This is a pre-covid lockdown scenario, however I am still asking the question should similar situations in the future arise.

Background: I was a temp maternity cover as a assistant to the Practice Manager of a law firm. The firm had under 100 employees and 20 Partners.

I am incredibly hard-working and diligent in what I do. For example I did not refuse anything that was asked of me even though many times it was clearly out of my job description, I was flexible to cover other duties such as reception cover for lunch breaks, working through my lunch break et cetera. On reflection I think this was a naive strategy and caused a lot of bitterness and resentment amongst members of staff in the support admin office, who felt undermined by my hard work.

There was a tipping point however when one day one of the partners of the firm asked me to look into researching paper shredders for him. Something about it felt off to me and I asked him whether it was for the office or for personal use. He said that it was for his personal use. So I then made a very noncommittal answer of why don't you try Amazon if you're struggling to find one, in full knowledge that he wanted me to source it for him.

This partner then got really irrate and aggressive and shouted 'well I pay you to do what I tell you to'. That behaviour pretty much sealed the deal in terms of me never doing it because I do not respond to abusive behaviour from anybody. Additionally,I was being paid very little for my contracted work and on top of that they were giving me additional duties mentioned above that I didn't have the assertiveness to be able to refuse however - to be asked to carry out personal work for a partner I did not directly report to was the final straw.

The partner then reported me behind my back to the practice manager who said that I needed to do what the partner had asked me to. I still didn't do it as a matter of principle and I don't regret it because it was just a temporary maternity cover and I had to draw the line at some point for my own sanity and frankly, self-respect. I am sure this must come across as me shooting myself in my own foot.

My question is: Do employers have a right to ask you to carry out personal tasks or errands for them?

For example a friend of mine works as an intern and her Manager asked her to buy cough syrup for her whilst my friend was leaving for her lunch break. Again it just seems like an abuse of power because in no way is buying cough syrup on your lunch break for your manager part of your job description or something that you should be asked to do. It makes me wonder that if next week the cleaners don't show up could they Force you to clean the toilets? I know of another friend who had to put mousetraps round the office which again I think is not part of the job description and has health and safety implications to it.

Also this partner was one of 20 partners in a lawfirm so would I then also have to potentially carry out personal tasks for the 19 other partners by that logic? I point out that these partners have their own secretaries as well as there being a designated IT department. I am interested to hear others view on the situation and how I should respond to it in a different firm if it should happen again.

EDIT: Job duties as a 4 month maternity cover temp as Assistant to Practice Manager were

1.HR duties eg ensuring HR records were up to date, organising temps to cover when secretaries went on annual leave, being a point of contact and support for interns, Setting up workstations and taking new staff members for office tours and introduction with other staff members

  1. Organising Partners weekly lunches with the caterer

  2. Organising Leaving functions of 150 clients for senior members (there were 2 that left in my time with them)

  3. Dealing with maintenance contractors for day to day house keeping eg window repairs, air con etc. We also had a move of 9 members of staff to the neighbouring building and I had to arrange this to as well as physically help.

On top of these duties I was asked to man the reception desk when they needed cover but every day pretty much, deliver physical faxes between the 2 buildings, help out in the post room in the mornings, make coffees teas for any clients meetings even though this is usually the responsibility of the respective lawyers secretary, arrange snacks for office meetings, go out to the shops to replenish milk - none of these were my predecessor's responsibility and there were 4 other support staff who did nothing and just saw my politeness as a means of exploitation.


2 Answers 2


My general advice when being given tasks by senior people in your company who are not your boss (or boss's boss, etc.) is to:

A) Agree to do it. Or offer something noncommittal which isn't a refusal.

Then B) Talk to your boss, explain what you've been asked to do, explain why you're not sure if you should (it's inappropriate, it's an inefficient use of your time, it's going to delay A, B, C that you're also working on, etc.) and ask them to advise on whether you should do it, and whether you should in general do these types of things for that person in future.

If your boss says that you should agree to those kinds of requests then yes it's now part of your job, falling under "other duties as required".

I'm not familiar with the relevant employment law, but my understanding is that as long as it's not a large part of your workload, not inherently unsafe, and not punitive or demeaning (as in you being singled out specifically for tasks that are obviously beneath the level of your employment) then you are generally obligated to do it.

As for your situation, yeah, shooting yourself in the foot about sums it up. Especially once the Practice Manager specifically told you to do it.

  • There are cases where being asked to constantly run personal errands for bosses might become "constructive dismissal", but a single event isn't it. I agree with your answer, but I would have played it like "I'd love to! I've got <work> to do right now, and this would require a reprioritization. Have you passed it by <your actual boss>?". If they say yes, you record that, and do what you're asked to do. OP has made a powerful enemy, especially because of the snippy comment that was made.
    – Malisbad
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 23:57

My question is do employers have a right to ask you to carry out personal tasks or errands for them?

They have a right to ask. You have the right to refuse.

That being said, if you're a temp, they can just call up your temporary agency and ask them to send someone else instead of you.

And legally, there is absolutely nothing you can do about that assuming they're not doing something overtly illegal, their contract is with the temp agency, not you. At least, that's the way it works in the US.

Personally, I think it's good to refuse sometimes, even if it means potentially losing your job. But in this case, I wouldn't have said anything. A shredder borders on the professional, even if it's for personal use. It's not like he was asking you to pick up his kids from school.

The same with the cough syrup, I would have done that too.

  • 3
    In essence, the practice thinks that the OP spending time on the clock doing these tasks is preferable to their partners spending work time on them. This is not uncommon at such workplaces. Some will specifically have a person or two tasked with such services (concierge staff), others such as here use the admin assistants.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 17:53
  • Right to Refuse is a loaded phrase in workplaces, so I would suggest changing it to something else. Everyone has the Right to Refuse Unsafe Work (Canada, UK, Australia for certain), and that brings certain legal rights.
    – Malisbad
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 1:58

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