Non-Promotable Tasks - a time trap to avoid?


It seems that not only are women undertaking a disproportionate amount of home housework we are also actively engaged, more often than not, in the majority of non-promotable tasks in the workplace. Listening to a HBR podcast, Women in Work, and then reading this article by HBR has certainly given me food for thought. Giving up my time to non-promotable tasks does reduce my available discretionary time for promotable tasks but does that mean there is no value in non-promotable tasks, and is it possible to turn them into promotable tasks directly or indirectly?

What are non-promotable tasks?

On the face of it this should be a relatively easy question to answer but actually thinking about it the answer is it far more complicated. The HBR defines them as tasks that benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement. There are definately some obvious examples such as doing the office 'housework' before, during and after meetings but there are far more subtle examples such the higher proportion of women who volunteer for company affinity groups such as a parent, flex, charity or balance networks.

The non-promotable tasks I currently undertake are those that I have actively chosen to be part of and I don't as a rule undertake any office 'housework' unless there is no one else to do it.

Why do women volunteer more than men for non-promotable tasks?

Sometimes called the Alturism Gender Gap it has been found that women are 30% more likely to volunteer than men. I'm not a social scientist but from my own experience of the world of work this definitely holds true. When I have asked the men in my life why they do not volunteer for non-promotable tasks within their workplaces the answer is clear - they do not see it as part of their natural part of career progression and prefer to focus on actions supported and specifically highlighted by the CEO and other male senior leaders. It seems like they are subconsciously aware of a promotion bias and are making sure they 'look and act' like their more senior real models, who themselves are not volunteering.

Given that men seem to have a clear 'reason' why they volunteering less for non-promotable tasks in the workplace why do women still opt in, consciously or subconsciously?

There is plenty of data suggesting that women rate social connections more highly than men. While I'm unclear if this is a biological or social construct volunteering is often seen as a way to connect with like minded people, and fellow volunteers tend more than often than not to be other women. So are women actively creating these connections via volunteering because we rightly or wrongly feel that 'traditional' old boys workplace networks are closed to us or are we simply bringing what we do so 'well' in our home lives into the workplace, or is it something else entirely?

When I think about why I volunteer for non-promotable tasks in my organisation I know it is not because I actively seeking out other women and I am pretty hardcore about the fair allocation of housework in my household. So why I am consciously opting into non-promotable work that may not directly progress my current career;

1. Volunteering helps me develop two of my core work Values - collaboration and innovation. I'm very good at connecting people and creating new ways of working because these types of actions fit with my work values and are when I am most in flow. I am not always able to explore these values within my current role on a day to day basis so volunteering allows me to access these values on a more regular basis.

2. I'm playing the long game. I'm very interested in strategic decision making and volunteering within my organisation, in particular for an affinity group, provides me with access to senior decision makers and more importantly access to how 'big' decision are made. I'm in effect using my volunteering to build up my 'toolkit' of skills. Much as being a trustee or a non-executive director also gives you experience of senior level decision making.

So the reasons why women volunteer for non-promotable tasks is not as simple as it may seem at a first look. The key is to make sure that if you are undertaking non-promotable tasks that it is a conscious choice and more importantly a strategic choice. When the non-promotable task no longer meets your 'needs' then it is important to remember you can always quit, especially if it is having no real impact on your current career progression. Someone else will fill the gap of you leaving, and if they do not then the task you were undertaking is probably not that valuable for your organisation. Keeping your non-promotable tasks under constant revision is vital to prevent burn out - there is no need to martyr yourself for any organisation's culture.

How do you get men to actively engage in non-promotable tasks?

Given that men are less likely to actively volunteer for non-promotable tasks is there a way to reframe the nature of these important cultural building tasks to make them more appealing? One way to do this is to reframe them as professional development opportunities, in the same way that I currently view my volunteering in the workplace. As part of this an organisation could also actively acknowledge the importance of non-promotable tasks in building their cultural. They could do this by including in any promotion process an element that reviews the individuals contribution to the organisation, either via mentoring, active involvement in an affinity group or leading a diversity strand. Another option could be to allow VTO days to be used towards volunteering for an in-company affinity group.

It is more important than even for more men to volunteer for non-promotable tasks as this will free up women up to focus on promotable tasks equalising the world of work that often privileges the progression of men over women. At the same time women need to be more strategic about which non-promotable tasks they take on and continuously review them. The final piece of the puzzle is a need for organisations to increasingly value and recognise the importance of volunteering for non-promotable tasks and see it as a way to cultivate a sense of purpose for the individuals in their organisation, thereby increasing colleague engagement.

If you enjoyed this post please check out my blog here, including post focused on career pivots by job crafting and how to manager craft.

All opinions are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

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