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It started with the No Club, a group of women gathering together to support each other so they might more frequently turn down workplace requests for what they would call crappy tasks. But over time they realized what was crappy work for them was often very important for the organization and the leaders making the assignment. They began to define those tasks as unpromotable work, because it was not honoured by advancing their career even if they won brownie points for accepting them. Next, given the club’s four members were academics, was to investigate the nature of these tasks and in particular the gender divide in assigning and accepting them. Their findings can help us all.

But they didn’t know that initially. They were simply confused and frustrated, drowning in their jobs, feeling the reason was an inability to say no. At the first meeting, when they shared the lists of extra tasks they had agreed to do was long and the comparable list of what they had declined was short. “Rather than being strategic about where to focus our attention, we were running around trying to fulfill other people’s needs and expectations,” Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart write in their book The No Club.

They agreed to meet every few weeks, helping to stiffen their spines and resist more. As well, sometimes when asked to take on a task a member sensed she should resist but was about to accept, she would e-mail the group and get immediate, clear-headed advice from the others.

The unpromotable tasks, tellingly, were often invisible to others in the organization and didn’t require any unique skill or capability, but just someone willing to submit. Common examples are filling in when others are absent; organizing and co-ordinating – but not managing – the work of others; editing, proof-reading and compiling, especially the work of others; logistical planning and special events; governance work, such as safety, diversity and climate-change committees; and onboarding and training. They cite Sally, a bartender who is always asked to help bring new employees on board; doing that keeps her from serving customers, so she loses tips and although the boss is appreciative, he doesn’t consider that role in performance assessments.

In their own research and experiments, and in studies by others, they found what they call “substantive and overwhelming evidence” that women more than men are assigned dead-end tasks. “Less saddled with these tasks, men have the freedom to concentrate on work that help them advance, while women’s careers are stalled or stymied,” they write.

Their research found two main factors driving this disparity. First, we ask women more often than we ask men to do such tasks. Second, when we ask, women are more likely to agree. This flows from a collective expectation that women, more than men, will do unrewarded work.

This is an organizational problem that needs to be recognized. But meanwhile, people – particularly women – have to get over the feeling others will not see you as a team player if you say no.

They urge you to get all the information you need to understand the task before making a decision, even if the boss or a colleague is hovering at your door, staring at you, expecting an immediate answer. Consider who is asking and whether you can actually say no. Ask for time to consider, buying you a moment to evaluate the task properly and strengthen your will to resist. Adopt similar patience when volunteers are asked for non-promotable work; don’t be the first to raise your hand.

And form a No Club, a group of friends and colleagues who can meet regularly, to help you resist work that your organization wants you to do but not enough to let it help advance your career.

Quick hits

  • When after screening, a recruiter says you will be put through to the next round of interviews, ask, “Is there is anything specific I should highlight in upcoming interviews based on the job description or the intangibles not listed?” Career coach Marlo Lyons feels the question can surface valuable information that may not have come up in the initial conversation and perhaps nudge the recruiter to reveal the hiring manager’s perspective on the job.
  • A new randomly controlled study found taking a break from social media makes individuals happier and less anxious. Although the biggest impact came from fully abstaining, the researchers found smaller, but still significant improvements in depression and anxiety by having users just reduce their time on Twitter and TikTok.
  • In The Power of Regret, author Dan Pink identifies regrets of boldness, such as waiting too long to talk to a boss about an issue, wasting years in a toxic job or watching an unethical approach, but not speaking out. To avoid regrets of boldness, executive coach Karin Hurt suggests asking yourself: What’s at stake if I don’t ask, and will I regret not doing anything?
  • If you want to see the next page in a Microsoft Word document alongside the current page, to its right, display the View Tab of the ribbon, and in the Zoom group, click on Multiple Pages. Tech writer Allen Wyatt explains that automatically displays multiple pages, horizontally, depending on the size of the Word program window and the zoom setting you are using. Clicking on One Page returns you to the norm.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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