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I'm currently working as a Programmer in a small company, although I'm basically expected to be able to deal with everything that is related to computers and I am the one and only IT staff member supporting everyone in the company across all the branches.

That's all fine with me as long as the requests involve network or server maintenance or app deployment, but there's also the occasional "Can you please build me a PowerPoint presentation?", "Can you edit this picture for me?" or "Can you change the header and footer of this document".

How do I politely tell my superiors that doing those things are beyond my job description without sounding rude?

It's not like I have a lot of free time on my hands to do such trivial requests all the time.

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    The advice given here is already excellent, but concerning your very specific issue, modifying a PDF, you should point out to your bosses that this might be illegal - maybe they're simply not aware of this or credibly explain why it isn't. Otherwise you've got a serious problem though... – Tobias Kienzler Oct 18 '13 at 14:27
  • @TobiasKienzler, sadly, they are aware of the legal risk. Its not everyday that we do this, but it does happen once in a couple of months. Mainly because of urgency. The damages of not getting those docs on time seems to be way greater than the possible consequence of being caught. – Maru Oct 23 '13 at 8:02
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    That makes me sad :( I think you should ask a separate question à la "How should I react when my employer asks me to do something I suspect is illegal?", especially mentioning that they are aware of that fact - basically they attempt to make you commit a felony which you might ultimately end up being convicted while your employer would claim not having been aware of your "suspicious behaviour"... – Tobias Kienzler Oct 23 '13 at 8:54
  • I usually deal with such requests, if the person asking does not have other avenues or the capability themselves, by saying "yes". Because I consider them my co-workers, and want to help them to succeed however I can. – PoloHoleSet Sep 14 '17 at 17:21
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Executive Summary

At the end of the day, if your superiors tell you that you have to do something, there is no way to politely decline to do it, and any refusal may be grounds for dismissal or being stuck on the slow train to nowhere with your career in the office.

To minimize these sorts of requests, I would recommend:

  1. Explaining the tradeoff from putting other tasks on hold
  2. Teaching them how to conduct the tasks themselves
  3. Recruiting a minion you can hand these sorts of tasks off to

No Silver Bullet

These are all long-term strategies that will require effort. They are also not mutually exclusive strategies. A combination of all three will probably work the best, as there are all sorts of different types of people who ask for help, and some methods may work better for some than others.

As stated in the executive summary, at the end of the day if the boss tells you that it's your job, you are better off doing it. So if you want to avoid being asked, it is better to start sooner rather than later to start reducing the number of requests.

Priorities

Next time a superior comes over and says, "Hey, could you edit this photo?" you can gently remind them that taking your time to do this task takes your time away from doing a separate task, for instance:

Sure boss, I can edit the photo. Today I am setting up a computer for Alice since she can't work until that's fixed, and recovering some files from a backup so that Bob can finish his work for a deadline tomorrow. Where would you like me to stick it in?

Assuming you are truly busy with more important tasks, a rational boss will likely say, "Oh, never mind, I can handle it." Regardless, it sends the clear message that you have other work that is also important, and while the boss can make you do it, it will be at the expense of other employees (not just your time).

Teach a Man to Fish

While I was writing this, jmort beat me to the punch so I will just quote from what he so eloquently said:

next time someone comes in and asks you to change the header/footer, don't do it at your desk; instead, walk with them back to their desk. Have them sit down at their computer, and then walk them through the steps. Different people learn differently, some visually, some auditory, and some by doing, so if the person you've walked through it keeps coming back, maybe try doing it yourself while they watch (visual) and then have them repeat the steps back to you (auditory).

Henchmen

There may be interns, 'administrative assistants', receptionists, or other folks who don't have enough real work to keep them busy. They may also be more than happy to do these sorts of tasks if you ask properly. If you can find one that can do the job quickly and competently when you ask, you can hand off the tasks, and eventually just tell your boss, "Christine is really good at this sort of work. Do you mind if she does it instead?" and hopefully create a direct route for your bosses to ask Christine rather than asking you.

  • Thanks for the great answer! Sadly, we don't any free henchmen in the office since everyone is busy as a bee, we are really low on on man power. Though I should probably reiterate my priorities to them. – Maru Oct 18 '13 at 5:33
  • @Maru, if the issue is partially a lack of manpower, and the volume of these tasks is enough to busy up anyone for 4 hours a day, you may want to bring up getting an intern or other henchman to handle this and other menial tasks others have and can assign. Or you can propose getting your own assistant to help you out with your responsibilities so you can get everything done (and you can assign them this sort of stuff, and gain favors from other folks in the office by taking some of their tasks when needed too). – jmac Oct 18 '13 at 5:37
  • Thanks for the great advice. Just hope we have enough room in the office to accommodate an assitant/henchman – Maru Oct 18 '13 at 6:41
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    @Maru, you may get some benefit from this question to get some ideas on why it's important to market yourself. If your company doesn't realize what your priorities are, that itself is something you should probably work on too. Anyway, best of luck, and I hope you are able to improve your situation! – jmac Oct 18 '13 at 7:04
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The best way to tell folks that tasks like building powerpoint presentations, editing PDF's and modifying the headers/footers of documents and other tasks is by keeping the following Chinese proverb in your mind:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Consider that in many job descriptions there oftentimes exists the following additional requirement:

You will perform any additional tasks as assigned.

So, to be a team player and not come off as a pompous jerk to your colleagues, and to not be a problem employee in the eyes of management, who can't be trusted to just take a task and run with it, you could consider taking such requests from colleagues and using those opportunities to teach not tell. Show those colleagues how to do those tasks so that next time the issue comes up, they have the tools to complete the task themselves.

For example, next time someone comes in and asks you to change the header/footer, don't do it at your desk; instead, walk with them back to their desk. Have them sit down at their computer, and then walk them through the steps. Different people learn differently, some visually, some auditory, and some by doing, so if the person you've walked through it keeps coming back, maybe try doing it yourself while they watch (visual) and then have them repeat the steps back to you (auditory).

You're more likely to win friends taking this approach (not that you're at work to make friends), and you'll be more likely to feel a little bit more sense of satisfaction in your job than you would by trying to impersonate Nick Burns.

The thing to remember is that you're part of a team, and you have skills that others don't have. By helping out, you increase your value to the organization and the team. But by not helping, you risk being seen as "not as valuable" when it comes time for the organization to cut perceived dead-weight.

Plus, there are certain things that you might not be good at. Perhaps, for instance, your social or negotiating skills aren't as good as those folks in sales or marketing, and they may be able to make a phone call on your behalf for something that you may need.

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    thanks for the great answer, I do teach them, and they do learn. Sadly, my superiors still offload these to me just because "You do it better". I'm not being a grouch or anything, I do my best to be a team player and I'm on good terms with everyone in the company. But being asked to do trivial things like this by my superiors on a regular basis makes me lose my sense of satisfaction on my role as a programmer especially since most of them are very time consuming tasks. Its not like I have a lot of free time either. Thus, my question. – Maru Oct 18 '13 at 5:24
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    @Maru how about you ask people to email you about these things, the idea is that they will not bother you directly while you're in your programming workflow. Try to fit in these taks in your scheudle if you can. If the tasks keep piling up you should tell your superiors that you think that employees could use having a short introductory course to word/excel/powerpoint/paint and you have the amount of unsolved tasks as proof. – Alex Oct 23 '13 at 7:31
  • @Alex, Something like a request/ticket queue, thanks for the brilliant suggestion. I just hope they won't bypass that because its more convenient to walk right up to my table then just tell me to "make them a powerpoint presentation by 10am". – Maru Oct 23 '13 at 7:58
  • Even if they do walk up to you, have them go through the process of submitting the ticket. Tell them it's how you prioritize things and they'd need to enter that in to put it on the list. – jmort253 Oct 23 '13 at 21:17
  • Its not just that you do it better it is because your time is less expensive than theirs. – HLGEM Sep 14 '17 at 21:12

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