Avoid fence painting by assigning homework

One of the more eye-rolling tactics of white collar workers is what I call “fence painting”: an employee somehow gets someone else to do work for them. This can be as simple as coasting off budget, but the more insidious practice is to get other outside your chain of command to do work for you.

Most of us have experienced this: days after The Big Meeting you suddenly think “why am I up at 11am working on this report for Scopentholler? I don’t even work in that division!”

What you, the whitewash encrusted white collar worker want to do here is somehow still seem “up for anything” and fully capable, and yet not end up painting Scopentholler’s fences. I suggest assigning “homework” as the first rung of filters. If someone wants your input, or wants you to somehow get involved in a project, come up with some mini-project they need to do first. Have them write a brief for you, put on a meeting to bring you up to speed, do a report about how the regional sales have been going, or otherwise force them to do some “homework.”

Home work filters and prioritizes

Assigning homework does two things:

  1. It gauges their commitment to getting you involved, filtering out lazy-delegators. If all this person is looking to do is get you to do their work, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll do additional work. Mysteriously, the importance of you being involved in this project will disappear.
  2. If they do the homework, you get more information (one of the major currencies of corporate culture) and you can better gauge if it’s actually worth your time to get involved. If the quality of the “homework” is good, you’re interested in the work, and it aligns with your responsibilities, then you should probably consider the original fence painting task.

I’ve seen assigning homework cut out a huge amount of fence painting work, for me and others I’ve observed doing this. Also, once it’s known that realize you assign homework, people will stop preying on you: “oh, don’t ask Crantouzok to get involved, you’ll just have to make another deck before she lifts a finger!”

Of course, if you’re pure of heart and mind, you can always just be direct and say “that’s low in my priority queue and not really my responsibility.” But, as with all thriving in BigCo tips here, first make sure the BigCo you’re working in is equally pure of heart and mind.

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