Sewing your boss’s trousers. Not exactly the kind of daily duty you’d expect today’s high-flying PAs to be doing. But is there anything they can do about it?
In a recent survey, recruitment company Crone Corkill revealed the extent of the problem. Despite executive assistants being hired for their secretarial and organisational abilities, almost half said they have been asked to buy or take care of clothes for their boss – notably laundry, ironing and sewing.
Among the more unusual requests were measuring gym shoes and buying socks for a boss that had forgotten to put on a pair that morning. Clothes aside, PAs pointed to other unexpected tasks they’d been asked to carry out as part of their job, including sharpening pencils, choosing birthday presents and buying mussels for a meeting.
“These certainly aren’t the kind of things you’d expect to see in a PAs job description,” says Crone Corkill. “However, the reality is that some bosses do have strange requests from time to time, especially those that find themselves extremely busy and short on time. We’ve seen the role of the PA develop significantly lately, encompassing a wide range of tasks from event management to creating presentations. It seems that clothes management is just another one to add to the list.”
And, provided it doesn’t happen too often, many PAs don’t seem to mind. “It adds a bit of variety to an office job and sometimes it’s refreshing to get out of the office and do something different,” says PA Nadia Sharift. Her errands have included lunch runs, purchasing presents for partners, buying cosmetics, organising travel vouchers, ordering flowers for loved ones and keeping her boss’s biscuit stash continually topped up.
“My last boss had me do loads of personal shopping – from going to Chanel or Tiffany to buy presents for his wife, to buying clothes for his children,” says PA Liz Spencer. “Once I was even asked to order a shed online as a Christmas present for the boss – and that request came from his wife. I never minded, though. In fact, it would make me smile if he asked as I felt it showed that he trusted me enough to make such purchases successfully.”
Another PA, who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers: “Once when my boss was on holiday in Florida, he emailed me in the UK and asked me to see if I could find a store in Florida that sold foie gras and get it delivered to him.”
Reed PA and Secretarial suspects many PAs feel they should object, but deep down have no desire to. But the company advises: “Don’t let other people tell you it’s a bad thing. Ask yourself if it really bothers you and if it doesn’t, just get on with it.”
Some PAs enjoy supporting their boss in any way they can, both professionally and personally, according to recruitment firm Gordon Yates. A representative there even recalls one assistant whose transvestite boss used to ask her to buy his size-nine stiletto shoes for him. “Our annual SecsLife survey regularly monitors staff satisfaction and the underlying reasons,” the firm says. “Boring work, a poor relationship with the boss, lack of recognition and uncertainty with a job or company are usually the main reasons for dissatisfaction – but rarely is there a mention of being unhappy about running personal errands.”
On the other hand, some PAs do find it demeaning. They feel that being asked to carry out personal errands is a hangover from the days when the common perception of a PA was a cross between a secretary, wife and mother. They want the respect that goes with today’s management assistant role that, in smaller companies, may virtually be the number two in the firm – closely involved in every aspect of the business and standing in for the boss when he or she is away.
Even in larger companies, many of today’s PAs manage a budget and in many cases this is substantial. In the 2009/10 SecsLife survey, one-third of secretaries managed a budget and for half of them it was more than £25,000.
PAs object on other grounds too. One sums up the feeling among many high level secretaries. “I was once asked to buy a birthday card for my boss’s wife. I couldn’t do it – cards are just too personal.”
Part of the job
Also determining whether PAs take offence or not is the number of requests. An occasional request may be fine; treating a PA like a surrogate partner is not. It’s significant whether it was made clear at the outset that personal tasks would be a requirement of the job. If it was, the PA doesn’t really have a leg to stand on, even if he or she does mind.
In fact, such is the divide between PAs who do and don’t mind about personal requests that it’s become increasingly acceptable to ask about ad hoc duties at the recruitment stage. If you’re not satisfied the answer is clear enough, you may want to ask why the last PA left – that alone may provide a clue. PAs looking for a purely corporate role may even do well to seek out extremely senior professionals who have separate PAs – one for personal tasks and one for corporate work.
Be warned, however – some recruitment agencies don’t look favourably on those who object too strongly. At Joslin Rowe’s secretarial department, there’s a belief that PAs should undertake a portion of personal work on behalf of their boss and be happy to do it. “The bosses they are looking after are incredibly busy and sometimes personal jobs go hand in hand with work related ones,” says a spokesperson.
In any case, Joslin Rowe points out that personal tasks are often far from mundane. “We had a PA who was once asked to let her boss know that the family horse had scratched the Ferrari as his wife and daughter were too scared to tell him themselves. Another PA was asked to charter a private jet and check through the plane before the boss got on.”
Hays PA & Secretarial agrees. “We secured a PA role working for a high net-worth family. This job includes dealing with personal work such as booking private jets and yachts or liaising with household staff.” But the company believes such tasks don’t mean PAs aren’t recognised for being high-level professionals. One spokesperson says: “I’ve known PAs to chair board meetings in their manager’s absence, write business plans and make corporate decisions.”
In any job, you’ll have to do things outside your job description, points out recruitment agency SecsintheCity. “This is particularly true of a personal assistant role, which – as the job title itself suggests – frequently requires a combination of professional and personal duties.”
That said, a representative does recall a PA who had to buy her boss’s dinner every single night and another who had to source toupée tape for her manager. “If you’re really not happy with the extent or nature of things you’re being asked to do on the personal side, arrange a time to talk to your boss and ask them to clarify the limits of your role,” SecsintheCity suggests. “If you feel that a task lies too far outside your job remit, suggest an alternative solution. So, for example, if your boss wants you to do their food shopping, instead suggest shopping online and getting a home delivery. It’s all about problem-solving and finding alternative suppliers to help out both you and your boss.”