Tasks, Tasks – and Non-Promotable Tasks

by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart

Anyone reading this article has done work that wasn’t promotable. Maybe it was handling a low-revenue client or spending another day dealing with that one customer who can’t be satisfied. Or staying late one night to reformat the very unprofessional-looking budget spreadsheet created by a co-worker. Or perhaps it was being “voluntold” to organize a fund-raising event. We consider all these tasks “non-promotable” because while they help the organization, they don’t benefit the person who does them. Fixing someone else’s errors or solving problems between co-workers won’t get someone a raise or promotion, even though those tasks need to be done. 

How to Identify “Non-Promotable Tasks” (NPTs) 

Non-promotable tasks have several common characteristics.

  • They are not directly tied to the mission and business objectives of the organization. A for-profit company focuses on revenue-generation, so tasks that support that goal will tend to be promotable—they directly relate to the company’s prime objectives. A real estate agent’s time is best spent selling property—that’s directly tied to business goals. Archiving property photos from the website isn’t, and so that effort is non-promotable. 
  • They are invisible. Doing work behind the scenes won’t help a person advance because no one knows that person did it. If someone rewrites the presentation that a co-worker gives, the co-worker gets the credit, not the person who polished it—because no one knows the time and effort that person invested. When a person’s talents go unseen, that person will not progress.
  • Anyone can do them. Generally, people are hired because they bring a specialized set of skills to their job. Maybe it’s a legal education, a creative talent or technical training; those skills set the employee apart from others. Someone taking notes at a meeting isn’t offering ideas (instead, being too busy capturing everyone else’s) and that person’s knowledge isn’t being tapped. Anyone can take notes so that task won’t help an employee move forward.

Evaluate tasks by considering: Is the request closely tied to the organization’s mission? Is it visible? Does it use my specialized skills? The more no’s, the more likely it is that the task is non-promotable. And, while employees will be expected to do some NPTs, it’s not good for any individual to do too many. Identifying the type of requests received is the first step toward ensuring a balanced portfolio of work. 

How Significant/Insignificant Are the Tasks to Business Operations?

NPTs vary in their impact on business operations. Office housework, like making coffee or watering the plants, are NPTs that need to be done but have little or no effect on the bottom-line. However, many tasks are critical to business operations, but are not promotable because their impact is difficult to track and measure, like activities that improve an organization’s culture, which result in more satisfied and productive employees. A recent study of more than 400 organizations by McKinsey and LeanIn found that 87% of organizations say tasks that support employee well-being are important to the company, but only 25% of them formally recognize that work. DEI initiatives are another example of work that is meaningful, but not rewarded. When companies equalize the distribution of NPTs and reward work that significantly, but indirectly, advances the mission and business objectives of the organization, they should see improvement in the bottom-line that results from enhanced productivity, job satisfaction and company culture. 

What Job Positions Are They Typically Rolled Into? Or Is It More Random?

NPTs vary by occupation and rank. There are non-promotable assignments in every industry, organization and job —consultants, TSA agents, engineers, bartenders, nurses, you name it, all have tasks that aren’t formally recognized. From CEO to receptionist, there is work that demands attention but doesn’t move a person’s career forward — for example, resolving conflicts among co-workers, improving processes or helping other people with their work. 

While everyone battles non-promotable work it is particularly detrimental to junior recruits because an excessive load prevents them from demonstrating their skills and potential and can lead to career stagnation. There’s a caution for more experienced employees as well, who may also see careers derailed if they become the go-to person for issues that no one else wants to handle.

NPT’s Slant Heavily toward Women – Fact or Illusion?

NPTs are found in all jobs,  we find in every job and rank that women do NPTs far more often than men do — not because they inherently like them more or are better at them, but because of our common expectation that women will take on this work. In one study, we found that women are almost 50% more likely to be asked to do non-promotable tasks than men and are 50% more likely to say yes when they are asked. Men, who are not burdened with these tasks, are free to focus on the promotable work and their careers move forward while their female colleagues’ careers lag. Better balancing the distribution of these tasks between men and women creates a more level playing field and allows organizations to best utilize their talent pool.

Safe to Say “No” to an NPT?

There can be negative consequences for saying no to an NPT, and they may be particularly large for women. Because we all expect women to take on NPTs, we may not be prepared to hear them decline one. What should a woman do when asked to do an NPT? Here are some options: 

  • Analyze the request. We started a “No Club” to help each other evaluate how we spent our time at work. It was invaluable in helping us learn and set boundaries. Having each other’s perspective and advice ensured we didn’t fall into traps for saying yes—like wanting to be liked or fearing that people would think we weren’t a team player. It helps individuals to bounce requests and ideas off colleagues—or mentors—whose opinions they value.
  • Make a business case. Most people (probably even the boss) don’t know all the tasks on an employee’s plate. If asked, for instance, to organize the charity auction, a response might be to suggest that “I am spending most of my time developing our new marketing campaign and so I don’t have the time needed to make the auction the success it should be. But I know Jim just finished a big project and he’d do a great job.”
  • Propose a fair solution. Anyone can do this, not just the person being asked. When Yolanda is asked to take notes at the meeting, someone else should suggest, “I’ve got an idea. Yolanda took notes last week. Let’s put this on rotation—I’ll go today and I’ll pass around a sign-up sheet for the rest of you to add your names.” For tasks that anyone can do, turn-taking or random drawing are fine solutions, and they are so obviously fair that it is hard to object. No individual is overburdened and the work still gets done.
  • Offer an alternative. Suggest the task be split in half or altered in some way to make it more desirable. Or trade a current NPT for this one. It may be possible to get resources or help to complete the task (the charity auction will go more smoothly with a team organizing it). 

Ultimately, the organization will need to take responsibility for addressing how it distributes NPTs. Together with colleagues throughout every level of the organization, anyone can be an agent of that change. It is in the organization’s interest to improve the allocation of work, and this places it at the forefront of addressing this important issue of gender equity.  

Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart are the authors of The No Club – Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, in which they recount a decade’s worth of personal experience and pathbreaking research examining non-promotable tasks (NPTs), otherwise known as unrewarded responsibilities, like onboarding, scheduling and note-taking.

Linda Babcock is a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It. A behavioral economist, she is the founder and director of PROGRESS, which pursues positive social change for women and girls through education, partnerships and research. Babcock’s media appearances include Good Morning America, ABC’s World News Tonight, TheNew York Times, TheWashington Post, TheWall Street Journal, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, USA TODAY and more.

Brenda Peyser has held leadership positions in the corporate world and academia for more than 30 years. Most recently, she was a professor of communications at Carnegie Mellon, where she also served as associate dean of the School of Public Policy and Management and was the founding executive director of Carnegie Mellon University Australia.

Lise Vesterlund is a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory. She founded and directs the Behavioral Economic Design Initiative. Published in leading economic journals, her research has been covered by NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Chicago Tribune and Forbes.

Laurie R. Weingart is a management professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She has served as CMU’s interim provost and chief academic officer and as a senior associate dean and director of the Accelerate Leadership Center. Her award-winning research has been covered by The New York Timesand Business Insider, and published in top management and psychology journals.

Did You Know: Women are not only 48% more likely to volunteer for NPTs but are disproportionately assigned these tasks. Results from a professional services firm showed that women spent 200 more hours per year on non-promotable tasks than their male colleagues.


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