There are plenty of reasons why people ask you to help them out at the office.
Maybe they need an extra pair of hands, and they think you’re the perfect person for the job. Maybe they’re feeling overwhelmed and are trying to be fair in distributing their tasks among their team members. Or maybe, frankly, they’re trying to get some grunt work off their plates. And you’re the one who’s been asking to take on new projects, right?
Whatever the case, it can be difficult to be a team player who’s open to new responsibilities without being a pushover who’s overwhelmed with miscellaneous tasks and projects on your plate. Even if you do want to take on more around the office, that doesn’t mean you want everyone to load up your inbox with their castoffs (or that you should say yes to every request for your time).
So, what should you do when a peer asks you to take on a project that's technically part of his or her own job? Here’s a three-step plan to assess and address the situation.
Step 1: Assess the Request
First, take time to think about whether the project would be beneficial in your career growth. Would it help you gain a new skill? Would it lead to quantifiable results that you could tout on your resume? Would it help you form relationships with colleagues you’ve never worked with before? If so—and if it wouldn’t interfere with your own work—it might be a great task to take on.
Also consider whether picking up the extra work is just part of being a team player. For example, at a previous job of mine, after a co-worker was let go, another member of her team received her entire workload. He expressed to his boss the need for another pair of hands to carry the weight, but in the meantime, he approached his other team members to mete out various responsibilities. In times like this, you may want to suck it up and help out, especially since there will probably come a time when you need to ask for assistance, too.
It's when you're feeling taking advantage of or when it's interfering with your own work that there's a problem. In another scenario, my cousin and another employee were competing head-to-head for a promotion. My cousin’s officemate wanted to impress their manager by tackling a new project, so he asked my cousin to shoulder a daily responsibility that he wouldn’t have time for thanks to the bigger-and-better project. Not cool.
Step 2: Address the Situation
In cases like my cousin’s, when you you’ve decided that the request isn’t one you should be taking on, it is definitely OK to say no.
In an offline (emphasis on offline) conversation with your co-worker, explain that you're always happy to help out and that you recognize that each of you in the office are contributing to an overall team product—but that ultimately you have to prioritize your own work. Who can argue with that?
If it makes sense, you can see if there’s a deadline for the project and let your colleague know that you’d be willing to pitch in if your time allows. You can also suggest a few alternate ways he or she can tackle the project—for example, are there interns available to take on one or two parts of the work? In one situation at a previous job, a co-worker was feeling overwhelmed and asked me for help in project-managing one aspect of her work. Since I had done work for the same client, I was familiar with the background—I just didn’t have enough room on my plate to take on her part of the process, too. But after I had completed my own tasks for the week, I lent a hand with hers, and she was thankful for the assistance.
Chances are, your colleague isn’t trying to dump work on you—he or she is just feeling a little overwhelmed and will appreciate any contribution.
Step 3: Bring in the Big Guns
Of course, there are definitely times when someone is trying to push work on you, and it’s not something you want to do—or should be taking on. Or, you may agree to shoulder a responsibility for a co-worker once, and find that opening that door made it hard to shut. If the situation persists, or if you’re getting pushback from your colleague, schedule some time to chat with your boss about his or her expectations.
At one point in my career, I found that helping someone a few times had placed her task permanently, rather than temporarily, under my jurisdiction, and that started to erode the time I had for my own workload. I wanted to clarify with my boss that she was fine with me devoting a large chunk of time to something not originally meant for my role—and it turned out, she preferred to refocus my energy elsewhere.
You don’t have to throw your colleague under the boss—just keep the conversation focused on your workload. Try, “I love getting experience with different facets of the company, but I’ve been spending about 10 hours per week lately on client reporting for marketing. And I just want to make sure the percentage of time I’m spending on that is compliant with what you need from me.” If it’s not, you or your boss can talk to the other party and shift the work back where it belongs.
It’s always a good idea to be open to taking on new responsibilities—but you also need to make sure what you’re spending your time on is in the best interest of your career and your department or team as a whole. Bottom line: Help out when you can, be honest when you can’t, and don’t let anyone else take advantage of your awesome work ethic.
How do you deal when a colleague asks you to take on something that's technically his or her own responsibility? Have you ever had to in the past?
Photo of people working courtesy of Shutterstock.