Sunday, October 09, 2016

Just say no to the boss's spouse's request

An employee for a business has held her job for five years. She's done well on the job, performing her duties to her boss's satisfaction, and taking on roles of increasing responsibility. She -- let's call her Tina -- loves her job at a business that is privately owned by a wealthy gentleman.

Several weeks ago, the owner sent out an email to the employees that his wife had taken on responsibility for running a series of nonprofit events in the community. There were many opportunities for employees to volunteer to help with the cause. They were given a heads up that his wife might be in touch.

Sure enough, Tina was contacted by the owner's wife, who asked her if she could run one of the activities. Tina learned more about the nonprofit and what the owner's wife had in mind for her. She realized that she liked the work the nonprofit was trying to do. But she also realized that the boss's wife was asking her to run this event on her day off from work on her own time.

Many years ago, I wrote about a program that a major bank chain ran with its employees asking them to adopt-an-ATM in their neighborhood and then making sure that those ATM areas were kept clean. The adoptive employees were not paid for their efforts. The program drew the scrutiny of some labor officials who found the practice to violate wage and hour law. Many employees who loved their bank would likely have picked up litter in an ATM area without having a formal program. Those employees a little less enamored of the company might have felt a bit more coerced into saying yes to the plan.

Tina didn't want to disappoint her owner's wife, but she also really liked the idea of getting paid for when she worked and she enjoyed her days off. She didn't want to disappoint the owner who signed her paycheck. She was fairly certain she would not be punished for saying "no" to the request, but she wondered if saying no was in her best interest if she wanted to continue advancing at the company at the rate with which she had been doing.

If Tina wants to say no, she should say no. She can graciously tell the owner's wife that she likes the work the nonprofit is doing, but that she can't participate on the day of the event. If she wants to help out and volunteer, she should say yes. But she should fight the urge to feel like she must say yes, as strong as that urge might be.

The right thing would have been for the owner not to have mixed business and his wife's outside efforts and put his employees in the position of having to say no to her requests. It's like saying no to the boss asking employees to buy Girl Scout cookies from his kid -- only a bit tougher since the request to Tina involved an entire unpaid day, rather than simply shelling out $5 for a box of Thin Mints.

Company owners and bosses should respect their employees and their time and not put them in the awkward position of having to decide if saying no to an outside, unpaid event will affect their job security. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

As a person in my 80's, long away from business situations of any kind, it is quite "delicious" to read about these kinds of situations existing. Thankfully, my business was life insurance administration and in none of my jobs was this example present. Suffice to say, if this subject can avoid cooperating with this kind of forced "free services", more power to her.

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

As a working person I would interpret an email from the boss to pretty much be an order. While legally Tina cannot be compelled to work for this charity she might give it a second thought if she wants to stay employed and/or receive the good treatment that she is used to receiving. I know it's not legal but this is one of the realities of working today.

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