Recently, an administrative professional wrote to our online Admin Pro Forum to ask whether she should clean off her boss’s desk or get him coffee—even though it isn’t part of her job duties.
It sparked a healthy conversation on the forum and led us to think: What’s the right thing to do when you’re asked to do something that doesn’t play to your strengths, or that was never mentioned as part of your job description, or that you flat-out don’t want to do?
• No task is too small. One admin, Liza, says that if someone asks her to help with something, she does it. “You never know what doors may open by taking on the extra request. Doing things that ‘aren’t your job’ will only strengthen your abilities.”
Besides, she says, “it takes those simple tasks to keep an office running efficiently.” No need to deploy “it’s not my job” as an excuse not to do something, when it’s your job to keep the office running smoothly.
• Offer alternate solutions. Patricia, secretary to an executive vice president, says she wouldn’t say “no” to a request for desk cleaning. But she would offer another solution. She recalls a time that a lawyer, overwhelmed with his piled-upon desk, asked her to help clean it.
“I told him that I was not comfortable doing that because I wouldn’t know what was important and might throw something out he really needed,” she recalls.
“I suggested that he go through everything and have a box on the floor for junk and put anything that was for filing in his Out tray and I would take care of it.”
The strategy worked like a charm—so well, in fact, that she suggested the same simple In and Out tray system for her current boss. “It is amazing how such a simple system can make their work life much, much easier.”
But never say no to making coffee or picking up lunch or cleaning off a desk, she says. “Sometimes it just makes sense to do it. You have to look at each situation and determine if it is a must-have or a nice-to-have, and then act accordingly.”
• Negotiate to allow yourself more time for priority items. “The key is for an administrative assistant to focus on what work won’t get done if she’s, say, picking up dry cleaning for her boss,” says syndicated workplace columnist Anita Bruzzese.
Bruzzese suggests saying something like, “Oh, I’d be happy to get that for you. But it will cut into the time I needed to complete project X. So, what would be the new deadline for that?”
Similarly, if asked to do something for someone else, Bruzzese says, an admin should meet with her boss and say, “Bob likes me to get his coffee every morning, but I find that I’m losing some productive time. Do you have any suggestions?”
Track how much it cuts into the day, and how much time is being spent doing the task, getting back on track and refocusing.
“Always frame the issue as a positive—that you’re happy to help, want to get your work done on time, etc.—but make it the boss’s problem to solve. You should never seem like you’re whining, just that you’re looking for some guidance on how to solve the problem.
“Once the boss realizes that the problem could impact his or her job, things may change,” she says.
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