A reader writes:
I am a salaried employee of a market research company and have worked for this company for about three years (two on an hourly basis and just about one on a salaried basis that assumes I do 20 hours of work a week). I am a market research analyst, so most of my work is related to creating reports and summaries for clients based on the data we’ve collected during our research efforts.
We recently opened a new office in a shared space; half is used by my company, and the other half by a psychological practice owned by my boss’s wife. My boss recently told me that since our company’s workload for the upcoming weeks is going to be light, I would be expected to come to the office in order to work as the receptionist/scheduler/secretary for his wife’s practice. (In the immediate future, we don’t have a lot of research scheduled, and as a result there’s not much slated for me to do in terms of my normal work of creating reports and such.)
As the companies are completely different entities (and not even remotely in the same field), it seems to me that it’s not appropriate for me to be asked to work for my boss’s wife. Am I correct, and if so, how might I diplomatically explain this to my boss?
It’s not appropriate, no. Working for his wife or a different company isn’t a job that you signed up for, and the work isn’t even similar to what you do. It’s not appropriate to lend out employees to one’s spouse, particularly without the employees’ genuine consent.
That said, I’d assume that your boss is trying to avoid (a) paying you to do nothing for however long the research lull lasts, or (b) furloughing you until the work picks back up. However, this isn’t the right way to go about it. If this is the only way he can justify paying you for this period, he should have explained the situation and asked if you’d prefer an unpaid furlough for X weeks or the opportunity to work for his wife to keep your paycheck steady during period. But simply announcing it as a done deal makes him (and his wife) look unprofessional and like he doesn’t understand that a research analyst might not be interested in working as a receptionist.
To be clear, it’s certainly his prerogative to reassign you in this way. There’s no regulation that prevents it. It’s just bad management.
As for how you can approach your boss about it, first you should decide if you’re willing to not work and go unpaid for that period, because that might be your only option. If you’re not, are there other projects that you can propose working on during that period, things that would have value to the company? You’re going to be in a weaker position if you’re essentially saying to him “pay me for multiple weeks of no work” — so figure out what you can propose that avoids that.
And then sit down and talk to him. Say something like, “I want to talk to you about your proposal that I work for Jane in the coming weeks. I’m concerned about taking on a role that is outside my area of expertise, and frankly outside my professional interest. I completely understand that you’re looking for ways to utilize me while our research workload is light, and I don’t expect to be paid for not working — but I thought instead I could do XYZ.” (Fill that in with “take the time unpaid until work resumes” or the specific projects you’re proposing you work on.)
Nothing guarantees that he’ll accept your counter-proposal, of course, but that’s a reasonable way to approach it, and a reasonable manager should understand where you’re coming from. (And being willing to do a furlough for that period is hard to argue with — at that point you’re eliminating the problem of paying you when there’s no work.) But if he won’t budge, then your options would be:
a. Accept this as a condition of the work and deal with working for his wife for a few weeks
b. Accept this as a condition of the work but start job hunting because you don’t like these changed terms
c. Tell him you’re not comfortable working for his wife and accept the possibility that he could let you go (or that it will sour the relationship in unpleasant ways)
Any of these are legitimate choices, depending on how much you like your work the rest of the time, whether this is the only problematic behavior your boss has displayed or one of many, and what kind of options you have for other work. Good luck.