Snakes in the Gym and Other Duties as Assigned

other duties assigned As I helped one of the fitness instructors corner a snake that had managed to get into the gym one morning last week I said to her, “well, this probably isn’t in your job description.” She confirmed that it was definitely not, but didn’t even flinch. She took immediate action to try to catch the snake, although we both admitted we were trying not to scream. (Full disclosure: the snake was small, and luckily non-poisonous.)

Completing the vague “other duties as assigned,” often referred to at the end of a job description, is the nature of work in general. Hopefully you won’t be asked to wrangle a snake, but what do you need to know about your next workplace and the expectations after you are hired?

What are employers looking for?

I’ll admit it. I am guilty of invoking the “other duties” clause as a supervisor. When I managed a team of instructional designers and multimedia specialists developing online courses, I asked a designer to also work as an editor, reviewing text-based course content for errors.

This particular team member had previous experience as a copyeditor, although this was not originally part of the position for which she was hired. We had a set of new courses that were particularly in need of editing and she had the skills. By making use of these skills that were already in-house, I was able to avoid what would have been a prolonged approval process for hiring an editor on a contract basis, and possibly missing our development deadlines.

Formal job description documents help to frame the parameters of work that are required of the person filling the position, but aren’t necessarily all inclusive. Adding the “other duties” phrase, or something similar, can be helpful from the employer’s point of view to address any tasks that may evolve with the position over time. And jobs are evolving as they relate to multiple factors, such as:

  • Trends in hiring specialists vs. generalists: Preferences for hiring personnel with expertise in specific areas, or those with broader skill sets, ebb and flow, and vary by industry and region. The SouthCoast Business Bulletin reports, for example, a current focus on “candidates who are ‘generalists,‘ able to fill multiple roles as needed by the company.” Look for professional organizations and members of your network already employed in the field to find out more about current trends in your area and line of work.
  • Solutions for working within limited budgets: So many organizations are trying to do more with less as they face the challenges related to an economic downturn. Hiring decisions may be put on hold, positions that become vacant may not be immediately filled, and downsizing may eliminate existing jobs. In all of these scenarios, employees that remain are likely to take on additional duties and/or new roles.
  • Valued skills and qualifications: The National Association of College and Employers (NACE) annual survey of employers recently found that competitive candidates are “team players who can solve problems, organize their work, and communicate effectively.” This could apply to almost any job title and include the ability to adapt to and flex with the needs of the team or project at hand.

Find the silver lining.

As a career counselor I once painted a sign on the outside of a building where the organization I worked for held workshops. As a graduate student member of a faculty search committee I was required to pick up candidates at the airport. I clearly remember being a little frustrated by both of these situations. What did the sign have to do with counseling and why did I have to be the one fighting traffic to and from the airport?

You might see how these tasks were connected to the position and workplace in some way. The sign was an immediate improvement for clients, many of whom were late for workshops because they couldn’t find our building. But it also made an interesting entry in my work portfolio, and a nice example of my ability to be flexible when I interviewed for another job later on. As for the airport shuttle service, it was helpful to those candidates who were arriving in a new city, and I got to meet them more informally and have a couple of great networking conversations on the road.

When asked to do something outside of your normal duties, look for the opportunity to expand your horizons a bit in terms of the:

  • people you’ll meet and add to your professional and learning networks
  • exposure you’ll get to other parts of the organization, making you more aware of the big picture and needs of the company, and
  • new knowledge and skills gained as a result of the projects you become a part of and the work you accomplish.

Take notes about these additional duties as you complete them. When it comes time for performance evaluations you can remind your boss of all of the things you’ve done and your value added not just through regularly assigned projects, but also with special tasks. You’ll also be ready for resume writing and interview practice when you find it’s time to make the move to a new position.

Clarify expectations and priorities.

In all of the examples I’ve provided so far – the building signage, airport shuttle, and even the snake – the “other duties as assigned” all had close ties to organization and workplace needs. But can employers take advantage of a broad interpretation of the clause? Just Google the phrase and you’ll see that it is clearly a problem in some situations.

While I encourage you to be a team player and helpful employee, you also need to understand that there are some things you shouldn’t be asked to do (e.g., personal errands, illegal activities, something that goes against the organization’s code of ethics).

Employers should, as advised in a guide for job description writing from the University of Maine, “make it clear that only duties reasonably related to the position will be assigned.” What is reasonable, however, may require further discussion between you and your supervisor.

If you are unsure about how to respond to an unusual request, take some time to weigh the pros and cons, and clarify your employer’s expectations and priorities.

  • Ask questions. How will this assignment affect your deadlines on existing projects? Do you have the skills to complete the tasks effectively? A conversation can help clarify expectations on both sides.
  • Consider the big picture. Do some research and ask members of your network, others working in the field, about the tasks they perform in similar roles.
  • Examine the company’s culture. Is everyone, including your supervisor, involved in “other duties” in order to get a project completed?
  • Know your options. If the tasks you are being asked to perform are truly inappropriate, what can you do? You may have to go back to materials you were provided when you joined the company, or to the human resources office, for advice and guidance. A review of established policies and procedures can inform your decisions and help you find the best path forward.

No matter the position, industry, or location, we all end up performing tasks on-the-job that seem irrelevant at times, are not part of the position we were hired to fill, or are things we just really don’t want to do.

Knowing how to handle “other duties as assigned” takes practice and comes with experience, both as a working professional and as an employee within a particular organization. There are different expectations based on the context of the work to be done, the company, and your qualifications.

What is the most unusual project you’ve been asked to work on? Tell us how you found a silver lining, or clarified the expectations and priorities of your employer in the process.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog