I am an immigant engineer working for a large research organization in Europe.

I have been working here for 3 years, and have rarely refused any assignments that were given to me. Sometimes the work is stimulating/challenging, but many times it is not. This is in part caused by the following factors:

  • I do not fluently speak the native language of the country I work in (Though I have been working hard to improve this)
  • My background is slightly different from the organizations core business. I have also received my diplomas from the US so the situation is a bit different
  • There is relatively little "international" work which requires a command of the English language. The groups that work around these international topics are tightly knit and also a bit exclusive.

Also, my general impression working for this organization for the last 3 years is that there is not enough work to go around. It is a semi-public institution and sometimes even the seniors suffer from this (I am a junior).

The situation that often occurs is that I do not have enough work, and then someone asks me to do something which I consider to be uninteresting/annoying work. For instance, it could involve running calculations and bookkeeping results which I do not understand, updating someone elses code/programming and other busywork.

I would like to ask: Is it ever OK to refuse such work? I see several advantages in refusing:

  • It sends a message that you expect more intellectually challenging/interesting work
  • It prevents the person from coming back with the similar requests in the future

There are also disadvantages of course:

  • It means you will stay in the situation of not having any work for the time being
  • It may send a wrong message that you are lazy and/or do not want to contribute to the organization

Any thoughts?

  • 4
    Refusing to do the assigned work (their "asking" is not that you really have a choice unless you quit) is extremely dangerous even if you have good reasons. You have not. There will always be some "boring" work to do and unless it's completely outside your job description and it happens too often then you really have to suck it up and do it. However you must talk to your manager about this, she has good reasons to TRY to keep employees both busy and challenged. Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 8:08
  • I understand what you mean. You state "unless it's completely outside your job description and it happens too often" . In my situation I would argue for the second situation. It happens too often, and I would like for the challenging to boring work ratio be something like 70 to 30 percent. Right now its more like 50 to 50 percent. Hence my desire to refuse assignments sometimes.
    – user32882
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 8:24
  • 2
    That's where your manager comes in. Talk about the problem with him and listen carefully, refusing to work can ONLY backslash. If talking doesn't help then you search a new job: what the company wants from you might not be aligned with your goals but if you do not do what you're supposed to then you have no value (and they are not a good match for your own career). Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 9:21

3 Answers 3


I will say this to you, in the hopes that its clear I mean all of those in higher education jobs.

You are not above work

One of the most frustrating things in academia is the entitlement. The sciences (to be the most general) require a lot of high level reasoning, knowledge and understanding of often many disciplines. This includes programming, mathematics, money play, people management, robotics, physics, 3d modelling and and and and and and into infinity.

And time and time again, somehow the tiny mastery of all these subjects somehow injects the idea that these people are better than everyone else and better than the work.

You are not. No-one who works is. You are not so special, none of your coworkers are or your boss. All people in the cogworks have things to do in the machinery.

The only way to become above work, is to be born rich, (or if in the rare case you come into riches, then that too) or to stop working.

Work is work. While not all work is equal. All work is work. Someone is paying you to do work. Someone is waiting for you to finish your work, so they can do their work, and someone is waiting for that person to get their job done, so they can get their job done, and we all get paid.

If you are working, there are few good reasons to refuse to work.

  1. Your or others personal safety.
  2. Your or others personal moral lines have been crossed
  3. You hate your job and life and hate everything and you just quit.
  4. Others reasons too much to count for.

If you are a working employee, and someone is paying you to do things for them, your refusal of too 'trivial' work tells far too much about you and your opinion of the company.

  1. You're not a team player
  2. You don't see the larger picture (as mentioned, more people work at the same company with the same goal)
  3. You somehow think you're better than everyone else
  4. You lack vision

I don't intend this to be an attack on you specifically or those who work in higher sciences jobs. I get how much it sucks to be doing boring things. I too have suffered the same fate of doing menial tasks that I can't stand being a part of.

But as a working person, who is in it for the long haul, and the success of my company and the success of my coworkers. If I need to answer phones for a day, do boring maths or 3d model squares, but I get these done perfectly, accurately and quickly. I succeed as a hardworking individual who doesn't complain, the company doesn't sit in a standstill because someone called in sick, or someone else is overworked and just can't get their part done entirely or whatever reason it is you ended up getting stuck doing whatever it is you're doing and we all win.

On top of getting that work done quickly so I can get back to other challenging things, it's also quickly over. Since it was trivial for me.

If you happen to be getting stuck strangely always doing very very menial tasks (cleaning the building comes to mind...) then this may be symptom of a company or manager that might be trying to get you to quit or some other personal agenda. At this point it is probably good to refuse work...but that might be grounds for your dismissal and exactly what they wanted to begin with.

TO get to your points directly:

Refusing to do work doesn't impose any message that you're intelligent. It tells you're not a team player, you can't help others, and the company success isn't in your vision. There is no contextual message to be read that you need more challenging work, just that you will arbitrary refuse work.

It will prevent people from coming back to you, but it will also prevent people who have the interesting jobs from coming to you. Because you might refuse to do it if all of a sudden you're too challenged, you can't be trusted.

On top of this, it only takes so many refusals before management starts to notice and wonder why you work there at all.

But you already recognised these tidbits some.

So to answer your own question.

Are you above work, or not?

  • I agree with you that "seeing work as below us" is not the best quality we knowledge workers hold, but is it necessary to make the remarks at the beginning? I don't see that adding to your point. Also when you say "see paragraph 6", I really have no idea where that is. Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 13:06
  • Ahh properly not...it appears thats a more personal response and will remove. I’ll clear up the paragraph Statement. Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 13:13
  • 2
    While in general the answer is in the right direction, it is probably more condemnatory than necessary. In Germany, a knowledge worker getting the job of cleaning the department/floor/toilet (perhaps with exception of a one-off emergency in a small company where the cleaning person has called in sick and some flexibility is called up) can refuse to do that. The job activity has to be at least somewhere close to the job description. Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 5:22
  • 4
    @CaptainEmacs it strikes me that there is a huge leap between "can you update my code" (example from the question) to "go clean the toilet."
    – dwizum
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 13:15
  • 3
    @user32882 clearly you didnt read my post. Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 14:30

Not usually - you need a good excuse

Just do the lesss challenging stuff. Perhaps think how it can be automated?!

Here is a thought experiment. You refusing the "boring" assignments. Those "boring" assignments have to be done - by you colleagues. They get niffed - and therefore the manager has to assignment them some of the more exciting projects. You, on the other hand, just get the crumbs - the mediocre projects.

  • Your thought experiment doesn't hold, since I am the one getting "niffed" now. I have spent the better part of 3 years now thinking about how the less challenging stuff can be automated. So much so that I have become really good at programming and automating tasks. But now that is steering my career in a direction I don't want and didn't intend, namely software development. I'm tired of it and I would like to work on something else.
    – user32882
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 8:38
  • Furthermore in my experience if someone thinks that they can give you crap work to do, there's no reason why they would stop. I have accepted many boring assignments in the past in the hopes that it would lead to better work, but actually it doesn't. It just leads to more crap work since the fact of you doing it seems to indicate that you are happy with doing it. You see what I mean? 3 years is a long time to still be in this position wouldn't you think?
    – user32882
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 8:43
  • 1
    They have a reason being "niffed". They are picking up all those uninteresting jobs.
    – Ed Heal
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 8:49
  • I don't get your point. I'm that guy right now. I'm the guy being niffed.
    – user32882
    Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 9:11

Folks that sit around idle are great targets for downsizing.

There is always work to be done, even if it's unconventional for your position. It sounds like others have gone out of their way to help you be useful with your time by asking you to assist with other tasks. This should be welcomed, provided you haven't found more productive uses for your time. If you can do the work, or can learn to do the work, I would encourage you to do so.

A better solution is for you to find a good use of your time that fully utilizes your skill set and specialty. I don't know what sort of engineer you are, but engineer something. There is always something that could be improved. Something broken to be fixed. Something unrealized to be invented.

Another good option is for you to be improving your skills. You mention that senior engineers also have free time... put some time on the calendar with them to learn from them. You say you don't know the language of the country in which you work... learn it!

Always be working towards something, or you'll likely find yourself looking for a new job... and rightfully so.

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