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The Problem With “That’s Not My Job”

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The workplace is no place for controversial statements. What we say at the office can be an occupational hazard. If our words are too divisive, too blunt, or taboo, we believe they may threaten our career advancement. So what is the worst sentence you could utter at work, short of insulting your supervisor’s new hairdo? Try responding to a new assignment by saying no.

Sometimes a phrase is so unexpected it makes heads spin uncontrollably out of confusion and disbelief. “That’s not my job,” a seemingly simple four words, is all but uncomplicated. This declaration is shocking. It’s a sign of career suicide. Many would interpret the statement as a precursor to a just termination. Saying no at work is something you never do.

We shudder at the idea of denying responsibility for an assigned task because of our worldwide obsession with teamwork. Businesses utilize group effort as an essential tool in building company success and enabling growth. Very few organizations don’t make use of the word ‘team’ or a synonym thereof as part of job descriptions, mission statements, core objectives, and company goals. After all, was it not our forefathers whom passionately coined and generously passed on the saying, “there is no ‘I’ in team?” This motto not only scolds individualism, but includes an underlying insinuation that teamwork and strength in numbers are the keys to success.

We’re Not Afraid of Work, We’re Afraid of Overwork

What becomes of the employee, given an ill-assigned project, who thinks to himself, “That’s not in my job description?” Is this reaction improper in a world based on principles of cohesion and collective contribution for the success of a company? Do his feelings arise from resentment, laziness, or defense of his own self-worth? Perhaps we believe that membership in a team means the willingness to tackle any project, without complaint.

The business buzzword “teamwork” runs alongside the phrase “paying your dues.” The argument explains that we all have to start somewhere, even if it’s at the bottom. We commend and appreciate this value when starting a successful venture, and look back wistfully at “working our way up.” The employee should show appreciation for his roots by happily and willingly accepting any assignment without argument. By doing so, he is “leading by example” and humbly “pitching in” for the “greater good.” As the American dream fuels so many, pursuing undesirable projects shows determination and commitment. No matter what the level of a given professional, no project can be below his standard. Accepting any task—whether part of the job description or not—demonstrates flexibility, enthusiasm, and diligence to one’s job.

business consultants discuss job tasks

© Flickr user Dell’s Official Flickr Page

These four words—“That’s not my job”—violate the deeply-held assertions listed above. This is an audacious affront to teamwork, to the paying of dues, to pitching in wherever needed. Such a statement seems charged with disrespect, as if the lowly employee aims to undermine the person making the request and the most fundamental ideals of the modern enterprise. The words threaten the boss: denying their power, questioning the efficacy of their management style, and compromising their authority. The task must be passed along next available person, creating further resentment. The consequences of these four words in the office far exceed avoidance, impatience, frustration and unwillingness to interact with whoever spoke them aloud. Termination looms. The person who dared to say no becomes the outcast; the ass among stallions. So, based on these factors, one would gather that an employee would be smart to always accept a project so as to keep up the pretense of a stable, socially unified working environment.

“That’s Not My Specialization”

Although a company might need some work accomplished, not all employees are equally capable of completing a task effectively. Consider the oldest act of corporate production: agriculture. Can you just imagine Old MacDonald grooming pigs for their wool, raising chickens for their milk, and plumping up his goat for Thanksgiving dinner? It no more makes sense to ask the accountant to update the company website or have the receptionist file a corporate tax return. Perhaps with tremendous research, late nights at the office, and unwavering dedication, one of your sales people could negotiate a new employee health insurance plan. Success in these scenarios is evidence of countercompetence. Completing work outside our spheres of expertise and beyond the schedule of our workday may look like dedication, but It’s actually a recipe for overworked employees and substandard results.

The employee who responds with “that’s not my job” is not trying to evade responsibility. These words are not an act of defiance, but a gift. The employee is bravely standing up to inform colleagues that they do not currently have the time or skills to effectively complete the task. It’s easy to say yes in an environment where yes is always a good answer. Any other response requires the courage to be honest about what you know you cannot do.

Rethinking the Client

Perhaps the four words require a long-winded restatement, with qualifiers and explanations. “I agree that this project is important, and of course I am happy to help in any way that I can. However, I am concerned both that my schedule is already full and that this is not my area of expertise. If you are sure you want me to do this work directly, which of my current responsibilities do you want me to postpone, and how much additional time do we need to allocate so that I can learn the necessary skills and tools to do meet our high standards of quality?”

Questioning an assignment provides a basis for understanding each person’s function in the organization. Doing so may even assist in the creation of another job for someone else to own and succeed in – a suitable and rewarding result for simply taking a chance on speaking up. Instead of looking at the negative words as code for insubordination, consider “that’snot my job” as an opening for improvement. The best operations have everyone working in roles where they are supremely competent and passionate, and where new work is accepted based not on fear of reprisal, but genuine interest and expertise.

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Ashley Lee

Ashley Lee

Ashley has been working with the AccelaWork team since 2008. She is a communications expert with a background in corporate work, and a graduate of the University of Dayton with a degree in Public Relations. She lives in the greater Indianapolis area with her husband and four children. Ashley enjoys jewelry, fashion, and coffee.
Ashley Lee

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