Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 5

Staying under the radar is important in the early days at a new company or in your overall career for that matter.  You want to create the right impression by not creating a negative impression.

#5 Volunteer, but choose wisely

Volunteering is a trap that over-achieving, ambitious employees easily fall into.  I’m here today to warn you about this trap.

Before diving in, let’s get on the same page regarding the definition of volunteering.  Volunteering, in the context of this post, means offering to do something when someone (typically your boss) throws an idea out to a group of people.  This could occur in a meeting, in the hallway, at lunch, etc.  She might say, “We need someone to get a list together of everyone’s birthday and ensure we have a once-a-month team birthday lunch.  Who can do that?”  I draw a distinction between this and any time that your boss asks you specifically to work on something.  If you boss asks you “if” you want to do something, the answer is almost always “yes,” unless it’s illegal, inappropriate, unethical or she’s forgotten something more critical you need to finish.

The logic in volunteering for things seems valid, doesn’t it?  You are showing your ability to take on more work.  You are showing your willingness to help others out.  You will add another items to that year’s performance review.  You may even get some good exposure from it.

More often that not, however, this logic amounts to no benefit at all in your career.  I’ll bet, if you think about all the items for which you’ve volunteered, a very small portion have truly resulted in the benefits noted above.  Why is this?  Because this is the truth about volunteering:

  1. When bosses ask for volunteers to do something, that “something” is not considered important or critical to the business. Think about it.  When was the last time your boss said “We have our most important client coming in tomorrow.  Who wants to take him on a factory tour?”   When was the last time your boss said, “We need to give a presentation on our three-year strategy to our CEO and CFO, who’s got that?”  When bosses have critically important tasks, then they decide who leads and who participates.  This is a hard and fast rule.  If they ask for volunteers for anything, then it’s just not that important to them.
  2. Requests for volunteers are usually thankless tasks that are quickly forgotten or have no value in your career. Volunteers pull together social events, pitch in to collate and bind presentations, proofread documents, or meet and greet the new employee.  Not only do none of these ever make up for poor work performance, but they carry risk, because they are usually so easy to complete.  What if the pot-luck lunch sucks?  What if you miss a page when collating?  What if  you find errors in the boss’s document, but he takes feedback poorly?  For me, the risk/reward trade-off is lopsided towards risk.
  3. Volunteering can aggravate your co-workers. The constant volunteer risks carrying a reputation similar to the head cheerleader, who is also head of the prom committee, editor of the yearbook, and coordinator of all the student assemblies.  She may do a good job, but she becomes known for being involved in everything and not for the quality of her work.  She becomes known as excluding other from helping, even if that isn’t her intent.  Don’t volunteer all the time, even if you can.
  4. Volunteering will lead your boss to question how you have time to do it all. When I realized this, it was incredibly frustrating.  When bosses see their team members doing things that don’t contribute to work on deadline, their brain says “How can they afford the time to do that?”  It’s not always rational, but that’s how executive brains work.  You may hit your deadline, and the summer intern dinner may go off splendidly, but that momentary thought by your boss will stick in his mind.  Bosses want to see their teams working, not putting up decorations or organizing the company softball leagues.
  5. Volunteering puts you on the radar, but for reasons other than work success. Simply put, this is not the best way to get on the radar or create a  reputation.  It distracts from other successes.

So – when do you volunteer?

I recommend volunteering for charity events.  Join the group to clean up a park, rehab a house, serve food at a shelter.  If you are at a level where you get asked to attend charity dinners, you should go to a few (although all require donations, so be careful).

I recommend volunteering for things when you get a chance to meet people who you don’t know well and can do so without the risk of failure at work.  Volunteer to courier materials to a senior executive’s house on the weekend.  Volunteer to attend a reception or usher at a reception that you know is dear to a senior executive’s heart.

I recommend volunteering when something needs to be done at the last minute.  This is when you will get credit for being flexible, and this is when your boss really needs you.  This is when even running to Office Depot to get some thumbtacks can be helpful to your career.

Remember, even if you identify a good time for volunteering, don’t do it every time – even if you can.  Let’s others volunteer.  Stay off the radar a bit.

In the end, you will gain the most benefit by contributing on an important extracurricular project that you are requested to work on.  That’s when bosses will give you credit and that’s what the right way to get on the radar.

Previous parts:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back
#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings
#4 Don’t Offer Suggestions Unless You Are Asked


2 Responses to Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 5

  1. Pingback: Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 6 « Life With Spidey

  2. Pingback: Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Recap of Parts 1-6 « Life With Spidey

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