Assistants behaving badly, a double-edged sword

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Cathy Harris shows us how to be great, be prudent, and prove our integrity

It’s wonderful that we get all the good stuff; how to improve your email box flows, how to work better with people, how to communicate with purpose, how to be motivated and be stress free, how to, how to, how to…. But every now and again we need a reality check.  Because the reality is that there are way too many assistants who take advantage of various situations, who go beyond what is acceptable, yet expect respect and honor, and sadly contribute to giving our profession a bad name!

Let’s begin with a scenario around Linda Lightfoot. Linda is an Executive Assistant who works for a very high ranking, senior executive of a large financial institution.  She has been there for over 20 years, working for the same executive.  When her executive is out of town …. so is Linda.  She comes into the office on time at about 8am, and then disappears for the day duly returning to her desk a few minutes before her intended close of business.  When the rest of the organization looks for Linda in the absence of her executive, they have to call Linda on her mobile and then wait for her to be back in the office to set up that meeting, forward those contact details, or phone a client back, in order to get things done.

Linda believes that there is nothing wrong with her behavior, nor does she think it is anyone’s business as to her whereabouts while her executive is out of town.  She feels she is contactable on her cell phone, so why is there such a fuss about where she is and what she is doing, after all, she says, her executive knows she is out.

Back in the office however, her peers have to carry the burden of her absence, answering her calls, assisting people arriving at her desk looking for things, finishing off small projects, assisting with tasks which would essentially be Linda’s responsibility. Of course Linda calls her peers to ask for a “favor” to please send this, or please give that, or please call this person, and so on, not once stopping to think about anyone else, except herself.

And of when her executive is in the office, Linda will be sure to be there on time, dutifully running around, looking busy, chatting on the phone, organizing and sorting out his life.  Nothing wrong with this behavior though, that is the way it should be.  But what really has Linda done?

Let’s dissect the scenario:  First and foremost she had successfully branded herself!  The whole organization knows that you will never find Linda at the office when her executive is out of town, which he is regularly, and secondly, Linda takes advantage of her peers, absconds from doing her job with purpose and intent, has the idea that because her executive is a senior executive, she is entitled to do whatever she likes in his absence. Not for one moment does she consider that as a senior executive assistant that she should be setting an example.  Well, she is actually, just not the right one.   By all accounts Linda is a thief.  She “steals” time from her organization.

But Linda is not the only bad apple in the basket, there are others.

Let’s visit Annie Spender.  Now Annie also works for an executive.  She is, by all accounts, a great Assistant. She comes in early, leaves late, is very helpful and of course is very committed to her profession and contributes in every way she can.  Unfortunately Annie has a dark side. Annie loves to impress.  It is very important to her to feel wanted and appreciated, so when her friends come over to the office for lunch, she bills her company.  When gifts need to be purchased for in house events and clients, she always makes sure she over orders so that she can give stuff away to her friends and keep a couple of items for herself.  Annie is not prudent, and believes her executive needs preferential treatment, so she orders him top of the range coffees, the most expensive office equipment, and of course, goes overboard when she needs to arrange lunches for business meetings.

Annie also loves stationery.  I mean really which girl doesn’t!  All at the expense of the company.  Her executive, who is well off, often asks her to put a box of photocopier paper into his car for home use… and of course if he can do it, so can she.  Is this behavior okay? And yet we say we are ethical!

What should we be doing, over and above all the other things expected from us , to ensure we are honest, reliable and ethical?  After all we are constantly branding ourselves, sending out signals that define who we are. Actions which we practice create perceptions, and many times these perceptions are not positive ones.

So here is short list of behaviors from the above scenarios, we can check ourselves against:

  1. Arrive at work on time. If you are late and have not informed your direct line manager that you will be late, you are a thief, stealing time from your organization.
  2. If you are out of the office for longer than 4 hours at a time on personal errands, put in a half days leave, and if you, like Linda, were out of the office the whole day, put in a full days leave.
  3. When purchasing anything for your organization or team, get quotes and purchase only what is needed. Avoid spending money on nice to haves – it’s not your money. Learn to be prudent with your organization’s funds.
  4. Putting in leave 3 months after you have taken it, only because someone reminded you to, says your intention was never to register your leave in the first place!
  5. Being out of the office and leaving your colleagues to cover for you, without their permission, is selfish and unprofessional.
  6. Taking anything home that belongs to the organization, or that was bought with the organization’s money, other than a gift given to you, is theft.
  7. Not being available when your executive is out of the office, brands you as unprofessional and unreliable. You and your executive are a team – when you behave badly, your executive’s reputation is also at risk; people feel your executive accepts your bad behavior, especially if you continually behave badly.

In addition to the above scenarios and to confirm the perception managers have of us, I recently attended a meeting hosted by a group of managers, whose initial aim it was to get an idea of what I perceived the realistic role of the Assistant should be.  You see, the reason for this meeting was because their own Assistants were not performing up to their expectations.

There were a few negative perceptions that arose from this meeting, and I would like to share these with you, not to discourage you, but to give you the opportunity to re-evaluate your personal intent. The points below highlight our behaviors, not necessarily our ability or skills, but it is important to acknowledge that BOTH are important.

She isn’t at her desk.  The managers’ perception is that she is off to chat to other colleagues, visiting the canteen or on “another” smoke break.  Firstly, you should always, always let your manager know where you are off to, whether they are in the office or not.  They need to know that you have to fetch documents for them from another office, or that you are taking their dry cleaning down, or going to the bank, or wherever.  If your manager is not in the office, even more reason for you to be there; you are their back up system, the go to person and the in-office contact. Make yourself available all the time, during working hours.  Email them if you do need to leave the building, when they are not in. If we are meant to be managing our managers, we should be able to manage ourselves, and this includes keeping those communication channels open all the time.

I need someone pro-active, I have to keep repeating myself.  All managers want an Assistant that can deliver, without them having to micro manage every task!  Having a clear view of their diary gives you a head start and can help you prepare for, and anticipate, the events of the day, week or month.  Being proactive means you need to be ahead of your game and anticipate outcomes, events or requirements before your manager asks you.  Being organized and prepared is key.  An example one manager gave, was that he hosted a meeting with some of his staff.  When he got to the meeting room he found they didn’t have facilities to do their presentation.

She consistently makes mistakes!   There are various reasons why we make mistakes; we are trying too hard to complete a task as quickly as possible (working under pressure), we have not asked for clarity of the expectation at the commencement of the task, we assume that what we have done is correct, we have not paid attention, and we are human.  Never be intimidated by a project or task.  Always ask the right questions, reiterate the managers’ request and make sure you have all the boxes crossed (who, what, where, when, why etc.).  Read through your work to ensure you can understand what is being said, don’t do rush jobs – rather go at a slower pace and ensure that you only submit your task once.  Repeating work is counterproductive and wastes time, energy and leaves you feeling worthless, and crying in a pool of self-pity.

Always off sick! There are those of us who take sick leave at a whim, a little cough and we are off work, a runny nose, and we have bronchitis, a headache, and we are dead in the water……. One manager actually had a staff member visit his Assistant’s home to see if she really was ill.  It turned out she wasn’t even at home!  This behavior is not conducive to a healthy working relationship with your manager.  If you don’t feel well, but are well enough to drive to work, you are well enough to be there.  If you want to work for an executive, you need to have the mindset of one!  Success is not for sissies.

Matters of confidentiality: Funny how Assistants believe we should be able to share everything we know amongst each other, that we are a secret group of mystical beings, looking out for each other no matter what, but fail to accept the accountability of our actions when confronted with reality.  One particular manager had a huge issue with the fact that his assistant was sharing information of a confidential nature, to both her peers and his.  This placed him in very bad situation, which made it difficult for him to manage, and it undermined his authority.  Of course, this manager, in his own mind, has now placed ALL assistants into the same mold, which may seem unfair.  His reasoning being, is that they all engaged in the conversation, with not one of them standing up to nip it in the bud.  If you are participating in a conversation of such a nature, you need to cut the conversation short and not allow yourself to be party to it – End of story!

Remember that your behavior is consistently being evaluated by your managers. No matter how much we want to believe that we are great and trying to do the right things all the time, it takes just one of us to mess up, and we all get branded together.  Managers then don’t say “my Assistant behaved like this or that”, but rather will say “these Assistants ……

Go on now, be great, be prudent, prove your integrity and practice what you preach!

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About Author

Cathy Harris

Cathy Harris is an Executive PA at Discovery Invest. Nominated SA National Office Professional of the Year in 2006, she drives various initiatives both locally and internationally. Cathy facilitates training initiatives which include in-house PA workshops, external seminars and workshops. Cathy is part of the 6 woman CSI Initiative known as the Isipho Bursary and encourages inspiring excellence and sharing her passion for her profession of 37 years. She is the author of The Executive Secretary Guide to Creating an Internal Assistant Network, available now on Amazon.

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