Lorelei Yang
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words

It happens to everyone: a coworker or your boss asks for something that's clearly outside your job description, and you don't want to do it because, well, it's not your job. While saying "that's not my job" and moving on might be tempting, it's usually a bad idea to say this phrase at work because it can come off as rude and unhelpful — two things you want to avoid at work. It's also a good way to get yourself labeled as someone who's not willing to go above and beyond or contribute to your overall team's success. Read on to learn why and get some ideas for what you can say instead.

Six things to say instead of "that's not my job."

1. "I'd like to help out, but I don't have the capacity right now."

Odds are, you have a lot on your plate (otherwise, you could pitch in). So, explaining that you simply have too much to do and can't help your coworker or boss out is often the easiest and simplest explanation. 

2. "How can I help [witihn a reasonable time frame]?"

If you do have time to help your coworker out but have time-sensitive work you need to do first, you should clearly communicate both your willingness to help out and the timeframe you can help out in.

3. "I'm sorry, I'm not sure I can help with this [for this reason]."

If your coworker's request isn't in your wheelhouse and you know you won't be able to help them out, it's okay to say as much. It's better to be honest than to waste both your own and your coworker's time doing work that they — and you — won't be happy with.

4. Point them to a useful resource to solve their problem.

If your coworker is asking you how to do something and you don't have the time to teach them yourself, they may be able to get the answers they need from an instructional video or resources you've used in the past. If you have this information on hand, sending it to your coworker may help them solve their problem without your help.

5. "I'm not usually the person who handles that. You could check with [the appropriate person] to see if they can help."

If there's someone else at your office who usually handles the type of issue that you coworker is looking for help with, pointing them to that person is a perfectly reasonable response.

6. "I'm working on [X] and need to focus to get it done [by a certain time]."

This is another version of the "I don't have the capacity" option but is specific to the exact work you're doing. 

What if the problem goes deeper?

If you find that you're constantly being asked to take on additional responsibilities that are outside the scope of your job, it may be time to take this issue up with your manager. To start the conversation off, you might say, "I'm getting a lot of requests to do [X], which is impacting my ability to do [an existing responsibility]." From there, the two of you can have a conversation about how to handle out-of-scope requests.

It may be that it's time for your job responsibilities to expand to include the things that people are consistently asking for — which can be okay (but, if it's a significant increase in time and effort, you could consider asking for a raise to reflect the higher level of responsibility). Or, this could be the beginning of some strategizing on how to protect your time so you can meet your priorities.

How to respond when an employee says “that’s not my job.”

If you're a manager of an employee who refuses to do things under the guise of "that's not my job," you're likely to be frustrated by their attitude, and understandably so. However, responding with anger is unlikely to be productive. Instead, seek to understand your employee's resistance. 

1. Ask what they're working on.

Understanding what your employee is working on may explain their reluctance to take on additional responsibilities. It may well be the case that they're already stretched thin, in which case it's perfectly reasonable for them to not want to take on additional responsibilities. If that's the case, it's your job as their manager to know. However, this can also be a coaching opportunity: as a manager, you can help your employee work through alternatives to saying "that's not my job" when they can't take on additional responsibilities (you could even send them this article as a useful resource).

2. Have an open conversation about your expectations.

Being open with your employees about your expectations — namely, that members of your team will pitch in to help each other out whenever possible — is an important part of being a good manager. With this in mind, explicitly telling your employee that their unwillingness to pitch in runs counter to your expectations of your team is a reasonable tactic to influence their behavior. 

3. Explain why saying "that's not my job" can come off as rude or unhelpful.

It may be the case that your employee doesn't understand that saying "that's not my job" can come off as rude. This may especially be the case if your employee is relatively young or if there are cross-cultural communication issues also in play. 

4. Lead by example.

As a manager, you should model the behavior that you're looking to encourage in your employees. As such, taking on requests from your team members when they need help is one of the best ways to encourage this behavior in them, too. 

5. Recognize employees who go the extra mile.

Appropriately recognizing and rewarding team members who are willing to pitch in outside their immediate responsibilities is another way to encourage a "get it done together" attitude on your team. 

Now that you know why "that's not my job" generally shouldn't be uttered at work, you'll be able to handle these situations with alternative phrases. Balancing the desire to protect your time and prioritize your own work while also pitching in when teammates need your help is absolutely doable — and with these tips, you'll master the skill in no time.

Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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