Can you be too flexible?
Are additional discretionary duties a normal part of a job description?
A contact of mine has recently started a new job. Everything went smoothly, the whole search process completed in record time, a contract was presented and signed, a draft job description included in the on boarding programme, a corporate manual and workplace ethics booklet 2cm thick, were all courriered over in advance of the start date. So far, so super. No detail was left uncovered.
However, several days after he had arrived, he was asked to sign his job description and in the small print he noticed for the first time the phrase ” for operational reasons the job holder may be asked to undertake additional discretionary duties as required ”
Was he being foolish he asked me? How flexible could he be expected to be? Could he end up mopping floors or cleaning bathrooms?
As with many things the answer is that depends!
Earlier in my career I joined a start-up. My official title was Administration Manager which covered a multitude of sins. My primary function was HR and recruitment for the fledgling organisation, but if a delivery had to be made and it was on my way home, I did it. The MD vacuumed the carpet if a customer was coming in. No one said it’s not my job, because the organisation was too small for anyone to be precious. If they did the business would have folded. One day the Sales Director was hospitalised unexpectedly for a month. I was the only person available who could fill the gap, even though at that point I barely spoke French. That month changed the direction of my whole career. I loved it, was successful and I never went back to straight HR.
Is that scenario likely to take place in a Fortune 500 company? Will P & G ask employees who are not hired in the delivery function, to sling a few boxes of Pantene or Dash into the back of their cars and whip them to Carrefour or Tesco before close of business. I think not.
However, it would not be unreasonable expect an employee to participate in projects or support other functions with specific personal expertise. Businesses cannot be run with rigidly defined job descriptions where everyone acts like robots. In knowledge based jobs employees don’t even want that. Flexibility can offer opportunity for personal growth as well as satisfying business needs and should certainly be considered and embraced. If the job morphs into something for which a candidate was not recruited and is not acceptable, then this obviously has to be taken through the appropriate channels. I have known job functions change so significantly that candidates have decided to leave either at the end of the on boarding process, or shortly after. It can be as a result of genuinely unforseen economic imperatives and organisational shift, or sadly a result of poor hiring processes, where there should be no shocks at all.
It also depends on the level of the position in question. Entry level personnel quite often complain that they are asked to carry out what they perceive to be menial tasks, not found in their job descriptions. Photocopying, making coffee, answering the phone. That’s something they need to get over, in the short-term at least.
Women are frequently expected to take on extra responsibilities because of an unspoken gender stereotype association: making / serving coffee, organising birthday gifts and parties for staff, attending after work drinks events with a senior manager. That is something they should definitely not get over and very politely decline. Even as interns they should try to make sure that these duties are shared equally with their male co-workers.
Some organisations pull the “flexibility” card and walking the “extra-mile” to the point where contractual or even statutory obligations are ignored and exploitation kicks in. This reflects mismanagement or even organisational chaos, which is clearly very different. Resentment builds up and job satisfaction and performance levels are severely reduced.
These situations are not dictated by specific responses to exceptional circumstances or even related only to the type of duties required, but to hours worked, team numbers, travel levels, geographic location and other changes to previously agreed contractual arrangements. I spoke to a young City lawyer who told me that in her firm :
Marcus recounted how he had been asked to fulfill many of the duties as departmental manager, without any official recompense. Peter said in his company anyone leaving the office on time is perceived as a “slacker”. In all cases normal negotiation strategies should kick in. If they are rejected, then depending on the job market, 2 words come to mind: voting and feet.
So although the phrase ” additional discretionary duties to meet operational requirements” is unlikely to be synonymous with floor or bathroom cleaning ( unless you are hired as a cleaner) it definitely merits clarification and amplification with the hiring manager. Flexibility is an equal opportunity employer for both development and exploitation.
So no, definitely not a silly question.
If your organisation needs help with writing job descriptions – get in touch NOW
This is a further complication for part time workers We have acted for a number of women who made successful flexible working requests who found out they had part time pay but full time duties and hours. Employers often believe such clauses give them an unfettered right to assign additional duties regardless of practicality or stress. Tribunals dont necessarily take that view – it is all a question of degree and that wonderful British thing ‘reasonableness’
Hi Annabel -thanks for your comment. I agree working part time is one area where flexibility can be abused. I have been there myself and half time is in reality 75% time on half salary. It is about reasonableness -although that varies from one individual to another! As you saw one contributor works in an organisation where lunch is considered to be an employee indulgence. It’s a question of finding a balance – but how?
Well in the UK individuals have under the working time regulations a right to a minimum of 20 mins break in a 6 hour period. So the culture of no lunch/no break is unlawful!
I often talk to CEOs in the context of athletic performance. I say would you ask your best football player to train without food or drink for long hours without a break and then go straight into a game and expect them to win? You need to treat your staff as winners in training – and give them the training routine that keeps them fit!
All of this is part of the middle management squeeze where line manager somewhere have promised something that cant be done without thinking of the person hours neede to deliver a high quality output! Their ‘athletes’ will crash and burn. Winners should make a point of working where the pre-match training enables you to win, not disables you. CEOs should take note of this. The rest, well flexibility is good, but rank exploitation should be avoided. If you cant resist it today, it is time to polish your c.v and get moving!
Annabel – my thoughts entirely- but what do employees do if this culture is the sector norm?
Today is national go home on time day – I wonder how many people managed. TU indicates millions of hours of unpaid overtime worked every year in the UK….flexible we definitely are.
Hi Annabel – yes you’re right, there are employers who take ” flexibility” too far.
Especially when starting in a new job, you have to be careful to strike a good balance between being flexible and sticking to your job description. Being too flexible (taking on “menial” tasks too often) might mean that your status will be lowered accordingly. Being too strict might mean that bosses and colleagues will perceive you as “difficult”. Either way, that first impression might haunt you for the rest of your career within that organisation and hinder your advancement.
Hi Marjolein – thanks for your input. Yes it is a fine line to negotiate – wanting to appear willing at the start of a new job, but mindful that some flexibility can be taken advanatge of and start a downward trend. Women ahve to be very mindful of this!
Perhaps the key is to be results focussed. Rather than “I am not doing that” how about “how does that help us achieve the key objectives in my role?”
Annabel – that’s a great line!
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