my boss keeps calling me her assistant even though I’m not

A reader writes:

I’m wondering if I can get advice on how to approach my boss about this. I work for a very small charity, so small that I’m the only employee other than the director/founder. I literally do everything that needs to be done, from program management to IT/office admin. I like the diversity of my tasks, but it also means that I work very closely with the director, and sometimes do perform tasks that are similar to what an assistant would do (reminding her of important deadlines, help scheduling meetings, etc). However, my job title was never an assistant job, and it was never mentioned at the beginning that I would occasionally be performing executive assistant-type tasks. I also would not have applied for this job if it was an EA position. I don’t mind doing those tasks, since for me they help getting things done, which is good for the organization. She hasn’t been telling me to fetch her coffee or anything like that, and in general we have a very cordial relationship.

However, lately with increasing frequency she’s starting to refer to me as her assistant in email communication to outside people. It’s usually in the context of “my assistant will be sending you this…”  With some people, I don’t care, but she sometimes does this to people to whom I’d prefer not to be known as an assistant, especially when I’m not. I’m thinking about approaching her about this, but am unsure what’s the best way to do it, since I really don’t want to cause any strain in the relationship. Or should I just let it go?

Also, not sure if this makes a difference, this job was never meant to be a career-type job. She knows that I’m going back to school next year.

Eh, I’d let it go. In a two-person organization, in that type of role, you really are her assistant. Not in the “personal assistant / bring me coffee” way, but in the literal use of the word. Your job is to assist her in getting the work of the organization done, and it’s pretty common for a founder — especially a founder with only one employee — to view it that way.

It might also help to realize that when she refers to you as her assistant, she might just be naming what your role will be in that particular transaction. Think of it this way: If you were also doing, say, graphic design work and bookkeeping, it wouldn’t be crazy for her to refer to you as “my graphic designer” when talking to a printer and as “my bookkeeper” when talking to a vendor. Similarly, when you’re functioning as her assistant (such as in the example you cited of sending someone a document), she might just be naming that function.

But if it really bothers you and you want to bring it up, you certainly could. I’d say something like, “I know this might seem small, but when you refer to me as your assistant when talking to people like X and Y, I worry that it diminishes my role in their eyes.”

She might instantly understand your concern and stop doing it, or she might say something similar to what I’ve said above. If the latter, at least you’ll have a better understanding of where she’s coming from. (And at that point, I’d let it go or you’ll risk seeming prima-donna-ish and like you don’t understand small organizations.)

Really, though, I’d focus more on how you feel about the work itself and your relationship with her, and how she’s likely to describe your job when it really matters (like when she’s recommending you for a future job).

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    It’s a two person office. There’s no reason to use titles at all. “Jane will be sending you this.” The only reason to use “assistant” is to position the 2nd person in an absolutely, positively, clearly subservient role.

    It was a nice attempt of Alison to rationalize the use of “assistant” by suggesting the founder might use other job titles, but I’d be stunned if any other title had been written by the founder.

    The founder wanted to hire an assistant, but she didn’t use that word in the hiring process because she wanted someone with more skills. It’s even better when that person is going back to school because then she won’t stick around long and want raises or more responsibility.

    Regardless, if I were really going back to school, I’d let it go. The founder may use “assistant,” in an email, but maybe she’d be far more generous when it comes to future references.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But it’s weird to just say “Jane will be sending you this” when the person has no idea who Jane is.

      And this is just very, very common in tiny organizations like this. I’ve seen it a ton, and it’s not based on anything nefarious or ill-intentioned. It’s just the psychology of founders in two-person orgs.

      1. fposte*

        I actually think it’s a touch unprofessional to just use names, in fact, and that goes both ways–for staff referring to a manager and a manager referring to staff. If I called your office cold with a question and the person who answered said “I have to check with Alison” without telling me who Alison is I’d think that was pretty odd.

    2. Janet*

      Agreed on everything you said. I worked in a two person office and agree that there is no need to use titles at all. To me it’s a clear power-trip sort of thing. Just say “Janet Smith will be sending you the files.

    3. moe*

      “The only reason to use “assistant” is to position the 2nd person in an absolutely, positively, clearly subservient role.”

      Whoa! Do you really think so? It seems pretty innocuous to me. I mean, I can definitely see how it could be problematic when working with outside people. But imputing such nasty motives to the exchange is a massive waste of energy.

      I assume this conclusion of yours has more to do with your experiences than OP’s.

      1. fposte*

        I’m inclined to agree with this, especially since the OP has noted that she’s not going to be in this position long, so we’re talking about customers who may be dealing with somebody else in the same position soon.

        And some of this is just the current limits of English–we don’t have much in the way of words for “person who works for me and will handle this.” “One of our staffers” is too vague even if it weren’t misleading in this case, because people want to know what specific office they’re landing in; “my employee” is weird and, to me, inaccurate if you’re not the business owner. OP, if you have a usage that you think might be more suitable, you could also offer that up; I’d love to hear from anybody who has found a working generic staff term on this, because this question comes up in my office too.

        1. COT*

          I tend to use “colleague” or “coworker,” sometimes even when describing my supervisor or my intern. Sometimes pulling rank just doesn’t really matter in communications.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I really don’t understand why anyone would be so confident about assigning ill intent to the manager, when this type of thing is so very common, particularly in small organizations like this. Without something more to indicate the manager’s motivations are so negative, it’s a bizarre conclusion to jump to.

              1. Katie*

                I don’t think it’s necessarily malicious. I just don’t think it’s a very nice thing to do, either.

          1. GalPal*

            Yeah my boss always said I was his colleague or coworker too even though I reported to him directly.

          2. Ellie H.*

            I always say colleague and this is how I refer to people at other businesses as well (like when talking to the receptionists at my doctor’s office I would say “Your colleague told me I could call back today to get a referral”). I think it’s the most polite term.

            I actually AM an assistant and I am quite happy being an assistant, love describing myself that way, and don’t think there’s anything demeaning about it in my case. However, I can understand why this irks the letter writer. I think it’s the difference between your job being solely a support position (i.e., you are carrying out projects that are the responsibility of, under the jurisdiction of, or supervised by whoever’s assistant you are . . . this is what I do; even though I have a collection of things that I alone administer, it’s technically all “approved by” the dean whose office I work in) and your job being something where you have specific independent functions in the organization even if you are not the manager.

            I don’t think this is necessarily insidious intent on the boss’s part though. I can see both ways of looking at it.

          3. fposte*

            I can see that working. Unfortunately, it’s not really something it’s wise for a person in a junior position to specifically request, as it looks like you’re asking to be represented as a co-boss.

      2. Christine*

        I have this same issue. I was hired as “Communications and Marketing Coordinator.” I report directly to the President of the company…a “company” of three people. After 2 pages of marketing, communications and event planning responsibilities outlined, the last line of the job description was “occasionally assist the president with travel plans and some personal tasks.”
        I was shocked two months in to my new job to receive a card on my desk for Admin’s day. She only refers to me as “my assistant” or even worse “My Christine.”
        I now make her mammogram appointments :( So, I do think that the “assistant” title should be addressed…if you ever plan to use this as a reference. If you do not, then let it go, as belittling as it is.

  2. moe*

    I think the major problem here is really just a lack of communication. IME, titles & roles in such small offices are often poorly defined–the owner/founder is typically a seat-of-the-pants type manager, without a wealth of experience in HR matters. He/she just isn’t thinking about things like titles and the second person’s career development in the same way an experienced/professional manager might.

    If the owner is otherwise good to you, I see no reason to attribute to malice what simple inexperience can explain…

  3. 1/2*

    I also work in a 2-3 person office (we’ve had different numbers of employees at different times) and similarly do everything, from admin assistant type tasks (helping with travel) to CFO type tasks (drafting the organizational budget). Fortunately, my boss (the executive director) normally refers to me as her “colleague” when she is introducing me (“my colleague will send you those documents”). However, if someone asks my ED who the admin assistant or her assistant is, she will also say it’s me.

    On the one hand, I totally understand that it can be demoralizing to be referred to as the assistant when your job is so much more than that. At the same time, I think it’s also best to just suck it up and go with it–your boss probably does not mean any harm by it. I also am sure that my title is on my email signature and voice mail message, so people usually know that I am a [real title] who is in the process of assisting my boss.

  4. ChristineH*

    I agree with Alison and others that there is no malice or intentions to belittle your role. It sounds like there is no real official job title, is there? It’s probably just easier for your boss to say “my assistant”; many “assistant” jobs are highly skilled, not just secretarial.

    Good luck with school next year!

  5. Megan*

    I agree that there is no reason she can’t substitute “colleague” or ” coworker” when referencing another employee. And I say this as an “assistant” who does much more than assist, as well.

      1. JT*

        Would there be a difference on a resume of “Assistant” versus, say “Program Manager” or “Program Coordinator” or such.

        I think there is a difference, so it’s not good that the OP is becoming know as an assistant (implies helping her boss do the key work) versus a manager or coordinator (more decision-making on some small, but core, work of the organization). So while it might not matter much inside the organization, it does matter reputationally.

        1. Adam V*

          (Keep in mind – if your title *is* “assistant”, then we’re not having this conversation, because your boss is using the correct title!)

          On a resume, you’d put your official title, but you’d follow up with the actual work you did. If you put “project manager” and had a bullet point at the bottom saying “assisted the CEO with various office-related management tasks” (or however you’d word it), I wouldn’t read that and think “oh, you’re just a glorified assistant”.

          Similarly, if your title is “assistant”, but you have a number of projects you were in charge of, you’d be able to point to those as proof that you weren’t ‘just an assistant’ and be able to reference your tasks and abilities to explain why you’re qualified for a different title at the next company.

      2. Assistant*

        Great comments here. On a humorous note, I was the assistant to the Managing Director. His clientele base knew me as he would always says “I’ll have my ” assist you with that. Some new clients thought my name was actually “My.” They would call me up and say Hello Myname! …etc. They actually thought Mi or My was actually part of my name. I let that go too. My boss and I found it amusing. But, I agree with Alison, to let it drop and in the figure, the future reference given will indicate that it was much more that just being an assistant.

        1. The Snarky B*

          Wait, so your boss would say, for instance, “I’ll have my Alex send that right over.”? And then people refer to you as Myalex?

          1. khilde*

            I read it as the boss would just stop after “my.” Sort of like not really referring to what “my” is.

            “I’ll have my {this part’s missing} assist you with that.”

            I’d love to hear how it went down. Either way, it’s strange. Like the boss didn’t know what exactly to call her so the boss just didn’t!

            1. Jamie*

              I had a boss who did this once – referred to me as “My Jamie.”

              He was more embarrassed than I was (it just slipped out because he forgot my new title) so once “the others” were gone it became a little joke. He would summon “his Jamie” and then I would do that Barbara Eden thing where I’d cross my arms and bop my head as I pretended to grant wishes.

              I really miss that guy.

  6. Mike B.*

    I’d be a little upset about this situation too. OP may want to contact these people professionally in the future, and it does make a difference if they’re predisposed to think of her as someone so junior as to warrant the “assistant” title. I think a decent manager will understand and remedy that when it’s brought to her attention.

    If not, well, it’s only temporary, and OP can remedy it somewhat by highlighting her actual title whenever possible.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’m not sure there’s a professional way to say “I know the director/founder said I’m her assistant, but I’m not.”

      1. Anonymous*

        What about including a short email signature such as the one below in your first message to someone outside the office? It’s fairly unobtrusive (I think) and would clarify things a bit. Even though OP works in a very small office, s/he mentioned having an official title.

        Quality Control Manager
        Chocolate Teapot Factory
        [phone number]

  7. Emily*

    If the job is only temporary anyway I wouldn’t be too bothered. I once had a co-worker tell people I was her assistant when I very clearly was not and in fact ended up being promoted above her. I put a stop to that immediately. In this situation I wouldn’t be bothered at all though.

  8. Joey*

    Try this: propose a more accurately descriptive job title for yourself. Bosses of small orgs frequently don’t care about titles only function. You can say it makes you feel better and it will help you in the future.

  9. Tiff*

    Why does it bother you so much?

    I know why it would bother me – I have a big ego, and I like knowing that other people know how freaking awesome I am. I suspect that is the case for you as well. You do more than a simple assistant would do, and you want to be acknowledged.

    If that’s the case for you, think of something else: Your boss has an ego too. And being able to refer to you as her assistant strokes that ego.

    That’s the most likely scenario to me. So my advice would be to check your junior level ego at the door (after all, only one of you is the founder) and not try to check her for not calling you by the title you think you deserve. Make her look good, be the best “not-just-assistant” ever and keep learning.

    The time to talk to her about your job title is when you’re putting it on a resume and lining her up as a reference. If you make her look good now she should help you with the same later.

  10. Brett*

    My question is….what IS your title?

    If you don’t have one, or it doesn’t make sense when said to outside people, maybe you could discuss that. It would be in your bosses best interests to project a professional sounding organization even if it is two people. So if you do a bit of everything, maybe it would benefit both of you to call you the “operations manager” or really anything else that is both accurate and sounds good for both of you.

  11. Lisa*

    Put your real job title prominently in your email signature and let the people you’re sending things to figure out for themselves that you are assisting with this matter, not “the assistant.”

  12. Kimberlee, Esq.*

    I don’t really get this. I’m the Office Manager at my organization, no “assistant” in my job title, but some of my responsibilities are executive and personal assistant tasks. When my boss (who is the executive director) introduces me in person to people, he usually introduces me as his assistant. Same thing in OP’s situation; if he’s emailing someone and wants me to send some kind of follow-up, he’ll say his assistant will be sending it.

    It never really occurred to me to be upset by that! I do a lot of higher level work, and a lot of work that other people at the org can’t do, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not my boss’ assistant in the most literal sense of the word: I assist him on low-level tasks that are a waste of his time to deal with himself.

    If you’re actually a highly-paid, high-level employee, I could see getting upset about this. But I’m guessing you’re either entry level or just a few years’ experience? If so, then the power difference between you and your boss is significant enough that “assistant” is not an unfair reference, especially in specifically assistant tasks.

  13. Not So NewReader*

    I like the ops manager description, or how about “coordinator”?

    OP, which part of the phrase bothers you the most the “assistant” part or the “my” part?
    Yeah, it matters. Because no matter how your job is titled, the word “my” will still fit in front of it. “My coordinator”, “My Ops Manager.”

    Yeah, I would not feel comfy with the “my” word, personally. It would take some getting used to, for me. If it happened once in a while, I would just try to sail by it. But if I were hearing it numerous times a day I would see if I could come up with low key ways to discourage it. Even substituting the word “our” would be a small improvement.

  14. AG*

    I am definitely curious what the actual title is.

    I can see how this would be irritating, but since the organization is so small I am sure that the ED is just using Assistant as shorthand. Also if the OP is going back to school and this is only a short-term gig, I would let it go.

    OTOH, I had a coworker who used to refer to me as the “PR girl” which drove me *nuts*!

  15. Anonymous*

    Maybe the term “organization coordinator” may be a good term for your role, OP. “Coordinator” doesn’t have the connotations that “assistant” does. For example, I’ve seen a lot more admin jobs that are entitled “Administrative Coordinator” instead of “Administrative Assistant.”

    1. Also Anon*

      Coordinator does have negative connotations, IF your title is “analyst” and some clueless person lists you as “coordinator” on the org chart.

      I do get my panties in a wad over the title mistakes, even though I know it’s not intentional and not a big deal in the Big Picture of Life. I have more experience, responsibility, and education than a coordinator and it really sends the wrong perception of what I do to people who know what the two titles mean at our type of organization. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be referred to properly.

  16. Mandy*

    What about “my offsider?” Used a lot over here. I looked it up and it means “team member sharing a common goal”.

    I doubt very much there is any intent to “put down” the OP. Perhaps the Manager uses “assistant” to place her on an equal footing with people she deals with who *do* have assistants. In which case, it gives her and the organisation more credibility. I can understand why it might seem objectionable to the OP, but I can also understand why the Manager might do it.

    On another note, this is why a boss who says “Mandy, who works *with* me (rather than *for* me) (or, Mandy from our office) will be sending those documents over” is particularly nice.

  17. LadyTL*

    I wonder if part of the concern is that if her boss gets in the habit of addressing her as their assistant that will reflect in future references. It would look bad if her title really is something else but when her boss is called for a reference she is referred to as the assistant.

  18. (Assistant?) Manager*

    I’m a project manager (drive many projects independently, manage an administrative person), but I also administer the calendar of my direct manager. Not typical at all for someone in this sort of role in my workplace, but necessary in this case for a variety of reasons. I am routinely called my manager’s “assistant” or “scheduler.” It’s just the role I’m playing to the person she’s emailing or talking to; no need to describe my whole role when I’m just scheduling an appointment! She sometimes says “MyName, who manages my calendar…” which, if it really bothers the OP, (s)he might suggest to the boss.

    Frankly, the only negative to being known as Manager’s Assistant to others is that I see how crummily some people treat assistants! Makes me a better manager to my direct report, who does all the other administrative work for our group.

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