should an admin show people how to do clerical tasks themselves?

A reader writes:

As an administrative assistant, my job is to do things for other people. I completely get that, and I have not been an admin for over fifteen years by not getting that. That said, I pride myself in being very polite and helpful.

Sometimes, people will come to me with tasks or with a question on how something is done. I do the task for them, and I also tend to offer to show them how to do it themselves (if it’s something really easy,) so that in the future–if I’m not here one day, or if they decide it’s more efficient to just do it themselves really quickly–they can do it themselves.

I will reiterate: I do complete the task they ask for, with the addition of offering to show them how.

Twice in a row now, this has been held against me on my reviews! (My workplace is really toxic anyway, but this is about this one issue, because if offering to show someone how to do something is wrong, I really want to know, so I don’t screw up when I get a good job!)

Is it a bad thing for an admin to teach his/her staff how to do things, along with doing these things for them?

Here’s what’s going on:  When you offer to show them how to do it themselves, they think you’re hinting that they should do it themselves in the future. And then they’re feeling resentful that you’re making them feel guilty for asking you to do something that they’re entitled to ask you to do. Which, of course, is not your intent at all, but that’s how it’s playing out on their side.

There might be a way to avoid this. You could try being really, really clear that you’re not hinting that they should really learn how to handle this themselves. Instead of just saying, “Let me know if you ever want me to show you how to do this,” say something like this:  “I’m glad to do this for you whenever you need it. But if you ever want me to show you how, just let me know!  But if not, don’t be hesitant about continuing to ask me for it. I like doing this stuff.”  (You must say this very cheerfully and sincerely. Otherwise it’ll sound passive-aggressive, like you don’t really mean it.)

But if your workplace is full of people who won’t take this at face value, then yeah, I’d just stop offering. Or only offer it to people who you know will appreciate it. But keep it mind that it’s genuinely hard for a lot of people to say, “No, that’s okay, I prefer for you to keep changing the toner in my printer” or whatever the task is, without feeling like a prima donna. So it’s worth being sensitive to that.

You sound awesome, by the way.

{ 99 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Why bother teaching people that are reluctant to learn?
    Not sharing knowledge with these people translates into job security for you.

    1. anony-mouse*

      There are over 70 posts and replies here. Why am I the first to say that the admin should not show people how to do HER job?
      She has a job, it’s to support the staff. They dont want to do her job. She should be happy to have a job. Nuf said.

      1. Fox in the Forest*

        She’s not “showing people how to do her job” – she’s offering to help people understand how to do tasks in the event that she isn’t there to help them, or in case they’d prefer to do them on their own. Personally, if I can perform a task myself, I’d rather to do that than ask someone else – even if the someone is an admin whose job it is to help me. In many cases, I find it easier to do something simple myself rather than having to take the time to explain it to someone else and wait for them to get around to it.

  2. Marie*

    I have been this administrative assistant! What I did was spend some time writing up instructions for many of the things I was doing — I’ve rarely ever been in a workplace that had good, thorough, up-to-date instructions on how to complete tasks, so this is something that can really benefit a company in the long-run.

    Then, whenever I’ve gotten a good chunk of instructions written up, I put the files in a shared space and send an email to people saying, “I made instructions on these tasks I frequently perform, for future reference. Let me know if you see any corrections to be made!” I might, if I feel it’s appropriate, ask my supervisor to go over the instructions at some point to make sure we’re both on the same page about my duties, but otherwise, I don’t bring it up again.

    Then, the people who would like to learn how to do this task by themselves will look at the instructions, or ask me to explain the instructions, or ask me again where I stored them. The people who just want me to do the task will continue to just ask me to do the task. And I have the bonus of knowing that whoever comes after me in this position will have some detailed notes to assist them, instead of getting the “I’m not sure how so-and-so used to do this, I never asked” treatment during training.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, totally. We find an evolving print manual to be really useful in the same way–it’s particularly helpful since we have a lot of inherent turnover. And then all the OP has to say is “If you ever need to do this when I’m not here, look online/in this book.” I suspect also that the people who are actually keen to know how to do a task would be the most open about asking you without invitation anyway, so that losing the open invitation to teach them isn’t going to hurt them.

      I can actually understand the confusion, though, because that really is also what I’d say in a situation where I’m doing something that’s actually the other person’s job. I’m sorry that ended up hurting the OP, however; because it’s perfectly legitimate to offer to teach people things.

      1. jmkenrick*

        Yeah, I feel the same way. What the OP is saying to these people is exactly what I’d say to someone to gently hint that they shouldn’t be asking me to to __________, they should do it themselves.

        I think the suggestion of a manual is a great idea, especially if the OP is ever unexpectedly out of the office, or so backed up that people prefer do the tasks themselves rather than wait

  3. Oxy*

    Ah but does the OP actually say “here’s how you do this in case I’m not here?” In fairness, I’m sure she does, but perhaps she works in a very hierarchical type of company where people don’t think it is their job to do the admin tasks that they would normally delegate to her. I agree with that it is probably a perception issue, even if the offer was genuinely meant well.

  4. Wilton Businessman*

    The people that don’t want to know, don’t want to know. You’ve been told twice in your annual review not to offer how to do it, but just do it. I think it’s pretty clear in your environment, they want you to do it. Maybe it’s a division of labor thing, maybe it’s a power thing, or maybe it’s even a delegation thing.

    That being said, I’m a firm believer that no job is too small for the top guy. It might not be the best use of his time, but I really admire a leader who steps in to do “the small stuff” when the small stuff needs doing.

    1. Under Stand*

      I agree. The boss SHOULD be able to do every task. Maybe not be the quickest at the task, but should have a thorough understanding of what is being done to be able to do it.

      But since the atmosphere at the current company is “do not offer” then do not offer. At the new job, ask your supervisor if she or he would think people would take offense to your offering to show them how to do the easy tasks so that they would be able to do them if they so choose.

      1. fposte*

        I think that’s going to depend on the organization, though. I used to be able to do that, and I’ve had to let it go as we’ve broadened out and also updated procedures repeatedly, so even stuff I did know how to do can’t be done the way I know any more. It was hard to let go of, but I think it can actually be a sign of health in an organization that it’s achieving too much for one person to be able to do all of its tasks. (Or so I tell myself.)

      2. The_OP*

        I do not offer any more.

        This is just something I was wondering about, because I was concerned I was actually committing an ettiquette “no-no.” Unfortuantely, I have been with this company for a long time, so I don’t know what “normal” is supposed to look like in the working world.

        I mean, I know what I think it SHOULD look like, but I want to get it right when I DO change jobs!

        1. Nobody*

          I think this is something that depends on the organization and the specific task at hand. In the case of your current organization, you should definitely stop offering. In the case of future jobs, you should just be careful about how you phrase things (I like Marie’s suggestion above). In general, I think its reasonable to make sure the staff know how to do some basic administrative functions and I don’t think this was a complete “etiquette no-no.”

          I’ve definitely seen some senior (and not so senior) level staff ask the admin (or intern) to do things they really should be doing themselves (attaching a single document to an email, copying an pasting a graph into a PowerPoint from excel…). Sometimes this is because the senior staff doesn’t know how to do some basic task and is (a) to embarrassed to admit they don’t know or (b) thinks the task is much more difficult/time consuming than it actually is. Or they may or may not know how to do the task and (c) thinks it’s beneath them or (d) think that it is something that should be done by the admin and would be a better use of your time than theirs (e.g. Better for the admin to update the database than the CEO). In the case of (a) or (b) showing them might be received well. Not so much in the case of (c) or (d).

          It is in the organizations best interest that other people know how to do some of your tasks. What happens if you get kidnapped by gypsies one day and never return? But if they don’t want to know, don’t keep trying to tell them.

          1. Anonymous*

            Better for the admin to update the database than the CEO

            Well, that’s because the CEO is sure to find some way of triggering a DROP * command.

            1. fposte*

              Which is actually an amusingly horrific example of a legitimate point–the person who doesn’t often operate the equipment or the software may well break it. Sometimes you’re doing the specialist a favor to wait until their return rather than leaving them with a mess to clean up.

      3. jmkenrick*

        Mmm, this confuses me. What about the Chief of Staff at a hospital? Are you saying they should be trained as an x-ray technician, as a nurse, as a janitor, as a lawyer, as a counselor, as an IT person, ect. ect? Given the size of many organizations, I’m just not sure the bosses can be expected to know how to complete all the work.

        That said, I agree that a good boss will have an understanding of how much work their staff is undertaking (you don’t have to be an engineer to communicate with them about their workload). But this is different than being able to do every task.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Agreed. In most organizations, it’s not feasible to know how to do everything yourself, nor is it a good use of a CEO’s skills to cross-train in everything. What’s important is that the CEO has a good sense of what’s reasonable and attainable to expect, and how to tell if someone is performing well or not well, and that she know how to hire awesome people who do know how to do those things.

          1. The_OP*

            These are just middle management types and other coworkers who need help with things like a Fed Ex label or sending a fax or changing a toner cartridge. Simple, innocent things that any person can do. The asking was just a courtesy.

            When it comes to my other work tasks, I know what is mine and what is not.

            The CEO and other upper management types at this company live and move in a completely different sphere from the average worker. LOL! Supporting them is a very different kind of job.

        2. Under Stand*

          The chief of staff should be able to do the work of those under him or her. In other words, if the doctor under him can look at a patient and say “this guy needs some tests” and know where to send them, I would hope that the chief would know how to do it also. If the admin assistant knows how to fill out the form for a possible malpractice claim that she (the chief) will have to sign in the event that the hospital gets sued, then the chief ought to know what needs to be put on the form and be able to say “I need to look to this department to ask for this information”. I am not saying that the boss should know what brand wax is currently being used to wax the floor.

          Although it would be nice if he actually straightened up the bathroom on occasion. :)

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            The chief of staff’s job is to manage the hospital. It’s not to evaluate patients.

            As a former chief of staff myself (not of a hospital), I can tell you that there’s no way that I could have been good at my job AND have known all about lobbying, policy analysis, , events planning, fundraising, I.T., database work, media outreach, and all the other functions of the organization. That’s what you hire a staff for. I’d actually be very suspicious of a manager who claimed to know all those functions. I.T. is probably the best example of this principle — I know nothing about I.T. But I know how to tell if the I.T. team is producing what the organization needs or not, and I know how to work with the head of I.T. to set goals and ensure we meet them.

            What a good manager does is know enough to be able to judge whether the right goals are being set, whether those goals are being met, whether the team in question is meeting the org’s cultural standards, to probe for potential problems, to offer resources the team may need, and to have a working BS detector.

            I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a COO or CEO of a large organization who would say otherwise. (Small orgs, maybe.)

            1. Under Stand*

              So you are actually saying that those people who reported to you that you did not know what there job entailed and at least have a basic grasp how to do it: i.e. if you had the head of IT reporting to you, that you did not know what reports they would expect to be seeing (such as how many hours employees spent on AAM instead of working), or have a clue of which part of the department they would call if they had smoke coming out of their monitor? WOW!!!! I have a rule, I don’t sign something that I do not understand where it came from. Of course in my case it would be technically illegal for me to do otherwise.

              1. Ask a Manager*

                I expect my staff to meet the goals we mutually agree upon that they will meet. I hire people capable of doing that (or address it if they aren’t). I suggest you educate yourself more about management if you really think that a manager needs to know how to do every job she oversees! That’s extremely inefficient.

                Obviously no one should sign something they don’t understand, but that’s a different issue.

            2. Jamie*

              “I.T. is probably the best example of this principle — I know nothing about I.T. But I know how to tell if the I.T. team is producing what the organization needs or not, and I know how to work with the head of I.T. to set goals and ensure we meet them.”

              And THAT is how a non-technical manager properly deals with IT.

              Some skills aren’t cross-trainable – higher level IT falls into this category. But good communication and clear goals is essential.

              I’m the head of IT. When I have a meeting with the COO and the head of engineering it’s all about communicating goals and being clear about what is and isn’t possible and realistic time frames. We’re paid to have specialized knowledge that you can’t cross train – it’s all about a cooperative effort toward the common goals.

          2. jmkenrick*

            By this logic, in order to manage a hospital, you need to have a nursing degree, an MD, a law degree, a psych degree, education in finance and computing, not to mention complex medical equipment. I fail to see how that’s even remotely feasible.

          3. jmkenrick*

            I also don’t understand how this would work in terms of licensing. One of the reasons I picked a hospital as my example is because it’s an organization that not only requires lots of experts, but it requires lots of licenses (you can’t just practice medicine, or psychology, or law, you need a state license to do so.)

            I think there must be a disconnect between what you’re saying & how we’re hearing you, Under Stand, because I’m sure you’d agree that it’s unreasonable to expect a manager to have all those licenses to practice. However, it is reasonable to expect a manager to keep in active contact with his employees about their workload and what their goals are.

            1. Under Stand*

              There is obviously a disconnect. Because I am a licensed individual. And part of my license says that I cannot certify that the work done by my subordinates was mine unless I had a hand in it. I have to know how their equipment works. I have to know how the software works to process what I am asking them for. I do not have to decide that Jimmy will run the equipment today instead of Bob. But if Tommy, Jimmmy and Bobs supervisor, says that Jimmy says he did something, I have to know what it is that he said he did so that if he did the wrong thing, I will know to put the brakes on BEFORE my name goes on the dotted line.

              1. jmkenrick*

                That’s totally fair, but you’ll agree that’s not feasible for all professions. Legally, I’m quite certain there is no requirement that the chief of hospital hold all the licenses that those employees who report to him do. It sounds like you work in a specialized field – I don’t think the rules you’re describing can be magnified to describe all work situations.

                Additionally, I’m sure that Alison (or any other boss) is not certifying that the work done by their subordinates is theirs. I can’t see that being necessary in the vast majority of professions.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Exactly, jmkenrick. It might be the case in Under Stood’s situation, but it certainly can’t be extrapolated to apply in the majority of situations.

              3. J.B.*

                I would make a distinction between project management and office management though (note that my terminology is office manager = boss of the office, not the admin manager.) A project manager should know what goes into the work and the tasks his folks are working on, ESPECIALLY if he is sealing. I would not expect the office manager to understand all the details of all projects esp. if its an office that does things like land development, traffic, stormwater, etc. And he should not be sealing in that case.

        3. Julie*

          While I’m not a manager, I’d say that a boss should be able to do any of the routine tasks his or her direct reports do. So the Chief of Staff at a hospital wouldn’t need to know how to work the x-ray machine or draw blood, but she should be able to fill out the reports that the department managers do on a regular basis, who they liaise with outside the hospital, etc.

          At least, that’s how I see it.

          1. Julie*

            And this is what I get for not refreshing the page after I’d cached it for a few days. SO MANY MORE replies, including ones saying what I just said. Whoops!

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think it depends entirely on the industry. For instance, a COO might be managing direct reports as diverse as a lobbyist, fundraiser, event planner, IT director, media director, and graphic designer. That person is not going to be all their jobs, nor do they need to.

            I managed a graphic designer for years. I sure as hell can’t do graphic design; that’s why I hired someone who could.

    2. KellyK*

      That being said, I’m a firm believer that no job is too small for the top guy. It might not be the best use of his time, but I really admire a leader who steps in to do “the small stuff” when the small stuff needs doing.

      I completely agree with this. I have much more respect for leaders who don’t feel like they’re “above” making coffee or moving furniture.

  5. The_OP*

    Allison, thank you for saying I sound awesome! That is something that I have only very rarely heard–and never from supervisors–in my entire time at this (bizarre and dysfunctional) place. I’d really been questioning whether I am, in fact, any good. (That may be why I’m having trouble getting work.)

    Anyhow, to answer a couple of people: Yes. I always let them know it is an offer, and I always state that it is in case I’m not around one day when they need this task completed. I always make it very clear that I’m not trying to avoid doing anything, but instead trying to make sure people are covered if I am, in fact, not here and none of the other admins are available.

    To clarify to Wilton Businessman: I have not been told not to do it in my reviews. It’s been stated as a complaint. Passive-aggressive. They to go my supervisors behind my back and complain that I’m offering to do this. If I had been told, “Don’t do that any more,” I would have stopped doing it. Unfortunately, direct and constructive communication appears to be alien to the people for whom I work, and I am also very much in a lose-lose-lose (darned if you do/darned if you don’t) relationship with these people.

    In this same, messed up review, I was also told that I was very, very polite, yet at the same time “seems hesitant to do the work that people bring me.” How does that work?

    1. Under Stand*

      They may not have said it directly “do not do this”, however by listing it two years in a row as a complaint about your work, they are saying “do not do this” and the question is: “Are you listening?” Sure they are doing a poor job of managing, holding on to it until review and hinting that you need to stop, but that is their M.O. and you need to pay attention to the flashing sign they are putting in front of you.

      1. The_OP*

        (OOOPS! Didn’t mean to put this in two places! This response was meant for THIS comment.)

        I do not offer any more.

        This is just something I was wondering about, because I was concerned I was actually committing an ettiquette “no-no.” Unfortuantely, I have been with this company for a long time, so I don’t know what “normal” is supposed to look like in the working world.

        I mean, I know what I think it SHOULD look like, but I want to get it right when I DO change jobs!

        1. fposte*

          But I think Under Stand is making another valid point about you being perceived, however unfairly, as not listening to a correction you received during a review. If you’re interested in staying with this organization, it might be worth meeting with your supervisor to 1) note that you’ve taken steps to address the problem and 2) ask if there are other specifics that you could change (I can’t tell if you identified this example yourself or not, but it may be that it’s not the only one). People aren’t necessarily going to notice that you’ve changed this very small thing, they’re even less likely to report to your supervisor that you have, and you also might want to forestall complaints from the odd person who might irrationally feel snubbed that you’re no longer volunteering to teach people.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree that if it’s mentioned in your reviews, the message is “stop doing this” — even if they don’t directly word it that way. I wouldn’t even necessarily say it’s passive-aggressive, actually; mentioning something in a negative framework in a review pretty much means “this is something you should work on not doing.” So I’m going to let them off the hook on that (but not on the fact that you should never hear about something for the first time in a review).

      About this: In this same, messed up review, I was also told that I was very, very polite, yet at the same time “seems hesitant to do the work that people bring me.” How does that work?

      I don’t know for sure what this is about, but the first thing that came to mind is this: I’ve worked with people who were both polite and hesitant-seeming. Someone brings them a project or task, and they’d say something like, “Ummm…. oh, okay” in a hesitant, unsure-sounding way. As opposed to, “Sure! I’ll let you know when it’s done” or something else that conveys “yes, I’m all over this.” So it might be something like that, where you don’t even realize that your outward response is creating an impression that you don’t at all intend. Just one possibility!

      1. The_OP*

        Thanks. By “passive-aggressive” I simply meant exactly what you touched on–I never know there’s a problem with anything I do until review time. I find it passive-aggressive to go to someone else, rather than to say something to me directly.

        The “hesitant to do work” is weird, because I’m not. I’m usually clear with people as to what is on my plate and what my available time is, what information I need to complete the task, etc.

        1. Natalie*

          I work with a couple of people who are so used to indirect communication that they don’t know what to do with direct communication – they hear unspoken things I’m not trying to say. If I ask them to make a small change to a particular procedure they start apologizing for having done it the other way. (And I am not their manager.)

          So many people use the phrase “if you ever want me to show you how…” to mean “I don’t think I should be doing this for you” that your audience may be assuming the same thing about you. Similarly, they may be interpreting you giving them your availability as “I don’t really want to do this, here’s how busy I am.”

          Unfortunately I have not found a good way to deal with this if the people misinterpreting your words don’t say anything to you except for changing how you phrase things.

  6. Sbvrsv secretary*

    As an admin, I’d never show someone how to do something unless they asked. And some people will ask because they do want to do it themselves, and don’t want to “bother” you. Despite your insistance they are not a bother. No matter how you phrase it, it will be perceived that you are suggesting they do the job themselves. And if they did, why would they need you!

    1. Clobbered*

      Yeah. I always ask “could you show me how to do this?”- sometimes the answer is “oh you can’t do it by yourself because you need me to unlock this filing cabinet” but most of the time I get shown. If it is something I don’t do very often I might have to get show again, but hey, I try. It is also a great way to make sure admin people have decent tools – like realising the fax machine is really crappy when you try to send a fax. And of course it means you can get things done after the admin people go home.

      It is almost certain that the people who don’t ask are the ones who don’t want to know, though. So I really don’t think there is any sense making a blanket offer.

    2. Anonymous*

      I would like to add that usually when I’ve shown someone how to do something, it is because I want them to learn and to stop bothering me. That’s is why I am no longer an admin.

      1. Helen*

        I’m senior management where I work. If I had admin trying to tell me how to, say, use the laminating machine, I would be speaking to their manager about the reason we have admin staff. That is, to do the photocopying, the laminating and so on so that the fee-earners can spend their their work time earning fees.

        1. Helen*

          Which may sound snooty now I have re-read it, but still. The admin cannot write an appeal in German to the German tax court referencing several pieces of European tax legislation. I can, and the firm can bill for it. Therefore, I do that, and the admin does the admin.

          1. Nobody*

            I think you just brought up a really good point, in regards to the difference with places where billable hours are an issue.

            Also, it depends on the size of the firm. If you work a small firm, where there is only one or two admins, you definitely should know how to use the photocopier, laminating machine, etc. However, if you work at a large firm with dozens of clerks, admin assistants, and administrative specialists, then it’s not so necessary.

            1. fposte*

              In general, it’s looking at much it costs the organization for the non-specialist or supervisor to do the task (and possibly to clean up after the breakage) vs. how much it costs the organization to wait for the specialist. That’s going to be a different measurement in different organizations, different jobs, and even different times.

          2. Uhura*

            Having been both the “Fee-earner” (aka sales), and support staff – I understand intimately that the fees don’t get always get earned unless an admin or support person does some leg work. Everyone’s job is important; your comment didn’t sound snooty per se, but definitely as if you don’t think support staff or admins are necessary or worthless compared to fee-earners.

            I mean, someone has to mail or fax that appeal to the German tax court, right? And pick up the phone if someone from that office calls? And route the payment check to account receivables department? Some admins even invoice the fees to begin with…

  7. Dawn*

    I’d be a really bad admin assistant. That’s probably why I’m not one. I am always one to say, “Let me show you how to do this so you’ll know in case I’m not here.” I’m a firm believer that people should be self-sufficient in the event our awesome admin, or I, or anyone else for that matter, really isn’t there one day. I guess I just feel that there are some things, like changing the toner or clearing a paper jam, that EVERYONE should know how to do. It probably comes from years of many things around the office turning into MY emergency to deal with.

    We have a few people who are really self-sufficient, but there’s a couple that will stand at the copier when there’s a paper jam, just staring at it, rattling the trays, etc. and stating very loudly that they don’t understand what’s wrong with it. They won’t even ask for help. They just hope someone will take the hint.

    I agree with Wilton Businessman. I really admire a top person who is willing and able to pitch in with the little things when needed. Our CEO is happy to make the coffee, write his own letters, and even change his own toner and printer paper. That really has an impact on employees.

    1. class factotum*

      there are some things, like changing the toner or clearing a paper jam, that EVERYONE should know how to do.

      Absolutely. It’s usually easier for me to do something (once I know how) than it is to find the person who knows and wait for her to do it.

      Along those lines, I saw an episode of “The Good Wife” today where everyone keeps using the bathroom in Alicia’s room because the toilet in the kids’ bathroom is clogged. I kept wondering, “Doesn’t anyone in that house know how to use a plunger?”

      1. Cassie*

        I’m the same way – if I can do it myself, I will (even when it comes to moving boxes). And if I don’t know how to do something, I’ll find out (that’s what Google is for!). There’s just something about my specific workplace that if you ask someone in our office to do something (that is part of their job), they act like they are doing you a favor, so I rarely ask people do to anything.

        What bothers me is when my coworkers asks me how to do something, and it’s something that is specific to their job duties or not something that I would necessarily know. I would have to look it up, and if I can look it up, then why can’t he/she?

        My boss is a helpless one – it’s not that he’s dumb (he has a PhD and is very accomplished in his field), but he just doesn’t do the small stuff. Sometimes he will ask me how to do something on Word or Excel – and he will ask me to show him how (rather than just do it for him) so he can do it himself later on. But many times, he will forget and need to ask me again. I’ve gotten used to it. Sometimes (if I’m busy) I’ll think “why can’t he do anything himself?!” but then I remember that if he could do it himself, what would he need me for? :)

  8. Anonymous*

    Uh, do workplaces still HAVE admin assistants anymore? Obviously you’re in a strictly hierarchical environment if those positions even exist. The people above you don’t think they “should have” to do your tasks.

    1. Kelly O*

      As an administrative assistant, I feel qualified to answer this one – yes, yes they do. And many times it’s not a strictly hierarchical environment.

      Someone has to manage the flow of the office, and that’s what admins tend to do. Even though I’m not the general office administrative support person, I still get pulled into those conversations – where are we shipping this, who receives it, how do we make this thing happen – that’s what a good admin does. I feel like I’m doing my job well if no one has any comments to make, because it means things are going well. Trust me, admins really tend to only hear feedback when something doesn’t run smoothly.

      And yes, it’s really helpful if someone knows how to change the toner. I know from experience it doesn’t matter how many times they watch you do it, or even if they say they want to learn how, if you’re there, you’ll wind up doing it. I don’t look at it as a snooty issue at all… I can do it faster than I can show you especially if I have to show you umpteen hundred times.

      Our current main admin is polite but unhelpful. If you give her something, she’s “okay I’ll get right on that” and nothing happens. I spent a Sunday at the office recently putting together a project that should have gone out on Friday, but she procrastinated (albeit very politely and acting as though things were okay) and it didn’t happen. It took me two hours to make two weeks of work happen, and then several hours sorting and putting together the mailing.

      But the feedback? Totally made the frustration worth it. I even got a “thank you for your attitude” and that NEVER happens around here.

      So, to the point, yes there are admins out there, and admins who really like a lot of what they do. Not everyone is cut out for it, and that’s okay too. I’d be a lousy nurse.

  9. Anonymous*

    “Twice in a row now, this has been held against me on my reviews! ”

    Don’t you already have your answer? Doesn’t matter what Alison or anybody else here says. Your boss says not to do that. So quit doing it. What’s the magic number? Three reviews in a row? Four?

    1. The_OP*

      Hello. That was kind of rude.

      I no longer do this. I emailed this question, because I thought their reaction to something so minor was weird.

      Have a great day!

      1. Josh S*

        Just from this, I can tell that you are a Superb Admin Asst.

        Are you anywhere near Chicago? I might be able to point you toward some decent companies…

      2. Anon.*

        Not really rude – just direct.

        Also, the “Have a great day!” seems rather passive-aggressive; perhaps the situation isn’t QUITE as one-sided as you indicated in your letter.

        1. KellyK*

          What’s the magic number? Three reviews in a row? Four?

          This is rudeness hiding behind the label of “direct.” It provides no information; it’s there purely to be snarky and sarcastic. If it were “direct” it would actually be conveying information, which you already did in the first couple sentences.

  10. Marie*

    Oh, also, OP, I totally get how unmoored you can get when you’re in a dysfunctional work environment. You forget what normal work behavior looks like, and you forget that you were ever competent, and you forget that there are places that react to your ideas, initiative, and energy with joy instead of miserable stink-eyes.

    That was another reason I started writing up instructions on everything I did. While I was writing them, I imagined somebody brand new at my job reading them — because I wouldn’t be here forever. I was also able to look at everything I’d put together and confirm to myself, yes, I do good work, I have skills, I have learned a lot, I am a valuable employee, even if I’m not valued here.

    I also used that list of things I did as a starting point for creating my own time-tracking system, so I had documented evidence of the work I was doing. Partly that was to hedge my bets against weird dysfunctional retaliation, and partly it just made me feel better, to have documented proof in front of my own eyes that I was a real, hard-working employee. It actually turned out to be such a useful habit that I’ve kept it up at non-toxic workplaces — I know that whenever my time percentage for “office support” (things like unjamming the copier for the perpetually dumbfounded) inches above 5%, I start hating my job. So when I hit 4.5%, I start saying, “Sorry, I’m busy right now, can I help out in half an hour?”

    And, final bonus, taking the time to sit down and write up detailed instructions for how you do your job is like a much more detailed first draft of your resume. Once I had all those instructions, I was able to easily pick out bullet points for my job description. I had fallen into the pit of a dysfunctional office where I wasn’t really sure I was a good worker, so all I could think to put on a resume was, “Office worker? Am good office worker. Do office things. Do them well? Work hard. Give job?”

    1. The_OP*

      Marie, thank you so, so much for really grokking what my question was about. Your post really helped me out more than you will ever know.

      Actually, I’m accomplishing really amazing things outside of the workplace, but unfortunately, I have to find SOMEONE within THIS Twilight-Zone organization to serve as references. Talk about a monumental task!

    2. JustMe*

      @Marie – if there was a “like” button for your post, I’d hit it multiple times. I totally know where you are coming from!

    3. Another Nonymous*

      The best admins make it look so easy that you don’t know how good they are… until they’re gone.

  11. JustMe*

    I’ve been an admin for over two decades and worked in a variety of offices and have found that it totally depends on your working environment and the individual people you work with. Some people love to learn things, others don’t. Right now I support six people and they run the gamut in terms of what they want. One exec asks me to teach him things all the time and prefers to do them himself once he has learned, another asks to be taught but frequently has to be re-taught because he forgets, another prefers to be totally dependent on me for everything, and another likes to call me on my day off to ask me to walk her through things.

    My office is a really strange environment too, and I completely understand that as an admin its easy to let other people’s bizarreness affect your self image when trying to do a good job/be helpful gets punished not rewarded. But you have to set that aside, do what’s asked of you to succeed at your current job and do the same at you next job. As an example, my previous boss was a stickler for meeting deadlines so every project was ready in advance and tweaked as necessary as the deadline approached. My current boss never met a deadline he couldn’t completely ignore (no matter how much he is reminded) so the whole culture here is that deadlines don’t matter. This drives me almost insane but I’ve had to learn to not let the behavior of others affect the quality of my work or my attitude (even when I’ve been yelled at for pushing to meet a deadline) because it isn’t/won’t be this way everywhere.

  12. Former Admin*

    Ohhh, man. I remember what this was like! As an admin I got glowing reviews from some people, but there are a few that still make my blood boil 5 years later. One guy made a huge fuss because I ordered him the “wrong” space heater when he refused to look at the catalog and pick one out. Another called my boss directly to complain that I didn’t answer my phone, even though he could connect through the automated switchboard as would happen when I was on the other line (I’m really sorry for having a bladder!)

    It seems like the longer you have an admin, the less patience you have for doing any of those administrative task that you’re accustomed to having someone else do. But people need to be reasonable!

  13. Sabrina*

    I also remember what this was like. One time our dept was spread across several buildings and a manager had to tell someone in another building 2 miles away that no, an Admin was NOT going to drive over to replace the toner or bring you office supplies. I don’t miss that at all. I do miss the paycheck though. Sigh.

  14. Emily*

    If dysfunctional people complain about a helpful offer, I think it makes sense to do what you did and just stop offering. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with offering to share knowledge, there isn’t, it just points at your workplace being toxic/people don’t want to learn and get sniffy when people suggest they might want to/whatever. I don’t see how you did anything wrong here. I think the complainers are silly. If you don’t want to learn a task just say, “No thanks” when the offer is made.

    1. The_OP*


      Or, if it’s really a problem for them, like it appears to be for some responders here, just tell the admin straight up: “Thank you for offering; howver, I feel this is part of YOUR job, so please complete the task for me.”

      Why the need to go whining behind my back to supervisors who already don’t like me?

      (I could write a BOOK on this place, but I won’t. This is just one small issue I deal with.)

      1. fposte*

        Yes, that isn’t what I’d term a dysfunction, and that isn’t likely to be different in a different workplace.

  15. Luke*

    What about when you’re asked to do something that’s genuinely, per guidance from your supervisor, something they’re supposed to be doing for themselves? I.e., I’m an executive assistant- the way we’re set up is that rather than reporting to the executives I support, I’m supervised by the head of all the admins in the division. Because the division is very large, the guidance I’ve received is that for my executives I should do travel arrangements, set up meetings, print out handouts etc. when they want, but that rank and file on the floor shouldn’t be coming to me with those requests. But when someone who isn’t an executive drops by and asks me to set up a meeting or flights, it’s always very awkward to deal with- I don’t want to come across as difficult or lazy, and was always taught that “sorry, that’s not my job” was something only people with a death wish re: their career say. Maybe it’s just splitting hairs, but to me there’s a big difference between supporting executives that manage a team, and being the general admin assistant for the team that they manage. Our division is large enough that if everyone in it felt entitled to come by and give our team those kind of assignments the workload wouldn’t be manageable. But if someone on my executives’ teams is telling them or my supervisor that I’m unhelpful, that’s not going to do me much good at performance review time either…

    1. J.B.*

      That sounds tough. Part of it may depend on the time demands, and whether its a one time thing or regular requests. I would communicate with your boss specifically and maybe “hey if someone asks me and I have time, is it ok to do once and talk them through the process”…but if you have to flat out tell someone no you might want to give your boss a heads up so they know before complaints come in. Fundamentally your boss’s needs win out though.

    2. Natalie*

      If you know their admin, can you say something like “OK, let me find Joe for you?” and lead them to the person who should be assisting them?

    3. Nobody*

      @ Luke: In your case you should tell the person that you cannot do their request because you are currently working on something for Bob the Executive (or whoever) and while you wish you could help them, as Bob’s assistant, you need to be available to assist him.

      However, if they have a problem with that, or if your office environment is such that you think it would not go over well (e.g. if your office is very hierarchical), you should ask your boss (the Head Admin) go to the people giving you these requests and let them know that assisting them isn’t your job.

      1. The_OP*

        This. Our group has a similar setup. I support a specific group of people. Each other admin in this building, likewise. If there is a question, we have a lead admin, who actually goes to bat for us if there’s a dispute.

      2. NDR*

        You can always frame it as “Sarah is in charge of my workflow, so if you’d direct your request to her, she’ll make sure it is dealt with appropriately [implied – or tells you it’s not my job/our group’s job].”

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In this case, there’s a communication problem above you — the people who are asking you to do stuff need to have it clarified that that’s not how it works. Someone above you needs to let them know.

  16. Joanna Reichert*

    I think it really boils down to maturity and willingness – who wants to go the extra mile, and who wants to slide?

    Those who want to do the bare minimum will be irritated by gracious attempts to teach from others. Those who want to learn will irritate YOU in their insistence on doing everything. : )

    1. The_OP*

      Honestly, I just want everyone to be able to function as efficiently as possible. If sending a fax themselves takes less time than it does for them to track me down and get my help, why should they not have that OPTION?

      I really appreciate everyone’s perspective. EVERYONE’s. This blog rocks so hard! :)

  17. Freida*

    This reminds me of my first “real” job out of college. It was at a small, family-run ad agency, and the executive I worked for specialized in placing employment ads in print newspapers (REALLY not a growth industry in 2005, as you can imagine). He had made a name for himself handling nationwide campaigns for major corporations back in the days when people actually looked for jobs in newspapers. But now he was in his 70s and he had been mostly “working from home” for a few years, but it was clear that he was mostly taking care of his terminally ill wife. After she passed away, he started coming back to the office (hence why they hired me).

    Very nice guy, but he would do things like hand me a letter he had typed on a typewriter and ask me to email it to someone. He would also say things like “We’ve just got to beat this Internet. It’s just a fad.” And while I’d send his typewriter emails, I did try to show him how to send them himself–figuring that if he’s going to go to the trouble to type it himself in the first place, he might as well type it directly into the email. So he started sending out emails looking for new clients by retyping the same message into individual emails for each person. I explained both “copy/paste” and “bcc” to him, and of course his response was, “So you’re saying that I could send the same email to a whole list of people at the same time? That would be a great way to solicit new clients! We could include our whole marketing pitch! Could it even have some of those hyperlink things?” At which point I also had to explain to him what spam is.

    As you can imagine, his mind was blown when I entered his entire hardcopy rolodex into a spreadsheet and showed him both his email address book and mail merge.

  18. Paul*

    For me, admin support is there to do various tasks, such as booking airline tickets, or making sure there is paper in the printer. At the same time, as someone using these things, I know that sometimes things are urgent, and might be out of hours, or the admin has a day off / is ill or whatever other reason they can not reasonably be expected to help. To me it is irresponsible to be handicapped for these essential (but easy) tasks to such a level that you can’t for example deliver a report in time because you don’t know how to refill the printer.

    Of course it is always a balance, and it is not a matter of not letting the admin do it, it is a matter of being able to do your own job in the face of short-term absence of the admin. If I were to manage a department where the admin maintains the supply cupboard, I’d want to know how to get a hold of the key. Not to take over the role, or even to serve myself, but to make sure that there is continuity.

    1. KellyK*

      To me it is irresponsible to be handicapped for these essential (but easy) tasks to such a level that you can’t for example deliver a report in time because you don’t know how to refill the printer.

      I absolutely agree with this, and that seems exactly like the sort of situations that the OP is trying to avoid. (I agree that if trying to help people and plan ahead gets you in trouble, don’t do it.)

      I think that anybody who works in an office ought to be able to perform basic office tasks if they need to–they should be able to make copies, refill the printer, and that sort of thing, whether they’re a secretary or a CEO.

      Realistically, not every office is going to have sufficient admin staff for them to support everybody above them. So not only is there the issue of days off and urgent things after hours, there’s also the fact that if you’re a mid-level manager or a senior analyst, and the admin is doing stuff for the VP, your tasks are a lower priority.

  19. NT*

    I agree with most people and the author – it’s a great idea to help someone to understand how things work, so you can feel less frustrated in case the admin person gets sick. And yes, I agree, it’s a very grey area. In the office where I used to work, the admin assistant would say it bluntly, and I’m not stretching it – Do it yourself, don’t be lazy! Can you imagine????
    She would also place your request into a long que of other tasks that she does for a higher management, so eventually you would give up on asking for any help. After that experience, I do feel sensitive with those who has a tendency to preach “do it yourself” as I’m actually an advanced computer user with the professional training and the only reason when I ask is either I don’t have time to make labels/binders/certificates or I’m really stuck and I need to move on with my job for which I’m responsible and paid for.

    I agree with Maria who comes up with the instructional manuals – Great Idea!

  20. Jamie*

    I hate when cynicism ends up hurting people who are just trying to be nice. I really believe the OP was being gracious and generous with her knowledge and it was probably met by people like me who would assume it was code for “learn to do it yourself.”

    When dinosaurs ruled the earth and I was a young tech I used to offer to teach people how to change their toner – and I meant “learn to do it yourself.”

    I don’t work in a company with a staff of admins – so we all do our own individual stuff – but every time I’m in the office alone it solidifies the respect I have for our Office Manager.

    Last December I was working alone while everyone else was on vacay for the holiday. I got a call from the boss that a something needed to be shipped out fed-ex and could I put the checks in the mail so they were postmarked before year end.

    Between trying to figure out how the Fed-Ex label thing worked and then the stupid postage machine (and the dollars I wasted printing postage incorrectly until I figured it out) I wanted to tear my hair out. I thought that was bad until I was asked to send a fax.

    A paper jam at the copier would have been the death of me.

    Believe me, I asked for a refresher course before the next time I was scheduled to work alone.

    Maybe this is a lesson that every nice offer isn’t a passive-aggressive snarky criticism.

    And I’ve been an admin earlier in my career and it’s a freaking hard job…in many respects it’s tougher than IT. I’ll take a bad hard drive sector over constant interaction and multitasking with a smile any day of the week.

    Admins don’t get nearly enough credit. A good admin is priceless. If it were up to me they’d get paid more than the middle management wonks they support.

  21. Harry*

    Well this went viral! Two stories which may sum it up. At my wife’s company, the admin will take care of the tasks with little or no questions or suggestions. My company’s admin was similar to the OP. My admin is no longer working for the company.

  22. Rose*

    I’m in my second year of been an Admin Assistant in a school office and I hate it. I just find that there is a hierarchy when it comes to doing certain tasks – the sort of mind numbing tasks such as stuffing envelopes, sorting the post etc. This sort of activity is well within the remit of all the girls I work with but they all think it is beneath them to do such tasks. I think that there is a lot of competition in admin for tasks that actually engage your brain. I have a brain – but no one is interested in using it. Admin can be a very grey area and so far I am not impressed with the amount of passive aggression and bullying that takes place between women who think they are a cut above when they are not.

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