What Your Boss Shouldn’t Ask You To Do

"And I won't dress like that, either!"

Reading all the comments from readers who think sick children and their mothers have the right to demand our time and attention, no matter what our own needs and responsibilities may be, made me think again about a persistent issue in the workplace. What constitutes a reasonable and fair request from an employer to his employees, other than to do their jobs diligently, honestly and well?

I have encountered this issue several times in my career, and it impeded that career, such as it is, more than once. For example, I do not believe that an employer can tell you, or even ask you, to participate in a charity of the employer’s choosing. He, she or it cannot demand that you spend your weekends painting the houses of the poor, either. Nor is it ethical for an employer to make you play softball or climb mountains under the bizarre conviction that these activities improve office performance.

Employers can’t tell you not to smoke or drink in your home, or that your avocation as an actor, singer, weasel-tamer or circus geek is too undignified or time consuming. They can’t make you take up running marathons or swimming. They sure as hell better not ask you to date the firm’s top client, or to “show him a good time.”

If they try to make you do any of these things, whether you might want to do them or not, you have an obligation to tell them to back off and remember that you are an employee, not a child or slave. IF you submit to this wholly abusive use of power, your agreeability will embolden them, and undoubtedly increase the pressure on others to similarly submit to demands no employer has a right to make.

They all are demands, by the way…even if they are phrased as requests. When an individual or a company holds your livelihood in their hands, there is always implicit coercion, and where there is coercion, there is no autonomy or true consent.

With all of this in mind, consider this: Can an employee who works at a pinball company be required by his employer to play pinball every day?
I’m not making that up. The 150 employees of the Chicago-based Stern Pinball Company, the nation’s last pinball machine manufacturer, must all play 30 minutes of pinball every workday, per order of CEO Gary Stern. (It is amazing the things you read in airplane magazines). I understand that this is another dubious Seventies-style  corporate psychology tactic—forcing employees to establish an emotional bond with the product, making them empathize with customers, and allowing the company’s marketers to say, “All of our employees play pinball every day—we know pinball!”  I know that the employees are being paid to play, which is significant. But if this demand wasn’t made an explicit requirement of employment when they were hired, I think it is no different from the CEO insisting that they talk in Southern accents, do 20 push-ups a day, dress in Armani suits or read the Huffington Post. It is unfair and demeaning to use economic power to force staff to do anything that unreasonably interferes with their autonomy.

Maybe I am biased by the fact that I hate playing pinball, but the command is just as unethical when given to pinball lovers. This is an abuse of authority and power.


32 thoughts on “What Your Boss Shouldn’t Ask You To Do

  1. Jack,
    Jobs are simply voluntary transactions between an employee who agrees to do a required for a mutually agreed upon sum. Asking an employee to play ping-pong may be unusual, but they’re more than welcome to take a job elsewhere or quit should they find the atmosphere untenable. People are payed to do all sorts of things for the amusement of others and even clean up our garbage, is that any more unethical?


    • An employee is free to quit if the boss asks her to sleep with him too, to “show commitment to the company”…or maybe the company makes sex toys. The “free to quit” solution doesn’t make the request more ethical.

      • Jack,
        Demanding an employee play 1/2 hour of ping-pong per day isn’t at all akin (even metaphorically) to an employer demanding sex. For one, the latter is not only unethical, but also illegal. Secondly, the Ping-Pong company apparently makes no secret of it policy regarding play time and it’s likely that people were hired with the understanding this would be expected of them.

        Can’t I pay anyone any amount of money to do anything I should want (assuming it isn’t, of course, illegal or otherwise immoral)?


        • The illegality is irrelevant—it was always unethical, but for many years, bosses thought it wa s reasonable requirement. The point is that both involve tacit coercion. (Pinball,not ping-pong. Ping-pong is fine, because I LIKE ping-pong.)

          That was a joke..

  2. Are you kidding? That’s BRILLIANT!

    The point of any sort of game is that it be fun. Having the people who make those games actually play them is the only sure way to make certain that they put maximum creativity into the designs to make them interesting and fun, instead of just making formulaic clones of past successes.

    “That’s great for the actual designers, but why make the accountants, salespeople, and the cleaning staff play too?”, you ask. Two words: Focus Group. Two more words: Random sampling. The best feedback you can get is from lots and lots of diverse people, especially including those that only marginally like pinball.

    Not only do you get feedback, but you foster informal discussion and debate (“Overall, I like our new Star Wars: Clone Wars table better than that The Apprentice table–although the “You’re Fired” sound sample when the game is over sounds AWESOME.”) and the built-in focus group is made of people you have to see every day. Make a great game and everyone is patting you on the back. Make a honker and they’re making up (good-natured) jokes at your expense.

    This is a win-win all around.


    • That’s as good an argument as anyone can muster, I think, and I still don’t buy it, not outside of the design staff, which has to play the game to do their jobs. Forced participation in focus groups is not going to generate any useful information. People who don’t like or play pinball aren’t going to have an useful feedback to offer. As far as I can see, making an accountant play pinball to keep her job is just bullying, nothing more.

      • Every job has collateral duties. I’m a programmer/analyst but I have had to do all of the following that were not, strictly speaking, part of my job at the time:
        – Escort uncleared people into and out of secure areas.
        – Carry equipment
        – Terminate network cables
        – Diagnose/fix problems (when I’m the engineer, not the support person, but the only available person with the required access)
        – Lock the door at the end of the day
        – Assist in writing proposals (And I *hate* this, BTW.)

        It’s unrealistic to think that an employer can ONLY expect employees to do a narrow-lane job and that anything outside the lines is unethical. Some things are, definitely. But I don’t accept your premise that EVERYTHING is out-of-bounds. I would submit that it’s the nature of the thing itself that is the determining factor: some things are legitimate business needs that SOMEONE has to do. When it becomes a little too much like being a boss’s personal servant, then I think that’s where the line should be drawn.


        • See my reply to Tim above. I’m close to agreeing with you guys…not quite there. The trick is what pinball playing really is for, say, a secretary, janitor, lawyer or accountant. Just because its a pb company doesn’t make that task reasonably job-related, which all of yours are, I’d say.

      • “People who don’t like or play pinball aren’t going to have an[y] useful feedback to offer. “

        Wrong, wrong, wrong.

        When I design a program that’s going to be used by people other than myself, the user interface has to be simple enough that a novice can easily figure it out. As the designer, I am as far from a novice on the subject of that particular program as you can get.

        So I ALWAYS need to seek feedback from people who not only don’t know my program but don’t use computers a lot. What’s might be obvious to me (it’s under the “Edit” menu) might be the last thing Joe User thinks is how it should work. And the user is always right, at least if you want to get a good design.


        • You’re sidestepping the “don’t like” category, not that I blame you. Here’s my feedback to a pinball manufacturer who makes me play the infernal thing: “I hated it…nosy, clumsy, boring, frustrating and stupid. Send it to hell.” That warps the results and gives no contructive info. How is that valuable?

          So your reply should have had only two “wrongs” in it.

          • If enough of you say that, the design will not go into production and suffer poor sales, that’s how.

            And eventually, you ARE going to find one to which you respond “Hmm, not quite as bad as the others. Send it to the Opera.” That’s even more valuable.

            In the game context (versus my user-interface example), a design that is so good that people who don’t even like the genre will play is pure gold.

            Some video game examples off the top of my head: (since I’m not a pinball guy either)
            – TIE Fighter
            – Knights of the Old Republic
            – Half-Life (and HL2)
            – Grand Theft Auto 3 (and VC/SA/4)
            – Rock Band
            – Portal
            – Wii Sports
            … all games that were SO well done that they grew the genre’s audience and/or were attractive to people who otherwise don’t play video games.


  3. I’m curious, Jack, how you reconcile this statement (from the above post): “Employers can’t tell you … that your avocation as an actor, singer, weasel-tamer or circus geek is too undignified or time consuming,” with a recent post in which you called an ethics alarm on a high school teacher who failed to disclose that she had, years before, worked as a porn actress? What is the boundary between the ethical obligations of the workplace, and an employee’s right to have a private life which is not dictated by his or her boss?

    • Because she is a teacher. Because teachers have to be respected and looked upon as role models. I didn’t write that ALL outside the office activities are necessarily off limits as topics of criticism by bosses. If they actively undermine work credibility, for example, or trust, then it is a legitimate topic for the boss to discuss. A teacher or law enforcement official who was a public spokesperson for NORMAL as a volunteer would have to make a choice.

      Here’s one about an actor teacher: http://ethicsscoreboard.com/list/brenner.html

  4. Couldn’t ANY employer make the argument that their employees need to be respectable role models for the brand image, though?

  5. Sorry, you’ve lost me. Ethics don’t enter into it, if it’s part of the employee’s paid workday. There’s nothing illegal, immoral, or offensive about playing pinball–it’s not like they’re being required to pray, or model lingerie, or rub the boss’s sore feet, and they are being paid for their time. So you don’t enjoy pinball. I don’t enjoy mandatory sexual harassment videos, but don’t consider it unethical to be forced to watch them. A waiter/waitress in a restaurant is expected to be familiar with the menu. A bookseller should know something about the books. A car salesman should be able to drive his/her stock. And being paid for 30 minutes of pinball play each day may be annoying, but not unethical. I expect many of the employees waste more of the work day on ‘smoke breaks.’

    Now, if “30 minutes of pinball every workday” does NOT mean that it counts as part of the paid workday … then you’re right.

    • I don’t see what’s hard to grasp about the principlal that you agree to do the tasks of your job, not whatever strikes the boss as soemthing he’s like you to do, and it has nothing whatever to do with whether any particular employee likes the new requrement. I miissed the obvious example: if a boss can order you to play a game like a trained chimp, what’s objectionable about demanding that his secretary bring him coffee, get his lunch, and pick up his laundry? If the task isn’t remotely covered in the job description—e.g. Accountant: told that he will be accounting, Secretary: told he will be making documents, filing, making and fielding calls, scheduling—then it’s a gratuitous infringement of one’s autonomy, disrespectful, a bait and switch, and an abuse of power.

      If that explanation doesn’t do it for you, then I hope you work for me some day, and I’ll have you serenading me at 11 everyday, shining my shoes, and playing ultra-violent videogames every day—for pay, of course.

      • Actually, in keeping with the spirit of the article, you’d expect all your employees to be ethical on the job at least 30 minutes each day.


      • I have to heap on you here too. But only about the pinball.

        It’s a unique situation to a unique company. It has many benefits to the company (some that have been said, and many more), and it’s not for the personal amusement of the man in charge. The company (who is paying the salaries) gets the benefit of the play time. The employees may find benefit in the play time but if they don’t, they still have their salary. If the play time causes physical pain, the employer should make reasonable accommodations, and if the employee simply refuses to participate, the employer should take the high ground and exempt them from participating.

        So why not “Permit” instead of “Decree” that employees play for 30 minutes? Because it was a culture changing idea. Not just culture changing for the company, but this fights the culture of the American Workday. If you did this with a “All employees can play pinball for 30 minutes.”, you make it sound like

        1) You’re trying to restrict them to 30 minutes.
        2) It’s optional and if people think they don’t use the pinball time, they’ll be held in higher regard
        3) Managers and Supervisors might not be on board and even though employees are entitled to play, there might be some hidden “frowning” going on that intimidates employees not to play.

        • Your “permit’ vs. “demand” argument is terrific, which convices me all the ore that you can’t get there from here. I’d be willing, however, to go along with you and Dwayne about the unique value of this kind of thing to a pin-ball company, were I not so bothered by the difficulty of explaining why the ssame option shouldn’t be availble to a tobacco maufacturer (smoke a cigar a day!) or violent video game manufacturer (kill 500 zombies a day!).

          • What it really boils down to is how much can a company require their employees to “know their product”. Even if an employee isn’t on the sales force, the company has an interest in making every one of their employees knowledgeable enough to speak positively about the product in casual conversations.

            Nothing’s worse than the following conversation:

            1: Where do you work?
            2: The Metropolitan Opera in NY.
            1: Wow. That must be amazing.
            2: Eh. It’s a paycheck.

            Apply a little indoctrination, and that last line becomes: “Yeah, it’s really interesting, and the music is completely new to me!”

            Yes. I know. I used the “Indoctrination” word, but employees are paid to know about the company and further the goals of the company. At the end of the day, if they don’t fit with the organization and refuse to advance their goals, they have a duty to resign.

            And that’s the rule. The exception is that a Cigar company can’t make you taste and test the cigars they make. They might make you memorize the product lines, the names, the statistics, what makes them special, and why they are different and better, but the company can’t put employee’s health at risk.

  6. Jack, for me the issue hinges on when the requirements are made. If I interview for a job opening as, say, a welder, and the supervisor says at that time, “This part of the job doesn’t have anything to do with welding, directly, but frequently I’m gonna need you to fetch coffee for me, and maybe take my clothes to the laundry as well,” and I accept the job on that basis…well, I don’t see that I’d have any basis for complaint later, if I took the job after having had that little chat. Contrariwise, if during the interview the supervisor said something along the lines of “I expect you to weld, pure, plain, and simple—just weld. Do that well and we’ll get along fine,” and I took the job but later he started asking me to fetch coffee…I don’t think I’d be unreasonable if I complained.
    But, what if it wasn’t stated one way or the other when I took the job? What if the job description shown me at the time of hire had one of those vague “other duties as required” clauses that are often found in such documents? In those cases I’m inclined to agree with Neil. No one is owed a job—sorry, but that’s just the way it is. If I own a company it’s my place to run as I see fit. If I’m smart, I’ll treat employees courteously and with respect, as I’ll not only get more people willing to work for me when a position opens up, but will likely get better productivity out of those already employed. Plus, I’d just plain feel better about the whole arrangement. If I’m not smart, well, markets have a way of disciplining those who are not smart.

    • I don’t see this as the same as the boss having employees take his clothes to the drycleaner (a personal task). This exercise could be a morale or team-building exercise, even if misguided. It could also be a quality control and development effort (as has been mentioned). If this was in the job description when hired, or a corporate policy, when hired, I don’t see that anyone has much room for complaint. There are many companies who have a “all our employees use our products” policies. These employees are being paid to do something that is directly related to the activities of the company.

  7. Sorry, Dwayne, and the rest of you. If ping-pong, Outward Bound, Christmas in April (building homes for the homeless), and “collateral duties” like escorting uncleared people into and out of secure areas, carrying equipment, terminating network cables, etc., etc. are going to be REQUIRED by your employer, PUT IN YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION. And if you don’t want to play ping-pong, go on Outward Bound retreats, or be forced to handle “collateral” duties, DON’T TAKE THE JOB.

    Everyone who wants to do a good job goes the extra mile. (And writing proposals, whether you like it or not, must be part of either your job description or that extra mile…) But really, employers forcing, or by group-think coercing, employees to do either ridiculous things during the work day, or worse, participate in “good works” outside of work hours, is beyond the pale.

    • No need to apologize, Elizabeth. In fact, I think we are “in violent agreement.” I wasn’t complaining about collateral duties at all–quite the opposite. I was arguing that I think the place to draw the line is between where it is serving a legitimate business interest and the place where it turns into serving some individual’s personal agenda.

      There’s not one thing in your post with which I disagree.


  8. My boss is such a control freak, he is ordering me not to date or otherwise have a relationship with anyone including my wife. He is terminated my contract since I did not leave my wife and divorce her as he ordered. He tells me he needs me to spend 100% of my time with the project with no distractions I silently tell him to piss-off.

  9. I work as an Office Administrator in a small physiotherapy clinic. I schedule patients, prepare the treatment rooms, and do all the Accounts Receivable including insurance billing for the clinic. In order to save money, one of the directors cancelled our laundry service and purchased a washer and drier. I am now expected to do several loads of laundry a day in addition to my other duties. This includes towels, sheets, blankets, pillowcases and examination gowns. This is all expected to be done cheerfully and without additional compensation. What advice do you have for me because I dearly want to tell the director to shove the laundry where the sun don’t shine and that of course would leave me unemployed.

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