Just Say No

In every workplace there are tasks that aren’t enjoyable to do, or that aren’t part of formal job descriptions but are important for building positive relationships and community. However, research has shown that these kinds of tasks – which some researchers have labeled “office housework” –  tend to be done more often by women and by members of demographic minorities. It’s also been suggested that doing these tasks can have a negative impact on the careers of those who regularly take them on.

The new book The No Club: Putting A Stop To Women’s Dead-End Work, by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart,  is a very thoughtful analysis of this phenomenon. Coincidentally, I came across the book when I was thinking about how “office housework” functions in academic workplaces. I recently left an academic job, but I still regularly get requests to participate in  professional associations’ activities, to review articles submitted to journals, to review articles submitted to academic conferences, and so on. All of this is volunteer work with no compensation, and now that really stands out to me – especially because many of these associations and organizations would not function without volunteer labour. (Academic journal publishers could afford to pay their contributors, editors, and reviewers, but they don’t because it’s more profitable for them to rely on volunteers.)

In my former job, I would generally say “yes” to these requests, because doing this work contributed to the development of my profession. I also felt a genuine obligation to give back, because I received support for my own work from peers and colleagues, and I could use my expertise to offer that same sort of support to others. I was also very well aware that having this kind of work on my resume would be important if or when I applied for promotion or another academic appointment.

But now I have more freedom to decide whether I would actually like to do any of this work. I’ve turned down some requests, and said “yes” to others if the opportunity sounded interesting and if I had the time to do the task. But I can also tell you that in an academic job there can be a tremendous amount of implicit or explicit pressure to accept these kinds of requests – regardless of whether you want to or have the time to do the work, or to do the work well. Doing these kinds of tasks “shows” that you’re an active participant in your scholarly discipline, and that you’re committed to doing your part at your own post-secondary institution.

Reviewing and committee membership are among the types of tasks that the authors of The No Club label “non-promotable tasks” (NPTs)  – tasks that “matter to the organization but that will not advance your career”.  Sometimes these tasks are assigned, and the authors point out that these may be assigned more often to workers who are female or members of underrepresented demographic groups, because the organization wants to be seen as “diverse”. Or these may be assigned to women because women are perceived as having better social skills, or as being more interested in interpersonal rather than technical work. And sometimes women or minority group members volunteer for these tasks because they “need” to be done and no one else is stepping up to do them.

But the pitfall in doing NPTs, as the name suggests, is that they may not be seen as developing the range of skills that can lead to career advancement. Even worse, they can take time away from the activities that are seen as promotable – and, very often, they lead to overwork and burnout because they are done on top of the person’s regular defined workload.

The title of The No Club comes from one of the strategies that the authors developed to manage their own NPTs. They formed a support group that regularly meets in-person and communicates online. If one of the group members receives a request to work on an NPT, and feels that she needs some advice, she lets the other group members know.

One of the best pieces of advice in the book is to not say “yes” to these requests right away. Saying something like “let me get back to you on that” gives the recipient of the request time to get feedback, from their own No Club or other trusted sources. Often, that feedback will remind the person how much they are already doing, how much time the task will take (which is usually way more than the requestor says it will), and whether the task has any value to the recipient’s career or skill development. That helps make an informed decision on whether to take on the NPT.


Some of the other very practical advice in the book includes:

  • Not saying “no” in ways such as “I’m really busy for the next two months”, because that may result in “Fine, I’ll contact you right after that about getting going”. Refusals should be clear that “no” means “no”.
  • Developing organizational structures that distribute NPTs equitably among all workers, such as a schedule for who will take minutes at regular meetings. That encourages everybody to share equally in doing these tasks.
  • Reminding those who send requests for NPTs of other commitments that you have already taken on. I particularly liked the idea of phrasing this along the lines of “Which of my other responsibilities would you like me to do less of, so that I can do this one?” This is a reminder that work time is limited, and is particularly valuable for requests for activities that may take a lot of time to set up or to manage.
  • Suggesting someone else to ask, particularly if that person is someone that might not be considered otherwise.
  • Eliminating NPTs that don’t contribute anything to the organization or its functioning.

The authors acknowledge, quite rightly, that not all workers are going to be able to refuse requests for NPTs, and that a certain amount of NPTs have to be done for the organization to function. But many of their suggestions address the issue of NPTs from a system-wide perspective. That’s really important because it doesn’t place all the responsibility for managing NPTs on the recipient of the request, and it looks at NPTs as an organizational or systemic concern.

I have some concerns with the authors’ labelling NPTs as “non-promotable tasks”. That implies that promotion is something that every worker wants; however, some may be happy to stay where they are. I’d also suggest that non-promotability can be a subjective assessment, and that what is seen as “promotable” may depend on who is doing the assessing. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the implication that a task that’s “non-promotable” should always be viewed with suspicion, even if doing the task could be interesting or personally rewarding.

However, the suggestions that really resonated with me were around quantifying NPTs. Measuring NPTs, and the work involved in doing them, ensures that everyone in the organization understands expectations around these tasks, and that everyone participates in that work. One of the frustrating things about academic work is that there are very few ways to manage or penalize those that are deliberately not participating in NPTs: for example, avoiding being part of committees or projects or initiatives outside their “regular” work. There are some characteristics of academic workplaces that partially explain this lack of enforcement, such as the principle of academic freedom – but it can be very demoralizing to be in a workplace where a few people are working very hard while others are doing next to nothing.

The authors of The No Club provide an example of quantitative standard-setting for NPTs from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The administration at that school has assigned points to administrative tasks, most of which would likely be categorized as NPTs, and state that “a full-time faculty member should contribute 100 points (with a margin of error of 10 percent plus or minus); over-contributors receive extra compensation, and under-contributors need to adjust either their time status or their pay.” This is an excellent approach to setting organizational expectations around NPTs. It lets the worker decide how to allocate their NPT work to meet the target standard. It also defines outcomes for exceeding or missing that standard, which sends the message that this work is expected.

But as I was reading through all of the authors’ recommendations, one other thought kept running through my mind:

If this work is essential for the organization to function, organizations should be paying for it to be done.

As long as workers are “willing” to do NPTs, organizations – especially profit-driven organizations – will rely on that work being done at little or no cost to them. There is no motivation for them to change; the system works for them, so why do anything differently? One of the recommendations of The No Club is incentivizing NPTs through offering extra pay or other rewards such as time off in exchange for work time spent on NPTs. I wish the authors had emphasized this recommendation more strongly, because it speaks to how exploitation or overwork can become the norm as long as it benefits the organization.

Some commentators have recently suggested that organizations or systems that rely on doing work for free, or doing extra uncompensated work, can only continue to function as long as workers perceive some payback in the future.  In academic work, there is an increasing recognition that NPTs may never result in traditional rewards, such as tenure or promotion, and thus fewer researchers are participating in activities such as peer reviewing.  If NPTs are not leading to the promised results, then how that work is structured and rewarded needs to be reconsidered. The best long-term solution for managing NPTs, for both workers and organizations, may be for the organization to pay for work that truly benefits the organization, and to ensure that the remaining NPTs are equitably shared.

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