- On June 12, 2022
As the world economy sputters (see recent NYT story Global Growth Will Be Choked Amid Inflation and War), get strategic about your career as companies aim to cut fat. Take stock of your responsibilities and make an impact recognized by management. I read with interest this Harvard Business Review article on non-promotable tasks, which lawyers often face on top of their substantive jobs. In fact, the article leads with the story of a sixth year law firm associate asked to helm the summer associate program. She did it well, but spoiler alert: she was dinged for low hours. The article raises many great points, the key one below:
- Consider the consequences of taking on a non-promotable task. One is opportunity cost — by taking on an additional duty, you are “implicitly saying no to another potentially more visible project.” Another is the task’s urgency. If something has a short deadline, you can’t work on something with a longer deadline that’s more valuable.
- How to identify a non-promotable task. This type of task is not essential for the mission of your company, and the less essential it is, the less likely you’d get promoted for it. Also, it’s hard to get credit for doing it, e.g., your work editing a section of a colleague’s report won’t be visible. In the case of the sixth year associate managing the summer program, her work was invisible to almost everyone. Further, these tasks don’t require special skills (you don’t need to be trained to schedule meetings, proofread, etc.).
- You can say no, and definitely do not volunteer! Women are not only 48% more likely to volunteer for these jobs, but also are disproportionately assigned them. HBR found in its study that “the median female employee spent 200 more hours per year on non-promotable work than her male counterparts. To put that into perspective: Women spent an additional month on dead-end assignments.” Coincidence? Certainly not: “[W]omen were handling a greater number of [non-promotable tasks] — not due to preference or attitude — but because they were expected to say yes more often. As a result, women were asked and volunteered to do NPTs frequently, while men got a free pass.”If you’re asked, don’t get swept away by flattery. Instead, HBR recommends waiting 24 hours before you agree (or not) to take on the task. Spend that time weighing the pros and cons, and use HBR’s template answer: “Thanks so much for thinking of me for this. I need some time to think about it and how it fits in with my other priorities. I’ll be sure to get back to you by the end of day tomorrow.” HBR makes the excellent point that this answer “will make it easier to say no later.”
- Sometimes it’s worthwhile to take on a non-promotable task, e.g., if you are gaining an important skill (e.g., learning how to manage a new program), making good connections, or doing something important to you (e.g., diversity, equity, inclusion initiatives). But always know how much your work will be valued and what you are giving up.
The takeaway: steer towards worthwhile projects, and consciously avoid ones that don’t help your career.