55

I run an IT department at a mid-size retailer with 1000 employees. Throughout my career, there have been a many instances where people have brought in their personal equipment from home (phones, PCs, laptops, etc.) and asked the IT department to repair them. It's always been presented nicely, so I've helped in order to build relationships. I suppose it's a akin to someone finding out an individual is a doctor then telling them about the pain in their elbow looking for a free diagnosis.

However, in this particular job (I have been here for seven months), it's different. I've been getting e-mails making demands of my staff regarding employee's personal equipment. i.e. "I need this fixed by tomorrow." or "I must get this resolved before the weekend." cc'ing my boss in the process (I assume because my team didn't get to it fast enough for them).

Final relevant piece: Those personal PCs/cell phones are sometimes used to VPN/remote into work outside of business hours. However, they all have business-owned devices they used during business hours. They don't have business-owned laptops or computers that they can use for work done at home outside business hours. This may play a part in your responses.

How should I deal with this?

10 Answers 10

163

Can my employer force me to fix employee's personal computers?

Short version - probably, yes.

Most job descriptions, if they're actually written down, include a line similar to "other duties as assigned". If you don't have a written job description, your duties are likely "whatever your boss assigns you". If your boss wants you to do this, you should, because otherwise he's likely to walk away thinking "I gave him a task to do, and he told me no".

However, you could do a couple of things.

1) When these requests are made to you, you could check with your boss to verify the order in which he wants you do to things.

Hey boss, the team is working on the server upgrades we were talking about, but now Johnny sent me his laptop to repair. Is it okay if we finish the server upgrades today and work on the laptop tomorrow, even though Johnny's email says it "must be resolved by the weekend"?

2) As @user1108 points out, you could keep a tally of how often you're spending time working on non-work devices, and keep your boss up to date on it.

Hey boss, this week the team got 12 device repair requests, and they took up about half our time working through them. Is there a level at which I should push back and tell people we don't have time available to work on any non-work devices?

3) You could get permission from your boss for a new workflow, such as your coworkers having to get his prior approval before you work on any non-work devices.

Hey boss, is it okay if I tell people that you need to approve all non-work device repair requests before we can work on them? They're starting to pile up and I want to make sure you're aware of everything I'm working on before we spend any time on them.

And to your coworkers:

Hey Johnny, I just got your email, but requests for repairs of personal devices now have to be approved by [Boss]; I can't accept requests directly from you anymore.


Overtime

Since all of IT is salary [...] they are not being paid for staying late and fixing people's personal systems, phones, tablets, etc.

You should definitely address this as well. The issue is that you're being paid a specific salary for a specific work week, and you're having to run past that to get everything done now that the scope of your duties has increased. This conversation can be presented from the standpoint of deserving a proper work-life balance.

Boss, I wanted to mention something about all the personal devices we've been asked to fix recently. It's reached a point where it's cutting into the amount of time we've got to complete our normal duties, so we're having to work extra time to get everything done. This really isn't sustainable in the long term - I don't feel like I can continue to ask my team to work so many additional hours. I think there are several different options, and I wanted your opinion on the best solution. Some of the ideas I had were to start turning down some of these device repairs, or to choose some of our other duties to eliminate or reduce, or to hire additional personnel to handle the additional workload. There may be other solutions as well, but I was hoping we could get clarity on this quickly.

The benefit to this approach is that you're not just coming to him with problems, but also solutions.

The worst-case scenario I see is that your boss doesn't see unpaid overtime / extended hours as a problem, and your team being upset at the additional work and causing them to consider looking for outside employment. Your best bet in that case is to let your boss know that your team is likely to be unhappy. Strictly from a hiring standpoint, you're unlikely to attract the best workers if you tell them during the interview that you work long hours for no overtime, so if one of your employees leaves, you may have a difficult time replacing them.

  • 36
    I really like how you've phrased the requests to the boss! Great :-) – Ant Jul 23 '15 at 16:04
  • 12
    Nice answer. Also the OP should ask what to do when fixing the equipment means buying replacement parts or installing software ("Bob's drive has broken... should I put in one from our inventory? should I install our own Windows licence (since he has not brought his original disks)?"). And ask for this answer in writting, if possible. – SJuan76 Jul 23 '15 at 17:26
  • This is a good answer! +1 The only thing that I think might improve it is addressing the overtime issue (wasn't in the original post, but was mentioned in comments by OP that IT employees are having to work unpaid overtime to get the personal equipment fixed.) – reirab Jul 23 '15 at 20:45
  • 2
    @user2338816 That's also known as the "uselessly short version", since it's true for almost every situation (and likewise counterproductive in most situations). – Chris Hayes Jul 24 '15 at 7:54
  • 6
    This covers everything I'd suggest except for a real trouble ticket system. I'd suggest making sure one is implemented that not only tracks repair orders, but the amount of time spent on repairs. Being able to put a cost on personal machine repairs, as well as overtime, will help immeasurably in convincing others that there's a problem. "We've had to work an average of 30 hours of overtime each week for the past two months, so we need another IT hire, or we need to cut back on the workload. If we can't get a new hire then personal computers will receive a lower priority..." – Adam Davis Jul 24 '15 at 11:33
19

Clearly its a waste of resources, but the question is 'how much'? From the information you've provided, it sounds like it would be easy to record how often this occurs & how much time it eats up. Then you have a clear case to escalate the issue to your manager, or even your manager's manager:

Hi Boss. I've looked into the resources in servicing people's personal IT issues. It comes to a cost of X/it is the equivalent of Y full time employees. I feel uncomfortable in spending the company's resources on activities that do not further the strategy of the business. How would you like me to proceed?

  • That brings up an interesting point. Couldn't the Sr. Executive simply answer "Well they use it to 'dial in' so it helps us. Therefore, yes." My boss is already aware that they do it. I don't think he cares in the slightest. – Chandler Masters Jul 23 '15 at 15:09
  • @ChandlerMasters That is a perfect valid answer from Sr. Executive. But do make sure to bring it up again when discussing the departments budget. – Dorus Jul 23 '15 at 15:17
  • 15
    True, your boss might say that it is worthwhile spending resources on fixing staff's personal IT issues. That's your boss's prerogative. But at least you are making them aware of the cost to the company. You've made your case and covered your back – WorkerWithoutACause Jul 23 '15 at 15:17
  • And making your case and covering your back is all you can do, unless you can swing a transfer to another department or go looking for another job. – keshlam Jul 23 '15 at 15:53
  • To thicken the plot. The owners have other family members that own their own companies. Two months ago 2 of these companies have moved into our very large headquarters presumably to save on office space. My IT team is now tasked with handling all their IT requirements as well including the personal employee assets - prior to their move they paid external IT support for all their needs. These are separate companies with separate tax id's, payroll, infrastructure, and employees. – Chandler Masters Jul 23 '15 at 17:36
6

Well yes, your boss can pretty much make you do any work as long as it doesn't violate any health and safety law or other employment law. Hell, they can make you move boxes around all day as long as they let you take proper breaks and the boxes don't weigh too much.

There are two other things I would worry about:

  1. You and your team are taking work orders from random employees. It is a good idea to check with your manager whether those orders are actually the highest priority on your list. You might need to do some different time-management here; after all, your manager decides what's important for you to work on, not random employees that want their personal equipment fixed.
  2. I am no legal expert, but I wonder how far it's allowed for your company to donate time and resources, tax-free, that the employees take home.
  • 3
    "Well yes, your boss can pretty much make you do any work as long as it doesn't violate any health and safety law or other employment law. Hell, they can make you move boxes around all day as long as they let you take proper breaks and the boxes don't weigh too much" This is most certainly false in many jurisdictions. If it does not fit your job description, they can't force you to do that. – o0'. Jul 23 '15 at 17:03
  • 5
    In the US, as has been pointed out in one of the answers, almost all job descriptions include the deliberately ambiguous phrase '...and other duties as assigned'. Companies can and will make you do the most ridiculous of things. The only negative might be that they have to pay you unemployment if you quit and you are able to show they pulled a bait-and-switch. – Jared Smith Jul 23 '15 at 18:23
  • 3
    If they made you scrub the toilet with a toothbrush that would certainly fall outside any job description. – Dorus Jul 23 '15 at 18:34
  • 2
    @keshlam I'd argue that if you have an office job and they have you clean the toilet, it will be trivial to show it was a constructive dismissal indeed. – o0'. Jul 24 '15 at 8:31
  • 2
    @Lohoris Depends on the circumstances. Being asked to clean the toilet once (say, because the cleaner failed to show up that day) seems entirely reasonable, as long as appropriate equipment is provided. Being asked to clean the toilet in the short term (say, because the cleaning company went bankrupt and it'll take a week to find a new one) also seems reasonable, especially if the duties are shared. Whereas, "We've fired the cleaning company to save money. Here's your toilet brush" seems the wrong side of the line. – David Richerby Jul 26 '15 at 12:16
3

You mention this equipment is being used to VPN into the company. If theproblem is a connection issue, it almost certainly is part of your job and if the person who has the equipment might find his abilty to work from home (and meet his deadlines) negatively impacted, it certainly could be a high priority for the business. That is valid, necessary work.

Installing a new version of an Income tax program probably is not necessary, but then you get into the realm of politics. Anything the CEO wants on his home computer, likely they will insist you do. Anything the lowest paid employee wants, not so much.

It sounds as if your real problem though is not whether you should fix these computers, but what priority should they be assigned and how fixing them impacts your other work.

This is also true of the work for the other company. It is not any of your business how the copmpany is gbeing compensated for that, just be aware that the comany has chosen to offer this and thus it is legitimate support.

I would suggest you need to keep a helpdesk system and you need to formally assign priorities. Get with your boss on how these fixes woudl generally fit in your priority list. I would expect, production server equipment down to be highest pri (first your company, then the other one unless you are told differently), then individuals work computers, then anything to do with out of teh office connectivity, then other misc tasks. These would just be general priorities that would get assigned intially with first come first server in each category. Then you set up a process for somoen to escalate the priority (Only withthe approval fo someone who is looking at the entire priority list). When these tasks take priority, make sure your boss gets an email telling him what other tasks were slipped to accomodate the priority. Let him explain why the database server is down because you were fixing the CEO's installation of some game instead. As long as he approves the priority when something is escalted above it's normal position in the queue and you work things in taht order, you are good to go.

  • HLGEM: One of the first things I did when I was hired was implement a full helpdesk system. The cliche of great minds and all that comes to mind, HLGEM. ;) My boss is the Sr. VP of Retail (an odd pairing at best with an inevitable conflict of interest at worst)- he has no interest in setting help desk priorities- he leaves that up to his tech exec (me). Perhaps I haven't been clear. We're expected to do these low end tasks without regard to how it affects the project schedule meaning that the large project deadlines (ERP implementation, POS upgrades, – Chandler Masters Jul 24 '15 at 22:50
  • PCI Compliance are expected to be done on time within budget). Like many companies in a tight economy my team wears different hats- i.e. my DBA is also my highest level support tech so in 10minutes he can go from working on a big data structure to having to crack open someone's personal laptop. You can imagine he's become somewhat ornery and I handle the personality as best I can including hands-on. I used to be a dev myself and the best way to crush the soul of a dev is to constantly interupt their focus when they're "in the zone." That has become our lot in life. – Chandler Masters Jul 24 '15 at 22:50
3

I am wondering if your IT department has a tracking system in place?

You repair other people's hardware. Do you log the hardware serial number? What kind of problems does the broken hardware have? How much would it cost to replace needed parts? How much time does it take to fix it? Do you track them? Do you open a ticket when the broken hardware is sent in? Do you close the ticket when the hardware is fixed? ... etc.

If you have the tracking system in place, all you have to do is to give your boss a detailed report of how much this thing costs the company. It's up to your manager to decide if this must go on. If he wants to continue, you continue because he is your boss. If he says stop, your problem is solved.

You run the IT department. Having a tracking system and making sure it works is your responsibility.

3

In my point of view, if the mails you are receiving have your boss in CC then you should treat those personal requests as professional requests and the personal demands you are receiving are within your work domain means something which you professionally do at your job.

It is because it means your boss is also reading those emails and agrees to you fixing them as well. But you should make it clear to your boss/supervisor that time spent on those tasks will also count as on-the-job time and you cannot be held responsible if some other equipments (which you get professionally to fix) take longer time to be fixed.

Your problem is kind of similar to what I sometime have to deal with on my job. I'm a web developer and part of job also includes fixing bugs and errors and other problems on the websites of clients. Sometimes clients send very trivial issues on a daily basis (which they can fix themselves) and many times they want them done on priority basis. So I got frustrated with such changes and told my team lead that if I keep working on these changes then the other tasks (on which I'm working already) will be delayed.

So my team lead understood that (don't know about yours), and I think it is now part of my duty to do the changes as long as they are in the same work domain which I am working in.

2

They are not asking you to do anything illegal, so yes they can.

Can they force you to work overtime for no extra compensation? I hope not.

What is frustrating is that it is inefficient. You are now working on a bunch of different hardware and software configurations. When it is company-owned you can have hardware and software standards and limit the authority of the user. You also have the liability of personal data.

Clearly this work needs to be prioritized and recorded how much it is costing.

If they have a business need for access at night then they should have a pool of laptops they can take home so at least you can schedule in the repairs.

I worked at a company where we let employees buy computers for dirt cheap that we were going to recycle. Employees expected free life-time support. We just dropped the program.

  • We have such a program (not dirt cheap, but a couple hundred for a three-year-old model). Part of that money goes to buy a hardware warranty (typ. 1 year). After that, or for software support, they're on their own. – keshlam Jul 24 '15 at 2:01
  • @keshlam Nice way of handling the old computers. – Spehro Pefhany Jul 25 '15 at 20:28
2

I don't think 'force' is the right word to use. Your job is to fix PC's or it isn't. If it is, then your employer chooses which PC's you fix and which you don't, you do not get to choose. The fact that somebody demands that their laptop gets attention really doesn't matter since it is still your employer who chooses what you do. However, it sounds like your immediate boss is not good at clarifying your priorities. You can help him out, or land him in it, but you pay the price either way. Land him in it by forwarding each mail and demanding he choose the priority and decide which job your team should drop to do this 'urgent' work, or you can help by proposing a method of choosing between priorities, and deciding when he needs to be involved and when you can work it out for yourself.

One thing I would get absolutely clear and in writing is your companies policy for handling 'Gary Glitter' type situations, where inappropriate material is accidentally discovered on employees private property.

0

As others have said:

There's no reason your company can't decide to offer this service, and ask you to provide the expertise for it.

However, there's no reason for them to promise it will be on anything more than an "as time is available" basis, and unless you are specifically instructed otherwise it should always be prioritized after your other work.

Don't work on employee PCs when you have more important things to do. If folks are in a rush and you don't have time, tell them so and remind them that one of the conditions of this free service is that company work comes first. If they don't like that, refer them to your manager; if he asks you to make an exception, lay out your current commitments and ask him which one should be delayed to make time for this.

And don't volunteer to work overtime on this unless you want to -- eg, if it's the CEO's laptop and he needs it for a charitable event the next day, and you can earn a reputation as a miracle worker by resolving his problem, I think you want to.

Don't accept requests to work overtime on it either, unless you want to. This is either part of your paid job or it isn't; if it is (per management), then they need to allow for it in your schedule and if necessary hire more staff to ensure deadlines are met.

They're far more likely to respect this position than if you just complain that it isn't your job... especially if your job currently has slack time in it that they want to put to use since they're paying for it.

Make the argument in business terms. Good luck. Illegitimi non carborundum.

0

You seem to have two related but distinct problems:

  • Your team has been set unrealistic goals (or rather, the goals are creeping into unrealistic territory). There isn't enough time to do the work required. This is a common problem, you have to reduce your targets or increase your resources or somehow find ways to be more efficient.

  • You have a strong opinion about how to reduce your targets, that your boss doesn't share. So, you either have to change his mind or suck it up. It seems obvious to you that this work on employees' home equipment isn't critical to the business, but if your boss and the owner of the company both want it done, then generally speaking their opinion as to what the company should be doing takes priority over yours, on account of the definition of "boss".

Personally, it seems to me that tech support on home equipment used for work is quite important to the company's mission, whereas "fix my son's XBox" is not mission-critical but might be indirectly beneficial to the company as a bonus for staff morale. If your boss understands the extent of the work, and the cost to the department in doing it, and still wants it prioritised to the detriment of other concerns, then do it.

If you're doing tech support for 1000 people then presumably you have quite a large team already, and a huge number of ongoing tasks. I'll wager that you already know how to tell people that, for a given request, they aren't going to get everything they want at the time they want it, and that managing expectations is routine for you. So do some of that: the only question is whether to do it for personal support requests or other requests, and that comes down to what kinds of task your organisation wants you to prioritise over others.

The only "legalistic" route I can think of to take, is to ask the accountant how you should be reporting the fair market value of the benefit in kind that employees are receiving (free tech support for their personal equipment) for tax purposes. Depending on your relationship with the accountant and your boss, this move might be all fun and games, or it might be a high-risk powerplay that results in you being fired for obstructiveness or whistle-blowing. Judge the situation on the ground.

The company can't force you to do personal favours for other employees, but since tech support is your job description it's hardly a stretch for them to ask you to do tech support, up to and including contracting you out as tech support for other companies, or (as in this case) doing tech support for others as a "favour" by the company. The difficult part is that they're stretching you and your team to the limit of how much free overtime you'll do. This is always a problem with salaried workers and grasping bosses: the fact that you think the work is pointless increases your frustration with the situation, but it doesn't fundamentally change the scenario you're in. Which is standard employer-employee conflict over the extent of unpaid overtime.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.