my creative role has turned into drudgery for the foreseeable future

A reader writes:

Three years ago I had a job that paid well, but was tedious and unfulfilling. I left that job for a similar but much more creative position at a significant pay cut. It was worth it because I loved my new job… until recently.

For the last 4+ months, I’ve been doing the same work I was doing at my previous tedious job. It’s expected that everyone on the team eventually has to work on a boring project for awhile. But this time the drudgery is showing no sign of letting up, it’s my only project (unusual), and it often requires me to work late nights. I am miserable and feel am I past due to be put back on the kind of projects I was hired to do.

This week I found out that this project will be going on for the next three months at least, and then will continue indefinitely, and they don’t have any plans to take me off it. I feel like they’ve pulled a bait-and-switch on me, knowing my past experience, and that I’m being used to keep their cash-cow client so the rest of the team can pursue more creatively fulfilling projects.

What’s the best way to approach my manager about this? I’m not willing to continue doing this project, especially not at my current salary, although I would be willing to split my time between this project and others for a modest pay raise. I’d also be willing to stay at my current salary if I knew I’d be taken off the project permanently after the next three-month cycle. However, I don’t think anyone else on my team is skilled enough in this kind of work to keep up with the project’s demanding timelines.

Ugh. It’s not crazy that, knowing they have a team member with experience in doing this work, they’ve asked you to pitch in to help. But four months of drudgery with late hours is entirely reasonable to balk at, and you’re absolutely entitled to say “no more.” However, before you get too resentful about it, keep in mind that if you haven’t clearly spoken up about not wanting to do this, they may not realize how unhappy you are. It’s easy to think that they should be able to figure it out, but it’s also the work you were doing before coming to them — they might think you’re fine with it, and they’re probably not thinking about the pay difference.

So you’re right to be planning to speak up. Talk to your manager and say something like this: “I’ve been happy to help the team by working on Project Tedious, but I’ve put in four months on it now, and I’m hoping we can come up with a timeline for moving me back to X, Y, and Z. I don’t know if you remember, but I actually used to do work like Project Tedious at my previous job, and I deliberately came here to stop doing that work, taking a significant pay cut to do it. It’s important to me that I not spend much more time away from the work you brought me on for, so can we talk about what the plan will be going forward?”

If your manager tells you that this needs to be the set-up for any significant period of time, then say this: “I’d really like to be moved back to the work I signed on for. If there’s no way to do that fully, is it possible for me to split my time between the two? I’d want to revisit the question of my salary during that period, because this is work that I used to be paid significantly more for.”

I’m wary of offering the option of doing it for another three months at your current salary in exchange for being moved off of it permanently in three months, because there’s too much chance that they’ll agree to that now but have a reason they can’t do it in three months.

And if your boss tell you that this is what the team needs right now, then say: “I’ve been glad to pitch in and help out for four months — so it’s not that I’m not willing to take one for the team. But it’s been four months, this isn’t a job I’ve signed up for long-term, and so we need a different plan.”

Hopefully laying this out clearly will result in something changing. But if not, hold on to your clarity about your bottom line — what you are and aren’t willing to do and for what price, and what would make you walk away.

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. a

    I wouldn’t worry that this is a bait and switch – it’s been three years since that position. (Three months and I might wonder!) Speak up, and see what can or cannot be arranged. After three years, you may also be at a good point for moving forward in your creative career.

    1. M. in Austin!

      I agree. It might just be time to move on. I’d follow AAM’s advice, but I’d also be prepared to start job hunting.

      1. MissDisplaced

        Tend to agree too, but maybe there are other options. You might end up having to train someone else to do “Project Tedious” though.

  2. Robin

    Being good at a tedious-but-valuable skill can be bit of a trap. No matter where you go, there is going to be some pressure for you to get back into that kind of work. If you do decide to move on, I would consider downplaying your tedious-but-valuable experience. It might mean finding a job is tougher, but it will help you avoid this problem in the future.

    1. Erik

      I had this problem earlier in my career, where I had to do software testing jobs to make ends meet after a layoff from my software development job. Testing is very tedious and can drive you nuts over time, especially when you end up getting pidgin-holed in it.

      It took me years to get that monkey off my back, since everyone simply wanted to throw me into that role regardless of what I was looking for and my qualifications for other work. I eventually removed any mention of testing from my resume, interviews, etc. and the problem eventually went away. Thank God.

    2. Project Tedious

      Yeah, I was going to say something similar. In my previous jobs, I’ve had an unfortunate tendency to get sucked into doing a lot of spreadsheet management and data analysis and reporting, simply because I’m detail-oriented and good at solving problems. But I really dislike it, and it frustrated me for a long time that I always got saddled with the responsibility until I realized that by being “good” at it, I was setting myself up for it. There’s a saying – “Don’t be an expert on anything you don’t want to do.” It’s possible that applies here.

    3. Tris Prior

      +1. Employers sooner or later would see that I had lots of experience in CrappyProject for DifficultClient and then that’s the only kind of work I would be given. Horrible, soul-sucking, 80-hour-a-week projects. When I asked to be taken off that sort of project and put on projects that were more in line with what I wanted to do, I was told, “sorry, no one else here is any good at doing those projects.”

      Um, so, you haven’t hired enough people with the skills that are needed… this is my problem because??

      I had to change industries completely to break the cycle…

    4. Ani

      OP doesn’t even need to indicate on a resume that this current creative title kind of devolved into one she had a different company.

      1. Not So NewReader

        In the past there have been about 2-3 things that I just refused to get good at. Not something I do on a regular basis and not something that I recommend except for extreme cases, such as extraordinary fear/anxiety, safety issues, too great a learning curve, etc.

        For example: A machine broke. I was told to take out the circuit diagram, take the covers off the machine and diagnose what is wrong. Okay, first I have to learn how to read a circuit diagram. Then I have to figure out what all those electronic boards are for. Next, I have to figure out how to get the covers off the machine….once I locate the proper tools or bring something in from home.
        Too steep a learning curve and I would probably electrocute myself in the process.
        Just. NO. NO.
        If I had massive amounts of time and training I might actually figure it out eventually.(You know, two maybe three years from now.)

  3. Artemesia

    3 years? Time for a new job. And the sooner the better. There is no reason for them to move you off this job — no one else can do it, you do it well, and it is always easier to continue making someone miserable than to do the hard work to change the situation. So time to move on. Don’t threaten it. Keep it under your hat, but make it your top priority.

    1. Laura

      I read it as 3 years at NewJob, of which 2 years 8 months has been doing NewStuff that the LW was hired for, and the last 4 months has been doing TediousStuff like OldJob that the LW was trying to get away from.

      There’s still a chance to get out from under that, especially if CurrentManager doesn’t know, or has forgotten, that the LW was trying to get away from TediousStuff.

      1. Artemesia

        yes, I understand that — but 3 years is a ‘good time to move on’ in any job when the situation is not making you happy.

  4. LQ

    This is such a difficult problem. I know in my job I often get roped into doing some of those tedious tasks, because I can do them a lot faster. But I have had conversations with my boss and he knows that too much of them is frustrating for me. One thing that was critical in being able to have other people share the burden is that I have to create the documentation and train people to do those tasks. (My boss will make sure I have time to do that, because it is important in case I leave/get promoted/get hit by a bus.)

    If this doesn’t exist at your job it can make a huge difference in getting rid of (or at least sharing) those tasks.

    1. Gene

      Part of transitioning off this is the need to train someone else to be able to do it. Face it, if you’re the only one in the office who can do it, you’ll be the one doing it.

      1. Barry

        The trick is that training somebody to do it takes time from both persons’ work, and the new person will be worse at it for a while. If the company is thinking short-term, there is no reason to doing that, when they have a competent, experienced person already doing it.

        I’d look for a new job, downplaying experience in Tedium.

  5. James M

    I’ve heard of people being hired to develop software and then getting dumped into QA or data entry. I just chatted with a college buddy (BS-CS) who’s already bored to tears with the drudgery of QA.

    Don’t set yourself up to be strung along by empty promises.

    1. Laura

      Yes, there is that – though after 2+ years of doing what the LW was hired for, I’d argue that 4 months isn’t _yet_ proof the LW can’t get back to what they were hired for.

      If it shows no signs of stopping, though, it’s resume time.

    2. Erik

      I just posted a comment about this very thing. I know the feeling – been there, done that. It’s not fun at all. I had to take QA jobs to make ends meet after layoffs but it took some work and luck to finally get rid of it once and for all. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that work again.

      Hell, I even lied about it on my resume and to hiring managers because once they hear “testing”, “QA”, etc. then it goes downhill from there.

      Empty promises are pretty bad – I had one company trying to hire me and their pay was on the very low end of the scale. When I inquired they just gave a blanket response about growth opportunities. Yeah right – the last N companies have said the same thing.

    3. MaryMary

      I’m amused that so many people consider QA their Project Tedious. Testing was my first job out of college, and I’d rather test than code any day. I wasn’t a CS/MIS/BIS major in school, so the limited coding skills I have I learned backwards and while on the job. Maybe it’s the perverse sense of satisfaction I found in identifying other people’s mistakes?

      1. Laura

        I’m an engineer and I love developing and creating.

        …but the little gremlin in me cackles when I find something broken that I didn’t cause, especially if the effects are entertaining.

      2. Erik

        It’s different when you’re not a CS grad. Then it’s not as a big of a stigma with doing QA, as you’re expected to be a software engineer if you have a CS degree.

        Personally, I do take QA very seriously, as I’ve worked in medical device software that MUST work. However, I do everything in my power to avoid doing it as part of the job at all costs.

      3. Biff

        I really like QA, which is what I do. What I find frustrating is the office politics that seems so often part and parcel to the tech world.

        1. Windchime

          We have a software QA guy at our shop who is worth his weight in gold (if not more). Being good at formal QA is a very specialized skill; being good at it and liking it seem to be kind of rare. I’m so, so glad we’ve got the guy we have; it makes me a better coder just knowing that he’s going to be going over it with a fine-toothed comb. Most developers, including me, don’t really like to do documentation or the other “boring” stuff, but this guy keeps us on the straight and narrow.

          I personally don’t like doing QA at all. I’m really thankful that there are people who like it.

      4. James M

        QA is a vital part of software development; but it’s not for everyone. Personally, I’d rather write unit tests than do QA.

  6. ANB

    I’m not sold on this wording “I’d want to revisit the question of my salary during that period, because this is work that I used to be paid significantly more for.” As Alison has said before, asking for more money based on what another company paid you won’t always get you a raise. If you still want to include it, it may be more effective to broaden the scope and say something like “I’d want to revisit the question of my salary during that period, because this is work that I used to be paid significantly more for, and the current market rate for these skills is XX.”

    1. Kimberlee, Esq.

      In this case, though, market rate isn’t as important as the fact that it’s what OP used to make. The wording Alison used is supposed to say “I left my other job, that paid more, to get away from this work. If you’re going to make me do that work anyway, you need to at least match that salary.” Ultimately, it’s up to the company to meet it or not, but the market isn’t really relevant here, it’s about what OP is and is not willing to do.

    2. Stephen

      I would be hestitant to say this at all, because the OP doesn’t actually want to revisit their salary at all; if they were happy doing this work for slightly more money they would never have left their orginal job. If they sense that the best they are going to get is a pay bump, then I suppose they could down this road, but it distracts from the real message they are trying to convey which is “I need to be doing something more challanging than this, and I’ve quit over this very issue before, so if you value me you should be using me for something more meaningful.”

        1. Barry

          However, if the company doesn’t want to change what OP’s doing, then OP is stuck doing it, at least until they can leave. In today’s economy, that might mean years.

          Push to get at least partly out of it, push for a raise, and mention that Tedium pays more elsewhere (and if OP is stuck doing Tedium because nobody else can do it, then OP has some leverage).

      1. Not So NewReader

        This so much.
        I think OP’s next move is finding out how much of this will now be considered her job on a regular basis. (These things tend to work into, “Well, last year you did this for us for 5 months so this year we have New Tedious Project that will take seven months.”)

        People can be willing to take less pay for a job they enjoy OR they can be willing to take a job for more pay that is not to their liking. I think someone forgot the original discussion at the hiring table. I have seen this one happen so many times. “No, Boss, I actually meant what I said when you were considering my candidacy.” Surprise.

    1. Sharon

      :)

      Off topic, but you made me remember this. My husband is a lead software engineer. A few years ago his team was asked to work on a dead project that was admitted by management to be dead. I no longer remember the details, but something along the lines of the customer cancelled the work contract but they were asked to implement the software anyway; very specific software with no other possible market they could sell it to. He was telling me the story over dinner and I suggested they call it “Project Barn Door”, after the old saying about closing the barn door after the horses have run out. A few weeks later he told me that they were openly using that as the project’s codename!

      1. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)

        HA! I know of someone who had a project called Project Maxwell. TPTB named it this for Maxwell Smart – thinking they were being clever about how great and efficient the software they were working on was. I don’t think any of them had ever watched an episode of Get Smart…

      1. Mallory Janis Ian

        I’m working on my Project Tedious right now: compiling faculty accomplishments for the year (books published, awards received, etc.) into a departmental bibliography for the annual report. They are supposed to send their lists to me using the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (available online! link sent to them for their reference!) so that, ostensibly, I can just copy and paste their contributions into the overall document. However, there is a very, very loose interpretation as to what Chicago style is, so I’m tediously doing all the formatting.

        Q: Aren’t academics supposed to know the citation style for their discipline?
        A: They do know it, but why should they bother when they know I’ll do it for them :-/

          1. Daria

            Push back hard core. Set up a QuickParts or signature detailing how to to Chicago style. Perhaps include a video. When they send you stuff in incorrect format, send it back. “Thanks for sending me Document 1! I’ve returned it for corrections. Please see the reference materials below blah blah blah.” If you do it for them, they will come to expect that. Train them to meet your expectations. I firmly believe in the old adage that you teach people how to treat you.

        1. MentalEngineer

          A1: They know it’s supposed to be the citation style for their discipline, but in practice use individual arcane citation systems in their daily work.
          A2: Grad students usually put together the faculty bibliographies, so they haven’t had to format a citation in 30 years.
          A3: The IT department just sent out a warning about not clicking on any links in emails, so they didn’t view the manual you sent them.
          A(n): …

          I’m going to miss academia when I finish. Mostly.

        2. yumyums

          I do tech support for pharmaceutical reps. Their job runs off of their ipads and laptops, but for some reason I have to spend my time hand-holding nitwits who are incompwtent to the point of needing to be told how to type a URL into IE. Your job requires the use of technology and you receive a 6 figure salary. Learn. How. To. Do. Your. Job.

          …Or maybe the company can pay me 120k a year as well, instead of the $14/hour I receive for doing my job AND yours.

        3. maybes

          Try using a citation manager like Zotero (which is free). It will automatically output a bibliography formatted for the style manual of your choice. Does a pretty good job, although you have to check it over. Zotero is free.

  7. CTO

    OP, I completely understand your frustration and I think your concerns are valid. That said, I can see a bit of “everyone’s against me and they are making me miserable on purpose” in your letter. That might be how it feels, but I doubt there’s some vast conspiracy going on; it’s probably more of an oversight. I don’t think your company’s goal is to make you feel miserable, unvalued, and underpaid. They might just not realize the impact that this project has on your happiness. Changing your mindset a bit to take that into account might help you feel a little better and will probably set a better tone for your negotiations about continuing this project. As Alison often suggests, go in with a collaborative–rather than oppositional–outlook and see what happens.

    You’ve been there three years and it sounds like they see and appreciate your talent. If you speak up about how unhappy you are, they might be willing to make some changes to keep you happy. Good luck and keep us updated!

  8. Malissa

    If this were me I would approach the manager about teaching coworkers how to do the work on project tedious as well. It’s never a good strategy to have such an important project in only one person’s hand. If you bring other people on and find a good split to the work then you can go back to more creative projects.

  9. Lily in NYC

    Alison, in your helpful talking points to the OP, you wrote “But it’s been four months, this isn’t a job I’ve signed up for long-term, and so we need a different plan” as an option for him/her to say to the boss. That seems almost like an ultimatum. I’ve seen a lot of similar questions here in the past where your answer is that our employers have every right to change our job title or duties and responsibilites and our choices are to deal with it or look for another job. So what is it that makes this one different? I do think the OP has leverage because of the circumstances but the sentence I mentioned seems like pushback that might backfire. I know our division head would not be happy if someone said that to him (but he’s a jerk).

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Her leverage is that she’s very clear that she’s willing to walk away over this. So she needs to let her manager know what she wants. From there, it’s up to the manager. But it’s absolutely reasonable to say “here’s what I am and am willing to do,” as long as you understand that you might need to walk away over it, which in this case she is.

      As I wrote in the comments on a different post today, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying “here’s my bottom line; let’s talk about what makes sense for both of us.”

      1. a

        I know the OP is willing to walk away, but is she able? I’m not sure (as a hiring manager) how I would interpret someone leaving over a relatively short stint of doing what she doesn’t want to do. We’re pretty careful not to put anyone in that type of position, but I’ve been with my company long enough to see it happen a handful of times. (Says more to how long I’ve been here!) So as uncommon as it is, I would be hesitant to hire someone if 6 months would be a deal breaker.

        1. Laura

          But OP has put in four months on this and is willing to put in three more / to the end of this cycle. She just wants to know that it will end and go back to more of what she was hired for.

          Also, the next hiring manager will see three years of employment – and not know she left over this project, if she ends up doing it, unless she chooses to share that for some reason.

          1. A

            I wouldn’t see it at first but it could easily come up in reference checking or just by the small world experience. I’m not saying she should stay – but thinking on if that’s the best way to leave. Ranging far in thought to be sure, but that’s why we’re here!

        2. Anon. Scientist

          I had a few “short term” projects that for various reasons (stress, potential legal liability) had me saying “I will quit before I do that again”. And when I did quit, it wasn’t because of those particular projects. In my biz, sometimes you have bad projects. It was the utter lack of management support and the prospect of regular clusterf*s for apparently forever that lead me to leave.

          Short term trouble that is symptomatic of long-term issues is not short term trouble.

      2. Lily in NYC

        Makes sense to me. Thanks for answering; I am envisioning a similar situation happening to me in a couple of months and am trying to steel myself for this type of conversation – so I wanted to make sure I understand all the angles so I don’t screw up. I somehow missed that OP was willing to walk.

    2. Barry

      “…and our choices are to deal with it or look for another job. So what is it that makes this one different? ”

      The ways suggested are in fact ways of dealing with it.

  10. Ann O'Nemity

    Something similar happened to me when my boss realized that I had a certain skill set that I (deliberately) hadn’t included on my resume. I had very good luck saying something along the lines of, “I can pinch hit on X work on occasion when the company is in a bind, but my career goals do not include doing X. If I enjoyed that kind of work, I’d get an X job with a significantly higher salary.”

  11. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

    There’s a giant fly in the ointment that I don’t think anybody else mentioned. This is a cash cow customer and:

    However, I don’t think anyone else on my team is skilled enough in this kind of work to keep up with the project’s demanding timelines.

    If things are as the OP has presented, what immediate choices does the boss have? Just removing the OP isn’t an option.

    I think the only option is for the boss to dedicate more resources. She’s got to pull somebody off of whatever else and have that person train and work with the OP until the person is up to speed (which, from the OP doesn’t sound like it will be super fast, but more a period of a couple months).

    The boss will be motivated to do this if she believes the OP will leave unless moved. The motivation may come from wanting to retain the employee OR may come from needing to have a back up to replace the OP, so that’s a bit sticky that way.

    Of course I don’t know how this all happened. I’ll guess that a book of business was sold in this area, knowing that the OP was an expert and nobody asking the OP if she wanted to return to that kind of work. The hoped outcome is that this was all a comic misunderstanding and the boss will be happy to get the OP back to the kind of work she enjoys a jack rabbit fast as possible.

    I’d spin it client, client, client. “Unfortunately, I am so fearfully burnt on this type of work, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to continue to deliver what the client needs. I’d like to return to the kind of work that refreshes me. What can we do to get somebody else on this asap before the client suffers.”

  12. Liz Rex

    Hello Alison! I’m the person who originally wrote this letter. Thank you for answering my question. As you can see, I am resentful after working long hours at a miserable job for a few months, so an outside perspective is valuable. You are all probably right that no one is out to get me, but I am feeling rather grumpy about the situation, so I needed to check that I was justified in being frustrated.

    I will set up a meeting with my boss ASAP now that I know my concerns are valid. Thank you also to the commenters who chimed in with additional advice, it’s much appreciated.

    Wish me luck!
    – Liz

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