For those of you who are young, idealistic, and just brimming with shiny hopes and dreams, I have some unfortunate news: Life isn’t fair. Nor is it reasonable, rational, sensible, logical, nice, or fluffy. Life is strange, ridiculous, cruel, fantastic, bizarre, whimsical, capricious, and just a little bit dirty.
I tell you this because one day, possibly one day quite soon, your boss (or someone who wields even more power over your fragile working existence) is going to ask you to do something that you don’t think you should be doing. And you are going to be very unhappy about it.
These types of requests can take many forms.
The Personal Jobs
The most obvious sort of thing your boss will ask you to do that you don’t think you should be doing will be something rather personal.
For example, despite the fact that you are a Web designer, the president of the company is going to ask you to go pick up his car at a work site, take it to a car wash, and then bring it back to the office. And the odds are fairly good that this will take half the day, leave you sitting in traffic for hours, put you hours behind your actual work, and force you to drive a frighteningly high-priced car with a fairly finicky manual transmission. This is annoying, though not terrible.
Or perhaps, despite the fact that you are proposal writer, your boss will stride into your office and explain, in far too much detail, that he needs your help collecting his in-laws at the airport to make sure they get to a family event on time…on your birthday. So you drive to an unfamiliar part of the city and stand at a receiving gate holding a sign while a hundred grumpy travelers file past you and none of them respond to your sign, leaving you standing alone, unsure of what to do…while your family assembles at a restaurant quite far away from the airport to celebrate your birthday.
Or perhaps, despite the fact that you are a contracts officer, your boss, who drives an over-priced luxury sedan or maybe even a company car, will call you up at the office on a particularly snowy morning to tell you to come to his house in your much-less-expensive car to fetch him across the icy roads because he doesn’t think his car will survive the trip…but yours is expendable. So after already braving the morning commute to the office once, you bundle up again and spend the next 90 minutes driving white-knuckled through the upscale yet unplowed neighborhoods where your boss lives, all the while wondering if you will be required to drive him home later that night.
Or perhaps, despite the fact that you are a publications manager, your boss will announce that he is throwing a party for family and friends, which has absolutely nothing to do with work at all, but he needs you to run to the grocery store and put together a cheese platter and some fruit to provide his guests with something to eat before the caterers arrive. At his house.
These personal requests are clearly not in your job description, but you won’t see them coming. They are obviously ridiculous, but they aren’t difficult. And since you won’t have prepared a good excuse for why you can’t just run out and do them, you do them. These things waste time, both work time and your own personal time, and they will put you in uncomfortable positions, and they may even cost you some of your own money (toll booths, gas, food, etc.).
What should you do?
Get over it. Unemployment is high and people are starving to death all over the world. Your ego will survive running a few personal errands for your boss. At least you will get a lot of crazy stories to use in an article that you will one day write about things that were not in your job description.
The Professional Jobs
In a recent article, I counseled readers to go the extra distance to make themselves more valuable around the office by developing secondary skills, including maintaining equipment and mastering software. And that is pretty good advice, until it backfires and completely ruins your life.
You see, sooner or later, if you are very good at getting things done, then bosses will stop bothering with the useless employees and bring all their problems to you. Because you’re so quick. You’re so precise. You know how to do that thing in Microsoft Word. So can you just do this little task for me, right now, because you’re the best? Pretty please?
At first you will be flattered by the extra attention. Your boss knows your name, and her boss knows your name, and some bosses from the other departments know your name. Great! But now you have all these other tasks to do, and some of them you don’t completely understand, and many of them are due in five minutes (or five minutes ago). And every minute you spend on these tasks is a minute you don’t spend on your own work.
Perhaps you’ll be asked to work on a Vice President’s presentation (because you’re quick in PowerPoint), or a financial report (because you’re good at formulas in Excel), or the invitations to the company’s holiday party (because you’re so creative).
You may find this merely inconvenient from time to time. You might also find it more than a little frustrating, especially when you are told point blank that someone else ought to be doing this task, but instead of making that other person do their job, you are going to do it for them. To “reward” your excellence.
What should you do?
Manage it. The bottom line is that you have succeeded in making yourself both valuable and popular. This position actually gives you a little power. People tend to be slightly more respectful and considerate of others when they need them. So feel free to push back a little bit and turn down those extra requests if you really can’t handle any more on your plate. But as long as you can shoulder the burden, do it.
The Dangerous Jobs
It is unlikely, but not impossible, that you will be asked to do something illegal at work. It may be something semi-minor, like copying a confidential document or emailing data that ought to be encrypted. Sometimes bosses become fed up with rules and protocols and just want the job done, so they will ask you to do it the fast way, instead of the strictly correct way. I can’t advise you how to handle a rule-bender situation. You will have to decide for yourself whether the task is really illicit, whether there will be consequences, and whether you personally will be held accountable.
But it might also be something major. Your boss may tell you to scuttle a project, or fire a good employee, or falsify data. Or, just as a random example purely from my imagination, to walk into the Pentagon with a bag full of power tools to do a little unauthorized remodeling of a Department of Defense facility. That’s a fictional example, mind you. Completely made up.
What should you do?
Well, you’re in the hot seat now. You can say “No” and risk all sorts of angry-boss fallout. You can try to find a non-illegal alternative course of action. Or you can do it and hope for the best. None of these are great options, and you’re well within your rights for feeling angry at the world (and at your boss) for putting you in such a position, but there it is.
This is the sort of moment where you learn something very fundamental about yourself. What are your priorities? Where are the lines you won’t cross? What are you willing to risk or sacrifice for an ideal? What really matters to you at the end of the day?
That’s life. It’s not fair, but I already told you that.
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