Here’s When to Say ‘No’ at Work
By Kathryn Vasel
You’ve just volunteered to help show a new colleague the ropes. But now you’re trying to figure out when you can actually make the time to fit it all in.
This happens a lot — especially to women. Managers often ask for volunteers or in some cases, assign workers to take on responsibilities that aren’t directly tied to their roles, performance evaluations or career growth. But just because your boss is looking for help doesn’t mean you always have to step up.
“These non-promotable tasks… they matter to the organization, but you don’t get rewarded for doing them,” said Linda Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of “The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-end Work.” “Not everything counts on your performance evaluations — there’s lots of work that is done that is never tracked, thanked or evaluated.”
She said examples include sitting on a company-wide governance committee — like a safety committee — helping with recruiting (if you don’t work in human resources), and assisting others with a work or office conflict.
“It’s a big chunk of work, and it can be important work that really helps the organization function, but it’s not core to your everyday job activities and things you are really evaluated on.”
To be sure, a lot of this extra work is a necessary part of running a successful business — but it should be spread around evenly. And that doesn’t always happen.
“When we have a non-promotable job to do, we think of women first and we ask them more than men,” said Babcock. According to research she conducted with three other professors, managers are 50% more likely to ask a woman than a man to do these invisible tasks. She also found that women are also more likely to volunteer for these tasks.
Having an overly packed schedule of invisible or behind-the-scenes work can stunt women’s career growth and compensation, explained Lise Vesterlund, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the co-authors of “The No Club.”
“The fact that you are spending time on assignments that are not using your unique skills means you aren’t really reaching your potential… it can hurt your compensation, hurt your promotion and certainly does not give you any leverage when you try to negotiate,” she said.
Babcock remembers more than a decade ago seeing a male colleague spending hours at his desk focusing on his research while her days were overloaded with meetings. “I wasn’t getting my research done, and that is the No.1 promotable task for me.”
She remembers comparing schedules with him and realizing “we live in different worlds even though we have the exact same job.”
Making the call
An overload on these tasks can also hurt women beyond their paycheck.
“If you end up doing all these other internal tasks, you lose confidence in your own ability to demonstrate the skills you’ve acquired and were hired for,” said Vesterlund.
To evaluate whether to take on a task, Vesterlund advised identifying what is considered promotable and non-promotable work for a role and how much workers are expected to take on.
“In a manner of a week: Is the standard a day per week? Two days per week? What is it that everyone else is doing?” She suggested talking to colleagues and supervisors and asking something like: “I want to contribute the most I can to this organization — how do I do that…what are your expectations?”
Once you have a sense of the expectations, she suggested identifying the non-promotable work where you can best leverage your skills and the non-promotable work you enjoy the most.
“Think more strategically on what is the non-promotable work that really makes sense for you to spend your time… find out where yours makes the most sense,” Vesterlund said.
You can also look for work that is more indirectly promotable, which could mean it gives you exposure to more senior leaders of the organization or provide skills you can develop to benefit your career.
“Perhaps it’s not promotable now, but it could lead to things in the future,” said Babcock.
Take time to evaluate your decision and how it can impact other areas of your life and career.
In 2016, when Kim Ling Murtaugh was balancing consulting work, teaching at UCLA and working part time at the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, she was asked by one of the university’s department heads if she would be interested in teaching another class.
While she finds fulfillment in teaching and making connections with students, it would have required creating a new class and adding a lot of extra hours to her already stretched schedule, backing off some of her consulting work and losing some of her flexibility.
“Saying ‘yes’ to that class was saying ‘no’ to other things,” she recalled.
Feeling OK about saying ‘no’
But saying “no” can be easier said than done — and can have a bigger impact on women than men.
Babcock said her research shows that when women say “no” at work, they are often seen as not being a team player. “Women get boxed in — they get called difficult.”
When it comes to saying no, don’t focus on why you can’t do it.
“People usually give an excuse…that doesn’t help the requester…all they want is help,” said Babcock. “Try to think about who it actually might be a good task for…. If someone asks you to do something that is non-promotable for you, is there someone in the organization who that work might be promotable for?”
If you feel like you can’t say “no,” she suggested agreeing to take on the task, but asking your boss to re-assign another non-promotable task. “Or you can say: ‘Can we divide this task into parts and share it among the five of us in this unit?”
To help make sure a recurring task doesn’t become permanently assigned to you, suggest setting up a rotating schedule.
It shouldn’t be on employees to say ‘no’
But the onus shouldn’t just be on employees when it comes to making sure non-promotable work is being distributed evenly.
“It really is on the employer to fix this problem…they shouldn’t give work to somebody just because they think they are least reluctant to take it on. They should give employees the work that they are best at doing,” said Vesterlund.
She said employers should be clear with what workers should be spending their time on and what will be included in their performance reviews.
“You can reward non-promotable work,” said Babcock, who noted that one organization she worked with added “helping others” to its performance evaluations. “If it’s important, you want to reward it, and then it becomes promotable. And then it’s amazing everyone wants to do it then.”
Companies should also look at who is doing the most non-promotable work and how work is allocated.
“If we know that women are more likely to volunteer, we shouldn’t ask for volunteers. Take turns, put names in a hat and draw one,” said Vesterlund. “Changing the practices for how we allocate this work is a key step.”