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I have a small team that reports to me, and we're all very casual and friendly (at least in my opinion/perspective). I need a personal favor (help moving a bookshelf at my home) and I wanted to ask one of my team members to help me move it, and offered to buy them lunch as a thank you. Would it be inappropriate to ask one of them for help moving the shelf, since they report to me?

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  • 46
    why don't you ask a friend instead of a subordinate who is friendly? – Ant May 18 '17 at 17:20
  • 2
    Do you have a personal relationship with them separately from work? – Joe May 18 '17 at 19:05
  • Would this be on or off the clock? During or before/after normal work hours? – iamnotmaynard May 19 '17 at 15:29
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    Why don't you ask one of your superiors to help you move the bookshelf? – UpAllNight May 19 '17 at 19:41
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    I suspect that if you have to ask on here, the answer is probably 'No', ie the relationship isn't such that it would be appropriate. (To be clear, this doesn't mean it's always out of the question - in my time time, I've been both the asker and askee.) – peterG May 20 '17 at 18:07

11 Answers 11

70

Without knowing the personal circumstances of how close everyone is I would suggest the following:

(I assume its a bookcase in your home or some other personal setting)

Dropping an email with the request and see if anyone replies. Asking face to face may cause people to say 'yes' even if they wouldn't want to as they report to you. This could lead them to feel inclined to help you, despite not actually wanting to.

A friendly email would be the best bet

  • 20
    You may want to generalise "asking face to face" to "asking someone directly" (i.e. in person, via directed email or using any other method) and specify the email you're talking about is a non-directed one asking if anyone would be willing to help, assuming that's what you meant. – Dukeling May 18 '17 at 16:46
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    This is especially good advice if you can send the email to multiple people, asking if any one of them can help. This makes it clear that there's no obligation or expectation for any individual person to help you, which in turn makes it clear it's not going to hurt anyone professionally if they don't volunteer. – Dan Staley May 18 '17 at 17:00
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    We do have a very relaxed, very peer-based company environment, so I asked after our team standup if anyone wouldn't mind sparing an hour to help me after lunch, and someone volunteered. That meant it was face to face, but was not directed toward any one individual. – xdumaine May 18 '17 at 19:24
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    @xdumaine that was the best decision. IMHO, an email sounds kind of... formalish – Sebastianb May 18 '17 at 20:54
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    alternative to email: post a message in the "water cooler" (or similar) Slack or group messaging channel with "hey I'm needing to move a bookshelf this weekend and it's a 2 person job, if anybody is free to lend a hand I'll buy lunch" or something to that effect. – Eric Lagergren May 19 '17 at 6:05
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It can be done, but probably shouldn't.

You'd be putting the team member in a tough spot - (the boss asked me to do a personal favor - what will happen at review time if I refuse?).

Of course YOU wouldn't let this affect the reviews one way or another, but other people may wonder and you have no control over what they think.

On the flip side, if everyone on your team and your boss knows about this and is OK with it, then it's truly not a big deal.

In the end, it's your call. Personally, I wouldn't do it. There are temp agencies who can provide one or two Really Big people who can Lift Things for not much more than the price of a nice lunch if you only need them for an hour.

  • 7
    This is a good answer, but here's what I decided: We do have a very relaxed, very peer-based company environment, so I asked in our team standup if anyone wouldn't mind sparing an hour to help me after lunch, and someone volunteered. – xdumaine May 18 '17 at 19:23
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    @xdumaine: I don't know about that person but personally I wouldn't expect "help me" to involve going to their home and moving bookshelves... – Mehrdad May 18 '17 at 20:11
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    @Mehrdad I obviously didn't just say "help me"... I explained what I needed. – xdumaine May 18 '17 at 20:35
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    @xdumaine: That wasn't obvious at all but okay... – Mehrdad May 18 '17 at 21:09
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    @T.E.D.: I think you're reaching a bit. Yes, personal interactions color our judgments of our coworkers; but that doesn't mean we should abort all personal interactions for fear of putting each other in a tough spot. Taken to an extreme, even "Hi, how are you?" (or lack thereof) colors judgment. So long as the favor isn't a massive one, I don't think this is a problem. – ruakh May 19 '17 at 17:51
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No.

If it is a personal bookcase (at your home): Just no. This would be highly inappropriate. Unless you hang out with some of your team-members in private (like, really private, not just after-work events), in which case you could ask them in said private setting, when they are visiting you at home anyways. Ask them at work? Never.

The reason is very simply that there is a non-equal relationship here. You are higher up in the hierarchy with them. There are many things that can go wrong, and you really cannot know before, no matter how well you know them:

  • They do not want to, but are afraid to say no.
  • They don't care, and say yes to curry a favour.
  • They don't care, but think it would be appropriate, so they do just because you're in power.
  • They want to, but don't dare due to image within the team.
  • They are not sure and answered either yes or no, and lose three nights of sleep because they cannot stop thinking about whether it was the correct answer.

And so on and so forth. In short, your higher-up role complicates the issue, and you absolutely don't want this kind of complication.

Finally, what if they get hurt in some way...

If it is a bookcase at work, you surely have someone who does all this stuff (move furniture, fix broken lamps and such). Rather ask them. If your colleagues actually do regularly do these kinds of things at work because you have no dedicated guy, then go ahead with your bookcase as well, but be very conscious about safety. But in this case you probably would not have asked us...

  • 2
    I've definitely had co-workers put in this situation. It was a restaurant, so we were fairly laid back. One of the managers had a tendancy to ask employees for help with personal things; putting them in very awkward spots (especially since the manager in question was somewhat prone to preferential treatment and definitely had "favourites", it was pretty poorly managed). I knew people who had helped her; but they were in bad positions; they didn't want to do it, but they also suspected the manager would treat them worse if they refused. Better left avoided unless you hang out privately. – JMac May 19 '17 at 13:20
  • +1. This is a very balanced answer. Furthermore, I've seen the inappropriateness of the request, in a scenario admittedly somewhat more extended than a single bookshelf, resulting in the boss ending up fired by their boss on the spot when they found out. (It was in a country where you can't fire anyone without a cause. The court upheld the termination.) – Jirka Hanika May 20 '17 at 18:13
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If the bookshelf-moving happens at work, it is a reasonable favor to ask: the task is probably not in his job description, but neither too complicated or time consuming.

The rest is assuming that it is a personal favor (outside of work in terms of place and hours). Simple question to ask yourself: do you have this type of personal relationship with your colleague, on occasions where you don't need a favor? The real question behind that is, do you have a relationship where you are not his boss?

  • If you can answer Yes to that question, in my opinion it is okay to ask. ("Would you mind helping me move a bookshelf before lunch on saturday? I'll buy lunch, as a thank you.")
  • If the relationship is strictly work-limited until now, however friendly it is, as his boss you shouldn't ask this kind of favors. It would be too awkward for him to refuse, and leaves him no choice.

For most work-based relationships (and even more if you have to ask the question), the answer is probably no.

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    Careful: what happens if the bookshelf falls down and injures or hurts your employee? If it is not in the work description it may not be insured. So, tread carefully. Of course, in a 3-person company, you may not have an option, but there should be a general coverage in place, in any case. But in a larger company, you probably have people dedicated to that and if you do not use their service, you put yourself up for liability. – Captain Emacs May 18 '17 at 15:05
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I didn't see this answer, but found this extremely useful for me and worked well in the past with a sudden move situation.

Select everyone in the company that you feel ok with helping out with this task on a personal level (that is also physically able) and send out a broadcast email indicating you have this situation and didn't know if anyone at work might potentially have the availability/desire to help out moving the bookcase at some point. The email would be generic and leave plenty of room for all to ignore/delete and not respond without feeling any pressure. Something like:

Co-workers,

I have a bookcase that I can't move on my own and was wondering if perhaps anyone would have the time and desire to help me move it. I don't want anyone to feel obligated, but thought I would ask at work to see if anyone would mind helping before looking into hiring someone to help me. If you wouldn't mind helping me please respond, otherwise no worries and have a great day.

Leaving it open ended like that allows everyone to ignore you and no one ever brings it up again. However, I found in my case, about 10 people volunteered to help me move out with just genuine kindness towards their co-worker which allowed me to move. Each one volunteered differently, some and hour, some a whole day. Something as simple as a bookshelf move I'd expect someone to say...sure I'll help after work for 30 min. or something. You might also be surprised who says they will help and who doesn't. Either way you haven't put anyone on the spot which keeps the professional relationship just that.

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If this is happening in the workplace during work hours, then there is no reason for it to be deemed inappropriate. If this occurs outside work hours, then maybe not as much; but if you offered to buy them lunch for doing it, again, shouldn't be a problem.

I highly doubt your team members will even think about it; when their manager asks them to do something, they should do it. (within reason of course)

2

This is potentially dodgy ground - especially if you're asking for it to be done outside of working hours. And no lunch time doesn't count as working hours. Most of my bosses over the years have asked me for similar favours now and again - I helped one boss with recovering his girlfriend's broken down car once! Generally speaking I've not minded doing so, but then again I'm helpful almost to a fault and add in the potential for some unofficial brownie points with the boss and I generally never seriously considered saying "No" unless I had highly time-critical work that would be adversely impacted.

Out of hours is a very different story - I don't really mind if we get on really well as people but I've requests from others that I didn't really have that "friend" context with. And at times it's made me feel uncomfortable, even when I'm being paid (in cash or meals or whatever) you can't entirely silence that little voice in your head that says that you'll have negative consequences in work if you say no. I'd only really ask them to do it out of hours if you already spend time together outside of work (and I'd use that time to ask them to make it clear it's not a "work" request)

2

They are some details in the question that is missing to accurately answer. Sure, it depend of the company culture. My answer is based about asking to move a bookshelf at home.

Do not ask directly personal favor at work. A second option is that you can hint in a neutral zone/time like the lunch table: “I wish to move that bookshelf at home, I will try to call my brother in law but he usually away, so I am stuck alone”. If nobody step in, leave it like that.

If you are asking the question, it means you are not sure. I think it is the kind of grey zone question. So some people may state it is appropriate while others may see it bad. So some player in your team may see it ok while other will see as bad leadership.

So by just asking a question that may lead out without gaining anything because let say everyone answer is they are busy, back hurts, etc. you may degrade your leadership with a part of your team. Also your boss or one subordinate may seem inappropriate to ask a personal favor to one of your employee and worst case, an employee come at home and get hurt while moving the shelf, this may even put the company in a bad spot. And it can become a running joke that will stay forever “a boss asking to move a bookshelf at home, what next? You become team leader because you are doing personal work at boss house? ha! ha! ha!”.

So, hint but do not ask.

  • After thought, the worst of worst case scenario may be the house get on fire while you and the employee are moving that bookshelf that block the only one exit and everybody die :) – Sebastien DErrico May 18 '17 at 16:23
1

Offer to buy them lunch? I agree that thank you gestures are appropriate for favors, but if you're apprehensive about someone wanting to help you anyway, then throwing in token compensation for people whose time is surely more valuable than the favor is a big step in the wrong direction. It can say "thank you" or it can say "I'd like to create a sense of obligation for your labor." People might even say no because they would help you but don't want to get lunch with you.

In short this really depends on relationships and, bluntly, general social aptitude that we cannot see at all. I agree with sending a semi-personal email, though.

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No. Mixing work and home in this way is inappropriate and unprofessional.

Even making a request like this could be construed as patronizing. Do you want employees to be gossiping behind your back, "Oh, and last week he had Fred move furniture around his house." Seriously, do not even go there.

If I was a VP or director in a company and found out something like that was happening I would put a stop to it at once. Office politics are complicated enough without people leaning on their employees to do personal favors.

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The answer depends on your mindset.

No – if you prefer to separate work from friendships, if people who are friends for your free time activities are different group than your colleagues. If you like to leave the office at 5 PM and leave everything and everyone there. Get a professional service for moving.

Yes – if you believe in community building around your workplace. If you sometimes have a beer or have a squash match together. After moving the bookcase, arrange a pizza with beer for everyone who came. Build up their minds that mutual help in practical things like this should be vital part of your common experience and encourage them not to hesitate to ask for similar help if they will need it.

What of the above is your mindset? There is your answer. I realize people have different personalities and there might not be 'one-fits-all' answer. (You can see other answers here, suggesting you both yes and no.) Someone might be scared of community building. Someone can love it. So think about yourself which approach makes you feel more comfortable and follow your authentic way. It is part of your leadership of your team.

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