Excuses bosses never want to hear

The phrase “that’s not my job” is toxic in a workplace. Here’s how to respond to it—and similar phrases—if someone throws it at you.

“If you ever answer someone important with ‘That’s not my job,’ you will be right! It won’t be your job when you’re terminated for being unimportant or useless.” — Judd Weiss

The most profoundly unhelpful phrase in modern business consists of four syllables: “That’s not my job.”

While uttering this phrase is rarely grounds for dismissal, perhaps it should be—especially in these days of economic uncertainty and an ever-changing marketplace. Teamwork matters more now than it ever has before.

To paraphrase Ben Franklin, the members of a workplace team must hang together, or they’ll surely hang separately. If just one person refuses to do what needs to be done, he can damage the team’s productivity.

Since human beings can be remarkably selfish, you’ll likely hear some variation of this excuse eventually. How should you handle it when you do, and when is it legitimate for someone to say “no”?

No guff allowed

Let’s be realistic. Job descriptions are fluid nowadays, given the constantly shifting challenges we face. A task may not have existed when you or HR wrote the description for a particular position.

But someone has to take it on, and these days managers often have to do more with less. Assuming you haven’t asked someone to do something dangerous, unreasonable or unproductive, you can’t afford to accept this excuse from a team member.

That said, legitimate excuses for declining a job do exist. If you hear those dreaded words from someone and he doesn’t explain, look to the root of the problem.

Here’s how to counter the most common objections, starting with the worst:

1. “It’s beneath my dignity.”

This is bull. It’s just another way of saying “I don’t want to.”

There’s no shame in legitimate work if it’s safe and doable. Tell the person to step up or step out the door and get over himself. While this may seem like a harsh attitude, you don’t have time to deal with prima donnas.

2. “I’m overqualified.”

Maybe so, but sometimes you have to take one for the team—especially when the work you normally do has become scarce.

For example, I know an archaeologist who, when laid off at one company, got a new job the same day because he was a known quantity and willing to do whatever needed to be done. His new company (a division of a larger environmental firm) had very little archaeological work at the time, but it did have a lucrative subcontract helping a multinational clean up a Superfund site.

The employers told him he might have to work with the Superfund team for a while, and he did. Because he was cheerfully willing to do so, he kept his job until the archaeological division got past its rough patch and he was able to return to his preferred work. The special training the employer gave him proved handy later on, too.

Which brings up a more legitimate complaint …

3. “I don’t feel qualified/I don’t have the training.”

Clearly you as the manager feel otherwise, or you wouldn’t have chosen the team member for the task.

Look more closely at his abilities. If he really isn’t qualified, rectify the situation. It may cost a little at the beginning, but remember, only return on investment matters.

If profits exceed costs, you’ve done well. And in many cases, the costs don’t amount to much. The archaeologist mentioned above had to take a three-day training class administered by the primary contractor at no cost to his employer.

4. “I don’t have time.”

This may also be true. If the team member feels overwhelmed, step in to help him prioritize, triage his task list, eliminate wasted time and otherwise make a hole for the new task—as long as it doesn’t replace a task equally or more important.

If the person really does lack the time, then you can legitimately assign the task to someone else.

Make it their job

In today’s perilous business environment, we all have an obligation to pitch in wherever we can to ensure team and organizational productivity—if only because making a sincere effort to contribute to the team represents the easiest way to keep your job.

Within certain broad boundaries, even when you ask a team member to do something not in his job description, he should be willing to do it. Remind him of this when necessary, and make new hires aware of it as you build your team. One of the items on my office manager’s job description is “Make Laura’s life easier.”

Now, if you keep handing someone a certain type of task because he does it well, maybe you should make it his job. Focus his efforts there, or provide additional compensation. It’s always better and cheaper to keep the good people you have than find and break in new ones.

Laura Stack runs The Productivity Pro, Inc. A version of this article originally appeared on The Productivity Pro.

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