Have you ever been in a position at work where you’re suddenly found yourself paying your boss’ bills, picking up his or her dry cleaning, or running out each day on their behalf to fulfill a personal errand? If so, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.
One US study last year found that 23% of employees are regularly asked by their manager to take care of ‘non work related’ tasks.
Requests ranged from the mundane, going out to fetch coffee and lunches, to the rather more obscure and liberty taking, lending the boss money and clipping their dog’s toe nails.
This ‘liberty taking’ is something that comes as no surprise to Jo Thomas*, a PR executive, who experienced something similar in her last role.
“My boss occasionally asked me to look after her children at work when she had a meeting, and asked me to collect vouchers for toys for them from newspapers,” she says. “She would also quite often have me go out and move her car to another spot so that she didn’t get a ticket, and was regularly asking me to research personal things for her and go and buy personal gifts for clients.”
It was a similar situation for copywriter, Kate Toon. Not only did she have to buy her boss’ sandwiches, pick up dry his cleaning, buy his ties, and clean his shoes, but she was also asked to light his cigarettes.
Kate admits that this was at the beginning of her career and ‘sounds insane now’, she says that it was totally accepted as the norm at the time.
But it seems that we haven’t progressed that far, as Kylie Garnett’s* experience shows.
Having returned to work as a part time employee after having her son last year, Kylie, a recruitment specialist, found herself suddenly responsible for cleaning up her boss’ breakfast bowls, cleaning up their coffee machine and running errands such as getting their Christmas cards.
The crux came for her however when her bosses returned from lunch one day with yet another request.
“They came in with textas that they had bought me, so that I could draw a “rocket ship” on some pieces of A4 paper stuck together, so that we could colour it in as money was billed,” she explains. “Admittedly it was work related, but it was the final straw for me. It was demeaning and unnecessary and just a way of them yielding their power over me once again.”
So what do the experts say? Is this about power and yielding it over employees, or is it down to something else?
According to Steve Shepherd, Employment Market Analyst at recruitment and HR specialists, Randstad, there is a sliding scale of drivers behind these kind of requests.
“Undoubtedly, there are some bosses out there that use their position of power to get employees to run errands that really do fall outside their responsibilities,” he says. “However, on the other side of the scale, colleagues run errands for each other in the spirit of teamwork and supporting each other, regardless of one or the other’s seniority.”
Steve says that whether or not a request is stepping over the line isn’t always black and white, and the fact that a particular task isn’t in a job description doesn’t mean the employee should refuse to do it. However, Steve highlights that the appropriateness of a request can also be dependent on the employee’s role.
“If an employee is an EA or PA supporting a senior manager, requests for them to run personal errands are more likely to occur on a regular basis,” he says. “On the other hand, if someone is hired to be an accountant, and they end up spending their day getting their employer’s car washed or buying groceries for their boss, the requests are more likely to be inappropriate.”
In terms of how to deal with this, Steve advises that employees who are unhappy or uncomfortable should voice their concerns. This is particularly the case where requests are being made on a daily basis, impacting their ability to get through the workload of the job they were actually hired to do.
“The employee should request a performance appraisal with their manager or approach HR to discuss their thoughts. They should feel comfortable explaining circumstances in which they are happy to do non-work related tasks, but explain that the constant requests make them feel like they aren’t valued in the role they were hired to do.”
Should the situation not change, Steve recommends raising the issue again with a superior, in order to give the employer a final opportunity to remedy it.
“The employer needs to realise they will lose good talent if they take advantage of the power they have,” says Steve. “But, the reality is that if things still don’t change the employee has two options – either they accept that it will continue to happen and stay in the job, or decide it is time for them to look for a new role with a new company.”
Leaving sometimes is the best solution.
“If an employee feels unhappy and uncomfortable at work, and the requests are having a negative impact on their day-to-day mentality, they will be better off moving on.”