A reader writes:
I’m a departmental assistant at my current job and have been here almost 2-1/2 years. I like my job but in January, my old boss was let go and a new boss started. Our company is set up in a way that there is usually a director or VP, manager, and an assistant in each department (sales, marketing, planning etc.). So essentially, the department assistant helps with the adminstrative work functions for that department. My old boss was a manager, but they replaced her with someone at the Director level, and she seems to think that I am her own personal assistant.
She’s very demeaning and always telling me to do personal, non-work related tasks for her. I have to pick up her coffee, order her lunch, run out and get her frozen yogurt, schedule her hair salon appointments, and even go and pick up cupcakes for her kid’s birthday party, all while staying on top of my own department work. None of the other assistants have to do any of this, and I didn’t have to do it in the past. The worst part is that my boss never asks (she leaves stickies on my desk or sends emails) or says thank you for doing any of this. She just assumes because I am her assistant that I have to do it. Her notes and emails generally are the “have this done by this time….” or “I need you to do this before….” variety. In the past, I’ve taken the “this isn’t a priority” approach with her, and she always says something like do it when I get a chance, but sends follow up emails/texts and calls until it’s done.
Last week, I flat-out refused to call and work out an issue with the airline for her family vacation. I responded to email (which came 10 minutes before closing) that I was finishing up a project and that I needed to get out on time because I had something scheduled after work. She’s on vacation now but scheduled to return on Monday. Now I’m nervous because I don’t know if I handled this the right way. I’m thinking about going to HR, but I don’t want to seem like a whiny, complaining employee. I don’t mind doing my job and I probably wouldn’t mind helping her out with non-work related issues if it wasn’t on a consistent basis. Please help.
You need to start by talking to your boss, but if you’re not comfortable doing that, you should talk to HR.
Ideally, though, you’d talk to your boss first — because if you skip her and go straight to HR, she’s rightly going to feel like you should have let her have the chance to hear and address your concerns first.
Sit down with your boss and say something like this: “I wanted to talk with you about my work. I’ve noticed that you’ve been giving me a lot of personal-assistant type tasks, like getting cupcakes for your daughter’s birthday or picking up your lunch. In the past, this type of work wasn’t part of my job. I know, of course, that there are assistants where that is the job — but it hasn’t been part of mine or the other assistants here, and I didn’t know if you realized that. I’m willing to do something like that on occasion when you’re in a bind, but I’d rather stay focused on the work I was hired to do.”
Best case scenario, she’s mortified, says she didn’t realize that wasn’t part of the job, and stops assigning you personal tasks. (This is really a possible outcome. There are organizations where personal assistance like this is part of the job, and she might have come from one.)
However, if she pushes back or doesn’t stop assigning you personal work, then you do need to go to HR as a next step.
Going to HR isn’t so much about “reporting” her; it’s about getting clarity about whether this is okay for her to do or not. You’d be asking them to help you figure out if this is appropriate or not. (Be sure to give specific examples — like the cupcake one, which is ridiculous — and explain that even when you’ve told her it would interfere with your work, you’ve been directed to do it anyway. And you should also be clear that she hasn’t been asking you to do this stuff as an occasional favor, but rather ordering you to do it regularly.)
It’s possible that HR will tell you that this is actually okay for her to do. And if that’s the case, you have to decide if you want the job or not. But there’s a stronger chance that HR is going to step in and put at stop to it. If that happens, you should also talk to HR about the fact that you’re concerned that speaking with them will cause tension in your relationship with her, and ask them for their help in mitigating that. (A good HR department will make it clear to her that there can’t be any repercussions to you for speaking with them, but you might need to ask for it.)
In sum: Speak up, be straightforward, and seek clarity from above if necessary.