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The Catch-All: “Other Duties As Assigned”

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Often, an idle comment made by an employee speaks volumes about their work environment. Consider a message sent via the social networking site Twitter.

This post came from a user who keeps their identity private:

Today’s discovery: “other duties as assigned” translates to “take your crappy compact car out in the terrible weather to pick up pizza for a meeting”

It seems like just about every job description includes the phrase “other duties as assigned.” This is a catch-all used to ensure that employees can be expected to do practically anything that’s needed.

On the one hand, we do want team members to have a sense of ownership and be ready to dive into any task in front of them. But doesn’t including “and anything else we might dream up later” just sound like poor planning?

employee satisfaction suffers from poor planning

© Flickr user Orangez Moblog

Our business consultants know how job descriptions are the cause of serious problems. But this idle tweet shows that this poor employee is being valued not for their contributions, creativity, and insight, but mostly for their ability to complete arbitrary laborious tasks. If “other duties as assigned” included the text “for example, picking up pizza for the office in awful weather”, would this candidate have accepted the job in the first place?

Language is perhaps the most powerful indicator of workplace culture. If we want productive, efficient employees, we must learn to listen to both the content of their messages and the tone with which they speak. Whether we hear workplace productivity frustration on Facebook or just muttered at the water cooler, they present opportunity to make a positive change to the environment. Listening is the foundation to a satisfying and effective workplace.

There’s a pretty good chance the employer in this situation didn’t realize that the employee would have been upset by this request. Perhaps whoever requested the anonymous complainer to get pizza thought it would serve as a pleasant change of pace for that employee to get out of the office. There’s no way to know for sure. What we do know is the employee was not at all delighted by this task.

Ideally, each organization should create an environment where feedback is not only accepted, but encouraged. If the employee in this situation felt comfortable voicing his or her concerns, then there would be no need to take to social media to post a disgruntled message. He or she could have simply informed the boss that driving in this weather was not an ideal task for the morning. Then the employer could’ve ordered delivery and had someone bring the pizza whose job description actually included such a task.

While getting pizza may seem like something small, it’s the underlying message that’s important here. Letting people do the specialized work they were hired to do is something that no organization could take for granted. This employee should have had valuable work to take on making food delivery a huge waste of time. If the employee didn’t have more important work to handle, then maybe the organization isn’t running nearly as smoothly as it should be.

If you think this situation seems out of left field, then good for you! Maybe your company has things figured out. But odds are, there’s something going on that you don’t even realize is viewed as a problem by others. Take a step back to look at all facets of workflow within your organization. Ensure that employees feel comfortable coming to you with comments or concerns about the way things are run. And most of all, make sure that you put people in a position to do the valuable work they were hired to do.

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  • Brandy A

    I’m been having an awful experience with “other duties as assigned.” HR personnel are loath to explain what it means *exactly* because they’re afraid it will limit their ability to, as pointed out, require an underling to fetch pizza. In my case, my manager appears to be using the phrase as a secret back door, not to just “legitimately” ask me to do a mindless or menial task, but to significantly add to my responsibilities without having to reevaluate my my compensation.

    What I have managed to come up with in defense to this kind of managerial abuse is a fairly clear delineation between what would be considered a “collateral” versus an “essential” function. A collateral function is generally filling in for someone of like responsibility when the are absent, cleaning the coffee pots, or something temporary and easily shared. It would be a collateral function for another admin to cover me.

    My essential functions, upon which my negotiated salary was based, is to support two executives. I’m quite sorry that I let my abilities to show because not long after I started I was added another, and then another. Sure, I’m doing the same tasks, but for the benefit of twice the number of people I originally agreed to support. When I asked for raise, what did she say? Other duties as assigned. While it’s not an essential function for Susie in the next cubicle to tend my beasties when I’m out, each individual one for which I am 100% responsible is an essential function that does not fall under that catchall.

    But try getting anyone to admit it… 🙁

    • Robby Slaughter

      Thanks for your comments, Brandy!

      Work is not indentured servitude. A job is not doing whatever you are told to do. Rather, employment is a relationship based on interests, aptitudes and mutual respect.

      Of course, many people don’t see it that way. Some bosses view their employees as people who work for them, and who are supposed to do whatever they ask.

      In your case, I can see the attraction in separating your job duties into categories like “essential” and “collateral.” But as you’ve discovered, a problem with this approach is that someone else can reclassify your duties and avoid dealing with the real issue.

      An alternate approach might be to focus on priority instead of delineation. Write each of your job functions on an index card, including one that reads “Other Duties as Assigned.” Then, using a wall maintain a vertical chart of your current priorities. Anytime someone asks you to do something, ask them for their help to place it on the priority chart. Don’t allow someone to create a new card; always use the “Other Duties as Assigned” card if it’s all that applies.

      It’s going to be tough for someone else to place this card at the top of your list. And every time they do, it’s a chance to have a real conversation about your responsibilities.

      Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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