HR Management, Talent Management

The Lamest Workplace Excuse Ever: “That’s Not My Job”

Not my job

“If you ever answer someone important with “That’s Not My Job,” you will be RIGHT! It won’t be your job when you’re terminated for being unimportant or useless.” Judd Weiss, American blogger.

The most profoundly unhelpful phrase in modern business consists of just four syllables: “That’s not my job.”

While uttering this phrase is rarely grounds for dismissal, perhaps it should be — especially in these days of uncertain economic conditions and an ever-changing marketplace — when teamwork matters more than it ever has before.

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, the members of a workplace team must hang together, or they’ll surely hang separately. Just one person refusing to do you what need to have done can damage team productivity.

But human beings can be remarkably selfish, so you’ll likely hear some variation of this excuse eventually. How should you handle it when you do, and when is it legitimate for someone to truly say “no”?

No guff allowed

Let’s be realistic here. Job descriptions are fluid nowadays, given the constantly shifting challenges we face; and in any case, the new task may not even have existed when you or HR wrote the description for that particular position.

But someone has to take it on, and these days, managers often have to do more with less. So assuming that what you’ve instructed someone to do isn’t dangerous, unreasonable, or unproductive, you can’t afford to accept this excuse from a team member.

That said, legitimate excuses for declining a job do exist. So if you hear those dreaded words from someone and they don’t explain, look to the root of the problem. Here’s how to counter the most common objections, starting with the worst.

 1. It’s beneath my dignity

Bull; this is just another way of saying “I don’t wanna.”

There’s no shame in legitimate work, if it’s safe and doable. So tell them to step up or step out — as in out the door — and get over themselves. While this may seem like a harsh attitude, you don’t have time to deal with prima donnas.

2. I’m overqualified

Maybe so, but sometimes you have to take one for the team, especially when the work you normally do has become scarce.

For example, I know an archaeologist who, when laid off at one company, got a new job the very same day because he was a known quantity and willing to do whatever needed to be done. His new company (a division of a larger environmental firm) had very little archaeological work at the time, but they did have a lucrative subcontract helping a multinational clean up a Superfund site.

The employers told him he might have to work with the Superfund team for a while, and in fact he did. Because he was cheerfully willing to do so, he kept his job until the archaeological division got past its rough patch, and he was able to return to his preferred work. The special training they gave him proved handy later on, too.

Which brings up a more legitimate complaint …

3. I don’t feel qualified/I don’t have the training

Clearly, you as the manager feel otherwise, or else you wouldn’t have chosen the team member for the task.

Look more closely at their abilities. If they really aren’t qualified, rectify the situation. It may cost a little at the beginning, but remember: only return on investment matters.

If profits exceed costs, then you’ve done well. And in many cases, the costs don’t amount to much; the archaeologist mentioned above had to take a three-day OSHA training class with five other employees, administered by the primary contractor at no cost to his employer.

4. I don’t have time

This may also be true. If the chosen team member feels overwhelmed, step in to help them prioritize, triage their task list, eliminate wasted time, and otherwise make a hole for the new task — as long as it doesn’t replace a task equally or more important.

If they really do lack the time, then you can legitimately assign the task to someone else.

Make it their job

In today’s perilous business environment, we all have an obligation to pitch in wherever we must to ensure team and organizational productivity — if only because making a sincere effort to contribute to the team represents the easiest way to keep one’s job.

So within certain broad boundaries, even when asked to do something not in their job description, a team member should be willing to do it. Remind them of this as necessary, and make new hires aware of it in advance as you build your team. One of the items on my office manager’s job description is “Make Laura’s life easier.”

Now, if you keep handing someone a certain type of task because they do it so well, then maybe you should make it their job — either by focusing their efforts there, or by providing additional compensation. It’s always better and cheaper to keep the good people you have than to find and break in new ones.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

Laura Stack is one of America's premier experts on productivity, and her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides workshops around the globe on productivity, potential, and performance. She’s the author of six books, most recently, “Execution IS the Strategy: How Leaders Achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time.” Contact her at laura@theproductivitypro.com, or you can connect with her on LinkedIn.
  • Cris

    Overall I agree with this, but in practice, the times I see this excuse used are when a man is overstepping his bounds in making requests of a female colleague. For example, is it a female engineer’s job to run out and collect lunch for the male engineers on the team? Is it the female sales director’s job to restock the kitchen? Other than gender-related scenarios, or occasionally with very young entry-level employees, I haven’t heard anyone actually use the phrase, “That’s not my job,” to someone who’s asked them to do something at work.

    • Joe

      If what you describe truly happens, the entire organization should be dismantled and all employees dismissed. I can’t think of a more toxic culture. Well, except at Paula Deen’s restaraunt.

  • Rachel

    I agree with Joe. That sounds like an organization that is begging for a law suit.

  • monikahinterbrown

    When you want to work you don’t find excuses like that is not my job.

  • Judy Clark

    One line in the article suggests that making the statement “That’s not my job” should be a fire-able offense. That is explicitly stated at our organization. We are an HR Consulting firm whose motto is “Whatever it Takes.” We are all expected to do whatever is necessary to meet the needs of a client or the organization. If that means making coffee, cleaning up the kitchen area, making copies, etc. then everyone, including me as the Owner and President is expected to do it. There is no job that is “beneath” anyone if it helps us maintain a professional environment, respond to a client request, or be a better co-worker by helping someone else out with a task. It is just a routine expectation here and that sure cuts down on the hierarchy and status stuff that can be so disruptive to an organization!