It’s one of the most difficult and sensitive issues HR pros have to deal with: The boss who treats administrative support staff like they’re personal assistants. Think such behavior went the way of the three-martini lunch? Think again.
When our sister newsletter Administrative Professional Today polled readers, it uncovered the ugly truth—plenty of managers still view support staff more as servants than as dedicated employees.
Next time you have to mediate this potentially ugly workplace conflict, consider the perspectives of admin professionals themselves.
Example: Billy, the president of a growing company, needs help with what he calls “personal stuff”—like handling a problem he has with his water bill. “I don’t have time to wait on the phone for two hours, but I don’t mind paying my assistant to do the same,” he says. The trouble, says Billy, is that his assistant doesn’t believe that it’s her role. “I think assistants who won’t help out with the personal stuff probably already have attitudes that bosses don’t like,” he says. While he never makes his staff clean his office or brew coffee, he does need help with the personal stuff.
Is it wrong for Billy to ask an assistant to handle his water bill? Should a boss’s personal tasks be part of an administrative pro’s duties? Administrative Professional Today readers offered their opinions on what’s fair to expect of an admin. Here’s what they said:
Administrative assistants aren’t personal assistants, and vice versa
“It’s not professional to ask your executive assistant to handle personal issues or vice versa, and it reflects poorly on you as a manager,” says Tori. “It’s no different than someone coming to you to handle an IT problem or to fix the air quality in the building.”
Two hours on hold with the water company is two hours of not doing other deadline-oriented work, all of which needs tackling once you complete the call.
Where the personal and professional blur you generally see a highly compensated assistant, says another admin, Ulla. “The manager's life will frequently interfere with the assistant’s ability to have a life,” she says.
Handling a personal water bill doesn’t help the business, so it shouldn’t be part of an administrative assistant’s job description.
“Unless your assistant is being paid out of your own pocket, you’re being unrealistic to ask him to do those kinds of personal things for you,” says Patty, who has been in the administrative field for nearly 40 years.
“I've been asked to cancel a doctor appointment perhaps, but nothing like what you describe. By the way, I have never minded getting coffee for the boss.”
Ask yourself this, suggests another admin, Mark: “Would you want your boss or the board of directors to know that company money is being spent this way?”
“Of course if you are the owner, then you have the right to make the job requirements almost whatever you want them to be,” he adds. Just make sure you’ve made clear the job description up front.
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Perhaps an ‘old-school’ assistant would be more comfortable with personal tasks
“If you can find someone with the ‘old school of thinking,’ you would probably be better off,” suggests one anonymous admin.
Another anonymous executive assistant, who works for a business owner, agrees. In her view, her job is to make her boss’s job and life easier.
“In the past, I’ve picked up dry cleaning, watched kids at the office in a pinch, taken my boss to the airport, helped with wedding preparations, taken vehicles to the repair shop, and even—gasp—made coffee. By helping free up my boss’s time to grow the business, more opportunities arise.”
Fit is everything, when it comes to a boss-assistant partnership
There’s nothing inherently wrong with having an assistant help with the personal stuff, say many, as long the boss has made the expectation clear up front.
Administrative assistant Paul says that as long as the boss knows that time spent taking the dog to the groomer is keeping him from doing something else at the office, he’s OK with doing some personal tasks.
He also expects to be compensated for the extra workload.
“Perhaps I’m odd, but I also think that it’s my pleasure to get my boss coffee, organize her office, and make sure that the people she is meeting with feel comfortable and welcome in our conference room,” he says.