When “It’s Not My Job” Isn’t The Answer

It’s not my job. For managers, hearing those four words is like hearing fingernails scratching against a chalkboard.

Why do employees say this? Why do they use this ready-made defense to get out of doing work?

Managers, on the other hand, have created a quick response to defend against these alleged malingerers. They always seem to remind them of the phrase found in nearly all job descriptions. You know the line: “other duties as directed.

“This line is the hammer that ensures that employees will do whatever the manager wants them to do. Talk about positive employee relations.

How did employers get into this mess and why do employees continuously drop this line? The fact is, employers taught employees to say it. That’s right, they taught them.

When employers force employees into the box we call a job description, they teach employees that that’s all they should do.Do your job, don’t do anything else and you won’t get into trouble – and they wonder why employees use the “not my job” line. So what’s the solution? How do you change this behavior?

Job descriptions often create boundaries that undermine collaborative work relationships. They do not allow for any flexibility. They define an employee function and outline specifically what an employee must do.

In doing this, it prevents an employee from helping other colleagues with their work whenever it is necessary. There can be no teamwork when the description defines the role of the individual – not the team.

Descriptions are task-focused. They do not describe how the role fits into or contributes to the success of the entire organization. The incumbent can operate in a vacuum without concern for what is happening around him – how she affects customers, co-workers or the organization.

So, what’s the solution? Frankly, the solution can be found by stepping back and looking at the big picture. Ask yourself, “What am I in business to do? What is my objective? What is our mission?” When employees understand, when everyone understands the mission and where they fit within the organization, then the job description box begins to break down.

Let’s look at how this works: In a nursing home, the role of the nurse and that of the food-service aide are clear. Nurses provide patient care, dispense medication and take blood pressures, among other tasks. Food-service aides provide meals and clean up. It is clear and it is delineated in the job description.

There is order. But what happens if food service gets backed up? Should the patient be forced to stare at dirty dishes until food service catches up? Can’t the nurse help out? No. Why? Because it is not her job.

Take the same scenario, but from a different perspective. Here, everyone understands the mission of the organization: to provide the residents with the best quality care possible.

In this situation, everyone’s job is to ensure that the mission is met, that the residents get the best care. Job descriptions describe what employees generally do – but their true mission is to ensure that every resident receives the best care.

So when food service gets backed up, everyone, whether a nurse or an administrator, can pick up trays, because that ensures that Mrs. Jones is getting good care. And that is their job.

In this scenario, employees do not operate in a box. They work as part of a collaborative effort – as part of a team to ensure that the mission is met. And everyone comes out a winner – the employee, whose job has more meaning; the manager, who is responsible for the unit; and the resident (the customer) who receives the good, quality care.

When everyone understands and embraces the big picture, when managers let employees function out of the box, good things happen. People realize it is their job and gladly go about doing it.

But what about those confining job descriptions? Should they be destroyed? No. Job descriptions provide a real benefit by clarifying employee expectations. But they must be written so that they do not limit flexibility. They must encourage teamwork and collaboration. They cannot keep employees from jumping in to help.

Why not drop the “other duties as directed” hammer and adopt a line found in most Southwest Airlines job descriptions: “and whatever you need to do to enhance the overall operation”? When employers encourage employees to go beyond the job description and adopt a collaborative role, employees respond positively – and that is their job.