A reader writes:

I’m feeling a bit stuck at work recently. I have a new department head and he keeps periodically asking me to do things that are very much not the normal responsibility of my role. These are always very simple things, things I am certainly capable of doing, but should fall outside of my purview. We even have documented methodologies indicating this sort of thing is not the sort of thing I’m expected to be responsible for. The trouble is, I’m not sure if when he’s asking me to do this it’s because he’s still new and not completely up to speed on who does what, or if this is a situation where he is The Boss and if he’s telling me to do it then now it is my responsibility, if not permanently, at least on these specific occasions. I’m also disinclined to just run with it without saying anything because then it really will become my responsibility, and there are good reasons why it currently is not.

I am having difficulty thinking of a way to bring this up that doesn’t sound like I’m refusing to do it. On the one hand, it’s not my job, but I also know that going around saying “that’s not my job” is not appropriate. The situation is not quite that I don’t have the authority to do the task, but that’s closer to the type of reasoning for why my role isn’t responsible for the thing, and it’s always restricted to people in a different role. Part of the internal rationale was a sort of “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation in the past, but there are also other logical reasons why staff in my role are not intended to be involved.

I’m also hesitant to push back at all since I can’t tell if the boss is coming from a place of not knowing or one of reassigning. I don’t want to seem difficult (but also reallllly don’t want this added to my plate). I don’t know the new department head well enough to guess whether it’s more likely a misunderstanding vs a change in policy. I’m struggling with finding the words for how to bring it up without sounding like I am saying “that’s not my job”. Is this the sort of thing that is better handled in the moment, or waiting for a time separate from when he’s making the request to talk about it more generally? Help!

My money is on him not realizing that he shouldn’t asking you to do this stuff.

If he were aware that these projects traditionally have been specifically designed not to be done by you and had made a deliberate decision to change that, it’s pretty likely that he would have acknowledged that to you — to have explained it was changing. Not 100% certain, but highly likely. Since he hasn’t, I’d work from the assumption that he just doesn’t realize that there have been clear and strategic reasons for handling these things differently in the past — and moreover, that you really don’t want that work added to your plate.

So, speak up! Since it’s now become a pattern, you’re probably better off doing this as a separate conversation rather than handling each one in the moment, at least to start.

Sit down with him and say something like, “I wanted to mention — you’ve asked me to do some projects recently like X and Y. I was of course happy to help out in a pinch, but since it’s come up a few times, I wanted to let you know that historically that type of work has been done by the llama groomers and we’ve actually got documentation about who should and shouldn’t do it. The reason that people in my role aren’t supposed to do that work is (fill in logistical reasons). I figured you didn’t have that context yet and that I should fill you in.”

Assuming your boss is receptive, you could also say, “If something like that comes up again, I’ll flag it for you so that you’ve got that context.”

But if your boss pushes back a bit — like saying that it may have been done that way in the past but he wants to change things up — you could say, “I’m of course willing to try that out if you want to change that. But I want to make sure you know that it would be a pretty significant change to my role, which would concern me because of (reasons). Before we make the change, could I tell you a bit more about why we ended up dividing things this way?”

And if it’s work that you’d really hate to take on permanently, it’s okay to be honest about that. You can say, “To be honest, I took this role in part because it didn’t involve X” or “To be up-front, it’s not a change I’d be thrilled about because of (reasons)” or so forth.

The key to talking about this without being insubordinate is that you’re not saying you won’t do it. You’re just giving him relevant context that he may not have … some of which might be that it would significantly change your job satisfaction, which any sensible manager will want the chance to factor into their thinking, even if they ultimately decide to make the change anyway.

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