The problem with job descriptions is that they don't list everything your job entails. But they're not supposed to because the idea is that they need to be flexible so employers and employees aren't boxed into a corner about who's responsible for what. That said and even though it can be confusing at times, your boss has the authority to make you do another employee's job. But like other aspects of workplace policy, there are caveats, exceptions and cautionary measures concerning the work assigned to you.
Most job descriptions have a disclaimer that essentially says your boss can assign you any work, even if it's not on your formal job description. That's why the final sentence on so many job descriptions usually is, "And other duties as assigned." That disclaimer isn't just to prevent employees from saying, "That's not in my job description," because they can't or won't perform the job duties. An effective way to construct job descriptions is to make them flexible; they should be fluid enough to assign employees tasks that are suitable for their qualifications and their interests. The U.S. Small Business Administration's advice for business owners new to writing job descriptions is to make them flexible to encourage employee growth and development.
Bosses who delegate tasks need to know the employee's qualifications, skill set and limitations because management competencies usually are based on how well the manager delegates responsibilities. The quality of the finished project is a reflection on the manager -- not always the employee. Consequently, your boss should assign work that's compatible with your knowledge and proficiency. For example, if you're a software developer and your boss requires that you handle a data migration from one server to another, you might not be successful at it. But it's not your fault -- it's your boss's misstep for assigning work that's outside your area of expertise. In theory, she can make you do another employee's job, but it casts more of a negative light on her management skills than your job skills and knowledge base.
That employment-at-will doctrine is what concerns many employees who feel intimidated by their bosses' orders to do someone else's job. In most cases, both employers and employees have the right to end the working relationship for any reason or for no reason, with or without advance notice. So if your boss tells you to do another employee's job and you refuse, you could be fired based on the at-will doctrine, or your boss could justifying terminating you for insubordination, which is refusing to follow a work directive.
In some cases, your boss could instruct you to take the place of another employee to determine if you have the necessary skills or the interest in performing duties that you normally wouldn't. Consider this an opportunity, especially if you've been looking for ways to demonstrate your skills or expertise in other areas of the business, or if you're looking for a transfer or promotion. Taking on another employee's tasks gives you a chance to prove that you're versatile and that your talents reach far beyond what you were initially hired to do.
Your boss doesn't have the right and shouldn't ever assign you to do someone else's job if doing so poses an ethical dilemma, compromises your safety or that of others or is illegal. For example, if you're a paralegal, your boss -- who is likely a lawyer -- can't have you call a client under the pretense that you're licensed to practice law. Or, a transportation supervisor shouldn't assign someone without the proper license and driving record to take over the delivery schedule for another worker. If your boss assigns you work that you believe is dangerous, unsuitable or unethical, and you aren't comfortable expressing your concerns to your boss, a government agency such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration can help you address your workplace issues.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.