Work/Life

How Women Should Say No To Thankless Office Tasks

When a direct "no" is not an option, there are ways to tactfully turn down a coffee request, joining a planning committee or doing office housework.
Women are more likely to volunteer for non-promotable tasks and are more likely to be asked to do them, research has found.
Women are more likely to volunteer for non-promotable tasks and are more likely to be asked to do them, research has found.

For too many women at work today, the innocuous question “Would you mind making coffee?” is not a request from a boss. It is an order.

If this question came from a co-worker, you could either say no or conveniently forget how to make coffee, but to preserve a relationship with your manager, the refusal requires more finesse.

How To Turn Down The Coffee Request

In the 2014 edition of her book “Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office,” executive coach Lois P. Frankel advises women to turn down office housework like fetching coffee, taking notes or other personal errands that are not part of the job. If the boss makes the request in front of a group, Frankel says to “practice saying in a neutral, unemotional way, ‘I think I’ll pass, since I did it last time.’” That way, you gently but firmly assert that you are not a doormat and you get to make a public reminder to all that your time is being mismanaged.

If it’s a one-on-one request, tell your boss that you can fulfill the request when you are done with your job’s responsibilities. “When asked to do personal errands, let the boss know you’re happy to do them when you have time, but otherwise you don’t want to take away from being able to do a good job at what you were hired for,” Frankel writes.

You may think saying “yes” to serving coffee at a meeting is just a one-time thing, but it can set a precedent for your boss about what kind of office chores and other low-level tasks you are willing to do.

“If the boss makes the request in front of a group, Frankel says to practice saying in a neutral, unemotional way, ‘I think I’ll pass, since I did it last time.’”

Frankel delivers some real talk when discussing women’s limited options for refusing a boss’ office housework request. “If you carry out the errands, you’ll feel resentful; and if you don’t, you may be fired. Pick your poison,” she writes. “If the errand requests persist, it’s time to look for another job, ask for a transfer, or wait the boss out.”

Frankel is implicitly acknowledging that saying a direct “no” can negatively affect how you’re perceived if you’re a woman. In a 2005 study, women were rated less favorably when they withheld a work-related favor like staying late to help a colleague prepare for a presentation. Meanwhile, when men did the same, they experienced little effect on their favorability evaluations.

How Male Allies Can Step Up

Take this positive example from Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ recent New York Times obituary, which ended the story of his legislative accomplishments and political history with an everyday anecdote about how he treated female colleagues with less power:

Justice Stevens was known around the court for treating others with sensitivity and respect. One former law clerk, Christopher L. Eisgruber, described in a 1993 essay an incident at a party for new clerks: Before Justice Stevens arrived, an older male justice had instructed one of the few female clerks present to serve coffee. When Justice Stevens entered, he quickly grasped the situation, walked up to the young woman and said: “Thank you for taking your turn with the coffee. I think it’s my turn now.” He took over the job.

Stevens modeled how a male ally in power should intervene and redistribute any thankless task that is being unfairly shouldered by women — that is, by doing it, too.

If you’re a man who notices that one female colleague is regularly or repeatedly asked to fetch coffee or plan happy hours, speak up and say you’ll do it this time. This is one basic, fundamental step that men need to be noticing and practicing to make an equitable workplace for all.

Women Are More Likely To Take On Non-Promotable Tasks

These kinds of thankless requests go beyond serving and making coffee for your boss. Research published in the 2017 issue of the American Economic Review found that women are more likely to volunteer and get asked to do tasks that are not going to help them rise in their careers.

The study mimicked the personal cost of taking on a task everyone is reluctant to do, such as writing a report, serving on a committee or planning a holiday party. Under a short time limit, someone had to volunteer for the task or the group would lose out on money. If no one volunteered, each person would get $1. But if someone volunteered, that volunteer who took one for the team got $1.25, while the other group members got $2.

Across 10 rounds of experimentation, women were 48% more likely than men to volunteer for a task that would penalize them financially while benefiting the group overall. In general, the participants were not jumping to volunteer, but as the clock ticked down, a woman was more likely to answer the call to do the task no one else wanted to do.

This is not necessarily because women are inherently more altruistic. When the participants were placed in men-only groups or women-only groups, they volunteered at the same rate.

“It is not optimal to have a highly-skilled woman working at a lower level than what she actually should be working at.”

- Lise Vesterlund, University of Pittsburgh

These expectations can be deeply ingrained. When a manager was brought in to decide who to pick for a thankless task, the study found they were 44% more likely to ask a woman to volunteer in mixed-sex groups, even when the boss was a woman. “The reason why we ask a female is because we know she is going to say yes,” Lise Vesterlund, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the co-authors of the low-promotable task study, told HuffPost. “We’ve all developed this sort of code of conduct where we are always expecting the woman to be the one who steps up and takes on the work that no one else really wants to do.”

Vesterlund said that solving this volunteer question is, first and foremost, a managerial issue to document and change. “If women are constantly taking notes at meetings or doing pro-bono work or other sorts of less visible tasks, or taking a client that doesn’t bring in as much revenue as what they could be working on, they are not going to be identified as having the talent that they truly have, which is bad for the business,” she said. “It is not optimal to have a highly-skilled woman working at a lower level than what she actually should be working at.”

Recognize The Trigger That Is Making You Say ‘Yes’

What’s going on in those final moments when the reluctant female participant finally gives in and volunteers? Triggers differ between people, but Vesterlund explained two possible reasons that women volunteer. One is the impulse to just get it over with, because you know you can quickly turn it around and do it well. “A very common trigger is ‘let’s just get it done, this is ridiculous, we are sitting here waiting for someone to take it on,’” she said.

Another trigger is when the non-promotable task is prestigious and your imposter syndrome may tell you that you’ll never get an opportunity like this again. “For me, a big trigger has always been that I feel honored to be asked and at the same time, I am fearful that I will not be asked again,” Vesterlund said.

But these tasks take away valuable time. Look beyond the prestige and the times when everyone is waiting for a volunteer, and think strategically about where your main priorities lie. “Every ‘yes’ you have comes with an implicit ‘no’ to something else,” Vesterlund said.

By saying yes to that one task, you may not be able to say yes to the project you actually do want to take on in the future, or you may have to work later, or you may have to see your loved ones less. “The implicit ‘no’ could just be yourself. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting enough exercise? I think it’s super important for us that we start thinking about where is the time going to come from when we take on other things,” she said.

Doing a task no one else wants to do may get it done for your company in the short-term, but there may be long-term repercussions for your personal satisfaction. “At some point, if you are doing tasks at work that are sort of beneath the level that you are trained to do work at, then your job is not going to be very satisfying,” Vesterlund said.