Doing other people's work (OPW)

How many times have you been asked to do work that is not really your responsibility? What can you do to tactfully say no? This article explores the salient issues surrounding this subject.

How many times have you been asked to do work that is not really your responsibility? Should you do it? Do you feel that you can’t say no? How can you communicate the fact that you don’t think it’s right? Why do you say “sure” when you are really thinking “no”?

For example, I’m currently working as a technology trainer. A few weeks back, I was asked to do something that was clearly not my responsibility. I found myself saying “yes, I can do it,” but I felt I should have said “no.” I discussed this issue with friends and colleagues and discovered a common problem: Most people end up tackling tasks they shouldn’t. In this article, we will discuss this controversial subject and methods to deal with delicate situations.

Request origination
One thing to consider when weighing the decision of whether to do the requested work is where the request originated: Was the source a colleague or your direct supervisor? By making this distinction, you will be able to more easily determine what action to take.

When someone other than your direct manager requests that you do something, you should usually defer the decision to your manager. Of course, doing so can be complicated by political considerations if people with more authority than your supervisor request work of you. It is your manager’s job to allocate resources to the work he or she needs done. As an employee, you are the resource, and although you may not like the idea of being treated as a commodity, you should acknowledge that it is your job to do what your manager says.

Multiple managers
What happens when you have multiple managers? New management philosophies, including matrix organizations, which promote shared resources under multiple managers, have complicated the situation. I have had as many as three managers. Who’s my drill sergeant now? In this situation, it is easy to take advantage and claim that you have other work assigned to you and that therefore, you can’t do new things. The Machiavelli in you might like this approach, but inevitably, it will lead to chaos and confusion.

Rather than adopt this philosophy, consider an alternate approach: complete visibility. Each manager should e-mail his or her requests to all managers to whom you report. This notification ensures that you always have a well-known priority. You should also be sure that all the managers agree before you commence any project requiring significant effort. Doing so won’t help in all situations, but having clearly defined responsibilities may resolve a few problematic scenarios.

Not enough work?
It is easy to say no when you are completely swamped with responsibilities. However, it is not as easy a decision when you clearly don’t have as much work as others—the pressure to be a true “team player” can cause you to feel that you should do what’s asked even though it’s not your work. There’s nothing wrong with doing OPW, but there is a problem if you fail to express your belief that you should not be asked to do the work. Such lack of communication is problematic because it can create a precedent whereby everyone in the organization is doing work they shouldn’t be doing. This situation can foster an environment full of resentment. It can also mask an underlying problem: an organization that is not properly staffed to the point where people have clear roles and responsibilities.

Should you do it?
Whether you decide to do what is asked of you is strictly a personal decision. If you let the requestor know your reluctance, you run the risk of coming across as uncooperative and lacking in team spirit. However, there is always something you could be doing that pertains more directly to your responsibilities than doing OPW.

I suggest you not accept tasks that are clearly not part of your job. By doing OPW, you take time away from the work you should be doing. Saying that nothing is on your plate is the same as saying that your job should be cut in the next round of layoffs. Is your job so easy that you have no areas for improvement? If not, you should be working on these areas.

Critics are sure to claim that all employees have the responsibility of doing all the work, but this is not true of a well-run operation. The old adage applies still: “A camel is a horse made by committee”—whenever everyone shares responsibility, the actual outcome often differs significantly from the desired outcome.

What should you say?
Regardless of your decision, you should not be afraid to speak your mind. Silence is certainly not golden: It fosters resentment, thereby leading to malicious obedience. It means following the letter of the law but violating its spirit. I suggest telling the requestor that you have other work requiring your attention and that although you would like to be helpful, it would not benefit you or the organization if you were to take time away from the things you should be doing. You should state that if nobody is able to complete the work, then a staffing issue exists that must be brought to management’s attention.

Come on, everyone! Who wants to do someone else’s work? Wouldn’t you rather be out with your significant other? If only we could all work in a truly honest environment then we might hear this: It ain’t my work, so I ain’t doing it—I’m going surfing.

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