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.