People looking frustrated in a business meeting

Four words to ban from your vocabulary right now

Elizabeth Bromstein|

I recently wrote about a phrase you should never say if you want to be successful in your career. That phrase is “I can’t.” There are few things more annoying for an employer or potential employer to hear than that you “can’t” do something. As my friend’s mom says, “Can’t means don’t want to.” Wise woman, that one.

Now I’ve got another phrase to add to your must ban list, one that might even be more nefarious than “I can’t.”

That’s not my job.

Along with “That’s not my job” also ban its close cousins, “There are people for that” and “Someone else will do it.”

These phrases usually mean something like “That’s beneath me,” and “I’m too busy.”

Nothing should be beneath you. And you’re not too busy. Have you ever noticed how the people who say they’re the most busy never are? For ten years I’ve been writing a health column for a magazine, for which I have to interview an average of five people each time I publish it. Over the years I’ve come to realize that it’s always those who are busiest and most in demand – say, who have just flown in from an overseas conference and have to perform surgery in an hour – who are the most generous with their time and insight, and who are always most willing to spare a few minutes right then and there.

I once worked with a boss I liked a lot. But one thing that drove me crazy was her refusal to let me do things that were outside of my job description. So, I would be waiting for images to publish with a story, because the art department was backed up. “Can’t we just get them from the image provider and crop them ourselves?” I asked a few times.

“No,” she would reply. “That’s not your job. There are people for that.” And so I would wait, sometimes until the next day, for the images I needed, even though I could have gotten them myself in 15 minutes. It was a frustrating and my time was not as well spent as it could have been.

I understand that there are situations in which you do things that aren’t your job at your own peril, like some union situations. For example, a friend who was working at a major US concert hall once moved the piano bench a few inches and got yelled at and sanctioned because moving the piano bench was someone else in the union’s job. He thought they were joking. But they weren’t. But in most cases you’re not going to get in trouble for not asking someone to do something for you.

A far more effective plan is to assume everything is your job.

That’s not to say that you should go around undercutting other people, doing their jobs and becoming a control freak. It’s to say that you shouldn’t refuse a responsibility that you are capable of taking on based on the misguided notion that the responsibility is not yours.

In 2009, I read an interview with Applied Materials CEO Mike Splinter, and something he said stuck with me. He said:

“Before I joined Applied Materials, I worked at Intel for two decades. I recall a session with Andy Grove. It was 1984 … In his talk Grove advised us to always assume it’s your responsibility. By that he meant to take on a job, even if it wasn’t yours. That’s a general thought, but it creates specific action and works across almost any situation, from picking up garbage on the floor to a new product idea.

“If you automatically assume it’s your responsibility and do something about it, that makes the company better. Those who can recognize that are the ones who end up being more successful.”

Those who can recognize that and act accordingly in their day-to-day lives are also the people who make the world a better place. The people who take care of society’s underdogs, or simply pick up litter that someone else dropped. We would all function a lot less effectively without them to pick up the slack.

We should all be doing our best to be like those people.

At work, your job is to contribute to making the organization for which you work successful in whatever way you can. To that end, it’s all your job.


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  • Ozzy

    This is bad advice. You have to be really daft to obey every whim that occurs to an employer. This is why we have job descriptions, so that you know exactly what you are expected to do and what you are not. Everything is not your job.

  • Monique

    Ozzy, I think this was meant as more of a “be a team player” idea. I think people who refuse to do the simplest task as it is not listed in the job description are the people this is referencing.

    • Lionel

      In this overworked society where everyone is in a race to the bottom, we as employees have to protect ourselves from being the solution to every problem. It is not in your best interest to take ownership in every problem presented to you. Most of us are simply trying to survive the downsizing and the overloading of workers so that employers may achieve better profit margins. I believe in being a team player but I don’t try to be chief cook and bottle washer.

    • Gedd

      I agree with you. It’s a simple concept for improving a team in areas where your skill lvl meets the required work… I don’t believe the author is requesting a small female high school student, new at a construction company to be operating a jack hammer.

  • Db Johnston

    ..is this a preamble to your ‘Right to Work’ article?

    • Randy

      I think most of the people who replied to this article negatively are a bunch of lazy losers who “don’t get it”.
      They probably also read the article while surfing the net on company time.

      • Darcy Hudjik

        Insulting others to feel good about yourself only makes you look bad, Randy.

      • Debbie Craig

        I disagree with you. No one has the chance to be lazy these days. We are all underpaid and overworked. You may not have been degraded or underpaid, but there are millions who are and work overtime already. They should not have to live to work, we work to live and everyone deserves to be respected.

  • Lisa

    I disagree with this article. While I am a supporter being a team player, there is a fine line between being the ‘go to’ person and the ‘give to’ person. Maybe saying, ‘I know this is outside of your job description, why don’t we work together to …..’ or if a boss or colleague asked you to do trivial tasks all the time, why not respond with ‘Sure, I can help out this time however if you think this will become a regular task, let’s discuss how we can work that in my job description (or that of an assistant/jr person).

  • Doug

    I don’t normally respond to online articles, but this one could not be left alone. I work in the field of loss control and workers “trying to help out” by doing jobs for which they have not been trained for, are not authorized to do, or that they don’t see or understand the “big picture”, cost companies thousands and thousands of dollars by having the work re-done, and contribute to far to many incidents, many of which result in personal injuries and property damage. It is one thing to “help out”, it is quite another to take on tasks that you may not be qualified or competent to do.

  • The Werewolf

    This is both bad advice and unprofessional.

    I agree that people use “That’s not my job” or “I can’t” as excuses to avoid doing things – but then the right advice is “Show initiative and innovation”. However, as given, the advice above is just impossible in many cases.

    For example, one thing that drives me crazy about dealing with customer service people (I’m looking at YOU UPS) is that when you ask for reasonable things (like holding a package rather than delivering it), they are literally helpless to do the simple thing. To demand or expect them to do more is pointless and ragging on them is unfair. This is a management decision and if they go around management, they’ll be unemployed.

    In a similar vein, the approach suggested basically rewards bullying managers. There are times when you cannot and should not take on a job *even if you have time to do it* because doing it will cause more problems that the job not getting done.

    But at another level, you, as a worker, are a business. You’re paid to do a job and taking on tasks that degrade your ability to do what you’re hired to do is unprofessional.

  • Alex

    “…to assume everything is your job.”
    Mrs Bromstein writes an article, then switches to some chemical experiments, then passes to develop a software. Is it that?

    • Simes Jones

      I think it was meant as a ” can do” attitude is something employees should have, especially at the hiring stage, however, I do agree in that some employers use this “must have” can do attitude as a way of getting more and more productivity out of a person for the same wage packet. We should be open minded, but not taken advantage of either.

  • WRLO56 .

    I understand the point being made, but it does need to applied with common sense. At my last job (the only one in 35 years from which I’ve been let go for performance issues), the director was under intense budget pressure. She expected everyone in her department to “step up”; this meant that senior analysts were expected to do the job of team leads (but get paid as senior analysts); juniors and intermediates were expected to “step up” and do the jobs of intermediates and seniors; etc. etc. The morale in that department was the lowest I have ever seen, anywhere.

    Otoh, it reminds me of an amusing anecdote about a group of doctors who were treating an infant patient. The baby pooped its diaper and one of the doctors, herself a recent mother, offered to change the diaper. The head pediatrician refused to allow this, because that was the nurse’s job. Instead, the doctors simply wrinkled their noses and ignored the smell, rather than doing a job that the head doctor considered to be beneath their dignity.

  • aiforbes

    It’s not bad advice, but it’s not universally good advice either. My rule’s always been to ask the questions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eleanor-Dorst/100000491554177 Eleanor Dorst

    I think you should delegate the task to someone else if your “plate is full”. Isn’t this just being a people pleaser. Sometimes people take advantage.

    • Darcy Hudjik

      With under staffing being commonplace in many companies, the ” I’m too busy” isn’t an excuse. There are a finite number of hours in the day, no matter how effectively and efficiently you manage your time. Working though every break every workday isn’t a wise move, either, since you’ll not be as productive in the long term and burn yourself out.

  • Kate Shaw

    I spent most of my working life as an executive secretary to lawyers. This advice is 100% correct for that job. EVERYTHING is your job that the lawyer can’t bill directly to the client, and God help you if you don’t pick that up on Day One. I have heard and seen “millennial” secretaries greet a “request” [order] from their boss, particularly a woman boss, to come and take lunch orders in a meeting that is running overlong, or to serve coffee to the attendees, with a huffy, “I’m not a waitress.” Yes, honey, YOU ARE. Your job is to make your boss’ job as easy as possible, to follow orders insofar as they are safe and legal, and not, NOT, to sass back, particularly in front of clients or other lawyers. The field of law is a close knit brotherhood, and if you ever want to get another job in it, your response is “Yes, ma’am,” and if you were so dumb as not to come into the room with a pad and pencil, to promptly pick one up from a side table and take lunch orders. One morning my boss had an important meeting first thing, and she tripped in the garage and ripped the knees out of her nylons. I ran downstairs to the mall and fetched her another pair. Yes, that WAS my job. In my last job, I took notes of an extensive list of wines and liquors, with client names, and then the paralegal (male) and I went to the liquor store with the boss’ credit card, bought the stuff, bought boxes to send them in, located a shipper that would ship alcohol (FedEx won’t; we shipped them DSL and thanked Providence) and filed the list of what we had done in prominent place for the secretary to use next Christmas. Yes, that WAS my job. Whatever my boss told me to do, whenever she told me to do it, was my job.

    • Debbie Craig

      Good for you. Maybe you allow this degrading, unprofessional, non-business related behaviour but the company does not pay you to buy nylons or alcohol or gifts for your bosses’ spouses. Now if your boss is paying you from their pocket and you agree to their personal requests, that is your call. Being taken advantage of is wrong on the comany’s dime.

    • Lili

      maybe you should have told your boss to anticipate possible mishaps, like a run in her nylons can happen anytime, anywhere–and be little more cautious with her time management as oppose to barking out orders at you to meet deadlines she should be long aware of. You are a Secretary not a personal shopper.

      • Kate Shaw

        And my boss would have called HR and had me fired on the spot. I have seen it done. In an emergency situation, you do what you are told to do. (As a matter of fact, I did pick up two pairs of nylons and put the other pair in her desk drawer. That is the way to handle these situations. Sassing back is a way to get fired.)

        • Darcy Hudjik

          What you call sassing back ( a horribly outdated term by the way, and only applicable to parent child relationships), is today called assertiveness, which is not a firing offense, especially when said in the right tone of voice and privately, not in front of someone that they want to make a good impression in front of. If, after stating things in a calm, respectful manner, they still fire you for standing your ground about something that’s definitely not your duties, they are just out to abuse your being a team player.

          • Kate Shaw

            For my last comment on this very enlightening thread, I will mention that a good many of the bosses you will have if you ever find a job will be from my generation, not yours. And it’s very likely they will call saucy backtalk the way they see it. Any job that pays you a high wage plus benefits is going to demand heavy duty fitting into the team — and you will not start as Queen. If you want to progress, you do what you are told to do (assuming it’s legal and not dangerous) and work your way quickly out of that level. You do that by proving you can be trusted and depended upon. In today’s world, where anyone who can be automated out of her job WILL be, you will need to show good cause why you shouldn’t be replaced by a robot; and remember, there are 100 applications for every job in today’s market, and if you don’t want the work, 99 other people do. Have a good life — discovering all this for yourselves. Personally I am glad I no longer have to work with any of your generation.

          • Steve M

            “Any job that pays you a high wage plus benefits”. Exactly.

          • Darcy Hudjik

            Actually, most of my bosses in the last 20 years have been 40 or younger, except my custodial job, which my boss was closer to your age. Even most of my recent bosses’ bosses have been in their thirties or forties, except for three or four of them.
            By the way, employers don’t want obedient little children for employees; they want confident (not passive little doormats) problem solvers, who can get job the job done, are capable of critical thinking, are team players and have a good work ethic, who want to learn, are open minded, and get along with people in all ethnic, age, and disability groups.
            I will have a good life life, thank you, since I fit into most of the categories that they are looking for, I have a good sense of humor, and most of all, I don’t listen to negative prophesy about myself from people who don’t even know me. Have a good life yourself, Kate.
            By the way, I’m of the same generation as you, maybe 15 years younger.

    • Albert Giesbrecht

      Executive Secretaries are as prevalent these days as dinosaurs. Executives can make their own damn lunch.

      • Kate Shaw

        In the real world, every high powered executive has an executive secretary, who is paid handsomely to do what the executive tells her to do. And if you think you can’t be fired for sassing your boss in front of clients with “Make your own damned lunch!” then you have never actually held a job higher than housekeeper in a hotel.

        • Darcy Hudjik

          Sorry, Kate, but I know from many friends and acquaintances, who have had executive positions, have a completely different tale to tell regarding “every high powered executive has an executive secretary”. That may have been the case until the late 1990s, but most places, they tend to have a departmental Administrative Assistant, or many of these executives just do a lot of their own reports, letters, etc., either due to cutbacks, or their own preference (my husband is an amazingly fast typist, so the last two decades, he’s not really needed one).
          Regarding saying “Make your own damn lunch!” in front of clients to your boss getting you fired, there are two reasons that is justifiable: you made your boss lose face in front of someone that she’s trying to impress professionally, and the words were said in an aggressive, angry manner, both of which are inappropriate because they are incredibly unprofessional.

          • Kate Shaw

            I am sure at least all the women aged 30 and under are seeking jobs with rock stars or professional athletes or possibly rock star politicians — because your generation wants to be Famous…and every one of them has an executive secretary, male or female. If you think you are going to be hired as their BFF, you’ll never get the job. One of my women bosses hired one of your generation who bluffed her way into the job, thinking it would be like TeeVee. She lasted three months, because she refused to do office work (she didn’t know how, as it turned out) and wanted to do investigative and “exciting” things. I had the job after her and it took me two months to clean up the mess she left behind. In a law office, it’s not the lawyer who sets the schedule, and it is assuredly not you — it is the courts, and if Mr. Justice Jones says something different will go ahead from what you and your boss anticipated, all leaves are cancelled and all hands are on deck. If it’s a small firm, you may be “all hands”. If you are lucky, your boss will add her hands. If your boss is male, he may tell you what to do and leave you to it.

          • Amber Payne

            I just want to say, I am incredibly offended by your hostile and biased view of 30 somethings/young folk. Every job I have worked thus far has been menial. I’ve taken so much overtime it’s made me physically ill. I’ve done so many jobs that require constant standing that I have arthritis in my knees at 33. I’ve given and bled and worked my butt off for the companies I’ve worked for, and I’ve never expected a hand out. I’ve earned every job, and every penny. I get there are lazy, entitled jerks out there, but they come at all age ranges. I’ve worked with 40 and 50 somethings who have been the most entitled, lazy folk I’ve ever come across. So please don’t use your bias as a weapon against young folk. Some of us do whatever work we can get, and do our best to be productive members of society.

          • Darcy Hudjik

            That’s so true, Amber! There’s good and bad in every last demographic group, and looking down one’s nose in judgement at a specific group doesn’t change that fact. To label an entire group negatively is stereotyping, which in this case has moved on to prejudice, neither of which are at all useful in the work force or in life, for that matter.

    • JIm

      Grow a pair.

      • Kate Shaw

        I’m a woman. I’ll leave that to you.

  • Ross Chivers

    The problem is that to some employers trying to be helpful to them is seen as a threat. When you show someone how to print out a range of cells in a spreadsheet or someone else how to add pictures of damaged inventory to their computer, you get told that is so and so’s job. I did it for a while and then stopped offering. The one and only IT guy, whose job it was, was also the CFO and he was busy running the network. He loved it when I tried to help out. It was only a once in a while thing. The problem was my boss didn’t. If I was busy helping IT I wasn’t doing my job, was his argument, the argument that I was helping the company didn’t cut it. In a time of layoffs and downsizing etc. I would have thought companies would want people that are willing to go the extra mile, apparently I was wrong.

  • Debbie Craig

    Only if you are talking about a one-off, once in awhile situation, it might be all right. I agree that by participating in this workload behaviour you will be taken advantage of and will be always expected of you. Give it to so and so, she will do it. We have to be allowed to protect ourselves. Others are not treated this way, so why should you be. I agree with teamwork, but not I work while the rest of you go for lunch or home for the day. Not right or fair.

  • Darcy Hudjik

    I can’t ( ; ) : ) ) believe this woman’s absolute obsession with saying “I can’t”? I used to be a custodial assistant for EPSB, and we had a limit of maximum amount that we were allowed to lift. In our Occupational Health and Safety we were told that we were expected to say “I can’t” if someone tried to get us to lift something heavier than we were supposed to. Like it or not, there’s a time and a place for almost everything.

  • Darcy Hudjik

    I can’t believe this woman’s obsession with not saying “I can’t”! When I worked for EPSB as a Custodial Assistant, we were told in a session with Occupational Health and Safety that we had every right to say “I can’t”, lift a heavy load alone, without proper equipment, or in my case, if the load exceeded a specific weight. I agree that over using this one is a bad idea, but I completely disagree with banning it altogether.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gSQg1i_q2g Randy Marsh

    Read between the lines, it’s telling you to be flexible and have a positive attitude. Unless you’re in a union, then don’t.

  • Ella

    I understand that there are some situations in which this is applicable, but overall I disagree with the article. I’ve met a lot of people in a professional field who strive to make a good reputation for themselves by doing things they are not required to do. Sometimes, it just takes away from the time you could be spending performing the tasks that ARE on your job description. Assuming everything is your responsibility mostly results in unnecessary stress and people thinking they can take advantage of your time.

    • Darcy Hudjik

      Ella, I totally agree with your post. I have no problem doing things that aren’t in my job description, so long as it doesn’t take significant time from my actual duties, and others aren’t abusing my being a good team player.

  • Joe Boss

    Additional duties as needed is where employers nail you for the it is not my job issue.

  • Albert Giesbrecht

    A company can always hire Temporary Foreign Workers to do those jobs. Just ask McDonald’s.

    • Darcy Hudjik

      Good one, Albert! That seems to be a catchphrase for some in the workforce these days.

    • Kate Shaw

      In fact, most companies hiring executive secretaries are hiring middle-aged women who were not brought up in a bark hut by kangaroos. Just what kind of work are you children expecting to be offered — Queen of the Stardust Ballroom? You don’t start out in a corner office with a $100,000 expense account and an expensive company car. And with your attitude(s), you won’t end up there either.

  • Kate Shaw

    Well, now I know why you brats can’t get work. Enjoy life trying to pay off $120,000 worth of student debt while living in Mom’s Basement and waiting for a sugar daddy.

    • Steve M

      You started by saying that the advice in the article is 100% correct _for the job you were in._ I think that was the right track. If you’re supposed to be a receptionist, on the other hand, it’s not a good idea to keep fetching coffee for people and just let the phones ring, particularly since you’re likely to be blamed for not doing your job.

      • Kate Shaw

        If your boss has asked you, the receptionist, to get coffee for people waiting to see her, the coffee apparatus will be within view and you will not have to leave the room to get it. If she (or more often, he) needs you to do something that requires leaving your desk, there is always a short list of people you can call to take over until you get back. The way to handle these kinds of dilemmas is to have a plan.

  • Grease Pink

    This article is too one sided. I can’t just turn another page without
    leaving a comment here. At work where there is only a one small lunch
    room for all employees complete with electronic gadgets, utensils, dish
    soap and a double sink and it is common sense for every one to cooperate
    in tidying up the place. Well, well, it is sickening and you lose your
    drive to “help out” when “those” who trash after their own lunches and
    clog the sink several times do not get caught or seen. Petty complaint? Not really. They get away
    with it all the time. I washed my hands after three times of huge voluntary
    cleaning, soaping and wiping the whole kitchen area, even
    sanitizing/clearing out the fridge and mopping the floor using my break hours. I have my own
    household chores to attend to, and now, this one as well? Helping out is
    fine, but getting taken advantage of while others get away with it is
    not cool.

    So as a person who works behind a cash counter, I was
    also tasked to scrub the floor from thickening grime around a display
    area. My uniform doesn’t exhibit to match with scrubbing the floor and
    obviously not supplied with the right materials/chemicals. I have to use
    a cutter blade, Windex and paper towels…not so convenient…and cut
    my finger that ended up swelling. A customer whispers, “Why are you
    doing that? Why can’t they hire the right cleaning people to do it?” Underpaid, overworked, does not smoke…and who gets a hefty bonus at the end?

    I
    am a well good team player and ready to extend a helping hand and I
    enjoy it best when something is resolved and a deadline is met because
    of the initiative I did for a co-worker, but, does any support come back
    my way when I needed it? It is sad when others don’t recognize a
    two-way street of team playing. On another job, each time I please my boss (Founder/CEO) into achieving the things he needed a.s.a.p., pleases me too and I take home great rewards and a sustainable paycheque for saying, “Yes, Mister…right away” or “Sure, I’ll do it for you”.

  • Sam

    No, forget this…I am often too busy to handle every little problem and some things are NOT my responsibility. I have even tried to handle situations and was red taped into a corner and told it was not my job.

  • Ram

    Absolute nonsense. Then why companies have job description and training to fit into the role? One should concentrate on delivering his targets and not say ‘yes’ to every thing else.

  • Simes Jones

    We have Job Descriptions for a reason; To know clearly what your duties and responsibilities are for a specific pay packet. Going above every now and then, and extending yourself “in a pinch” is good, but the reason why so many employees start to say,”Its not my Job”, is because they are being overly, and increasingly inundated with other tasks NOT in their job description and as the task mount up, their “job description” duties get neglected. So once where there was quality, efficiency or value, there is now substandard productivity, as is the case whenever you get stretched too thin…This editorial was no doubt penned by a manager!

    • Kate Shaw

      The last line in almost every job description I have ever seen is “And such other duties as may be assigned.”

  • virginia hopkins

    I have been in situations where people have dumped their work onto me that left me feeling used and resentful. This extra work is generally unappreciated and exhausting. You can only do so much. What are you to do when this extra work interferes with the quality of your work and requires working extra hours to complete while others work lesuirely’, take breaks and leave on time

  • Gonzalo Sanin

    Every time you accept to do an extra task automatically is your obligation to do it next time