All too often, women and people of color are saddled with extraneous tasks at work that aren’t part of their job competencies. These can include planning team events, being the notetaker for big meetings, or other tasks that can be considered non-promotable.
This undesirable workload lends itself to workplace inequity, hindering career progression for women and people of color and ultimately keeping organizations from realizing the full potential of their workforce.
What Are Non-Promotable Tasks?
A non-promotable task is work that supports the health and functioning of the organization but tends not to be revenue-generating. This time-consuming work is also known as “office housework” and includes tasks like taking meeting notes, onboarding a new hire, and organizing the holiday party.
While companies need such tasks to be completed, they are not typically considered in career advancement decisions, so the individuals who perform non-promotable tasks often go unrewarded.
NPTs share one or more of the following criteria:
- Are necessary but not a primary focus of the company. NPTs “tend to be critical in some way to organizational success, yet they typically do not link directly to either top- or bottom-line performance outcomes,” said Pamela Cohen, PhD, chief research and analytics officer at Werklabs and The Mom Project.
- Do not offer much visibility. “Non-promotable tasks are often done out of view of management,” Cohen noted. “They’re things that most people in the organization take for granted will get done.”
- Are not part of your job description. NPTs fall outside the realm of an individual role’s responsibilities. “Someone may start doing them because they are particularly competent in that area (like coaching others, or providing help navigating the organization),” said Cohen. Other times, employees are explicitly asked to complete such tasks or are asked to volunteer for them.
- Are not specialized tasks and do not require specialized skills. These are often administrative work of some variety. NPTs “do not require a particular area of expertise, so almost anyone can pick up these jobs,” Cohen said.
Why Women Take on More Non-Promotable Work
Contrary to popular belief, women aren’t tasked with more non-promotable work because they like it, care more about it, or are better at it. “There's a misconception that women just are drawn to these things, or volunteer out of the goodness of their heart,” said Liz Kofman-Burns, PhD, sociologist and cofounder of the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) firm Peoplism. “It's probably more that other people assume that [women] are going to do the administrative things, ask [women] to do the administrative things, and [women] feel guilty or bad for saying no to doing those things.”
In their seminal work The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, researchers and coauthors Linda Babcock, PhD; Brenda Peyser; Lise Vesterlund, PhD; and Laurie Weingart, PhD, identify a dual cause for why women own the bulk of non-promotable work:
- We’re more likely to ask women to take it on. People are 44% more likely to ask a woman than a man to take on undesirable work that results in a relatively lower payoff, key traits of NPTs.
- Women are more likely to say yes. Women say yes because others expect them to, and because there are consequences if they don’t. Research shows that women and people of color are constrained by a tight culture, that is, a more narrow set of accepted conventions for behavior. Research cited by the authors of The No Club found that women are not rewarded when they say yes to NPTs, but they are penalized when they say no. Conversely, men are rewarded when they say yes and face no negative consequences when they decline.
These converging influences result in substantial additional work for women. The coauthors of The No Club analyzed several years of professional services data and found that women — whether senior or junior — “spent about two hundred more hours per year than the median man on non-promotable work,” more than one extra month per year.
And it’s not just in professional services. These findings remain true across many industries — primary education, investment banking, law, engineering, and more, according to the book.
When we consider intersectionality, things can be even bleaker. As cited in The No Club, a 2012 journal article about distribution of work in academia found that faculty of color spend three more hours per week on non-promotable work than white faculty.
How Uneven Distribution of Non-Promotable Work Hurts Everyone
Non-promotable tasks take people away from the work, assignments, and contributions that offer visibility and advance careers. For example:
Say a senior partner at a management consulting firm asks a more junior employee to help create a mentorship program because they’re “a natural leader.”
This employee takes to the project, and they devote substantial time to developing the mentorship program and pairing individuals. When performance evaluations occur, their manager says they’ve been unfocused and distracted with side projects. Worst of all, the employee gets skipped over for a leadership promotion in favor of a colleague.
This employee erroneously believed their work on the mentorship program would bolster their eligibility for promotion and look good to the higher-ups. However, this work meant the employee dedicated less time to what the company most cares about — landing high-paying new clients.
When NPTs aren’t distributed fairly, employees suffer, but so does the organization. An uneven distribution of non-promotable tasks:
- Is bad for productivity and profitability: When the same people routinely take on non-promotable work, organizations miss the chance to leverage the unique skills and expertise of these individuals to advance the company’s strategic agenda. “Our book shows that non-promotable work has a negative effect on women’s careers and lives, but also a detrimental impact on the productivity and profitability of their organizations,” wrote the coauthors of The No Club.
- Keeps companies from advancing their DEIB agenda: Tied up with non-promotable work, women and people of color have less access to stretch assignments — work that renders employees eligible for more senior positions. As cited in The No Club, a study from the Center for WorkLife Law found that white men have the most access to high-profile, promotable tasks, while women of color, especially Black women, have the least access. When women and people of color are bogged down with tasks that amount to office housework, they lose out on opportunities to increase their eligibility for management. And because research has found that diversity of management is a key indicator of the success of DEIB programs, unevenly distributed non-promotable tasks might be keeping your organization’s DEIB initiatives from flourishing.
How to Advocate for Yourself in Performance Review Self-Evaluations
Workers can decline to take on non-promotable tasks, but as outlined above, women and people of color can be penalized for doing so.
Organizations need standardized processes to ensure work is assigned fairly, but in the meantime, employees should use their available resources to draw attention to their contributions.
Rather than viewing a self-evaluation as a chore, take advantage of the opportunity to shine a light on the non-promotable work you’ve done, in addition to your other successes. Doing so will provide a written account of your efforts and can counterbalance any pushback in case of a perceived lack of focus or bandwidth.
Keep track of the work you’re doing outside of your job description.
Be sure to track all the work you’re doing outside of your role’s responsibilities. If you don’t know how much time you’re devoting to this work, you can’t expect your manager to.
“Keep a running list of the non-promotable tasks you’ve taken on. Don't let them go unnoticed and unappreciated,” said Lori Scherwin, certified professional coach and founder of executive coaching firm Strategize That. “You have to manage your perception and awareness of the time you are investing before you can expect your managers and managers' managers to,” she added.
Simply use a spreadsheet, or even paper and pencil, if you prefer. “List the tasks you’re performing that are beyond the scope of your job, how the company is benefiting from it, who is making these requests, and the frequency with which you are performing these tasks,” Cohen said.
Tips for writing about NPTs in your self-evaluation:
- Tie what you’re doing back to company values or the organization’s mission. Even though this work doesn’t tie directly back to the company’s top or bottom line, it likely supports something the company cares about. “Tie the extra things that you’re doing back to company values, team values, team goals, or competencies in your job description,” Kofman-Burns said. If your company doesn’t yet have competencies defined, it’s likely that what you’re doing can be connected to general managerial competencies.
- Frame the task around the benefit, not the work. Communicating the value you’ve provided the company is the key to impact. “Instead of saying ‘I am part of the volunteer mentor program,’ say ‘I mentor three junior staff members and am helping them grow in their roles to be more productive, improving leadership potential for the firm and growing cross-functional relationships with other divisions,’” Scherwin said.
- Be confident and unabashed in advocating for yourself. “It's up to you to position it and strategically communicate the benefits you bring based on the projects you have done — whether directly, or indirectly proportional to your stated role,” Scherwin explained.
How to Manage up When it Comes to Non-Promotable Work
Managers are responsible for understanding the workload of their employees, but it’s up to the employee to ensure managers know how they spend their time.
If you’re dedicating significant time to non-promotable work, make time to speak with your manager about your workload.
- Have the conversation early and often. You probably don’t want to be surprised by what you learn in a performance review, and neither does your manager. Non-promotable tasks may fall outside your job description, but you’re still spending valuable time completing them, so reference your running list of tasks and make sure your boss is aware of what you’re focusing on. Start these conversations early and keep an open line of communication to make discussing how you’re spending your time a habit during one-on-ones.
- Spell out your contributions. Busy managers aren’t likely to keep tabs on everything you’re doing. Simply cueing them can be the catalyst for recognition. “Explaining to [managers] exactly what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how it benefits the organization may be what is needed in order to start having these tasks recognized,” Cohen said. Another benefit of communication? “There’s a chance, too, that a manager will say that they’d prefer that you not spend time on these tasks as they don’t want them taking away from your actual job responsibilities,” she added.
- Draw them in for some accountability. The fact that women and people of color take on more non-promotable tasks than their white male colleagues is a societal issue reflected in organizations, not an individual one. While employees must advocate for themselves to ensure recognition and visibility, it’s a good idea to pull in your manager for accountability, too.
“Set some time to talk to your manager and say, ‘I want to discuss the things that I'm focusing on and spending my time doing, and I want to make sure that those are aligned with the company's goals, our team goals, my goals, and the things that I need to do in order to advance here,” Kofman-Burns said. “Walk your manager through, step by step, and say, ‘Here are the things that I'm doing that are aligned with my job description. Here are some things that I'm doing that I feel like are not really aligned with my job description. Are these a priority?’ Doing so puts it back on the manager,” she explained.
“It's a smart way to make the manager justify the tasks that you're doing and show they are or aren't aligned with tasks that are promotable or part of your job description,” she added.
Make Thankless Tasks a Thing of the Past
When non-promotable tasks disproportionately fall to women and people of color, both the individuals and the organization suffer the consequences. Employees who are saddled with undesirable tasks lose opportunities for advancement, while the company forgoes a chance to strategically match employees’ unique skills and expertise with assignments.
Standardized processes are needed to more equally distribute non-promotable work, but in the meantime, employees should work to ensure visibility for the tasks they are taking on — whether they’re considered promotable or not. With a strategic eye and some adroit phrasing, employees can use their performance review self-evaluations to demonstrate how these tasks contribute to organizational success.
Writing about non-promotable work in performance review self-evaluations isn’t always intuitive. Lattice’s self-evaluation template provides helpful prompts that make it easy for employees to gain credit for the non-promotable work they do.
- Women take on 200 hours more of non-promotable work each year — the equivalent of more than one working month.
- We’re more likely to ask women to take on non-promotable work, and women, constrained by societal expectations, are more likely to say yes.
- Men of color are constrained by narrow societal expectations and face some of these same pressures, though more research is needed.
- Employees can (and should) use self-evaluations to ensure visibility and gain recognition for these tasks.