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Although I think it applies to many positions, I am a software developer (mid-level). The company is rather small (30-40).

Recently, my employer brought up the idea that to help another department, me and the other software developer may be called upon to do various manual tasks such as moving boxes, setting up tables, moving furniture around, etc. They were going to hire an assistant for this position, but they decided it does not come up often enough to justify the cost of another employee. They still thought it came up often enough to ask my department's director - he was OK with it. The thought immediately went to me and the other developer because we are relatively young males.

I have absolutely no problem doing favors like this for an employer, but I feel like when it becomes part of my job, I feel that it is bordering on disrespectful. I don't want to come off like I think I am better than anyone, but it is a major distraction (obviously), not part of my job, and I went to college and became a programmer (in part) to avoid doing manual/menial labor.

Am I over-reacting? Should someone in my position consider manual labor to be an expected part of their job?

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Do they really want to pay something like $30-$100 per hour for moving boxes or setting up tables? If you're paid a fixed salary and they're trying to keep you after hours (or cutting into your programming time and then demanding that you work more hours to catch up on it) then that's a problem, but I don't see how the manual labor is a problem in itself (except for the employer who's wasting high-paid employee time on what would otherwise be low-wage work). –  R.. Mar 7 at 0:52
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Given that you do a desk job, aren't such distractions healthy (physically)? –  user13107 Mar 7 at 2:34
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@user16792: That's what part-time, on-call, and temp agencies are for... –  R.. Mar 7 at 3:39
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The most important thing is to refuse the job until you have received correct manual handling training. Later on in your career, you will welcome small breaks away from you desk. –  Gusdor Mar 7 at 8:01
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@user13107 not necessarily. If you hurt your back for example because you're not trained for heavy lifting, that's serious. And worse, the company would be legally liable if they had ordered you to do the work without ascertaining you have the required skills. –  jwenting Mar 7 at 13:19

11 Answers 11

up vote 86 down vote accepted

I work for a small company (around 85 employees), as well, and we're expected to "wear many hats" throughout the day. My primary job is as a programmer/systems analyst, but I'm asked to do a lot of other tasks, as well, some of which include manual labor. I'm happy to help with those tasks, because I want to help my team out and make sure that everyone has what they need. Essentially, the manual tasks are an extension of my normal job: I'm here to provide solutions, and sometimes a solution requires moving a table or a desk.

I don't think your employer is being "disrespectful" in any way. You work for a small company, and I'm sure other people at the company do things that aren't exactly in their job description. You may not expect manual labor to be part of a programming position, but you SHOULD expect it to be part of working for a small company where everyone has to pitch in.

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Thanks for your perspective. I definitely don't mind if a coworker needs help with something like this and asks me, just like I wouldn't mind helping them move on the weekend. It is when my supervisor asks me to do it purely based on age and gender that I feel like a line (in my mind of course) is crossed. I appreciate the reality check. –  user16792 Mar 6 at 23:19
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@jwenting Like I said in another comment. I have no problem doing favors for my coworkers, and generally enjoy doing it. It is when it stops being a favor and starts being a regular component of my job with my supervisor requiring me to do it where I felt a line was drawn. –  user16792 Mar 7 at 13:49
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"It does not come up often enough to justify the cost of another employee." - I think this is the key. If it were moving furniture for 5-6 hours a day, then yes, I'd say they need to re-evaluate and decide whether they want to pay someone that much money to essentially be a janitor. If it's only an hour a week, or a couple of hours a month, I think it's a totally reasonable request. –  Dr. Ibb Mar 7 at 17:06
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@thursdaysgeek yes and no. Gender and age shouldn't be litmus tests. At the same time for some types of work the minimum requirements will result in potentially large selection biases. To go with the question as asked, for moderate/heavy physical labor are not having a bad back/join problems/etc which correlate with youth. Carrying heavy objects requires a larger physical size (lifting more than 1/3rd of your body weight increases the risk of injury) and level of musculature that is more common in men than women. –  Dan Neely Mar 7 at 17:08
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@jwenting Getting coffee for everyone != full extent of socializing. That's just plain silly, and I'm 100% certain I'm not missing anything by not being the coffee bitch. –  Andy Mar 11 at 22:20

Yes you are overreacting! Everyone has to do some of this type of work occasionally. If they want you to spend time doing this every week, it might be a problem. It isn't a favor to your office, it is part of your duties under the "Other duties as assigned." clause. Don't be a prima donna.

I have had to collate 5000 page technical reports, move furniture, pack stuff for an office move and unpack it, set up other people's equipment, make copies, carry around the equipment for a presentation to a client (where we once famously got a US Senator to help us unload the equipment) and many more manual tasks. I've even helped the CEO carry a desk. Really everyone does this type of stuff.

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"Don't be a prima donna" - Harsh, but true. I realize I definitely fit that bill sometimes. I find it a difficult balance between that and making sure I don't let people take my "talent" for granted. –  user16792 Mar 6 at 23:23
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And this type of stuff goes down as you progress through the ranks. It is more expensive to have the CEO move furniture than the the junior or mid-level developer. And the junior person is far more likely to be in better physical condition. You don't want to give us old geezers a heart attack after all. But even us old people get stuck with this stuff if the furniture movement is big enough (such as the whole office moving to a new location). As a young woman, I had to fight to be allowed to do these things to keep my male colleagues from resenting me. –  HLGEM Mar 6 at 23:32
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I've used the flip side of this argument before: do you really want to pay me $X an hour to do this rather than getting a minimum wage random off the street? I'm happy to do it, but it's going to be instead of working on Project Y. For a junior that's less likely to work, because hiring a random costs manager time. –  Mσᶎ Mar 6 at 23:37
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@HGLEM - And I always had a great appreciation for the young women who did fight to help out. Team players are awesome. –  jmort253 Mar 7 at 1:09
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Signed up just to +1 this answer. My instinct when somebody claims that a task is "beneath them" is to show them the door. Respect flows both ways, and being a prima donna is not a good way to earn respect. –  Comintern Mar 7 at 5:15

Manual labor can actually help you kick start your creative process. I've been programming and solving very interesting problems for more than two decades. I'm also, recently, wearing my writer and community manager hat for a living most of the time during my work days.

I'd like to talk to you about a very good friend of mine, but I'll be a little subtle because he's still in the closet. He's a tall, quiet, lanky sort of fellow that has been an enormous help to me any time I get stuck. Since I write code and words, that which we call writer's block tends to hit me in very interesting ways. I suppose the best way to introduce him is to just provide a photo:

Told you he was lanky

That's right, he's a broom, and I'm glad he's there along with a perpetually dusty floor when I'm stuck and need to get a fresh perspective. There's also dishes to wash, vegetables to peel and other ways to burn what would be down time constructively and effectively. Have you ever found yourself straightening up your desk when you were lost in some kind of bug? That's your brain telling you what you need to be doing.

Buddhist monks sometimes call this rota, and it's a cherished part of daily meditation.

There's also a flip-side of this, and that's accepting that you work on a team as others have noted. You're definitely overreacting here. The work will likely help stir inspiration, it'll help your team and getting a little elbow grease exerted in an otherwise sedentary day is good for you.

Stack Exchange and Fog Creek are (in my opinion) the best places in the world for creative people to work. But, guess what?

They get dirty too

Sometimes, you just have to do what's needed.

What you should be able to expect, and request, is the ability to manage your interruptions for the most part. If you, say, doubled as someone that also occasionally helped people with OS setup issues, you can't be expected to just be pulled from what you're doing randomly. It's reasonable to carve out an hour or two a week to just do those things. This goes for any kind of interruption that isn't purely environmental (which, hopefully, you can limit by simply closing a door).

There will always be a case when you're needed to do something at an inopportune time, but those should be rather rare.

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Mentioning the "rota" did it for me. Always when you have such opportunities, you should see them as a opportunity to fresh your mind and your body (well, sometimes just the mind...!). This answer is really good. I would add that this kind of tasks can distract you from your task, but can also distract you from your daily problem. This is most why the "rota". –  Hugo Rocha Mar 12 at 17:39

I work in a large company where it's actually policy for me (and my peers) to have someone else move my computer (due to union rules, I believe). I could see how someone in my position would get used to the idea that, having a graduate degree and a great deal of big picture responsibility, it's beneath me to be asked to do manual labor.

However, having been in a place in my life where I couldn't find enough work, I'm quite happy to create value for anyone I can in my organization. If someone asked me to help move boxes and furniture around, I'd be glad for the exercise as well as the opportunity to create value and demonstrate that I'm a team player. I wouldn't consider it "taking one for the team." I'd be glad to help out.

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beneath you? definitely not. Not part of your job responsibilities? maybe. And probably for a very good reason: legal liability. Those movers have received (no doubt to their shagrin as they knew it already) training to do that job, you haven't. If you move that PC and you hurt your back, the company is liable and you could sue for damages. If the mover does it, the company is insured for that eventuality. In small companies that matters less, in large companies it becomes often a vital distinction. –  jwenting Mar 7 at 13:31

Yes as there will be times where you may have to do relatively mindless things that can well be part of the job. Would filling out a time sheet be something beneath you? In the real world, sometimes people may have to do work that may be thankless and not considered that valuable.

If your manager is OK with it and has updated the timelines so that you aren't expected to do two things at once, I'm not sure I see where this is disrespectful. Sometimes you may have to take one for the team.

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I don't consider it disrespectful, so long as it's in moderation. Your job is to do what it takes to get the work finished. A couple caveats:

(1) Your employer may be unaware of the potential injury risks and should be reasonable about your mentioning them. You would need proper preparation if you're called to do this.

(2) No, it is not appropriate if it is more than occasional and significantly hinders your ability to build software. In your line of work, it's important to be continuously involved in the development process and this makes your work more efficient long term. If you feel it is interrupting your software development, try to manage your time but if that is not possible, you should mention the problem to your employer. There are other workarounds, including hiring temp employees.

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They were going to hire an assistant for this position, but they decided it does not come up often enough to justify the cost.[..] They [..] ask my department's director - he was OK with it

Although I personally would appreciate a nice diversification of my work, I can perfectly understand why this doesn't feel right.

I feel that it is bordering on disrespectful

You're treated differently than others. People are deciding about your labour beyond the scope of your contract without your integration. There's not much space for respect in this.

But that's one view on this situation. The other view is your company's. There's one chair which needs to be moved once in a month and there are those young employees who surely have no problem in doing this task.

Am I over-reacting?

I agree with you that this decision is very unprofessional and it's absolutely valid to feel disrespected. If you don't take consequences, there's no over reaction. Get over it and enjoy the overpayed workout time.

Should someone in my position consider manual labor to be an expected part of their job?

You should always consider doing things which are not stated in your contract (e.g. shopping on Amazon). This will make life easier.

I your case I would simply see how things turn out. It might very likely be that your manager's intention has nothing to do with respect. Those extra tasks might happen so rarely that you'll enjoy them plus there will no further situation happen where you feel disrespected. If the future comes differently and you still feel bad you then should seek communication with your director.

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Strictly speaking, is it appropriate? Well, that really depends on what your contract / the employee manual / whatever says. If you were hired as a programmer and there's no clause anywhere that can be considered to include this, then it's most likely not appropriate. Although, unless it's serious enough that you're willing to possibly lose your job and take legal action over it, 'appropriate' probably doesn't really matter. If you are serious about it, you should definitely go and speak to a lawyer specializing in labour laws before you do too much.

It doesn't sound like you have much of a problem with the basic idea, so it's probably best left alone, at least until you see where it goes.

If you did have a problem with the basic idea, you could certainly take this up with management beforehand, but expect to lose some respect over it and, if management isn't particularly nice, you may end up being asked to do it anyway, which would likely put you in a difficult spot.

If you find that the distraction affects your programming productivity, or it's just too often, I'd say this is definitely something to talk with management about. Perhaps arrange a meeting with management and say something like "While I don't mind helping out with tasks not related to my job occasionally, I feel that the frequency at which I'm currently required to help out is causing too much of a distraction for me to be particularly productive as a programmer". From here, possibly try to arrange fixed times to perform this work, or whatever would suit both you and the company, although a likely result would involve you not performing these tasks at all any more.

Both of my above points would be overshadowed by you being able to put up a convincing argument that there's a significant risk of injury (to you personally, or in general) from performing these task. I imagine (legitimate) hazardous working conditions could end up in a law suit that would be fairly easy for an employee to win, so companies may tread lightly when it comes to this (note - I'm not a lawyer).

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Keeping a small business going is hard work. There's nothing magic that makes the tradeshow demos pack themselves, or the trash empty itself, or the toilets clean themselves. The only way those things get done is if somebody does them.

In 20-40 person company it's often very useful when employees help each other get their jobs done well. That definitely means people sometimes get asked to pick up heavy things or tidy something up.

I've been an employee and I've been a founder. I've cleaned the toilets right before customers came to visit. I've made the beds in the demo hotel rooms because the housekeeping crew was busy and it was show time. I've never hesitated to ask my colleagues to carry heavy things and generally help out as needed. Small businesses do best when everybody has a cooperative spirit.

It's obvious, of course, that asking a skilled engineer to break out of the "zone" to do some random task is wasteful. As a boss I avoided doing that unless necessary. But if it was necessary I would hope the engineer would cooperate.

Honestly, the ability to make a difference in many different ways is what makes people enjoy working in small companies.

It's super important when hiring the first few dozen employees to make sure they have an appropriately flexible attitude.

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There are two parts to your question: a) should I help move things around, and b) does my company respect me?

When I work for small companies, I usually volunteer and help move things around or clean things up. At one small company with 14 people, I brought my screwdriver to work the day that we all took down & then re-assmbled all the cubicles when we wanted to change our floor layout. So I am actually happy to help out with that stuff, because then it gets done.

When I work for large companies, they usually don't let me do that kind of thing. There have been times where a piece of furniture needs to move down the hall, but someone tells me not to move it because the Facilities guys will do it. Sometimes things are left for months for that reason, but oh well. That's the corporate world.

The other issue is respect. If the company isn't treating you respectfully, then this issue might have set off warning bells. But that's another, larger, issue that had to do both with their behavior as well as your expectations.

However, based just on this issue alone, it doesn't sound like a big deal. I'd think of it as a nice break from having to think all the time.

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As an interesting point, in an old telephone company I worked at early in my career, there was a very specific rider in everyone's employment agreement that stated that the salaried, non-union employees could be expected to take on some union work in the event of a strike. This was not only allowed legally but enforced. Friends of mine in the research lab actually got a kick out of ending up working on telephone poles during a strike.

It's a mixed bag - no employer should ask you to do something that is dangerous to you - and if you had a bad back, or other condition, you should neither be expected to do it, nor penalized as "not a team player" for not doing it. That said, the norm is that some level of physical labor may be expected from some employees who traditionally do non-physical jobs because it's just not a perfect world. If you were in a state where you couldn't safely help, then you should have every right to mention this privately to your manager and be opted out.

The more polite way to handle it would be to:

  • Send out a call asking for volunteers, preferably being cool about it and offering something nice but not expensive to helpers (like a free lunch).
  • Send it to everyone, don't discriminate
  • Give people advance notice, so they can bring grubby clothes or anything else appropriate to an unusual task.
  • Don't assume who should help due to age, or gender, and don't discriminate against those who may not volunteer due to disability.

It may be worth pointing out to the office that this approach may yield more enthusiastic volunteers, better office spirit (it's nicer to volunteer than feel obligated) and gives a more easy going way of omitting those who would be injured if they helped.

Many offices just don't think ahead, it's not malicious, just thoughtless.

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