Help me put my foot down while still keeping my cool at work.
January 15, 2013 8:52 PM   Subscribe

I need advice on calmly asserting that a new task that's been dumped on me is A) unsuitable for my skill set and B) unreasonable in terms of time and expectations.

I work for a small nonprofit (previously ten staff). I am a senior staff member, part-time and have been here over a decade. My job is in writing, editing, policy and research, and my workload is full but manageable. I am also well known and well respected in my work.

Four months ago a new CEO was appointed and brought with her five senior staff from her previous organisation. Two existing staff were then made redundant, including the only administrative support person. We are now an organisation almost entirely made up of "senior staff members" without support staff. As a result, I have now been tasked with organising our AGM, which used to be the role of the admin support person. This is a boring, time consuming job largely involving updating databases, sending emails, printing and sending documents, sourcing a venue, catering, writing running sheets, doing nametags, etc.

I am not an event organiser and I don't want to do this. It's not challenging, it's not interesting, it's not something I possess skills in. I am very good at the work I do, but I think I would be a very bad event organiser. There isn't a checklist, manual or guidance on organising this. It's also a lot of work. I already have more to do this year and already work extra unpaid hours. When I raised yesterday that it was a big job, I was told dismissively that "it takes no time" and "it doesn't have to be a circus".

What I find most humiliating is that this has been presented to me as if it's a great opportunity for recognition. I don't need recognition; I have that already. I feel they're insulting my intelligence by suggesting that. I was also told that doing the AGM is going to be in my new position description and part of my KPIs.

I'm incredibly stressed about this, to the point that I had a full blown panic attack yesterday when I was told about it and have been in tears part of the day today.

I have expressed that I am not happy about the situation, and I have a meeting tomorrow to discuss this with my deputy CEO. I am almost prepared to resign if I'm tasked with doing the AGM. I know that's a ridiculous threat to make but I really don't think I can cope with this. Of course, if I don't do it, it will most likely fall to someone else who's in the same position I am, and I think that is also unacceptable.

I am not an assertive person and have a tendency to burst into tears under stress. What I need is advice for a way to calmly but clearly express "I will not do this" and to have it accepted and not dismissed. Suggested wording is very welcome, especially ways to combat the dismissals of "it'll be fine, it'll be no trouble".
posted by andraste to Work & Money (24 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
a new CEO was appointed and brought with her five senior staff from her previous organisation. Two existing staff were then made redundant, including the only administrative support person. We are now an organisation almost entirely made up of "senior staff members" without support staff.

I think you need to find a new job. They need someone to do support work, and it is not going to be any of the people your boss brought with her. That leaves...?

You might try to dissuade her tomorrow, but you have already tried that, and been rebuffed. Start looking for a new position.

Sorry, it sucks.
posted by LarryC at 9:42 PM on January 15, 2013 [14 favorites]

All I can say is that I don't think it's ridiculous or unreasonable to consider this something worth resigning over if you're already working overtime. One of the best supervisors I ever had basically lost her job effectively because she was too competent and they kept dumping responsibility after responsibility on her until it was impossible in practice for her to do it all well, and consequently she became a great target for the next time the rest of the senior management needed someone to blame. She would have saved herself a whole lot of headaches if she'd sought greener pastures as soon as it became clear that they were shunting everything onto her to compensate for poor planning on their part.
posted by XMLicious at 9:44 PM on January 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

If you need the money, look for the cabin exit closest to you, remembering that it may be behind you, then suck it up and do the planning because you need the money.

If you don't need the money, simply depart.

Either way, you're looking at changing jobs soon. If you delay the way I did you will be in the same situation I was.

Believe in your built-in, shockproof crap detector.
posted by jet_silver at 9:44 PM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

Can you use this as a bargaining chip to also be tasked with some job you really like, or to shift your job description in a way that is more favorable to your goals overall?

E.g., be frank that you are not an event planner and that the skills you are strong in, and the skills you are also trying to develop, are XYZ. Say that you'd be happy to do the AGM, but can you also have the opportunity to work on project ABC because it benefits both you and the company, and is more in line with the work you want to be doing? You can go over some of your past projects with the boss to make the case that you can do it.

If you're going to make the case that event planning takes too many hours, show up with numbers. A spreadsheet of your hours and what hours are spent on what task. If you want to know how long it takes to plan events, come prepared with actual statistics from your 3 friends who are event planners who can give you a real estimate (or 3 other event planners you called for their expertise, whatever).

When you are negotiating this, you should be organized, positive, and constructive.

I am not an assertive person and have a tendency to burst into tears under stress
Goes without saying, but not this.

Also, honestly, I've done some event planning and it really doesn't take that long if you don't sweat the details. The only risk is being pigeonholed into an assistant/support-staff type image if you get recognition for event planning. There might be a real risk of that if you're the only part time worker. You can try to address that concern by trying to shift your job description toward higher level tasks at the same time.

I'd say the best thing is to use this as an opportunity rather than seeing it as the end of the world. If you negotiate really well, and the CEO is still totally unreasonable, then you should start looking for a new job. It's probably a good learning experience either way.

TL;DR -- Can you do the event planning, and also use this as an opportunity to shift your job description in other ways that you like? So that overall it is a win for you?
posted by kellybird at 9:46 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've also worked at a non-profit doing research, proposal writing, and program development. I've also done event planning. I think event planning goes with the territory in your case, but, yeah, I don't enjoy it (I dislike being a little worker bee running around and doing shit) so I totally get where you're coming from.

I've also been in a situation where the leadership changed, they brought in their own people, they fired staff, and reassigned the survivors to other jobs.

My position, by the way, was eliminated eventually, although I was forced to organize a couple of events. I did a great job as I always do, but, man oh man, did I hate doing it.

I don't think you have many options. It sounds like the people making the decisions are arrogant, if not stupid, so they may not understand or be interested in the value you bring to the organization.

I guess you have three choices:

1) try to get out of doing it (it doesn't sound like that's going to happen).

2) Quit

3) Do the damn events and look for another job.

Since, quite frankly, you sound like you're in an untenable position anyway, a fourth choice might be to just work your part-time hours. What are they going to do? Fire you? There is a good chance they will do so anyway - their attitude does not seem particularly friendly, supportive or collegial.

Spend whatever time you do have looking for another job.

Don't quit - let them fire you first.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:46 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I know the feeling. My job at "do the layout for the program" for a non profit rapidly became retail sales manager + event organizer.

I reckon you've got a few options:

1. Just have a go and see what happens. Worst case scenario you bomb. Worse things have happened,

2. Tell your boss why you'd be no good at it, and suggest who might be better. This may or may not be in your interest, depending on the relationships.

3. Tell your boss you'll have a go, but your expectations aren't high for specific reasons. Then see what happens.

Since your druthers is for "need is advice for a way to calmly but clearly express "I will not do this" and to have it accepted and not dismissed.", that sounds like options 2. I'd do a lot of practicing in front of the mirror, in front of close friends, etc.

But don't discount option 1. The worst thing that can happen is you fail, and that's not the end of the world.
posted by colin_l at 9:47 PM on January 15, 2013

Best answer: "This task is unsuited to my skill set, and I feel the demands on my time are unreasonable, as are the expectations attached to it. You need to hire someone whose job is solely to do this."

Then, if they are dismissive, you say, "I apologize if I have not been clear, but I will not do this." If they say it's a chance for recognition, say, "I already have recognition and this task is unsuited to my position." If it comes down to it, say you will leave if that's feasible.

I'm completely sympathetic because I used to burst into tears when dealing with confrontations with superiors. But what I gradually learned is you do not hedge, especially not with people who are dismissive. You are blunt and do not budge, because they are counting on you acquiesing. They want to slop their problems on to you with the expectation you'll just deal, so it's hardly unreasonable to turn the tables (if it's economically feasible for you) and make them see it's really their problem to handle, plus they'll have to replace you if they don't do their job. It's completely reasonable that there would be some reorganization with a new CEO, but it's also completely reasonable that if they change someone's job drastically the people filling those positions may want to leave. It's their responsibility to strike a balance and decide whether it's worthwhile for them to replace you or keep you and add another person.

You can always say, "My job suited me before, and now that you've changed it so drastically, it is no longer the same job and this degree of change is unacceptable to me. If this can't be resolved then I will have to find another job." That's the facts, it's reasonable, and if they try to dismiss or demean you or make it personal, it's very unprofessional of them. Your concerns are completely reasonable.
posted by Nattie at 9:49 PM on January 15, 2013 [38 favorites]

I like what Nattie suggests, but you really have to be willing to walk away from the job immediately if you go that route. It's a strong position to take in the long run, but it depends on your economics.
posted by kellybird at 9:54 PM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: In order to avoid bursting into tears or losing control of your emotions, it might be useful to model out the situation beforehand, either in your head, or, ideally with a friend who can do a roleplay. In either case, try to think of likely scenarios, and determine how you should respond.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:05 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I like what Nattie suggests, but you really have to be willing to walk away from the job immediately if you go that route.

Yeah, it's like engaging in a game of chicken, and the boss may decide that it's no longer working out, and boot you out the door.

You're probably aware of this, but unless you have a ton of political capital, your workplace will sail on without you.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:26 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would just work yourself in a position where you're ready to leave - the CEO is not going to budge on this. They are effectively changing how you're viewed within the organisation (because I don't think they see you how you and your old colleagues see you) and I don't think it's in a way that will benefit your career.
posted by heyjude at 10:49 PM on January 15, 2013

If you're senior, then you are paid much more than an admin, and you have more highly specialized skills than an admin, right? This is the problem to bring them, not how you feel.

Here are talking points.
1. Quantify the number of hours per week you've spent doing admin tasks.
2. Therefore that equals the number of hours that have been taken away from you doing your specialized work. There are two downsides to this, from the company's perspective: they are employing you as the highest-paid admin ever, and they are missing out on the valuable services you provide.
3. Although you're attempting to keep up on your specialized duties through unpaid overtime, this is unsustainable.
4. You are over-extended due to management decisions, not through lack of ability. You are unwilling to continue burning the candle at both ends.
5. You request some action to fix this problem. What you suggest is adding a new support staff member to take these priorities (appropriately) off your desk by X date.

I wouldn't threaten leaving. I mean, do give it a good think. But don't make that part of this conversation today. If they ignore your request, that's when you go back to them to re-visit the topic and make that part of the discussion.
posted by (F)utility at 11:11 PM on January 15, 2013 [9 favorites]

Compartmentalize the hell outta the personal stuff, like your reaction to being offered an opportunity for recognition that you don't need. I mean, vent up a storm privately, but keep emotional reactions out of this at work. Now, how can you make the case that this is not actually what they want? I would start brainstorming along these lines:

a) Why should this be handled by a pro? What has happened to similar organizations when they cut corners and don't pay for the expertise they need? What opportunities are missed? What are some worst-case scenarios? Most importantly, what's a compelling example of cost-benefit advantage and/or ROI? Quantify quantify quantify.

b) Related, what can you NOT do because of this project? What irreplaceable things are of particular importance to your deputy CEO and CEO, and why can you not do them because of this new responsibility? Connect the dots for them. Make it very literal. It's not a matter of willingness, it's a matter of not being able to be in X and Y locations at the same time.

c) Couch it as a brilliant opportunity for a different department. If a Communications/Marketing person handled it, they would have the opportunity to get the info they need to implement such-and-such goal?

d) Go for the gut. Invoke risks. How might this piss off the Board? What are the CEO's personal insecurities, and how can you play to them? Who can you get in your corner and how? How can you get the Deputy CEO to fight for you?

e) Go for the high road. Is this the best way to fulfill the mission? Go ahead and get a little grandiose if warranted/effective.

Maybe come at this like you've been asked to consult on the project and this is what you've determined. Look, the work is going to get done, they're not going to NOT have a meeting. "Help" the deputy CEO and CEO find the most effective way to accomplish THEIR goals.
posted by desuetude at 11:38 PM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm also a part timer and I see that you say you're already working unpaid hours. That is not good. I think it might be helpful to start sticking to only your paid hours and communicate clearly about what you are able to accomplish within those contraints.

I am limited to 4 hours a day. When I do my weekly planning sessions with my director (if you aren't doing this, it is a good idea so they have a reality check of what you're able to accomplish), I remind my director about my time limitations in a firm but co-operative way and confirm our shared expectations of the priorities for the week. I leave when I'm supposed to and remind anyone I'm partnering with what time I'm leaving because it is easy for the full time folks around me to forget I have to go. I use my outlook calendar and mark my time in the office so my co-workers can see when I'm in. Do good work but be honest and firm about when you are off the clock. If you have a good CEO this would work and educate them. If you have a bad one, then look for work elsewhere as others have said. If you have colleagues in other similar organizations that think highly of you and that you can trust, may be worth having coffee with them to let them know you're interested in a change of organization.

You should state your case for keeping your job description as it was when you were hired but there's little you can do if your CEO just wants you to change to fit their needs. Don't count on the board to care. I know my board wouldn't, even though I am well liked and a senior staffer like you.
posted by dottiechang at 2:08 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's some great constructive advice up above, in my opinion, but - my experience in NGOs and elsewhere is that the writing is on the wall here.

If it's an NGO, you probably don't have much money, so they aren't gonna hire anyone else.

The CEO isn't gonna do it, and their little buddies from elsewhere aren't gonna do it because it sucks. Socially, you're obviously outside this group. Professionally, they obviously see you at the bottom of the totem pole - this is unfortunate, and it often happens to part-timers.

So if no one's gonna do it, and no one's gonna get hired to do it - this could very well be make or break.

What you need to do obviously is look for another job asap, but in your meeting what you need to do is explain your workload, as - this is important - you don't say no to the AGM, you ask what will be taken off your plate in order to execute it.

This will mean you need to come up with a very convincing calendar/picture of your workload that is heavy, and a very - but not ridiculously so - pessimistic "quote" on how much work doing the AGM will take you. So you can say, "Well, in 20 hours per week, I can do A, B, C,D, E and F. If I need to do the AGM, based on seeing it executed in prior years by qualified staff, I estimate it will take me X hours per week. This will leave me time for A and B, and part of C. I do not have the resource to do any more than that."

Don't go on about how unqualified to do it you are. What you say instead is, "As I lack experience in doing AGMs, I will need assistance in creating an RSVP database, a wankel-rotary engine, whatever etc etc. Who will give me these assets and train me in the use of them. Also who will I need to go to for finance approvals to do X, Y, Z."

You never say you aren't doing it, you just make it easier for them to find/get/make someone else to do it, by painting the most realistically depressing picture you can, and then follow through on your commitments about time frames etc.

Honestly, they are gonna make you do the AGM. It sucks. But if you do have to do it, you need to set it up so it's as easy as possible, you can take your sweet time, and do not have competing priorities.

My user name, Smoke, is applicable in situations like this (for me anyway) - in fact, that's why it's my username. When I am being stressed out by unreasonable demands, feelings of guilt, shame, resentment, and stress induced by conflict - especially work conflict - I be like smoke. Smoke is visible, but you can't grab it or hold it; it just slips away. But when you look for it, it's still there. It's something you can see, but not touch.

I guess it's kind of like aikodo, or something. I use the force of my opponents against them, and I pride myself on being 100% courteous, 100% polite, 100% helpful and 100% titanium, shit-proof, shock-proof, bomb-proof assessment about what's needed and how to get it, all the time. Concentrating on projecting a mien of helpfulness distracts me from feeling so stressed.

Also, I take it out opinion. What I offer are facts, so they are not arguing against me, so much as the weight of the Earth, and the Earth can bear the weight. Good luck, I feel for you, get another job asap.
posted by smoke at 2:20 AM on January 16, 2013 [20 favorites]

Can you request to be allowed to hire a temp to help you with the AGM stuff? A lot of those tasks sound perfectly suited for a temp, without the commitment of bringing someone on permanently and the costs that entails. You'd probably still be responsible for the event but at least you could delegate some of the more task-y stuff.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:08 AM on January 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

This happened to me, so I feel your pain. In my case, the CEO had a tendency to pick a scapegoat and pile all the blame and bad treatment on that person until they left or were fired, and then would pick another scapegoat. In all, I could eight people she treated this way during my time with that organization. All of it was to cover her own ass, because she was in over her head. In my particular case, I was also told that my position had been changed, downgraded into an admin position because the CEO's admin was too incompetent to do some of the stuff that needed to be done.

For me, I did as Nattie suggests - hold your ground on not doing it, note your skill set and higher professional ranking, but be prepared to be told that it's take it or leave it. I would also take KokoRyu's advice - I fought hard to force them to admit that I was being let go for lack of fit, rather than be pushed into agreeing that I was quitting. I got severance and unemployment benefits as a result. Stand your ground.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 5:53 AM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hang in there, and start looking for a new job. The new regime is not going to work for you.

I am a master at passive-aggressive gamesmanship, I suggest that you become a master too.

Arrive at the meeting with a list of your primary work-function tasks. A list helps me stay on track and not get so nervous/anxious/angry that I get teary (and when I'm angry/frustrated, I cry. It ain't pretty either.)

Approach it as a time constraint. "I'm part-time here, I work X hours per week to accomplish A, B and C, which have been my primary job functions for 10 years. I am now being tasked with organizing the AGM. There used to be a person here who was responsible for this. This is not in my wheelhouse. It is not part of my skill-set, I have no interest in doing it, and frankly, given that I'm already working uncompensated extra hours to do A, B and C, I do not have the time to do it. I'd also like to inform you that moving forward, I'm going to assert my part-time boundary. I will only be available to work on X days, for X hours. If you are redefining my role to include organizing the AGM, then I'm afraid that you are going to have to make this a full-time position, since that is what it will take to do both things."

Now, either she'll cave, and if she tries to foist this off on someone else, then that person will have to deal with it. You have to be selfish here.

Start getting your feelers out NOW about getting a new gig. The problem with non-profits is that they're as good as their Directors, and nothing about this situation is going to improve. You essentially lost your job when the regime changed.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:28 AM on January 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was the one-man "art department" at a software developer. I did design for sales materials, brochures, etc. as well as UI and graphics for the software. One day, my supervisor came to me and announced that I was now "being tasked" with arranging room rental and catering for a series of twice-yearly customer seminars around the country. Of course, I objected, because I had absolutely no experience in event planning and, honestly didn't have time to do any of it. My protestations fell on deaf ear and, honestly, my supervisor was more than a little pissed that I wasn't embracing this incredible "opportunity".

Get out, now.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:13 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Unpaid hours? Oh hell no. Start documenting the hell out of that c
posted by cyndigo at 8:00 AM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Man this sounds familiar. At one of my previous jobs I soon became the only person who was doing my regular job, and was also tasked with things that were so incredibly outside my job description that it was like asking a nurse to become an engineer. It was ridiculous. This was a few years ago now, but I'm still kicking myself for caving in and trying to learn and juggle and basically making my life hell. I was seriously depressed, my relationships suffered, and I should have started looking for an exit as soon as it became evident that this company was heading south. Do not do this to yourself.

Practice standing your ground. Calmly repeat that this is not where your skillset lies, that it would take an unreasonable amount of time and resources for you to become good at this other skillset while balancing your current workload, etc. "I'm sorry, this just won't be possible." Over and over. And it's perfectly fine to leave your job over this. Definitely try to be let go instead of quitting, too.

Good luck, and remember that your mental health is worth more than trying to please a crummy new CEO who has no idea what they're doing to the company. Ugh.
posted by Tequila Mockingbird at 10:17 AM on January 16, 2013

I'm sorry that the new CEO is messing with your previously-good job. It really sucks when you have a good thing going, doing things you are good at and believe in, and someone comes in and messes it all up.

Unfortunately, you don't have much to bargain with in this bad situation. Your old job could only survive if someone higher-up wanted to keep it, and in this case the highest-up doesn't want it to survive. So now you're only left with 3 options: convince them to give the project to someone else, accept it, or leave.

Option 1 (convince) is a nonstarter. First, it almost certainly won't work. You can directly say "no," and they'll probably just order you on threat of firing to do it. If they do give it to someone else, then you'll be targeted for downsizing ASAP. It's extremely unlikely to end well, and doesn't leave you in charge of your destiny, it endangers your livelihood.

So you either have to do the work, or leave. So is the work worse than leaving?

Honestly, when I have been faced with "stop doing what you're good at and like and do this giant crappy project with no end in sight," I immediately ramped up my search for a new position. You don't owe these people your time and effort, except for the time and effort you're paid for. So if I were you, I would take charge of my destiny by immediately putting all of my efforts into a job search so you can get back to a positive environment doing the things you are good at. It's amazingly empowering to get out there and find out that the job you want to do and are good at is in demand, and there's no shame in focusing your energies there rather than on a time vampire like this new CEO. Stop the unpaid work and spend that time on resumes, cover letters, and networking instead.

But for heaven's sake, don't resign. Keep working there (yes, even on the crappy project) and give an appropriate amount of effort for pay, but don't become a martyr. Finding a new job that respects your talents is probably better than working on the crappy project. Resigning and then panicking while you feverishly search for a job may not be better than the crappy project.

What I find most humiliating is that this has been presented to me as if it's a great opportunity for recognition.

Oh man, the project that drove me out of my first job was presented this way. I told them no, and they told me "we thought you would be so excited for this." It's called management by guilt, and it's a gigantic red flag. Seriously, even without the rest of this I would recommend leaving a place that manages by guilt.
posted by PCup at 2:34 PM on January 16, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all for your advice and suggestions and moral support. Alas, I did not manage to keep from tearing up in my meeting, but I did take advantage of some of your advice and pointed out the current heavy workload, and high level of responsibility I have, which is only going to increase over the next few months.

The result is that I am not doing the AGM. I have, however, agreed to keep part of it - the production of the annual report, which is within my skill set and which I think makes logical sense for me to do. The AGM is going to get foisted onto somebody else, but I keep reminding myself that is Not My Problem and they can push back just as I did.

Not going to jump from the place in a hurry, but I will be putting some feelers out next week.

Thanks again :)
posted by andraste at 7:06 PM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Congrats on the partial victory.

Someone upthread said to start documenting your unpaid overtime. That is a great idea. And keep the documentation somewhere you can access it should your job--and access to your office and computer--end quite suddenly. A Google Doc or Dropbox for example.

Your current job is probably untenable, and if you get screwed you may have the opportunity to demand back pay for those hours worked. The mere threat to do so (backed u with documentation) could give you the ability to bargain a better severance and a positive letter of recommendation.
posted by LarryC at 10:54 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older How do I make Tumblr work for me again?   |   Our roof is being redone tomorrow, worried about... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.