Supervisors, how do you react when someone on your staff says, in so many words, “It’s not my job”? It might come out sounding like “I’m sooooo busy” as they scurry away; “I’m still trying to finish that other thing you gave me”; “Can someone else cover that?”; “I prefer to stay in my lane”; or, heaven forbid, it may just sound like the classic push back of the title—“It’s not my job.”
Before flipping to the “Corrective Action” section of your Employee Handbook, it helps to understand why they might be saying that. Is it that they don’t care? Or, is it a legitimate cry for help—a boundary borne of self-preservation in the increasingly overburdened settings in which we practice our craft?
What can we do to reduce the likelihood that we will hear these kinds of messages from our staffers?
Minimize “piling on”
As supervisors, we are constantly prioritizing on the fly. As we work inexorably toward meeting various program and funder goals, things invariably pop up that will wreak havoc on our best-laid plans.
Let’s say that this morning you asked a supervisee to work on something that will take them an hour or two. When fifteen minutes later something more urgent comes along, don’t just drop it on them and walk. If there’s no one else on the team to take this newer task on, set the priority for your staffer. “I know I just asked you to audit these five case files, but something else has come along that’s more important. You can put the case files aside for now—we’ll revisit that deadline—and focus on this first. Let me show you what it’s about.”
I’ve made the mistake, as a supervisor, of “piling on,” and the person to whom I assigned the extra work naturally chose the task they preferred rather than the one that I felt was the priority. My bad—I wasn’t specific. It is up to us as supervisors to clearly identify the priority, to determine the timeframe and, if possible, to roll up our sleeves and help our staffer get it done—or at least get them off to a good start. Especially if this newly prioritized task is something they may not have done before, getting the ball rolling with your staffer will give you an opportunity to make sure your instructions are understood and carried out properly.
“Piling on” is a fairly common occurrence that many staffers will push back on out of sheer overwhelm. There is something we can do, though, to minimize opportunities for them to shut us down by invoking the nuclear “It’s not my job” option—work from job descriptions that are up-to-date, accurate, fair and relevant to the variety of tasks we ask staffers in every job category to perform.
Reviewing the job description
Supervisors, be sure to carefully review the job descriptions for all the categories of employees you will supervise (Case Manager, Case Aide, et cetera). This should be done regardless of whether you are new to the organization or program, or if you’ve been there a long time. Most job descriptions will have an “as of” or “revised” date on them, either at the top of the first page, or somewhere in the footer. If the job description is a minimum of two years old, it may be time for a rewrite. If at any time the role changes, even a little, it may also behoove you to do a brief revision.
I would suggest starting by sitting down with each staffer and reviewing their job description item by item. Flag anything that might no longer apply. Add any regular, or even occasional, task you may need your staffers to perform. Do not commit to adding or eliminating anything they may suggest—simply let them know their input is important, their thoughts are heard and appreciated, and any changes will be carefully considered before being put in place. When changes are finalized, they will be discussed with the staffer so as to avoid any confusion about what is expected going forward.
The one-task-fits-all directive
At the bottom of many a job description is what I call the line-item-of-death, the thing that makes eyes roll and teeth grind like nothing else. It reads something like this: “All other duties as assigned,” in other words, “Do what I tell you.” I hate this—I hated it when I was a front-line worker, and I hate it now. Why? Nothing says “I have the power and you don’t” like “All other duties as assigned.” Everyone knows who “the boss” is —it is neither productive nor appropriate to lord over our supervisees the implicit threat of being written up if they don’t cheerfully take on “All other duties as assigned.”
If we as supervisors are doing our job of relationship building with our staffers; if we are demonstrating leadership by being willing to pull up a chair and work alongside; if we are willing to even taken something off their desk so they could focus on other priorities, odds are they will be there for us and for the team when, upon occasion, we ask them to step outside the normal boundaries of their job description.
Depending on the size of your program or organization, you may need to consult with your Human Resources department. In this case, the changes you would propose are functioning as recommendations for their consideration.
Matching job descriptions to performance appraisal forms
Once you make revisions to any job descriptions it is essential that you make corresponding revisions to the performance appraisal forms for that role. It is neither helpful nor appropriate to evaluate a staffer, positively or negatively, for an aspect of their performance that does not exist in their job description. Nor should they be overlooked for an aspect of their performance that was inadvertently left off their performance appraisal form. Job descriptions and performance evaluation templates need to be in agreement in order to be comprehensive and fair.
For front-line workers, supervisors, or program managers alike, look at your own job descriptions carefully. If there is something there that is irrelevant, or something you do of which you are proud that doesn’t appear in your job description, make a few notes. Ask your supervisor or HR about a possible revision.
There is plenty to do in our efforts to advocate for the oppressed and underserved populations we serve as social workers, social work supervisors, and not-for-profit managers. Knowing when “It is” or “Is not” the job of your supervisee to do something you ask of them is greatly dependent on the expectations you’ve set forth. Expectations that reside in an accurate, fair, and current job description.