how to ask to get out of a work duty

A reader writes:

You often say that managers assume that if an employee has a problem with their work, they’ll say something. But you also tell employees that part of what they’re being paid for is to do tasks they don’t necessarily like to do, and to do them reasonably cheerfully.

Can you shed some light on how to “say something” well, without making it seem like you don’t realize that second part? For example, I work at the local rec center. It’s a historic building, and giving tours is an important part of my and my colleagues’ jobs. We also all have our own areas of authority — I’m the sports manager, someone else is in accounting, someone else does the marketing, etc. As the sports manager, I work a lot of non-business hours, supervising practices and games in the evenings and on weekends. My colleagues’ programs don’t require so much work outside of business hours, except when they’re giving tours. The center director (my immediate boss) tries to divide the tours up fairly evenly between us.

Because I have so much other evening and weekend work, I would like to ask to do fewer tours, since it’s hard that nearly every bye week in the season, I find that I’ve got a tour scheduled that night. But I don’t want to appear lazy, or not a team player, or entitled, as though I think my work is more important than anyone else’s. So I’m sure my manager doesn’t know how I feel.

How can I ask for this without looking like I just want to shirk this responsibility? Or should I not, and just accept that this is the cost of being the sports guy instead of the accounting guy and be grateful that tours are shorter and easier than reffing (and cleaning up after) a basketball game?

The key is really in the tone you use. And the way to get the tone right is to go into the conversation with the understanding that there might be a reason for keeping things the way they are so that you either haven’t factored in or aren’t privy to. If you remember that and you let it inform the way you ask the question, you’ll probably get the tone right.

In your case, I’d say something like this: “Would you be open to adjusting the number of tours I give outside of regular business hours, since my job already has me working so often on evenings and weekends? I know you try to distribute them evenly, but in my case they’re getting added on to an already high number of evening and weekend hours. I can of course continue doing them, but I wasn’t sure if it might be a possibility to switch it up a bit.”

As long as you’re not demanding about it, most managers will appreciate knowing your preferences (within reason, of course; you don’t want to do this daily). That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll agree to what you’re asking; they may not. But sometimes it will lead to exactly the change you’re hoping for, or something close to it.

Either way, if the way you approach the conversation signals “I’m asking about this but I’m not demanding it, and I know there might be reasons not to change it,” no decent manager should find you unreasonable for asking.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. designbot

    FWIW, this sounds like an imminently reasonable request. One compromise may be that during certain seasons (you mention basketball) things get distributed differently because there are more demands on your time–this way your colleagues recognize that this isn’t you getting some sort of preferential treatment because it gets mentally filed under “basketball season is different than the rest of the year” instead of “sports manager doesn’t have to do as much.”

    Reply
    1. Looey

      I like this compromise. I once had a co-worker who couldn’t work Friday nights over the summer. Everyone was okay with covering his turn because he made up for it either side of summer by working multiple Fridays in a row so it all evened out.

      Reply
    2. Joseph

      This is actually pretty important, since it’s likely that most of your colleagues have only a vague idea of how much time you put in outside of normal hours. So if it’s linked to specific seasons, that serves as a quiet reminder that “oh yeah, Jimmy Chitwood puts in a lot of weekend/evening hours during basketball season”.

      Reply
  2. Beatrice

    Maybe you could also try requesting tours on the weeks when you already have games, so that on bye weeks you can have a full week of evenings free?

    (Not sure how sports work, so might be misinterpreting)

    Reply
  3. Moonsaults

    It’s key to remember that management cannot see everything from every angle without cooperation and collaboration. There is nothing wrong with suggesting doing something differently or to plead your case in this situation of why you would prefer to have less tours scheduled during your already slim evenings and weekends.

    It’s just like tweaking rules in a game after you realize that it’s just not working out the way it’s set up. Procedures and practices can change but you have to have someone push in that direction to start the change.

    Always ask but be willing to take “I’m sorry that cannot be possible” for an answer. Also as long as you aren’t combing over each procedure and policy with a fine tooth comb looking for places to make things work to your personal advantage, management won’t be bothered or rarely think twice over the suggestions.

    Reply
  4. FCJ

    I think the key here is making sure your boss knows that you want to be flexible. It’s not that you don’t want to do tours ever, it’s that you want the occasional night/weekend to yourself.

    I had a comparable issue at a job years ago. I worked at a Starbucks with a drive-through as well as a lobby, and at some point I realized that I had worked the drive-through literally every single shift for months. I pointed it out to the scheduling manager and asked if I could have at least one shift a week off the drive-through. I don’t think she had connected the pattern–she was just trying to make sure everything had coverage–so when I pointed it out to her she was happy to accommodate me.

    Its very possible that your boss, like mine, just hasn’t noticed the pattern. They’ve got a lot of bigger-picture things to look at, so they’re not super invested in the minute details of each employee’s individual schedule–they’re just trying to make sure the tours happen and are distributed fairly evenly.

    Reply
  5. pathecre

    I’m in a pretty different situation, but also want to ask why without appearing to not be a team player.

    Our managers (we have three or four) collectively decided, as an experiment, to have one person be on-call during normal business hours for the entire quarter. Normally, our team rotates on a weekly basis. Here, on-call is very, very, very stressful. The reason for the experiment wasn’t explained very well and I’m worried that the person they tapped to take it on will just stoically slog through the quarter leaving the managers with the impression that this was a successful experiment and one that they should repeat either every quarter or maybe just occasionally.

    I have no desire to ever be on-call for 40 hours a week for an entire quarter. To me, it’s an unbelievably ridiculous thing to ask. It also makes me question the trust I had placed in our managers to not only do what’s best for the team but for each individual on the team.

    I’ve been wrestling with the best way to say that I absolutely hate the very idea of this experiment.

    Reply
    1. KellyK

      Maybe, “On-call can be stressful because of X and Y, and I’m concerned that it might burn Fergus out to do it all quarter.”

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    2. NK

      I think you take a pretty similar approach. I would approach the manager you have the best rapport with and say something like, “can you provide a little more insight on the experiment to have one person be on call for a quarter?” See what they say, and as necessary you can follow up with things like, “was there something that wasn’t working well with rotating on-call days weekly?” And if you aren’t getting answers that make sense, I think you could reasonably say, “I’m a little concerned that people might end up getting burnt out with being on-call for a quarter, even if they don’t speak up about it.” As Alison said, if you go in being open to the idea that there may be a good reason for this, I think you can hit the right tone.

      Reply
    3. Government Worker

      How does time off work with the on-call system? If being on call makes it impossible to take vacation days and harder to take time for medical appointments and other things during the day, then that’s a totally unreasonable burden to put on employees for three months at a time. In addition to the burnout concern, I’d raise the potential impact on employees with recurring medical appointments (or child care concerns, or other personal circumstances), and the unfairness to whoever is on call through all of the winter holidays.

      Reply
      1. Anna the Accounting Grad

        Especially if it makes it hard to handle medical things or child care. I’m no lawyer, but if being on call prevents someone from seeing a doctor during their office hours or making sure their kid is looked after for an ENTIRE QUARTER, your employer may very well have left themselves open to a discrimination lawsuit.

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I don’t see discrimination there, but it’s certainly not a good practice. (Discrimination would mean treating people differently because of their sex, race, religion, etc.)

          Reply
        2. Moonsaults

          Being on call usually means that you need to be able to be available by phone or at the office within a certain period of time. So you can certainly make a local doctors appointment no problem, there is an issue if you said needed a specialist that’s a drive away.

          Granted whenever I hear “on call” I imagine a doctor with a pager or I know a few locksmiths and such who have to carry the company cellphone to go pop a lock if someone is locked out at 2AM, etc.

          So it does mess up vacation times and road trips.

          Reply
    4. ThatGirl

      I think it’s totally understandable to fear burnout, not to mention an inability to take time off for an entire quarter. I would enlist your coworkers to help if you think you might need backup – I’m guessing nobody wants to do it for three months at a time.

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      1. EddieSherbert

        +1

        Yea… I love my job, and I definitely would not have accepted it if my on call shift lasted all quarter (one week at a time is stressful enough!!).

        Reply
    5. NW Mossy

      Since it sounds like the first guinea pig for this new approach isn’t you, it might be a good idea to talk to that person peer-to-peer about this. You can say “I know that our managers tapped you for this on-call experiment, and I’m concerned that it’s not sustainable for us as a team long-term. How is it going for you?” The point is to start a conversation and see if your peer shares your concerns, and if so, you can present a united front to management that will strengthen your case. You can also encourage your peer to share his/her feedback (particularly if there are concerns) rather than keeping it bottled up, because being more candid can keep this at the level of “failed experiment” rather than “new normal.”

      Reply
    6. Jennifer

      Did the person volunteer for constant on-call duty? I ask because we had someone who volunteered to do most of our very stressful public service shifts because she at least tolerates that sort of thing better than everyone else. I thought the same thing, but I guess she’s fine with it? Or do you know for a fact that this person had it sprung upon them?

      This may also depend on how much your managers will listen to your saying anything. Some folks just won’t listen and refuse to learn except through the hard way, i.e. your one person on call all day has a meltdown a few months in. Then again, maybe they won’t?

      You can try asking, but it’ll depend on how receptive they are to anyone speaking up.

      Reply
  6. addiez

    Based on what Alison often recommends, I’d be inclined to suggest you get a group of people who agree with you and go to your leadership together. If it’s unattractive to multiple people, it’d be more likely for them to consider it than a one person request. Could you ask around with others who’d get the assignment to see how they feel?

    Reply
    1. SarahTheEntwife

      I’m not sure how that would work in this case. Tours seem to be an essential duty of the job, just the OP is (quite reasonably) asking to do fewer of them given their other after-business-hours duties. If everyone is asking to not do after-hours tours, unless they’re much more peripheral to the job as a whole than it sounds I’m not sure why a manager wouldn’t just say “well, perhaps I should hire people who want to do the entire job”.

      Reply
  7. BPT

    I think a big part of the balancing act of asking not to do certain tasks vs. shirking responsibility is asking yourself a few questions.

    1) Am I the only one in the organization who does this? If not, are there good reasons to shift some of the responsibilities to someone else who already does this? If yes, does it make sense for someone else to do these responsibilities?
    2) Will it cause problems for other people’s workloads comparatively?
    3) Am I asking because there is a legitimate reason to shift responsibilities, or do I just not like my responsibilities?

    OP in your case, it seems to make sense to shift the responsibilities. You aren’t the only one who can do the job, and so it isn’t as big of a deal to add to the work your coworkers are already doing. It makes sense for them to take on more of these tours because the workload is already out of whack – you are doing tours outside of business hours, PLUS a lot of other work. So it makes sense to sort of even out the hours. There is a legitimate reason to ask to shift.

    Something that wouldn’t meet this criteria to me is maybe an Administrative Assistant (or the lowest person in the hierarchy of the office) not wanting to clean up after meetings or take notes during meetings. (In that case, it wouldn’t make sense for someone else to do the work.) Or an upper level law firm partner deciding they didn’t want part of their job description to be bringing in clients. It makes sense that that is one of their duties, and it doesn’t make sense to give it to someone on a lower level.

    Of course, the boss could always say no, you have to keep doing what you’re doing, but this seems like the right opportunity to ask I think.

    Reply
    1. LQ

      I think would someone else be equally or better suited and prefer to do this is an ok question to ask too. Your supervisor might have reasons for not changing it, but I know I asked once because I just straight up didn’t like it, he thought he was giving me a “fun” assignment I’d like. I knew someone else would actually really like to (came and complained I got it), when I asked my boss he was very happy to take it off my plate once he knew it was something I didn’t like. (Especially when I agreed to mentor the other person into getting all the pieces right.) Sometimes not liking something is enough, but it is so much about tone then too.

      Reply
  8. B

    I’ve definitely had some crash and burn moments with these kinds of requests. It can be a very sensitive situation for some and not as much for others.

    There was one senior employee who wasn’t my manager but had duties to assign work. If I asked any questions about the timing or suggested any different ways to test efficiency, she’d say “Oh I guess you don’t want to do it. I’ll just do it.”

    She’d also ask to be CC’d and once she saw my work, she would tell me “I don’t think this is what the client wants. I’m going to redo this.”

    Since she was senior and it’s an open office space where conversations were public, it was difficult to recover from.

    I was incredibly willing to do things the original way. I just didn’t have any understanding of the structure or reasoning behind it. My managers were also not that helpful here. This came with direct experience with clients and other staff members.

    Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable explaining roles and reasoning about sensitive areas.

    Reply
  9. Engineer Girl

    Data is your friend in his situation. You need to figure out how many hours you work on weekends and evenings. (X hours)
    Also figure out how many evening hours tours take. (Y hours)
    You can then go to your manager and show that your are giving X+Y hours total in the weekend/evening Vs your coworkers who are giving Y hours. This means that you have less off hours than your coworkers.
    Point out that evenly dividing tour hours has a much greater impact on number of off hours that you have available for your use. The term is “disperate impact”. Ask if perhaps you could do day tours instead. Or ask for a day off during the week to compensate for working all those weekend/evening hours.
    The point you want to bring out is having an equitable number of off hours as your coworkers. You want to contribute as much as your coworkers but you also need equal time off.

    Reply
    1. Engineer Girl

      BTW. EEOC Aja’s hijacked the term disparate impact to mean a legal thing for discrimination. It is also a technical term.
      You might want to use “unequal impact” to avoid hot buttons.

      Reply
  10. Michelle

    We had a very similar situation where I work. The Director of Events (DOE) works a lot of hours that are outside of normal business hours. All of our Directors & Manager are required to work one weekend day of manager on duty work every schedule. Our schedules usually run 2 to 2 1/2 months. . Unfortunately, most of her shifts coincided with a night event, so she was working 18 hour days, plus she might have another event the next day, such as a bridal show or rehearsal dinner, ceremony, etc. AND she was doing that for 3 museums.

    She was talking to me one day about how tired she was all the time (hate to say this but it was obvious- she looked exhausted). So I asked her if she ever thought about asking to be exempted from MOD duty because so much of her work included nights, weekends, etc. She said she never thought she could ask, but I encouraged her to go talk to her supervisor and when she finally did, her manager agreed and she got exempted from MOD duty.

    I think you should ask about not scheduling tours during your bye week. Everyone really needs downtime and it sounds like you are seriously due some.

    Reply
  11. OP

    Thanks so much for the affirming words, commenters. I’m glad to hear I’m not totally off-base or selfish for wanting a few evenings at home with my family.

    I think designbot’s seasonal suggestion might work (I’m the manager for all sports, so soccer does bleed into basketball bleeds into baseball, etc., but there is a low season). My co-workers have asked a couple times how I am, so I must look tired like Michelle’s former co-worker. I think they get it, I just need to talk to my boss and make sure, like Allison says, to get the tone right.

    Reply
  12. Bibliovore

    I’m with the data collection. I was once in a library job where I had 17 fixed classes a week beginning at 9:00 am as well as four hour-long research blocks weekly with students 6th through 8th grade. My day officially ended at 4:00 but because of meetings and after school events, I ended some days at 6 or 7. I also was a subject specialist and my desk was visible to the public. The library was a shared space and was open until 5:00 on Fridays. There was a meeting about reference desk coverage and to “be fair” the scheduling librarian slotted me in on the 2:30 to 4:30 reference desk on Friday afternoons. After all she was only asking me to take one desk a week.

    I was livid. When I went to the director, she asked me to speak directly to the scheduling librarian.

    It turns out that the scheduling librarian had no clue what I did everyday and was fine pulling me off the desk schedule.

    Reply

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