Has your boss ever asked you to do something, and you were unclear if that “great opportunity I think you would be perfect for” was an idea or an order? There’s a name for this kind of ambiguous job communication: “voluntelling.”
Although the exact origins of voluntelling are unclear, the phrase has been popularized by the U.S. military to describe situations where somebody is volunteered for a task without the person getting the opportunity to decline.
And in office contexts, voluntelling can not only mean outright requesting that someone do something –– it can also mean being implicitly pressured to say “yes.”
Because of the power dynamics between bosses and employees, even a simple ask like “Hey, do you have time to join this committee? I think you’d be good at this” can feel like voluntelling, said Lawrese Brown, the founder of workplace education company C-Track Training. Brown said she has commonly seen Black professionals get voluntold to work on unpaid, time-intensive diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives under this kind of language.
Voluntelling “assumes a ‘yes,’ unless you are clear in your ‘no,’” she said.
The problem with voluntelling is that there is often an incorrect assumption being made either about whether the task would actually interest an employee or about whether that employee has the bandwidth to do the assignment on top of their other work.
Gregory Tall, a workshop facilitator who coaches managers and has over 15 years of experience in human resources, said he believes managers who voluntell do so for three main reasons:
- “There’s a high-stakes assignment that’s come up and they want to place it in the hands of the person they most trust,” Tall said. “This means that high performers could find themselves with a disproportionate amount of work that comes presented as an ‘opportunity for development.’”
- “The manager is unsure who should perform a given task, but knows that somebody has to do it. The manager in that case could be making the assignment based solely on who they perceive to have the most available capacity on the team. Of course, their assessment may or may not be accurate.”
- “The manager could be under the impression that the person they are voluntelling would really enjoy/appreciate the assignment. And they think they are doing the person a favor by making the assignment. But again, that assessment may not be accurate.”
Voluntelling is not just a frustrating miscommunication, it can have a “snowballing effect” with big consequences, Brown said. If you do not push back as an employee, you risk making your boss’s voluntelling a habit. “It is likely they are going to do it again and again, because [bosses] just take silence as approval,” she said.
And bosses should care because when employees do not feel supported and seen, they become less engaged and produce lower-quality work, Brown said. That’s why it’s critical for both bosses and employees to put an end to the trap of voluntelling. Here’s how:
If you’re a manager, avoid voluntelling by leaving room for employee input.
To make an opportunity sound less like an order when you are a boss, Brown said, it helps to mention the assignment and then add language like “let me know if this is of value to you” after you say “hey, I thought of you for this.”
That way, the boss makes it more explicit that they are open to employee feedback, she said.
And in the long run, bosses need to be better at protecting their team’s time. For bosses, “a key to avoiding voluntelling is to not avoid making substantive commitments without considering how it will impact your team,” Tall said. He shared an example of a manager meeting with a client and then the client dramatically expanding the scope of work or accelerating the deadline for deliverables.
“In the moment, the manager quickly agrees to the client’s request. Great for the client!” Tall said. “But now the manager has created for a situation in which they have to fulfill this commitment they’ve made without having adequately considered how the work will get done or who will do the work. And this dynamic sets the stage for voluntelling to happen.”
To be a better manager, supervisors should let a client know they want to check in with their team prior to making a big commitment, Tall said. To pitch this to a client, the boss can tell the client they want “to ensure [they] are positioned to deliver the best quality in the time frame they need it,” he said.
And in general, bosses should be regularly checking in on their direct reports, so they have a clear sense of their current capacity and professional development goals, he said. That way, bosses are not working with outdated information when it comes to the employees they work with.
When you are an employee, advocate for yourself by mentioning trade-offs and where your true interests lie.
Don’t be vague about what you want or need. For employees, pushing back on an unwanted voluntelling assignment means being clear about your boundaries and your needs.
Giving a noncommittal answer like “I’m open to exploring this further” will not help you in this instance, Brown said, because the boss is still assuming you will eventually say yes.
Speak up about the trade-offs if you do this assignment. If you want to turn down a task, you cannot simply tell your boss no –– you need to explain why this would be bad for your boss’s and team’s goals, and state what would be better for those goals instead.
“Simply saying you are super busy right now won’t be compelling –– everybody is busy,” Tall said. “Be specific about the multiple priorities you are managing and speak to how you think the addition of a new assignment could impact your existing work stream. ... Could the quality of an existing assignment be adversely impacted? If so, bring those things up.”
So, do be clear about how this assignment could hold you back, but do not feel like you need to give a long treatise defending yourself, either. “If you are writing more than one or two lines, you are probably over-explaining. You should stick to the main point, which is: how it’s relevant to you or your future goals or your schedule. That’s a great way to politely decline,” Brown said.
If you have to do the assignment, make it more doable. Sometimes voluntelling is unavoidable. “If you’re being voluntold to do something because a team member is out for medical leave or a team member suddenly resigns, that person’s work will have to shift to someone, and that someone could be you,” Tall said.
In these situations, “Be an advocate for yourself. Your time and energy is limited,” he said. “Be prepared to ask for the things that would make the assignment more doable for you.“
This can mean asking for more flexibility on other assignments, the flexibility to work a different schedule or to work from home, additional technology or equipment resources, or temporary reassignment of some of your existing duties, Tall shared as examples.