Inappropriate bosses are everywhere.
If a boss asks you to do something that is not in your job description once, you might feel you have no choice but to do it.
A one-off request, perhaps you do as a favour, not even giving it a second thought. But what if it becomes a pattern? One day, it’s an emergency dry cleaning drop-off, the next it’s picking up his kids at soccer or taking out the rubbish. At what point are such requests inappropriate?
The problem with these favours, sadly, is that often they aren’t isolated. “If a boss does this, it is likely [he or she] will violate professional boundaries in other ways as well, so this probably isn't the only challenge you'll have in this job,” wrote Janet Scarborough Civitelli, an Austin, Texas-based workplace psychologist and career coach, in an email.
Putting it into context
How do you decide whether something is OK?
“Context is everything,” said Philadelphia-based talent management consultant Mary Schaefer in an email. “It depends on your relationship and the pattern of behaviour so far. First, do you want to do it? Second, does it appear your boss has no other choice than to ask you? Third, what are the probable consequences for you if you don't?”
Where to draw the line
Don’t think this is a problem of just certain companies. It’s an issue at both large and small firms, according to Scarborough Civitelli. “Inappropriate bosses are everywhere,” she said.
It’s crucial to establish boundaries and draw the line early on. Scarborough Civitelli suggested saying something along the lines of: "I want to be helpful, but I think we may have different expectations...Can we please discuss it so that we can get in sync about what my job entails?"
The more you can keep the conversation friendly and unemotional, the better it should go. “Either you'll arrive at a mutually agreeable decision or you will find out that this job requires something that makes you uncomfortable and then you'll have to weigh the pros and cons of seeking other employment,” Scarborough Civitelli said.
Offering up plan B
“You can draw the line wherever you want,” said Schaefer. “If you don't want to do [something], and you think you would lose your job if you say no, but you are not ready to leave, you have a decision to make. [You] might agree in the moment, follow through, and then strategise as to how to follow up so it doesn't happen again.”
If your supervisor is a reasonable person, you might offer to brainstorm alternatives or even help them make other arrangements, suggested Schaefer who is a firm advocate of discussing expectations — no matter how trivial or unusual they may seem — early on “while the relationship is amiable and stable, and there is no current hot topic.”
In many cases, bosses may not even realise that they have overstepped their boundaries. Dr Lorraine Tilbury, founder of personal and professional development firm HorsePower International based in France’s Loire Valley, said that one time her husband asked the woman who they had employed to clean their house to shine his shoes. The woman refused and explained to him that she was a cleaning lady, not a servant.
“He had no idea that she would react that way to his request,” said Tilbury. “But he understood and never asked her again to do it. Very often the requestor doesn't even realise that they've crossed a boundary until you tell them.”
Included in any discussion should be your job description. “If the boss is iffy about that, draw it out of them,” said Schaefer. “Ask questions like: What did the person in this role before me do? What did they do that you want to make sure is continued? And, what is one thing you would change about this job now that there is a new person in it?”
A paper trail
But don’t stop there. Draft up a paragraph based on your discussion. Send it via email, and include a note: "Here is how I would summarise what I heard about what you expect of my role. If there is anything I didn't represent accurately or left out, please let me know,” said Schaefer.
By documenting it, you’ll have it to refer back to if you ever need it. “Reasonable humans hate to contradict themselves,” she said. Plus, said Schaefer, it can really reinforce your point. “When I was a human resources manager, it was amazing to me how often employees would not ‘hear’ feedback about performance until they ‘saw’ it on paper,” she said. “It’s something about how the brain works, and it works equally well when you are trying to get on the same page with your supervisor.”
If your boss continues to be unresponsive, it could be worth it to get a second opinion from someone you trust, suggested Schaefer. “You don't have to tell the whole story, but perhaps engage a boss you respected in the past who can give you guidance as when to escalate,” she said.
If your concerns continue to fall on deaf ears with your current boss and you keep getting outlandish requests, then going to your human resources department might be your next option. Just make sure to keep your documentation handy, said Schaefer.
In some countries, boundaries are not so cut and dry, especially with family-owned and smaller businesses. “[In Asia] sometimes going above and beyond what you were hired to do can be the norm,” said Steven Yeong, a recruiter coach at Hof Consulting in Singapore, in an email. “Often, the marketing or sales directors may have to pick up the boss’s kids from soccer practice,” he said. “It can quite hard for the subordinate to say ‘no’ to her superior even with lots of diplomacy and a soft-soft approach.”
In these cases, Yeong has seen many employees quit rather than approach their bosses.
But in France, boundaries tend to be clearer with the introduction of the 35-hour work week a decade and a half ago. “[It] has obliged small business owners to ensure that their employees paid by the hour do focus primarily on their direct job responsibilities in order to avoid excessive overtime hours,” said Tilbury. It’s not that unusual requests don’t happen; it is just easier to turn them down.
Choosing the right path
It’s important to trust your instincts, said Tilbury. If something doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t. “Once you determine the boundary that needs to be re-instated, communicate constructively and as quickly as you can what your boundary is to the person involved,” she said. “Waiting to discuss it will increase your level of frustration and anger, and that can lead to an unconstructive explosion in the long run. That's why it's important to communicate it as quickly as you can.”
Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at email@example.com.
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