Neil J Lavender Ph.D.

Beyond Bullying

Are Employees Being Asked to Do More Illegitimate Tasks?

Corporations are now heaping on the workload

Posted Jul 26, 2016

by Neil J Lavender PhD

Photo by Dreamstime
Source: Photo by Dreamstime

Since 1998 and the economic downturn, corporations and other organizations have exercised more power over its employees due to the scarcity of good jobs and employees not wishing to risk the chance of being fired. More than ever, workers are being asked to do more and more duties such as mandatory overtime, being on call 24-7 and even forgoing well needed vacation time. The added load often produces stress which can overflow into families and interfere with normal family life.

A recent study (Semmer and all, 2015) reports that “illegitimate tasks” can be a significant source of work stress. They define an illegitimate task as one “employees think they should not have to carry out. . .” These tasks are often perceived by workers as being unreasonable and outside of their occupational role as they perceive it. An example of this might be a nurse who is often asked to do duties such as opening a patient’s windows Yet another example would be having a salesman paint his office. These illegitimate tasks are often assigned to employees as a time or money saving device.

While we realize that everybody has to do a little bit more in the current economy, legitimate tasks can actually degrade an employee’s work performance by changing her attitude towards her job. The problem with illegitimate tasks is that they change the way an employee thinks about himself.  An employee, for example, might believe that being assigned tasks outside their normal workload is demeaning in the sense that they are being assigned “dirty work”.

“Illegitimate tasks send an implicit message of disrespect that represents a potential threat to the self”. (Semmer and all, 2015, italics added).

Furthermore, workers also tend to perceive illegitimate tasks as being an injustice in that they are simply unfair. They believe that they were hired to perform a certain workload which was described to them at the point of their hire. Being asked to do more without being paid is simply unfair.

In a world where good jobs seem to be incredibly hard to find, these things might seem trivial indeed. We should be lucky that we have a job right? But the problem is they’re not trivial. They tend to produce stress and strain on the employee and leads to the employee feeling disrespected and having feelings of resentment towards their employer. They can even lead to employee burnout as well as low self-esteem.

An illustration follows:

Ralph E. was one of his company’s top salesman who had no problem working 10 to 12 hours a day. However, when one of his coworkers was seriously under producing, Ralph was assigned by his manager to “shadow” his coworker and follow him around for several days on his sales route. Ralph complained to his manager that this would cut into his own workday significantly and moreover “was not his job.” His sales manager told him he was too busy to do it himself and would appreciate it if Ralph would comply. It would only be for a short time and the company would be willing to show its appreciation in “some way in the future.”

Ralph was quite angry telling his friends and coworkers that he had just become his boss’s “flunky”. When he went home and told his wife, she told him that he had better do it because he had a good job and she did not want him to risk losing it. This led to multiple arguments. Ralph insisted that he was being disrespected by his boss and that his boss chose him because he didn’t think much of him nor that he was a valuable contributor. He told his friends and coworkers that he would no longer be working overtime. He would simply put in an eight-hour day because he was “not appreciated for all his efforts anyway”. This led to his entertaining leaving his company and perhaps even getting out of sales.

In our practices, we are seeing more and more people being assigned “illegitimate tasks”. We experience firsthand the stress they produce in our clients and their families.

This is serious stuff. Business organizations diligently need to weigh the costs of overloading their employees with more and more work obligations.

In closing, enlightened management needs to address the psychological as well as financial needs of its workers if they want to stay competitive in today’s economy. The temptation by cash strapped corporations to heap illegitimate tasks onto its workers remains a real challenge in today’s economy.

The thriving corporation will resist it.


Semmer and all (2015). Illegitimate tasks as a source of work stress. Work & Stress. 29(1), 32-56.

Dr. Lavender is co-author of Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job.