A reader writes:
I am more senior in my role here at my company, and a lot of colleagues like to reach out to me for help. They find it easier to ask me for help than to figure things out on their own. At times, I’m being ask to do things outside of what I’m responsible for. While I always want to be a team player and help, it’s getting to be too much and my work/personal life are suffering, and I don’t want folks to constantly lean on me and take advantage of my helpful nature.
My manager is not very good at providing us with firm direction on what we’re responsible for and what we’re not, so I can’t find help there.
How do I politely tell a colleague, “That’s not my job, that’s yours (or someone else’s, I don’t know who and I’m not willing to go figure that out for you)” without sounding like I am not being a team player or being rude for not helping even though I’m senior and I may know how to help?
A lot of people would have you believe that it’s a cardinal sin to ever say “that’s not my job”; somehow that’s become ingrained in people as an absolute workplace don’t.
And it’s true that refusing to do a particular task because it’s not in your job description is a good way to lose the support of your boss. Job descriptions aren’t comprehensive, and most people end up doing work that doesn’t fall squarely within their job description. Insisting on sticking rigidly to your job and nothing but your job usually doesn’t end well.
But there are times when it’s appropriate — and in fact necessary — to communicate that you aren’t the right person to do something. That’s especially true when dealing with coworkers, but it can be true with you’re communicating with your manager as well (although usually that should be rarer).
In doing that, you don’t want to simply say, “That’s not my job” — or you would indeed risk coming across as being overly rigid. Instead, you want to explain why you’re declining.
In your situation, I’d use language that refers to having other priorities that you need to focus on. For instance:
* “Right now I need to focus on X and Y so don’t think I can be of help.”
* “I’m swamped and realistically don’t think I’ll have time to weigh in on this.”
* “I’d have to spend some time digging into that to figure it out, and unfortunately I can’t right now because I’m on deadline.”
If you can, try pointing them in the right direction (like, “try checking the X document on the server — it should help”). But if that’s not feasible (because you don’t know or would need to invest time in figuring it out), it’s fine to skip that.
More broadly, in some contexts you can try:
* “I’m not usually the person who handles that. You might check with Jane to see if she can point you in the right direction.”
* “I’m not usually the person who handles that. I’m not sure who is, actually!”
(Whether or not those last two are appropriate will depend on the nature of your role. If you’re the CFO and someone is asking you about making a change to the website, this is probably appropriate. If you’re an assistant and your boss is asking you this, you probably need to find out who the right person is to consult.)
In other cases, this might end being a conversation to have with your boss. How you’d handle that depends on the specifics of the situation. For example:
If your boss is asking you to do more than you can reasonably take on without neglecting bigger responsibilities: “I noticed that you’ve increasingly been asking me to help with X and Y. It’s hard for me to take that on without decreasing the amount of time I have for A and B, and I’m worried about giving short shrift to those since we have big deadlines coming up on both. Is it possible for me to punt on X and Y, at least until we’re over the hump on A and B, or should I be prioritizing things differently?”
If your boss is asking you to do things you just really don’t want to do (and which you reasonably thought would not be a part of your role): “You’ve been asking me lately to get more involved in talking to the media. I get why it would be useful to have another person on the team who can do interviews, but I want to be honest — I really dislike interviews and actually changed into this field to get away from doing them, and I hadn’t realized it would be a part of my role here. Is it something that you’re committed to having the person in my role do or is there any flexibility there?”
If other people keep bringing you stuff that you want to turn down and it’s become a pattern that you want to address with your boss: “A lot of people have been approaching me for help with X. In theory, I’d love to help, but in reality I don’t really have the time to offer much help and still juggle X and Y. I wanted to flag for you that it seems like people might need more guidance with X or better resources for tackling it, and also to check with you to see if there’s someone else I could be directing them to.”
But in general, it’s reasonable to speak up when something would detract from bigger priorities. When your boss is the one doing the asking, that doesn’t mean totally declining to do it — but it does mean opening a conversation about trade-offs and what path makes the most sense.