Rule# 3: On a Personal Level, never ask a subordinate to do anything you wouldn’t ask of a peer or boss

In the past, most managers above a certain level had a secretary who performed a variety of tasks such as typing, taking dictation, controlling access and calendar, making travel arrangements, and a variety of other mundane tasks that improved the efficiency of the manager. In the best of situations the boss and secretary became a seamless team often anticipating each other’s needs and generally performing as a symbiotic relationship. The advent of personal computers has eliminated (for the most part) the use of secretaries but often managers are assigned a staff position/assistant who provides considerable support to the manager and while the tasks are very different, the relationship can very much parallel that of the traditional boss-secretary.

The greatest problem with this type of relationship is the potential abuse by the boss. There are a number of humorous and distasteful true stories I could share but probably the two that make my point best are as follows: 1) A secretary was ordered by her boss to go outside and feel the wetness of the grass to assist him in determining what pair of golf shoes he would wear later in the day. 2) A boss ordered his executive assistant to make airline reservations for his two college age children to fly them back from school at Christmas.

The problem with his type of behavior is that it demeans the value of the subordinate and generally gives rise to suppressed anger, which will eventually be released –often at a cost to both participants. Unchecked, managers will continue to denigrate subordinates in this way at great cost to the organization. Managers need to be sensitive to the daily interchange with subordinates to differentiate between necessary and legitimate use of their authority (control of operations) versus illegitimate use of power (fetch me a coffee). Managers can send a clear signal of their intentions by simply accepting an equal responsibility in the numerous mundane shared office activities such as making coffee and filling the water dispenser. Finally, before asking an employee to perform a task of a personal nature, ask yourself if you would be willing to ask your boss to do the same task. If the answer is no, ask yourself why. The rule applies to all boss subordinate relationships not simply those with a staff assistant. Staff assistant/secretaries are simply the most likely candidates for this type of behavior by a boss.

Photo Attributed to Flickr user “Townend Photography” according to Creative Commons License.

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Ana Stella Troncoso

What is this – 1950? With the premiere of Mad Men’s second season tonight, I know that some people will be wishing for those halcyon days, but if this stuff is still going on in offices (federal, especially) the secretaries/technicians/clerks (we have many titles now, but the jobs are remarkably similar) need to take the responsibility for their own lives and professional situations, and put an end to it. Managers will often try to take advantage of their subordinates, and that’s wrong, no question. However, secretaries know what is right and what isn’t, and they are protected (in theory). Secretaries and assistants can send clear signals themselves, using firm, polite language, laughter, and/or gentle teasing to identify when a request has crossed the line. The bottom line is: if it’s not your job, you shouldn’t do it – it sets a bad precedent.

Also, contrary to the point made in the first paragraph of this post, secretaries and administrative technicians still make up a hefty portion of government employees. Far from having our positions eliminated, we have had the responsibilities evolve with the changing technology.

Colleen Ayers

I’d be interested in seeing a discussion of this principle applied to government interns. There are far too many stories still out there about interns being asked to do crazy things like pick up a supervisor’s dry-cleaning. With government (particularly where I am in the DC area) so heavily reliant on interns for various tasks, it’s important for an office to have a very clear policy on what is and is not expected of their interns, who are generally doing their work for little or no pay and will carry their experience back to their peers.

Peter Sperry

I understand the sentiment here but would point out two major exceptions. First, the subordinate is often much better at the “mundane” task then the boss or a peer. A good assistant will have those two college age kids ticketed on the most convenient flights in about 1/8th the time it would take the boss, simply because that is what they do and they are good at their jobs. Second, like it or not, executive time is more valueble than assistant time. I’ve worked for some who consistently had productive meetings or tasks scheduled for 15 minute intervals from 8:30 am to 7:00 pm. I really did not object to fetching them a cup of coffee, bringing an extra meal back from lunch or occasionaly picking up their laundry if it was on my way to the office.