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Dear Businesslady,

I am currently working as a copy editor at a company where I have been for almost a year. I got this job through a staffing agency, and am still employed by them. I generally like everyone I work with, and my boss here is great for the most part. However, I feel that my generally agreeable nature means I’m doing a lot of grunt work that isn’t in my job description. I am not one to complain…I enjoy being busy at work and I don’t mind helping people out or working on projects I’m not assigned to. But I do feel that I have begun to be taken advantage of.

For instance, my boss asked if I wouldn’t mind helping to transcribe a few interviews. I didn’t mind; I have experience doing this in previous jobs, even if I didn’t enjoy it very much. But “a few interviews” has turned into a shit-ton of interviews that have to be done in a very short timeframe. One day I had to complete five 40-minute interviews in one work day on top of my regular duties. And my wrists hurt so badly after that work day I wanted to cry.

I don’t want to complain and I definitely don’t want to have to go through getting staffed again at another place, because working here really isn’t that bad. Is it kosher for me to recommend they hire a professional transcriber? I know for a fact they are just doing this to save money. Is this wrong? Should I be getting paid separately to do this?

Sincerely,
My Wrists Really Hurt

Dear Wrists,

I’m so glad you asked this question because I relate to it a lot and I bet I’m not alone. Even if you’re not afflicted with Must Always Make Everyone Like Me Syndrome (which I definitely suffer from, even though I’m trying to keep it in remission these days), anyone trying to move forward in their career is going to feel a certain pressure to agreeably take on as much work as they’re capable of doing. The line between “happy to help out” and “being a doormat” is often both fine and blurry.

While everyone has different tolerances for various tasks and workloads, it’s pretty much inevitable that we’ll all eventually need to push back against a request—whether it’s from a peer or a higher-up. But figuring out when that’s appropriate can be really tricky, and actually declining to do something can be even harder. And to further complicate things, sometimes your “really, I absolutely cannot” is going to be met with “well you have to,” while sometimes the thing that you have to gather all your courage to say “no” to is met with “oh, sure, no problem.”

There are so many variables at play that it’s hard to give a straight answer about whether or not doing this would be “kosher” in your situation—your boss may be a nice guy, but he might also be unwilling to pony up for transcription assistance when he knows you’re theoretically capable of handling it. Anytime you raise the issue of “I don’t want to do this thing” in the workplace, you’re opening up the possibility that, eventually, you’ll reach an impasse of “it’s part of the job and if you don’t like it, find a new one,” regardless of whether that ultimatum is fair, reasonable, or even ethical. That harsh reality is why it can be so difficult to even begin to broach the topic in the first place.

But while there may be some tyrannical managers who’d start threatening your job security if you dared even suggest dialing back your workload, in most instances you should at least be able to have a conversation about reshuffling your responsibilities. If something’s a dealbreaker for you, then it’s better to know sooner rather than later whether it’s an inherent part of your position going forward, and leaving for a new gig due to a shift in job duties isn’t the end of the world—if anything, it gives you an easy answer for “why are you looking to move on?” at interviews.

On the flip side, there may be some circumstances where you’re truly willing to go far above and beyond, even if there’s a case to be made that you’re being exploited in the process. I don’t want to suggest that it’s fine for organizations to demand unreasonable things of their employees, nor do I want to say that it’s healthy in the long-term to do your office’s grunt work (or “Charlie work” for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fans) indefinitely. But if you’re checking in with yourself periodically to make sure you’re still hanging in there, and if you feel like your extra efforts are paying off, that’s your choice to make. (And for a different take on this calculus of competencies vs. career trajectory, see the second letter.)

With those generalities out of the way, let’s get back to your inadvertent assumption of your office’s transcription duties and look at the case to be made against detaching from that particular task. Point the first: you don’t like doing this. In my mind that’s a worthy argument in and of itself, even if it might not be enough to leave the job over. The more experience you have, the more leeway you have to say “hey, I despise this; can someone else do it instead?” This is especially true if you’ve been taking on more and more responsibilities—your time is limited, and if you’re going to have to shift things off your plate, you might as well try to move away from the things that you struggle with or dislike the most.

But point the second goes beyond that: you are actively IN PAIN as a result of all this transcribing, and that’s also reason alone to stop doing it, even more so than it not being your jam. I’ve done transcription and I know how hard it is, so I’m especially sympathetic here. (On that note, pro tip for anyone who finds themselves having to do this: I find it really helps if you can manage to play things back at reduced speed, which is possible via Windows Media Player and I imagine other programs/devices as well. And as an added bonus, it makes everyone sound super drunk, which is frequently hilarious.) But anyway, 3-ish hours of interviews means at least 4 hours of work if not more, unless you’re way better at transcribing than I am. And either way, that’s about half your workday just to get through the recordings at regular speed, so it’s not like you’re being a prima donna about pitching in on one tiny little extra thing. If your regular duties haven’t already started suffering, they will soon enough.

So. I’d approach your boss during a regular meeting when you know there’s no time crunch that would preclude an extended conversation. Ask if you can talk about some concerns you have about workload, and then lay out everything you’ve said here—but organized in a hierarchy of “things that matter most from a business standpoint” vs. “things that matter from a humanitarian standpoint” just to make your case as compelling as possible. That means: 1) you’re having trouble keeping up with your other work as a result of all this transcription (and hit this point the hardest, with concrete examples if you have them—like, is it maybe harder for you to copy-edit effectively when your brain’s all fatigued from trying to quickly process audio info and get it to your fingers?), 2) it’s causing you severe physical discomfort, 3) you only agreed to it because you thought it’d be an occasional thing, and 4) it’s affecting your job satisfaction.

Don’t go into this discussion all “HOW DARE YOU, SIR”; keep your tone friendly and the overall vibe one of “I’ve noticed this problem so let’s solve it together.” You can wrap up with something along the lines of “so do you think it would be possible to hire a freelancer to handle this going forward?” And if you want to soften things further, you could offer to remain on call in the case of an unexpected transcription emergency—but you can leave that part out if you’d really rather not do it ever again if possible.

Given the fact that this was a “one-time thing” that slowly oozed into something ongoing, it seems unlikely that you’ll be told to like it or lump it. If your boss is all “nah, you can do it, so I’m gonna make you” (rude), then at least you know that your job isn’t as great as you thought it was, and you can decide whether the hassle of getting placed elsewhere is worth it if it means being freed from that burden. Plus if it is a condition of the job going forward, it seems as though it might be worth raising this impasse with your staffing agency as a starting point, since I could see them objecting to the fact that you’re taking on duties beyond those stated in their original agreement with your boss (although I’m not super familiar with staffing agencies so I could be off base there).

The bottom line is that your boss’s seniority over you doesn’t extend to total control over your workplace activities, and if you’re being asked to “help out” by doing something that’s a hardship, there’s no obligation to keep cheerfully accommodating that request indefinitely.

—Businesslady


Hi Businesslady!

How can I apply for jobs that I’m overqualified for? My issue is this: I have a Master’s degree and 10 years of experience in [scientific field] research. My current position is running out of funding, and I’m being let go. I’ve known for six months, and I’ve been applying to everything I’m reasonably qualified for to no avail (grant funding is pretty scant these days). My alma mater has a posting for “executive assistant to the dean” for a department that I have no background in—I know I can do this type of job, and do it well, but I feel like any hiring manager is going to write me off based on my resume. I imagine it would seem like I’m going to jump ship as soon as something better comes along—which I wouldn’t! ….Although realistically I’m not going to stay in an assistant job for the rest of my career (the pay will keep my budget afloat, but it’s not great). How can I approach this?

Tangentially, but kinda related, my partner and I were hoping/considering having another baby next year. I really hate to start a new position and then go on maternity leave within a year, but I need to bring home some bacon for my household so I can’t just put off getting a new job. AHH I’m super stressed about this!

Thanks,
Looking for the Right Fit

Dear Fit,

Your question is full of specifics that are unique to you, but in some ways it’s also a distillation of the issues everyone grapples with in the course of a job search: how to triangulate the available opportunities, the income you need to survive, your future life plans, and your skill set (in relation to the work you actually enjoy, as your compatriot Wrists can attest). You’ve figured out that an executive assistant role would make sense for you right now, so the next step is making yourself an attractive candidate.

I don’t dispute the fact that you’re “overqualified” for an EA position in a certain sense of having extensive training above and beyond what that job requires, but I think it’s more accurate to say that your science background makes you tangentially qualified. That’s actually probably less insurmountable than if you were trying to scoot several rungs down a particular career ladder—“I wanted to shift gears” will make more sense to employers than if you were a former CFO trying to explain why you wanted to run the mailroom.

Obviously you’ll have to address the fact that you’re applying for a job in a different area than what you’ve been doing, but that should be secondary to conveying this: “I know I can do this type of job, and do it well.” And like so many other instances where you’re trying to convince a hiring manager to consider you, that’s where a good cover letter will be key. How have you excelled in assistant-type roles previously? How have your more recent positions helped you maintain those skills so that you could hit the ground running on day one if they hired you? Why (besides “I need to pay my bills”) are you interested in pivoting from the research realm to a more traditional office structure? It’s true that an application from someone with your profile might raise eyebrows, so the cover letter should try to preemptively address that skepticism in a confident and engaging way.

If you make it to the interview stage, you can probably anticipate a question or two about your long-term goals and how this position would fit in with them. It’s doubtful they’re looking for a lifetime employee (and if they are, you’re not the only one who’s going to be out of the running on those grounds). But it’s reasonable for them to expect a commitment of at least a year or two, so you should make your peace with that and proceed accordingly: “While eventually it might be nice to use some of my training again, for the next few years I’d really like to be part of a well-functioning office support team.” If you’re burned out from the pressure of constant funding applications or any other aspects of your research job, citing those things will help lend credence to the idea that you know what you’re getting into and are happy to be an EA for a while—although you’ll want to be careful that you don’t sound bitter or frustrated about the fact that your previous position is no longer available.

As for your other extracurricular aspirations of expanding your family in the nearish future, leave those aside for now. True, getting hired and then immediately decamping to babytown isn’t ideal timing, but people have found themselves immersed in parenthood at inconvenient moments since time immemorial. If you go on maternity leave right away and then never return, your former colleagues will probably grumble whenever your name comes up. But the chain of if-thens leading to that scenario is sufficiently complex that I wouldn’t worry about it just yet.

There are no guarantees in hiring, just as there are no guarantees when you send applications out into the ether. But if you make the case for being capable of a given job, and the folks on the employer side think they’d like to work with you, then your past career history and future plans are less important than the immediate obligations of your new role. And at the same time, it’s nice to hire people who have interests and abilities that go beyond the requirements of a given position, so candidates like you just need to articulate how their previous experience has helped prepare them—even if that preparation is a bit unorthodox in terms of the duties at hand.

Good luck on the job-searching and kid-having and whatever other adventures are on the horizon for you!

—Businesslady

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Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.

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