Let human resources manager and technical recruiter Tim Heard find the answers to your HR questions. Tim shares hints and tips on a host of HR issues in this Q&A format.

Am I being exploited at work?
Q: I strongly believe I am being exploited by my boss. I am MCSE and CIW certified.

I was a secretary in this company, but last year, when the information systems officer (trainee) left, I was moved to fill that position. My current boss has rewritten a job description that is “specially” designed for me. Included in my job description is a section called “Other” which states: “Provision of administrative support within the Corporate Services Department when required—including relief receptionist duties.”

None of the previous information systems trainees had a section called “Other” attached to their job description and did not have to perform any administrative duties. It’s like they don’t want me to forget that I was a secretary. Should I just accept management’s decision and go along with whatever they ask me to do?—LS

Promotions require political savvy
A: Your question reminds me of executives who, in less civilized days, would expect their female associates to fetch them coffee. However, my feelings were tempered when I got some feedback from HR professionals I’d contacted about your situation.

Ann Edwards, the director of human resources for Lab-Volt Systems, said the current economic climate means that many companies are expanding job descriptions to meet company needs.

“With so many companies running lean, going beyond the job description is the norm, rather than the exception,” Edwards said. “Obviously, if they’re singling out this individual for disparate treatment, it’s a problem requiring immediate correction (at the very least, hiring someone from a temporary agency to handle the switchboard; adding an ‘other’ category to all trainee job descriptions, as they should have done in the first place; and making sure that everyone is sometimes tasked with ‘other’ work).”

The second reply came from Julie Meiman, an experienced HR generalist who is familiar with dealing with employment situations. Meiman feels that most of this problem could have been avoided if the manager had used standardized job descriptions.

“The manager has created a role description based, in part, on the special attributes of a particular person within the organization,” Meiman said. “Standardized job descriptions can ensure consistency of role expectations and eliminate confusion and discomfort.”

Meiman also suggested that the employee has a choice in the matter. She can refuse to be the relief receptionist, but that could be a career-limiting move. She could go ahead and pitch in and show that she’s flexible and a team player. Ideally, she “should have a candid conversation with the manager and explain that, once this assignment is over, she expects to focus on the IT responsibilities of the role she was offered.”

The “other duties as assigned” dilemma
Virtually every good job description has, or should have, a clause that reads, “Other duties as assigned.” That allows managers to ask employees to spend the day doing duties that might otherwise be considered light clerical duty, such as purging old files or alphabetizing mounds of personnel records. (I speak from personal experience.) In these cases, it is generally not productive to try to argue that the duties are not in one’s job description.

However, in this situation, the problem lies in the fact that your job description was created to include secretarial duties whereas no previous information systems officer (trainee) had those duties attached to the job description. Now, it’s not always safe to assume that we know what another person has or hasn’t had to do, but if your assumptions are correct, then the manager has committed a no-no. How severe the matter is considered is probably a matter of debate.

My suggestion would be that you try to handle this in as positive a fashion as possible. I think that if you were to draft a memo outlining your feelings about the situation, you could get your manager’s attention and be able to resolve the situation. Your willingness to occasionally fill in for someone would be viewed in a very positive light, but you should express how you feel about the current situation, stating clearly that you feel it isn’t acceptable to have secretarial duties included in your job description. If you specifically mention that you feel that the inclusion of such duties seems to be related to your gender, since other males did not have “other duties” included in their descriptions, it may go far toward helping your manager and his managers see the light of day.

If presenting the memo to your manager doesn’t work, there should be a procedure to productively escalate the process. My guess is that the next step would be to forward the memo to the HR department with an attached note stating that you still haven’t been able to get the situation resolved to your satisfaction. Ask to meet with the HR manager in person and then calmly state your concerns again.

As Meiman suggested, you can refuse to take on the receptionist duties. However, I would recommend that if you opt for that strategy, you have another job lined up beforehand.

IT managers: How to avoid this problem
IT managers should take steps now to avoid this problem. I recommend the following actions:

  • Implement a standardized internal selection process. This should be done in concert with the HR department, if there is one. If not, it definitely needs to be a management team effort. At the heart of the process should be the implementation of standardized job descriptions and pay grades.One offshoot of this strategy will be that job descriptions will be based upon the work that needs to be done, not the individual that has filled the position. This is critical if you are to avoid the appearance of bias based upon gender or other factors.
    It’s imperative that you establish a consistent selection process. That will communicate that you’re committed to fairness and will go a long way toward resolving disputes, even at times when employees don’t get what they want.
  • Add other duties designation. Include “Other duties as assigned” as the last line in every job description.
  • Be prepared and think ahead. In this case, the manager’s biggest (and dumbest) mistake was to agree with the employee and imply that he would fix the problem the way she wanted it fixed before investigating the matter. Instead, he should have said: “We all have to occasionally pitch in and do things that aren’t related to our training.” The employee would have undoubtedly been disappointed, and perhaps mad, but not nearly as mad as she was when he reversed himself after telling her that the problem was going to go away.

Please understand, I’m not suggesting that you lie to employees or mislead them. What I am saying is that the words, “Let me look into this and get back to you in a couple of days,” will save you lots of grief. Then check with your boss. Meet with the HR manager. And, by all means, get back to the employee with an answer, whether it’s what he or she wants to hear or not. At least you will be consistent.

Send us your HR questions

Are you having trouble with an employee? Do you need tips on conducting an interview? Maybe you need recruitment advice. Send us your HR questions.