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5 scenarios where you need help at work, and how to ask: part 3

November 11th, 2010     by Emma Woolley     Comments

engineering department employee, 1962 Seattle Municipal Archives

The third and (thus far) final installment on navigating office peccadillos so you can maintain your dignity, uphold your feminism, and get the job done.

4. Your colleagues are pushing their work onto you

Scenario: Your smoke-coming-off-the-keyboard typing speed, expert formatting of meeting notes, and punchy report writing is complimented by your superiors. Business is brisk, and before long, you find yourself entrusted with regular responsibilities and assigned a sizeable queue of daily work. The work your boss assigns is challenging but manageable. Problem is, your colleagues have also noticed your skills and to treat your desk as their dump for their tedious administrative tasks. You’re reluctant to say no because you want to build positive quid-pro-quo relationships at work, but it feels like, as an eager-to-please junior employee, you’re rapidly biting off more than you can chew and are enabling your exploitation.

One of the tricky aspects of being an intern is that that your work situation tends to go from famine to epic medieval feast. In the beginning, before your employers are truly aware of your abilities, they may not make integrating you into the workflow their top priority. You wind up getting bounced from desk to desk until someone gives you some minor task that you conquer the crap out of and then all of a sudden everyone–even people under whom you don’t technically work–has ten jobs with your name on them.

This tends to play out negatively for young women, who as already feel should work harder for less money. When Cynara was hired to work in a editorial position during her undergrad, she was lucky to have a professor who instructed her to give polite but firm refusals if and when other professors requested or implied she should take on extra admin duties outside her paid job description. Cynara remains grateful for this primer on “Lofty Tenured Dude Entitlement.” Without this advice, she would not have had the temerity to refuse tasks that took her away from the work she was being compensated for.

The “intern does not equal personal assistant” dilemma is a common problem in many work environments, and the reality is you won’t always have a fierce feminist mentor looking out for your interests.

Alexis, a 30-something library paraprofessional and friend of Shameless at Work offers useful advice for when and how to say no: “I think you have to be strategic, and maybe even mercenary about it. If it’s menial shit that will detract from your ability to do the things necessary to move ahead [with your own work].” She offers several tips for how to deflect extra work: “Always use confident body language, look them in the eye. Depending on your workload you can offer to take it with the understanding you will get to it if/when you can. Or you simply state, ‘I really wish I could help you’ and leave it at that.”

Alexis also raises the important point that taking on extra work can, when done strategically, be leveraged to your advantage. “It is not a bad idea to take work that you can take credit for when it’s good and important, if the work is beyond the scope of what you normally do, but could potentially help promote you because it shows your ability to work beyond the limits of your current position. Keep a tally of things you do outside your job description and use them as bargaining chips for a raise/promotion.” Bottom line is if you are doing the work of 1.3 people, you deserve credit and compensation. Which brings us to… 5. You’re ready to move up and/or ask for a raise.

Scenario: It’s been a year since you’ve started in the job. You’ve mastered the day-to-day tasks, contributed to department productivity, and are taking on more responsibilities without a change in your job title. It feels about time to try something new, or ask your supervisor for appropriate compensation. At home, you’ve been working on a list of things that you’ve accomplished over the year, and have been rehearsing what to say to your boss. But a lot of things seem thorny to bring up. You want to get paid for the work you do, but you don’t want to come off as entitled or cocky.

A year ago, Joanne Lipman, founding editor in chief of Portfolio magazine, revealed in a New York Times op-ed that exactly “zero” female employees came to her office and asked for a raise. Lipman attributed this to the fact that women learn to be the “passive ‘good girl.’” Sara Laschever and Linda Babcock’s book Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation–and Positive Strategies for Change grew out of Babcock’s discovery that women graduate students at her university were not afforded teaching opportunities because they, unlike their male peers, never approached the Dean to pitch course ideas and ask to be considered for positions. In Women Don’t Ask (a must-read for all women entering the workforce), Babcock and Laschever reveal how different attitudes stack up in men and women when it comes for asking for wages.

In a study that polled recent graduates of Carnegie Mellon, Babcock found a disturbing discrepancy. Despite the fact that the Career Services department strongly encourages all students to negotiate for their starting pay, only 7 percent of women asked for more money than their initial offer. On the other hand, 57 percent of men asked for more money. Babcock and Laschever argue that the wages gaps are both preserved and exacerbated when women bite their lips and wait for better treatment*:

“The students who had negotiated (most of them men) were able to increase their starting salaries by 7.4 percent on average, or $4,053–almost exactly the difference between men’s and women’s average starting pay. This suggests that the salary differences between the men and the women might have been eliminated if the women had negotiated their offers.”

Money is always tricky to talk about, but as the examples from Lipman and Babcock & Laschever illustrate, women should be more confident about asking for raises and promotions. As Julie Klauser, Lady Business Columnist for Salon observes, most men “already know that they’re entitled to be treated well the way calves know how to walk minutes after they’re born” and have zero problems demanding their fair shake. She–quite rightly–points out that “you do deserve way more than you, and a lot of women, have the courage to ask for–so make sure you know that.” As women, we need to be reminded that, than appropriate, it is necessary for us to ask for raises. But, if you need to get a ballpark figure for how much you should ask for, you can ask a colleague in the industry or a co-worker with whom you have a friendship with outside of the workplace.

Everyone needs to ask for help sometimes. The fear that some interpret your asking for help as incompetence should not stop you. The only way you can learn is through doing and asking people you respect to help you. Try, if possible, to find a mentor at work. You can frame your inquisitiveness in the context of mentorship and professional guidance and maximize what your learn from and get out of your job.

Of course you should ALWAYS, ABSOLUTELY ask for help if you are sexually harassed or feel threatened or unsafe in any way by any of your colleagues. Tell someone you trust, even if you are scared of losing your job, and even when there isn’t a HR department to formally handle the situation. In Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canada Labour Code are in place to protect employees from harassment related to work. Provincial human rights laws also prohibit harassment. Physical or sexual assault is illegal and prosecutable under the The Criminal Code.

*For information on the wage gap in different industries, check out this infographic from the New York Times:Why Is Her Paycheck Smaller?

Tags: on the job

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