Editor’s note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues-everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I am a 27-year-old woman working for a well-known national company. My store manager frequently (several times a week) asks one of us to go get lunch for him. He never offers to buy us lunch. All of my other coworkers dutifully do it for him without complaint, because we are all afraid of possible retribution if we refuse. He recently asked me to go get his lunch.
I asked him if he was buying (with a smile on my face, to show him I wasn’t being hostile). He said “Uh, if you want a burger, sure.” I asked where he wanted to go, and he named a place that is easily 2-3 miles away from our workplace (and which can have prices anywhere from $5-15) and said I could get MY lunch wherever I wanted (implying that is, as long as it was as cheap as a burger). I told him we could have the food delivered and then went and asked everyone at the company what they wanted.
However, I am concerned about the legality and safety issues of this. He claims this is “part of our job,” but nowhere in the employee handbook does it detail that particular task. Also, since he requires us to stay clocked in while we pick up the lunch, what would happen if we got into a car accident or something and were injured?
I’m trying to gather some information about this before I call Human Resources so I can be prepared.
There are four questions to look at here: Is this illegal, is your boss abusing his power, is this something your company’s HR department would care about, and what should you do about it?
1. First, the law. It’s not illegal to require employees to do things they don’t want to do or that fall outside their formal job description. If he were asking you to run errands during an off-the-clock lunch break, you’d have a legal issue. But he’s paying you for the time you’re spending on it.
2. The law aside, is your boss abusing his power or otherwise being a jerk? It’s hard to say from here. There are workplaces where it’s a normal part of the culture for the boss to ask employees to pick up lunch or coffee, or even run other personal errands, under the theory that part of your job is to help make your boss more productive. And in this case, your boss is telling you outright that it’s part of of the job, which is often a good indicator that it’s part of the job.
As for it not being in your job description or in the employee manual, job descriptions are rarely exhaustively comprehensive; bosses can alter them at will, and they usually include something like “other duties as assigned” anyway. But certainly the general nature of your job comes into play here. You said this is a store, but I’m not sure what your particular job is. If you’re in a customer service position (or any entry-level position), it’s a lot easier for me to imagine this request being made of you than if you’re, say, a business analyst or the marketing director. So that’s relevant.
And of course, it’s possible that your boss is just kind of a jerk — that your getting his lunch has no discernible impact on his productivity, that it’s not part of a company-wide culture, and that he’s just abusing his power by treating you as his lackey. Again, it’s hard to say from here — but I would say to at least consider the other possibilities before you make up your mind.
3. Is this something your company’s HR department or higher-ups would care about? I don’t know. In some companies, this would be considered a bad use of employees’ time and/or at odds with their culture, and the manager would be spoken to. In other companies, no one would blink an eye at the manager’s behavior but would be alarmed at your actions in making a formal complaint about something they consider a normal part of doing business. I don’t know which of these categories your company falls into — and if you’re not sure either, your first step should be to gather more information about that before you take any action.
But you could ask about the company's policies on using personal vehicles for work-related business. Something interesting might come of that and at a minimum would answer your question about accidents.
4. Given all of the above, what should you do about it?
If you feel strongly that you don’t want to get your boss’s lunch anymore, you can certainly try pushing back. If it’s interfering with your ability to do other work, say that: “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get X and Y done.” Or sit down with him and ask for clarification about your responsibilities and priorities; tell him you hadn't realized that getting lunch for him was part of the job and you're concerned about it cutting into your other duties. Tell him that when he asks you to get lunch, it means you have to neglect X and Y, and ask if that’s the trade-off he wants you making.
But be prepared for him to just flatly tell you that yes, getting his lunch is part of the job, and that he doesn’t think it’s impacting your ability to do the rest of your work.
At that point, your options would be:
(a) Escalate to someone above him, taking note of the cautions in #3.
(b) Continue nicely resisting and see if you can change his mind. This option comes with the risk that he’s going to start seeing you as a pain in the ass, which may impact your long-term prospects there.
(c) Decide if you’re interested in staying in the job, knowing that this will sometimes be a part of it. It’s your prerogative to decide that it’s not for you.
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