson from your mother -- don't you dare say you're bored.

Photo by Flickr user John-Morgan, CC.