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Growth Strategies

<I>Just</I> Doing Their Jobs

What do you do with the employee who says "That's not my job"?
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the August 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

We've all had to work with a "not-my-jobber." Like clockwork, those employees stick to what's listed in their job descriptions-and you don't dare ask them to do more. For most entrepreneurial companies, such rigidity isn't an option; employees have to wear at least a couple of hats, if not many more.

Packy Hyland Jr., founder and CEO of software development firm Hyland Software Inc. in Rocky River, Ohio, faced this problem five years ago when one of his employees refused to take a turn answering the phone, even though the receptionist was out for the day and everyone in the company was expected to help out. "These were our customers calling," says Hyland, 33. He talked with the employee about picking up the slack, and things eventually improved.

Gary Topchik, managing partner of Los Angeles management consulting firm SilverStar Enterprises and author of Managing Workplace Negativity (Amacom), says in most cases, the cause of the not-my-job attitude is that the employee has just grown negative over time. "They don't enjoy their jobs, are burned out, are underused, or don't like the individuals with whom they work." Then there are workers who think certain tasks are beneath them and others who are dogmatic about their jobs and are afraid to take new risks.

Whatever the reason may be, the response of these not-my-jobbers is the same. They refuse to pick up the slack around the office and hide behind phrases like "That's not what they hired me to do" or "This isn't my job." Hyland's favorite not-my-jobber phrase? "'They don't pay me to do that.' I get instant indigestion when I hear it," he says. Besides causing occasional heartburn, these employees can lock you into a bad situation if you're not careful.

In fact, the not-my-jobber is often a sign of a larger company problem. "It's like a fireworks display for the entrepreneur that he or she needs to look at the organization and take action," says Leslie L. Kossoff, owner of Kossoff Management Consulting in San Mateo, California, and author of Executive Thinking: The Dream, the Vision, the Mission Achieved (Davies-Black). Take a close look at the following areas to see whether you may be part of the problem:

Job descriptions: Something as simple and seemingly beneficial as a detailed job description can encourage the not-my-job attitude in some workers. "[Too much detail] can be dangerous because it sends the message that this is all we expect of you," says Joan Stewart, a media relations consultant and trainer in Saukville, Wisconsin. She sees employers making the switch to team-oriented descriptions, which focus on team goals, like increasing sales or creating top-notch customer service, rather than on individual tasks. A good move, Stewart believes, because team descriptions force employees to think beyond their job descriptions to see how the job can best be done collaboratively.

Hyland has learned that lesson. He threw away his company's old-fashioned, detailed job descriptions a few years ago and replaced them with broad-based, team-oriented descriptions that don't lay out specific responsibilities. "They say you're coming to work, and you'll be doing whatever we ask of you," he says. "It's really helped a lot."

Performance reviews: How you review job performance is important because employees use it to figure out how you're keeping score. For example, say you ask an inside salesperson to help with filing for an hour every day while your receptionist is on vacation. From your perspective, it's just teamwork. But from the salesperson's perspective, you're taking time away from his or her core job performance, what he or she will be judged by.

You have to create incentive for the salesperson to go outside the boundaries of his or her job. You could lower quotas slightly to compensate for the extra workload, for example. "Companies are essentially asking employees to do two jobs," says John Challenger, CEO of international outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. in Chicago. "Employees can feel like you're piling it on." Furthermore, you need to send the message that picking up the slack around the office won't be held against employees later on. That's especially important if you're downsizing.

Ignore It, and It Won't Go Away

Kossoff commonly sees not-my-job resistance in the Silicon Valley companies she works with. Often entrepreneurs ignore the problem, especially if the not-my-jobber holds a position that's seen as critical to the company's success. "The entrepreneur thinks, 'We can't get this person to do more, so we'll leave him alone,'" Kossoff says.

When management decides to turn a blind eye on slackers, however, it loses credibility with other employees, who may feel the not-my-jobber is getting away with something. "It really hurts retention," Stewart says.

If you've got a not-my-jobber on staff, start a discussion today. This is like any other performance problem, Topchik says, and most of these employees will improve their attitudes after talking it over. Those who don't usually leave on their own after the game's up. A conversation will also help you adjust individual job performance expectations so employees feel encouraged to contribute in ways they wouldn't otherwise.

At Hyland Software, communication has had an impact not only on attitudes and morale, but on sales as well, which are expected to reach about $30 million this year. "It's like night and day," Hyland says. "It's so much better now."

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