I originally encountered the word voluntold while starting a new job. I actually heard it for the first time during my job interview, accompanied by air quotes from the person saying it and pained smiles from the rest of the interview panel. Later on, I heard the term applied to me after being given the task of delivering a presentation. A sense of dread came over me, wondering how is it that I managed to draw the short straw. Now, when I hear the word, I immediately think of some poor sap being forced to scrape old gum off the bottom of desks and cafeteria tables.

Understanding why certain words are problematic

Essentially voluntold is the opposite of volunteering. It refers to when an employee is assigned an unpleasant task without due care and consideration as to whether the employee agrees to the task or not. Generally, bosses are associated with the term but power imbalances can also arise between colleagues even in the absence of a hierarchical structure.  

Distorting how things really are

The use of the word voluntold puts undue attention on the task and the person being given the task. Something as small as being asked to empty a recycling bin can be elevated to ancient lore as an act of pure drudgery. Voluntold seems to invoke an element of coercion and, for employees, a reminder of their lack of autonomy and self-determination.

Monitoring reactions from colleagues

In some cases, the use of voluntold may evoke empathy from others. Employees might recall being in a similar situation and how isolating it felt to be put on the spot. More often, I find that it is followed by derisive laughter, pity, or enjoyment of someone else’s misery. In any event, employers should be attuned to how words like voluntold affect employees’ relationship with management and with each other.

Supporting career development

We are all asked to do tasks at work, some more unpleasant than others. Take the example I mentioned earlier about giving a presentation. Some people despise public speaking (myself included, in most cases) but these opportunities might be helpful with respect to career development and career advancement. Delivering a presentation, positions the speaker as a thought leader, someone who has innovative ideas and can persuade others.

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Building capacity for new roles and responsibilities

Another potential scenario is that an employee is keen to take on a new responsibility but is concerned about speaking up or is being overlooked in favor of someone else who is routinely assigned particular tasks. Some employees would not volunteer to give a presentation but being encouraged to do so can help bolster their skills and confidence in taking on new challenges.

Opting for more empowering language

It’s an easy switch. Why not drop voluntold for less loaded terms such as “asked” or “requested?” Being mindful of the words we use and their negative connotations can help promote more meaningful connections in the workplace.

Reframing the situation for our own benefit

If in the event we are voluntold to do something, it might help to think about ways to leverage the task and expand our opportunities in the future. For example, we could reframe the dreaded presentation as an accomplishment statement on our resume. In a future job interview, we could draw upon our experiences of being asked to do something as a challenge we accepted and how we were able to rise to the occasion. We could create good will in our current role by offering to share the load of our colleague. Lastly, we can put things in perspective. Tasks are just that—they don’t define us nor should they determine our future goals and aspirations.