Be wary of job drift

Allowing staff to carry out extra duties should be approached with care

IT IS ARGUABLY a manager’s greatest wish that the staff he or she manage not only do a good job – but also take on extra responsibilities without bidding and for no extra pay. Yet there can be some unforeseen disadvantages to such willing horses.

Most job descriptions these days contain a clause stating that the employee will be expected to take on such reasonable extra duties as are allocated to them by their manager. If such flexibility is not built into the contract of employment there is a risk that employees may insist that any extra duties are not their responsibility and/or that they require extra recompense for undertaking them. In any case, there is an argument that, in the event of a dispute on the matter, such flexibility might be implied into contracts of employment, even if the requirement is not expressly stated in the documentation.

More common is the situation where the range of duties undertaken is not formally amended but the employee drifts into performing work that needs to be done and the manager simply allows them to do so, for convenience. In the majority of cases, this is unproblematic.

However, a downside of allowing this ‘job drift’ is that the best and most willing performers get the heaviest workloads – with the risk for them of burnout (or, at least, diminishing productivity). It also means that other staff who might require development (or, indeed, to be kept fully occupied) avoid these tasks.

Another risk, of course, is that staff who are taking on ‘extra’ duties (albeit with the acquiescence of their manager) may find that the new duties are more interesting, amenable or even taxing, than their original “mundane and boring” work. It is a natural progression from this to allowing the more mundane work to slip down their list of priorities and the manager then finds that mistakes or missed deadlines are creeping into the staff member’s performance.

From the viewpoint of the staff member, there can be a risk that, having agreed to carry out extra work over and above their normal duties, it becomes over time an implied part of their contract of employment. In other words, they are transformed from being willing volunteers into press-ganged workers. Naturally, this can play into the hands of an unscrupulous employer.

Conversely, allowing a drift away from an employee’s basic contractual duties to more interesting work can mean that a clever employee can argue, after an appropriate period of time has elapsed, that the new duties are now contractual and old duties have ‘dropped off’ their job description.

All of this suggests that allowing staff to carry out more stretching or important tasks can be a vital part of maintaining motivation and loyalty to the organisation – or meeting a short-term need in the workplace. However, as the list of disadvantages above suggest, it might be important for any such job drift to be done relatively formally and in a planned way rather than pragmatically or chaotically (or even by stealth).

The annual appraisal review process can give manager and staff member the opportunity to review the relevance of the formal job description. It is perfectly legitimate (indeed, essential) for such a discussion – about exactly what the employee does day to day – to precede any assessment of how they have performed those duties in the past review period.

If there is agreement at the appraisal meeting that the job description needs to be revisited and the new role formalised in an amendment to the contract of employment, then this can be a logical agreed action resulting from the annual appraisal. The contract will have been varied by agreement and will then be legally binding on both parties. Of course, this permanent change may have implications for grading of the job or, possibly, the salary of the job holder.

If it is agreed at the appraisal that the job drift was a mistake or only intended to be short term, or that these duties should more usefully be performed by someone else, the arrangement can be terminated without contractual implication for either party.

The message is – don’t look a willing worker in the mouth, but ensure that you don’t flog that horse to death!

Ian Watson is training services manager at Law At Work

Law At Work is MDDUS preferred supplier of employment law and health and safety services. For more information and contact details please visit www.lawatwork.co.uk

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