“That’s Not My Job”: The Lamest Excuse in Business Today

“If you ever answer someone important with “That’s Not My Job,” you will be RIGHT! It won’t be your job when you’re terminated for being unimportant or useless.” — Judd Weiss, American business blogger.

"That's Not My Job": The Lamest Excuse in Business Today by Laura StackThe most profoundly unhelpful phrase in modern business consists of just four syllables: “That’s not my job.” While uttering this phrase is rarely grounds for dismissal, perhaps it should be—especially in these days of uncertain economic conditions and an ever-changing marketplace—when teamwork matters more than it ever has before.

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, the members of a workplace team must hang together, or they’ll surely hang separately. Just one person refusing to do you what need to have done can damage team productivity. But human beings can be remarkably selfish, so you’ll likely hear some variation of this excuse eventually. How should you handle it when you do, and when is it legitimate for someone to say no?

No Guff Allowed

Let’s be realistic here. Job descriptions are fluid nowadays, given the constantly shifting challenges we face; and in any case, the new task may not even have existed when you or HR wrote the description for that particular position. But someone has to take it on, and these days, managers often have to do more with less. So assuming that what you’ve instructed someone to do isn’t dangerous, unreasonable, or unproductive, you can’t afford to accept this excuse from a team member.

That said, legitimate excuses for declining a job do exist. So if you hear those dreaded words from someone and they don’t explain, look to the root of the problem. Here’s how to counter the most common objections, starting with the worst.

1. It’s beneath my dignity. Bull; this is just another way of saying “I don’t wanna.” There’s no shame in legitimate work, if it’s safe and doable. So tell them to step up or step out…as in out the door…and get over themselves. While this may seem like a harsh attitude, you don’t have time to deal with prima-donnas.

2. I’m overqualified. Maybe so, but sometimes you have to take one for the team, especially when the work you normally do has become scarce. For example, I know an archaeologist who, when laid off at one company, got a new job the very same day because he was a known quantity and willing to do whatever needed to be done. His new company (a division of a larger environmental firm) had very little archaeological work at the time, but they did have a lucrative subcontract helping a multinational clean up a Superfund site. The employers told him he might have to work with the Superfund team for a while, and in fact he did. Because he was cheerfully willing to do so, he kept his job until the archaeological division got past its rough patch, and he was able to return to his preferred work. The special training they gave him proved handy later on, too. Which brings up a more legitimate complaint.

3. I don’t feel qualified/I don’t have the training. Clearly, you as the manager feel otherwise, or you wouldn’t have chosen the team member for the task. Look more closely at their abilities. If they really aren’t qualified, rectify the situation. It may cost a little at the beginning, but remember: only return on investment matters. If profits exceed costs, then you’ve done well. And in many cases, the costs don’t amount to much; the archaeologist mentioned above had to take a three-day OSHA training class with five other employees, administered by the primary contractor at no cost to his employer.

4. I don’t have time. This may also be true. If the chosen team member feels overwhelmed, step in to help them prioritize, triage their task list, eliminate wasted time, and otherwise make a hole for the new task…as long as it doesn’t replace a task equally or more important. If they really do lack the time, then you can legitimately assign the task to someone else.

Make It Their Job

In today’s perilous business environment, we all have an obligation to pitch in wherever we must to ensure team and organizational productivity—if only because making a sincere effort to contribute to the team represents the easiest way to keep one’s job. So within certain broad boundaries, even when asked to do something not in their job description, a team member should be willing to do it. Remind them of this as necessary, and make new hires aware of it in advance as you build your team. One of the items on my office manager’s job description is “Make Laura’s life easier.”

Now, if you keep handing someone a certain type of task because they do it so well, then maybe you should make it their job—either by focusing their efforts there, or by providing additional compensation. It’s always better and cheaper to keep the good people you have than to find and break in new ones.

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Comments

  1. I would like to add one more situation where it is legitimate for an employee to state ‘It is not my job’; when that task actually falls within someone else’s job description and there is no justifiable reason for it to be transferred to someone else. I have seen numerous lazy employees get away with doing considerably less than their share, knowing that management would expect the balance of the team to pick up the slack. An expectation that everyone will ‘pitch in’ and ‘get ‘er done’ is usually reasonable, but sometimes it permits the indolent to coast. Too much of it and the good employees start to look elsewhere.

    • LauraStack says:

      Thanks for the reminder on that. It absolutely happens sometimes!

    • Sue, yes of course we don’t expect a receptionist to prescribe medication! No one in their right mind would think you could do that! We’re talking here about tasks a worker has the ability, competence, and authority to do, but chooses to hide behind “it’s not my job,” because they don’t want to! I have several people on my team, all of whom have the ability to deliver boxes of books to the post office. If my office manager is tied up, my business manager says, “No problem!” and runs them over herself, even though it’s “not her job.”

  2. I agree with the sentiment that individuals should be contributing team members who are willing to take on some extras responsibilities when the need arises, but why does it seem that employers don’t feel an obligation to compensate employees for the increase? This article reads as if employees should be willing to work harder with less, take on anything that their bosses ask, and never ever complain. Reality for employees, especially non-leadership, is not included in the attitude this post seems to convey. Money is a wonderful motivator for employees and can increase productivity overnight. If an organization is facing financial constraints, consider how motivated the workforce would become if the saw their c suite take a 100, 200, or 300k cut to their total compensation in order to conserve and enhance their jobs? How many new jobs cold be created, negating the need to pile more and more onto our workers plates? How much more could companies expect from their employees if they were compensated better? How much more could a company accomplish by decreasing executive and director level pay while increasing compensation for those who execute their vision? How much more profitable cold a company be with such a workforce?

    • tppadmin says:

      I certainly don’t mean to imply employees should just shut up and take on limitless work without a negotiation or conversation, exempt employees are expected to do what it takes to get the job done. And money has been shown, in fact, NOT to be a great motivator. Given the realities of the current economy, many employees are afraid not to do what is asked of them, since it might be difficult to find another job. And while it’s noble and I don’t disagree with you, most C-suite execs aren’t going to accept a cut in their compensation. The only exec I can think of off-hand who did was Lee Iacocca, who cut his salary to $1 a year a couple of times until Chrysler improved, but I’m sure his other compensations were untouched. As AIG pointed out when they stupidly handed over hundreds of millions of their bailout money as bonuses to the very people who caused their problems, companies believe if they don’t pay the C-suite huge amounts, they’ll go elsewhere.

  3. There are two instances when it is okay to say “its not my job”.

    The first is when you don’t have the proper certification to do the job. I work in a nursing home but am not a CNA. I don’t have any training or certification to do their job. So when a family member of a resident asked me to help them with something I knew nothing about, all I could say was “I’m not able to but I can let the CNAs know”. Its a liability thing. Until a person has proper certification and training, you shouldn’t encourage them to do something that isn’t there job.

    The second reason is that people get different pay rates for their job. CNAs get paid more than I do. It wouldn’t be fair for me to do someone else’s job if they get paid more than me to do it. That would make me feel uncomfortable. Doing someone else’s job for less than what they get paid to do it is just sleazy and so I don’t feel bad saying that “its not my job” because the job doesn’t pay me to do it.

    • Selma,

      I agree if it’s a safety or health issue, one shouldn’t pretend to have knowledge or “help” when that help might be detrimental. However, I disagree with you on your second point about not being paid the same or enough. Many promotions have happened with my clients when people “step up” to take on work above their pay grade. They are seen as go-getters and “look the part” when promotions come their way. There are many factors besides pay: loyalty, teamwork, helpfulness, pride, job satisfaction, customer pleasure, etc.

      Laura

  4. Phil janes says:

    I’d just like to add, “utter bollocks”. I’m a sales engineer currently being tasked to do my manager’s son’s college homework assignments!!! , graphic design on documents, creating and programming a database and a whole host of other stuff that is NOTHING to do with my job, I wasn’t hired to do them and I’m not paid to do them either. It’s abuse, pure and simple.

    • Laura Stack says:

      Phil these are tricky situations to be sure! If I were your manager, I wouldn’t be giving you low-level administrative tasks that would be done by someone else at a different pay grade. At the same time, sometimes as leaders, we don’t have the right team members in place for whatever reason, and things need to get done. As an employee, we’re paid to do whatever we’re told to do, even when it doesn’t seem to “fit.” Your manager is your best customer, so you certainly want to make him happy, but you have to communicate clearly if these tasks are preventing you from doing your “real” job. You always have the option to say, “I’m not enjoying performing these ‘other duties as assigned'” and vote with your feet to another company. 🙂

      • Christopher Cole says:

        I disagree on the point. Employees are not being paid to do whatever we are told, hence the number of laws governing the workplace, whether labor, safety, or the forming of unions. Employees are paid to do what is in contract for a position, whether that contract is verbal or written. On that note, there is heavy use of open-ended statements used by employers, which leads to abuse of employees.
        The fact is that employment as a whole is a contract for an individual to perform certain services for an employer at a set rate. Too often employers use the idea that employees do whatever the manager tells them to do to overuse employees. The fact is, another employee may be needed. As managers, we must recognize that fact and step in.
        You are right that the teamwork matters, and I am actually all for teamwork, as people working as a team can accomplish much more than they could individually, but you cannot tout teamwork as a reason to overwork or abuse employees, or to change the position requirements. Doing so allows an employer to keep piling work on an employee beyond what they were hired to do, especially if you do not increase the pay to match the increased responsibility. Any work taken above and beyond what they were hired to do is a bonus to the company, and should be recognized as such.
        An example of this might be if you had a low-level management position, and two employees – one who always does an solid job, but only within his requirements. The other takes on everything he or she is given, and has inconsistent results. Who is more promotable? I would put money on the one doing the solid work, as that one knows what is going on and knows where the limitations are. The other may take on tasks that could overwhelm the team. If they both performed solidly, then obviously the promotion would go to the one who does more – he went above and beyond, while staying within limitations.
        The bottom line is employees were hired to do what is in contract, no more. Anything else done above that is a bonus, and failing to go beyond is not a solid ground for termination. A good manager recognizes the need to bring someone else on, when to document legitimate failures, and when to award those who go above and beyond. A poor manager penalizes someone for not going above and beyond.

        • Laura Stack says:

          Christopher, thanks for writing! Of course some people want to simply come to work, do their job, and go home and not go over and beyond. I’d say that’s not true of most people I meet. And most employees do not have a contract. Jobs are fluid and never stay the same. Rare is the person I meet who only does what he/she was hired to do as the marketplace and the job changes. If you can’t move with the reality, you will likely be moved out. Of course, I never condone abuse and did say there are legitimate excuses for declining a job. But a person who has a can-do attitude and is willing to take on new responsibilities will be promoted over someone who is not. A person who says “I’ll only do what you hired me to do” will not be as successful in his or her career.

  5. Jessie Frank says:

    …I’m a receptionist at a hospital. Clearly if a customer demands me to do something, like prescribe a medication for them, that’s not my job. I and any doctor I act on behalf of could be fired. Some people say “that’s not my job”, even as nicely as possible, because it really isn’t and they aren’t qualified or could get in trouble for it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] When you say no, you’re sending a powerful message that you’re first priority at work is yourself. You’re telling your boss, your boss’s boss and your coworkers that your to-do list, your priorities and your time is more important than theirs. And — whether you say it or not — you’re also saying the four most career-limiting words in existence: That’s not my job. […]

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