my coworker wants all of his calls screened for him

A reader writes:

At my office, there are two receptionist/assistants who are responsible for answering the phones. I’m the assistant to the president and am third in line to answer if they aren’t able to pick up.

A coworker insists that we screen his calls and find out who is calling and what it’s regarding. He is the only one in the office who asks this. After we’ve done this and relayed the information to him, he ask us to put the majority of his calls into his voicemail. This becomes an issue because telling him it’s a coworker from another branch isn’t adequate. He is the CFO, but the President, VP and Director of Sales don’t request this kind of detailed screening. And they take their calls.

When is the limit reached for putting calls to voicemail instead of taking them.? What’s the protocol on this?

Honestly, there’s no real protocol around this. Many people ask to have their calls screened or sent to voicemail. After all, if you’re in the middle of working on something, it’s not unreasonable to want to whether a call is important enough to interrupt a particular piece of work. Most people who have direct-dial lines and Caller ID use the Caller ID as similar screening; your office’s system is simply a bit more low-tech and thus requires a little more work from the person answering the phones in order to accomplish the same thing.

But the behavior itself isn’t inherently objectionable. It could certainly become objectionable if it’s causing problems in his work because he’s not being responsive enough to people or is too difficult to get ahold of … but that’s not your call to make.

Of course, if you’re hearing complaints from people about their difficulties getting in touch with him, it would be appropriate to pass that along to him, and potentially to someone else in a position to assess the situation. And if his screening requests are impacting your ability to get your primary work done, you should mention that to your own manager.

And even if none of that is the case, you could certainly say to him, “Bob, I’ve noticed that you want most of your calls to go to voicemail. Would you like me to start sending them straight there?” But aside from that and the conditions above, this is really his prerogative.

{ 91 comments… read them below }

  1. Laura*

    I don’t know…if the other executives don’t insist on this kind of thing for their calls, why should the CFO get special treatment? If answering his own phone is really such a burden, then the CFO should make the case for getting his own assistant and leave the receptionists out of it.

    It seems to me an unreasonable burden to put on the receptionists, who have enough to deal with between answering the phones, dealing with visitors, delivery people, and so on to have to screen someone’s call, then call the CFO to find out if he’ll take said call, and then put it through to his voice mail.

    This reminds me of a person at my company who was hired as a senior manager, and could not believe he didn’t have an assistant. The company policy is that you don’t get an assistant if you’re not a director or above, and even then, assistants are shared between 2 or 3 directors. This guy kept trying to get the CFO’s assistant to do things like schedule meetings for him, make travel arrangements, manage his calendar, an so on, and she finally had to have the CFO tell him to knock it off.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But I’m sure the others could/would do it if they wanted to. They choose not to — but that doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable for the CFO to ask for it. In many offices, it’s pretty standard to screen calls in this way.

      1. Laura*

        I suppose…it just strikes me as one of those intangible “culture” things where you should take your cue about how to handle something by watching how your boss deals with it and proceed accordingly, and I think that applies no matter where you are in the company food chain.

        In that CFO’s position, I would think, “Well, if the President answers his/her own calls, then I should do the same.” And then I would, perhaps asking the receptionists to screen my calls at specific times when things are very busy.

        1. Cat*

          Usually the CFO would be one of the ones setting the culture. The president isn’t usually the only high level person who can reasonably express any preferences or prerogatives.

    2. Cat*

      Calling someone and seeing if they want to take a given call kind of seems like a core receptionist function.

      1. AP*

        Agreed – I used to be a receptionist and considered it a main part of my job, totally normal. I guess it partially depends on the office and the kinds of calls coming in – for my company there were a ton of cold sales calls (people trying to sell us stuff) and they would be REALLY crafty about trying to pretend they knew my bosses in order to get their feet in the door and get connected past reception. So I got very used to feeling around to see if it was someone that was worth interrupting work for – usually not!

        1. Anonymous*

          Heh. I did this too, and also got very good at doing it in person. Acting dumb helped a lot–“Geeeeeee….I don’t know who handles that….do you have a brochure? I could pass it on, once I find out….” :)

      2. Jessa*

        Exactly. When I did secretarial work – what they now call Senior Executive Assistant or Office Manager, working for the top of the company, the job was 99% about managing the very valuable to the company TIME of the person I worked for. I rarely typed letters or took minutes (we had a typing pool and I had an assistant in it.)

        The job of a good receptionist/assistant is to make sure the people they answer for use their time to their best. And that means screening calls or why BOTHER to have one in the first place. Screening goes beyond finding out which specific sales person handles account x, because even though Ms Jones’ sales person is Wakeen, she really needs to talk to Shuvon for THIS thing because Shuvon knows about it more, so you have to explain this and talk her into talking to Shuvon so as not to waste Wakeen’s time telling her this.

        I can’t see how screening calls isn’t 90% or more of the receptionists job. A good one will also have a mental list or a tick list on their desk that basically says “Okay the last 9 times Joan called, Sam said give it to voicemail, I’m going to say Sam is unavailable get a message to vm and email Sam and let them know it’s there. If I’m wrong this one time, well Sam can call back.”

        It’s also however part of Sam’s job to let the receptionist know when they’re not taking calls. And when the call is made right to put person x to vm without a through call to check.

  2. Sarah*

    There may be certain times that the CFO doesn’t want calls (close to deadlines, etc.). Maybe it would be helpful to clarify if this is the case.

    1. KimmieSue*

      This was my thought also, month-end, quarter-end, year-end…all kinds of pressures on Finance during these times. Calls might be very distracting.

  3. College Career Counselor*

    I think it’s a combination of the industry, the office culture and how high up the food chain the person is. The part that’s likely annoying to the OP is that this method:

    a) is a waste of time, as the majority (not sure if this is closer to 51% or 99%) of the calls are going to voicemail

    b) still constitutes an interruption to the CFO, who wants to be notified of who is calling, so he can make a decision about whether that person is important enough to warrant talking to at that moment

    Now, that is the CFO’s prerogative, but it does smack of “big-timing” behavior in my opinion.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Really? I screen nearly all my calls, and if I had a set-up like the OP’s office (where someone else answered for me and I didn’t have Caller ID), I’d be doing what the CFO is doing.

      When you’re busy and need to get a lot done — and especially when you have a job where calls aren’t necessarily the most important thing you should be spending your time on right this instant — you have to be ruthless about prioritizing. I’d actually question why the President and other senior managers don’t have some kind of call-screening system for their calls — that sounds really inefficient.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Maybe they do, but they have caller ID so their screening method is to have the receptionist put through the call, they can see who it is and then answer if they wish or let it go to voice mail.

        In one job I had, everyone was connected via MSN IM so you could just IM someone that “so and so is calling about the Chocolate Teapot distribution problem, do you want to take it?” and they would answer yes or no thus preventing the need to call the person and relay a bunch of information on the phone. This may or may not work well depending on the office environment and of course, is still an interruption to the CFO.

        1. Jessa*

          The issue with having the call put through and then it going to VM without the receptionist telling the person that, is it looks bad. Once you insert a live receptionist into the mix, if CEO is unavailable, that needs to be said at the outset. The idea is to not let the person officially know that CEO is right there but doesn’t want to talk to them.

          The screening criteria should be part of the receptionist’s skill set. Honestly, having to call back and “see if x is available,” is badly done. It smacks of what the receptionist is supposed to help avoid “letting people know that nobody really wants to talk to them now,” instead of “Wakeen is away from his desk, let me give you his voicemail, if it’s urgent maybe Shuvon can help right now.”

          Now Wakeen could be standing two inches from your desk. “Unavailable” is the receptionist’s catchphrase for “we’re screening but we’re too polite to tell you,” as well as being “true when they’re really not there.”

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Let me play devil’s advocate here for the receptionist for a second.

            I had this exact situation at OldJob–a sales rep didn’t want to answer his calls, and it wasn’t policy to screen everything (I was just supposed to transfer the calls and if the person was away or busy, they went to voice mail). I did it when I could, or when I knew someone was busy, but it wasn’t always feasible.

            This person would routinely ignore his calls when I put them through, and he never told me when he wasn’t taking them.

            The sales manager did this too. They had a Do Not Disturb button, but they either refused to use it, or would turn it on and leave it on for hours and hours, even days. There was no policy as to how long you could use it.

            The biggest problem with this wasn’t screening, but that they DID NOT FOLLOW UP ON THEIR MESSAGES. I cannot tell you how many times customers would call and call and call and then yell at me because they could not get hold of these people. The sales manager did this with emails too, and he would constantly fail to send people updates, or forward materials requests to me, etc.

            Worst customer service ever. And I couldn’t do anything about it, except politely bug them over and over that So-and-So wanted their attention. I am so glad I’m not there anymore–the stress began to affect my health after a while.

            So it’s not always on the receptionist.

      2. College Career Counselor*

        I’m not objecting to the practice of screening the call, especially if there’s a project deadline or report or something. I’m thinking the process is what’s inefficient and annoying. Get the CFO caller id (as ruffingit says) or allow the front line person to make some judgment calls. Granted, I’ve also had really good front line staff who knew that if, say, the dean or the president of the college called, they put that person right through. Random product vendor pretending to be returning my call? Sorry, you get voicemail.

    2. Laura*

      It strikes me as “big-timing” behavior as well, and I can’t put my finger on why, because someone at an executive level shouldn’t be expected to answer the phone every time it rings.

      Perhaps it’s because the system the CFO is insisting upon is inefficient and wastes everyone’s time. And if there’s a legitimate reason for him wanting his calls screened, he could spend 5 minutes with the receptionists explaining why. Not because they have any “right” to know, but because it’s the considerate thing to do. If you spend a little time explaining to people why you’d like them to do something, what value it provides, and so on, they appreciate being included, and don’t feel like peons who just get orders barked at them all day long. This makes them less likely to grumble, and gives them an opportunity for making suggestions of their own.

      I am currently working on a project to bring up some financial software in one of our satellite offices, and this is a huge change for the staff there and they are very anxious and apprehensive about it. The corporate office kind of blows their concerns off, saying things like, “Oh, we’ve moved their cheese so of course they’re upset.” No, they’re upset because this represents a huge change to how they do their jobs, and they’re worried about learning a new system, being able to continue meeting deadlines, satisfying auditors, and so on. In a meeting with the corporate managers last week, they started making decisions and I had to break in and tell them to include the employees from the satellite office in the discussion, because they are feeling like all these things are just being dictated to them and they have not been able to participate in the process. That’s very frustrating, and makes people feel like their management doesn’t value them or their contributions.

      1. AP*

        I guess I don’t see where the time wasting is – are we talking a “who’s calling? and what is this in reference to? Okay let me check with him” or a full report on the back story of every issue? In my experience it really didn’t take more than 2 minutes per call, but if he’s asking for something more than that, then I can see where the time builds up.

      2. tcookson*

        I don’t see it as big-timing. I worked at a place where all the non-front line people wanted their calls screened, and they were all very particular about the receptionists asking enough questions up front to transfer the call to the correct person; they would get fairly aggravated and complain to the receptionists’ supervisor if they got a call that they had to transfer elsewhere because the screening wasn’t done thoroughly enough to determine the correct recipient of the call. I consider that a core part of receptionist work. I understand that it feels like an aggravating and (to some) demeaningly low-level task, but that’s reception. The position itself comes with the expectation that how one operates in the role is determined largely by higher-ups’ preferences and not the preferences of the receptionist.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          You’re right; it IS a core task of reception. If the CFO is making the process cumbersome, however, then everyone probably needs to figure out a way to streamline it so the receptionists don’t get hung up and everything comes to a screeching halt while they determine what to do with his call.

          1. tcookson*

            I agree that it makes sense for the receptionists to come to some sort of terms that make the process less cumbersome for them — with the caveat that the CFO holds the power to have them keep doing it the way they are now, whether or not it makes sense and whether or not they like it.

            They should certainly speak up and propose ways that processes might be streamlined (and thereby, their jobs made easier), but the nature of the job is that sometimes the people they support will insist on having things done in a particular way and grant no concession to their preferences on the matter.

  4. Calla*

    Yeah, this isn’t unusual at all, and I think it’s something pretty much any good receptionist does (unless you know the person the call is for would want to take the call/they’re expecting it).

    In fact, when I started my current job, part of it is to cover the receptionist’s lunch once a week, and I was surprised when she told me I *didn’t* have to find out and relay who was calling when I transferred a call to someone. In my last job, we had people call who were sales people hawking stuff we had no interest in, crazy clients, someone nagging for something they just called about an hour ago, etc. If someone wants their calls screened in order to avoid that, I think that’s entirely reasonable.

  5. Vicomte*

    If they’re like many places, they don’t pay their bills on time and that’s why the CFO doesn’t want to answer his own phone.

  6. Stanley*

    This is absolutely not allowed at our company. Our VOIP phones have voicemail, caller ID, a “do not disturb” feature, and a call reject button that sends the call immediately to VM. If you’re working on something and cannot be interrupted, you use the DND feature. Or screen the call based on the caller ID and/or the contact info that pops up on your PC. But no matter who you are, the receptionists send your calls to you without wondering “hmm, is it Bob that wants us to screen out vendors and Ted that wants us to tell his wife he’s in the men’s room? Or is it …..” The scenarios could go on and on. The only calls they screen are the ones that they feel are obvious cold calls asking for no one in particular, or calls that could be someone trying to establish some kind of scam business billing, etc.

  7. RB*

    Switchboard operators typically direct calls without screening. Receptionists screen. There is a reason they are referred to as gatekeepers.

    When I read the title to this post and her referring to a “co-worker”, I thought it was someone who was a peer asking her to screen their calls.

    I can’t figure out her objection other than she just doesn’t like the CFO.

    1. Tina Career Counselor*

      That distinction makes sense, but has not been my experience. We have a receptionist in my office, but it is not her responsibility to screen a call if someone asks for me, only if they need help figuring out the best person to address their needs. She is the front face of our student-serving office, and has many phone calls and in-person inquiries from students and employers. Screening staff phone calls would not be on the priority list for her (from the whole office perspective, not her opinion).

      I did also wonder about referring to the CFO as a “coworker”.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Same here on wondering about the reference to a co-worker. The CFO is not a co-worker to the receptionist.

          1. Ruffingit*

            When I think of co-worker, I think of someone on the same level, not a person above. When I read the headline, I thought it presumptuous of someone on the same level as the receptionist to want her to screen their calls. When I realized it was the CFO, that put a different spin on things for me.

            1. tcookson*

              My initial reaction to the word “co-worker” is to think of it as referring to a peer in the organization, but I can’t think of any other word that describes someone at a higher level who isn’t one’s direct supervisor. I assist the department head, so the dean isn’t really my direct boss, but I don’t think of him as a co-worker, although technically he is. There isn’t anything at all incorrect about calling him a coworker; it’s just a term that doesn’t make a distinction between levels of hierarchy.

              1. Ruffingit*

                I’m not saying it’s incorrect to call him a co-worker. Just that I don’t personally think of someone higher in the hierarchy as a co-worker to those lower in the hierarchy. Rather than call the CFO a co-worker, I would just use the title of the person. In the case of this letter for example, I would have used this headline “The CFO wants all of his calls screened for him” rather than co-worker because, to me, co-worker implies someone on the same level as the receptionist.

                It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other what title someone wants to use for those who work with them. I’m just saying that for me personally, I wouldn’t use co-worker in this situation.

    2. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      I don’t think it’s inherently in a receptionist’s job description to screen. I think you could reasonably say it is for assistants, but not necessarily for receptionists.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        In my experience, it’s far more common for them to do screening when requested than not to. There’s certainly variation, but it’s not crazy to assume this is part of the gig.

      2. Anonymous*

        Not in my experience. I’ve never been a receptionist, but I’ve spent a lot of time filling in for receptionists in past positions, and screening calls was always part of the job.

        1. Chinook*

          My experience as a receptionist is that rarely had to screen unless it was obvious the caller didn’t know who they wanted to talk to (or obviously didn’t know the person because they majorly mispronounced the name). If screening was required by an employee, it would be done by one of the AA’s who has the added bonus of knowing where people were (especially in a bigger office).

          As for CFO as coworker, I have worked with CFO’s who weren’t big on titles or chain of command but even they wouldn’t consider me a coworker as they are an authority in the company. The closest would be to call them a colleague.

      3. Kelly O*

        I can add that more often than not, I’ve screened calls as a receptionist. It’s not an unusual task, and even the people who provide backup to the receptionist here also screen (even if they grumble about it.)

        I would add that perhaps creating a list of people whose calls he always takes, or asking about if he’d like to set up a protocol for transferring to voice mail for certain people at the get-go. (Things like salespeople or reps for whatever vendor is the thorn in your company’s side…)

        I guess I’m just not seeing the unreasonableness of this, and am more shocked that others are not screening their calls. It’s a basic duty for most receptionists/front desk/administrative support people.

        1. Penny*

          Hey Kelly O, aren’t you in the Houston area and looking for an admin job? My company in the 610 & I-10 area is looking for a department Administrative Assistant and want more of a career admin. If that’s a good area for you and you’re interested, I can direct you to the job description, where to apply and get your resume to the hiring manager.

    3. Anonymous*

      We have direct dial lines but anyone who calls in through the front desk is screened at my company, for everyone, not just executives. This has been standard practice at my last three companies. I’m surprised the rest of the c-suite doesn’t expect it.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      That would have been nice. Every receptionist job I have ever done was also switchboard; I did it all, and there was not even any reliable phone backup most of the time.

  8. Tina Career Counselor*

    It can depend on the culture and the size of the office. I’ve worked at several places where it was not the central receptionist’s duty to take that kind of information, the call was sent directly to voicemail, because of the volume of phone calls or the number of people they served. Those individuals with their own assistants could have their assistant run screen, but otherwise they were on their own.

    If people are in the middle of a task or in a meeting and don’t want to be distracted, they could choose not to answer the phone.

    1. Cat*

      But the issue isn’t that he doesn’t want to take any calls or wants them all to go to voicemail – it’s that the receptionist can get the info necessary to determine if a particular call is urgent or can wait. That’s the advantage of having a human screen calls.

      If there’s not resources available to have someone do that, that’s one thing. But it’s certainly a useful thing to have someone do.

      1. Tina Career Counselor*


        I also realize part of my thought process has to do with the type of office I’m in currently in (as well as the ones I’ve previously worked at). I meet with students all day, so I don’t answer the phone when I’m with an appointment (that’s our office expectation, not just me). And that’s even if it is the receptionist, so screening would be moot.

  9. Kimberlee, Esq.*

    I’m split on this, but I’m the Office Manager, and assistant to the executive director. To me, the operative part of that is “assistant to the e.d.” In that I’m not anyone else’s assistant. And it sounds like that’s the case for OP and the other assistants in her situation.

    I guess I’m just not seeing the deference to the whims of the CFO to be something to, by default, follow. Especially if it’s going to lead to other forms of assistant creep. If I were OP, I’d ask her boss what she wants her to do, but in the future when someone asks you to take down that kind of information, when it happens, to say “I’m sorry, normally the receptionists just route the calls. If you want more screening than that, you’ll have to take it up Boss.” Because it’s not the CFO’s call to make, when he’s asking for a task that takes significant time from an assistant that isn’t “his.” That’s a call for OP’s boss to make.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But the OP is charged with being back-up on the phones, which could reasonably include passing on information about callers (and often does, in many offices). If she tells the CFO to take it up with her boss, she could quite possibly find that she’s harmed her standing in the eyes of her boss (and the CFO), if in fact they consider this completely par for the course and now she looks difficult.

      She could certainly go to her boss and say, “Hey, I wasn’t sure if this was something I should be doing or not, so I wanted to check with you” — but I’d do it with a tone of true checking, not complaining or sounding like you’re hoping for a “no, you don’t have to do that.”

      1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

        Sure, I can agree with that. Though OP should make it clear to the boss, if it is indeed the case, that if call screening is something that is made available to all workers that it would suck up a lot of her and the other assistants’ time. If she just goes to her boss and asks if she should screen the CFO’s calls, there’s no reason for the boss to say no unless he/she has some context as to why it’s a bad idea. If there is a trade-off, it will be hard to let the boss know that without sounding like you’re hoping for a “no, you don’t have to do that.”

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If I’m the boss, I’m going to say, “Well, ARE other people asking for it?” And when the answer is no, I’m going to say, “Well, then please keep doing it for Bob, because the problem you propose is a hypothetical and doesn’t exist, and Bob is really busy and does good work.”

          And then, depending on what this person is like at other times, I might wonder why they’re making such a big deal about this and whether they don’t understand what my priorities as president probably are.

          1. tcookson*

            Even if it does suck up a lot of the receptionists’ and/or assistants’ time, part of that role (if the company chooses to so define it) is that you take the “time-suck” hits so that people higher up don’t have to. If the receptionist’s time gets sucked, that is less of a value loss than if the CFO’s time gets sucked.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        This. Often people try to sneak unwanted tasks under the radar. It’s best to check–most of my bosses when I was a receptionist have preferred that people go through them to assign work to me.

    2. Kelly O*

      The question I have, basically, is how much of an issue is this really?

      Because the OP is third in line to answer phones – there are two other people who normally catch calls before the OP. And I’m not trying to knock the fact that phones do interrupt what you’re doing, but if you’re the third line of defense, how much is it really taking away?

      You’d need to take into consideration how many of the incoming calls you have that are actually for the CFO – because not every call will be.

      Now, the only thing I can think of with this is if the CFO lets your buzz ring four or five times before picking up – that is a bit inconsiderate, especially if it’s consistent. But in that case there might be better ways to address the problem. And as it’s been pointed out, if it’s truly taking THAT much time away from your work, maybe talk to your boss about the problem.

      The more I think about this, the more I wonder how big an issue it really is, time-wise, or if it’s just feeling worse than it really is, and whether this is the hill upon which you’d like to die. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That was my question too — I suspect it might be more about being annoyed by the principle of it than about how disruptive it really is.

  10. B*

    This doesn’t seem that outlandish to me. However, if it is taking up a lot of time (going back and forth as to whether he wants to take it or not), then I would suggest as Alison did. Ask if he would prefer they go to his voicemail straight away instead of constantly interrupting him. I would make a caveat to that and ask if there are certain people who he should always be interrupted for.

  11. HarryV*

    Another questoin that rises is how to respond to the callers. Clearly, they are able to speak with the VP so do they in essence say s/he is in but not available or just say please hold and we will transfer you to the v/m?

    1. Anonymous*

      You would handle it the same way you’d handle it if he wasn’t actually available. “May I ask who’s calling? Just one moment please.” Try the CFO, then say, “I’m sorry, he’s not available/on another call/in a meeting/etc, would you like his voicemail?”

      1. COT*

        That can actually be useful to a caller! When I get “screened” I view it as them checking to see if that person is available, sharing that useful info with me, and offering me options if they’re not. If I want to speak with someone else rather than get routed to voicemail, it’s nice to have help with that without having to hang up and call back.

    2. Jazzy Red*

      Yeah, awkward. “Sorry, you’re not important enough for Mr. Bigshot to talk to right now. Please leave a message after the beep.”

      1. A Bug!*

        It’s not awkward at all.

        “Who may I say is calling? And what is it regarding? … Thank you, one moment. … I’m sorry, Ms. Grand-Fromage isn’t available at the moment; would you like her voice-mail?”

        No reasonable person should take offense at this. Call screening is completely normal and for a lot of people it’s a required part of managing one’s productivity. There are a ton of reasons that someone would be willing to take certain calls only at a given time, and most of them have nothing to do with how “important” the caller is.

      2. BCW*

        Yeah, I don’t find that offensive at all. If you just say Mr. Smith isn’t available, that could mean anything.

      3. Kelly O*

        I almost always just say “Mr. Smith is not available right now, would you like to leave a voice mail?” Or offer his email address, if that’s an option.

        Part of my job is helping cover phones. I’m the primary back up one day every week, and help out other days. There are some people who almost always go to voice mail, and some of them I know enough to say “I’m sorry, he’s not available” without having to buzz the office.

        It’s not necessarily “you are not important enough” – especially with the CFO. Ours is most often either on a call or working on a firm deadline so his time may be prioritized differently than others.

        That said, we actually have an “always put through” list – if someone on that list calls, we will track down the person they need in the office, or provide cell phone numbers if they’re out of the office. And I have to admit our guys are good about letting us know when they’re expecting something that requires an interruption no matter what.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          And I have to admit our guys are good about letting us know when they’re expecting something that requires an interruption no matter what.

          That’s half the battle right there. :)

  12. Anon*

    I used to work as a receptionist and I understand where this one is coming from. If you’re the only receptionist in an office of 100-200 people – it can be an unreasonable request to screen calls for everyone. Where I worked – I screened calls for the 5 executives IF and only if their assistant was out of the office. It was a huge burden when I had constant phones ringing and someone besides and executive asked me to screen calls – mostly because this really wasn’t built into my job description. If the company wanted calls screened – they would have hired another receptionist.

    Our phone system had caller ID and a way to set the phones to DND – so there’s really no reason at all someone would need phone screening.

    If I were the OP – I might ask my direct manager how she wanted requests to screen phone calls handled. I would lay out that there’s tasks A,B, and C to do and a certain number of calls coming in per day – so there isn’t time for phone screening. If she says it needs to be done – then do it. But perhaps it’s not really a part of the job description – in which case she might have suggestions for handling the call screening requests? If there is time for call screening – perhaps off handedly mentioning to your boss that your time is going to that instead of some other project would help her to understand any lack of time.

  13. Anon*

    I honestly thought it was normal to always collect that info (name of caller & nature of call) before sending messages to colleagues (or anyone for that matter).

  14. Kristy*

    As an assistant, I can see where the OP is coming from. Allison, you seem to have missed a small point. It’s not just about him not getting in contact with people, but also about the assistant’s work load. If screening the CFO’s phone calls is highly disruptive and/or keeping her from getting her work done, that’s also a major problem.

    I’m an assistant for an executive. A new director recently joined the executive’s staff. He immediately expected me to do work for him. He was handing me letters to type up, telling me to schedule his travel and even told me to get him lunch one day. I am already extremely busy with my executive’s calendar, travel, and the projects that I lead. I did not have time to be his assistant too. Furthermore, with the staff growing, I didn’t want to set a precedent as new people came in the office. So I went to the boss to talk about my job duties. I told him, I would be happy to do these tasks for the director, but that would require taking other things off my plate because I would not be able to continue doing what I was already doing and do the added tasks for the new director. He was distinctly against it, and said my priorities were his work and my projects. He told me to help the new director with any questions, but that if I was busy, I was free to let the director know.

    The role of an assistant can vary wildly depending on the company. I’m an assistant, but I lead projects, create internal promotional campaigns and plan major events. I’m always happy to help, but that doesn’t mean I can drop everything to be at someone’s beck and call. The attitude people take when it comes to assistants never fails to surprise me. The director was indignant the first time I told him no almost to the point of being angry. (I did so politely, with reference to a future time when I would be able to assistant and an offer to answer any questions if he needed it before then). In so many people’s eyes, an assistant, any assistant, is there to drop everything they’re doing to do what you want, when you want it. To some people, it simply isn’t possible that we might have important work of our own to do or that we might not have time to be everything to everyone. Perhaps some offices operate like that, but thank heavens mine doesn’t.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Allison, you seem to have missed a small point. It’s not just about him not getting in contact with people, but also about the assistant’s work load. If screening the CFO’s phone calls is highly disruptive and/or keeping her from getting her work done, that’s also a major problem.

      I think I did account for that, or at least intended to, with this from the original post: “And if his screening requests are impacting your ability to get your primary work done, you should mention that.”

      1. Anonymous*

        + 1 Alison’s point was so concise that it may have been easy to miss.

        But I agree, Kristy–it’s too common for higher level managers to assume that anyone with an “assistant” in his/her title will do the admin work the he doesn’t want to do.

        1. Jessa*

          Yes this is true, Assistant to X is not assistant to every single manager or person with title above y. The mere fact that someone is an assistant to SOMEONE does not make them free staff for all.

          The higher up the chain they assist the more this is so.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          In my experience, this is a very common attitude regarding receptionists as well. “But you’re just sitting there–surely you have time to XX/YY/ZZ/WW!” No, because my boss (office manager, HR, accounting, etc.) is giving me all HER projects!

    2. FiveNine*

      The CFO’s work is going to be the priority above the assistant or receptionist’s work. The CFO isn’t just another executive — often not even the CEO is the CFO’s boss. They typically are equals on the organizational chart, reporting to the Board of Directors/Investors.

        1. Jamie*

          Depends on the size of the company – not for phone screening. No one in my company has their own assistant and phone screening alone wouldn’t justify the expense.

          Company gatekeepers work just fine in a lot of environments.

  15. FiveNine*

    The CFO often is part of the very top management team of an organization — higher than all middle managers, senior vice presidents, often right alongside the CEO, actually. And the CFO tends not to be a figurehead type of position in quite the same way that other top management might be with the public etc. I just want to caution the OP that in some organizations it would be pretty much akin to questioning the CEO’s request for how to treat his/her incoming calls.

    1. FiveNine*

      (and of course a Director of Sales, in contrast, is going to take the vast majority of incoming calls from the company’s top clients)

    2. Anonymous*

      +1 CFO work is super-important, and often requires a lot of focus, quiet, and introverted review of the numbers. Calls disrupt this. The CEO and COO generally have more outward facing jobs.

  16. Anonymous*

    If he does not want to be contacted most of the time, perhaps his contact info should not be so freely available. I’m not technically a receptionist, but I do answer the phones along with 2 others. I don’t screen my boss’s call,s but if someone calls the main line asking for her, they usually don’t need to talk to her directly. If they did, they would have her direct line. 99.9% of the time, I handle the issue, which is my job.

    1. A Bug!*

      I’m not quite sure I understand your comment and I might need some clarification from you on it.

      OP is covering the general office phone; people are calling the main company line and asking to be put through to the CFO. If the CFO had a direct line and these callers had the number for it, they wouldn’t be reaching reception.

  17. Threeohfive*

    Having been an receptionist in a past life, I’d be thankful that the CFO is the only one that requests their calls screened and that the OP is third in line to answer. Most receptionists don’t get the luxury of having any kind of a buffer. I do agree that approaching the CFO in a non-accusatory way is best, and put the ball in his/her court as to how they want to handle the calls moving forward. Don’t get me wrong, I feel your pain OP. I hate, hate, hate answering calls and talking on the phone — even more so when the call has nothing to do with me. But it comes with the territory. For what it is worth, we lost two admins in my department and now I help out and answer outside calls when I can, cover the front desk, and even do my own filing. Not in my “job description” but everyone in my office is in the same boat and we are a stronger team because of it.

    1. Jean*

      “Not in my “job description” but everyone in my office is in the same boat and we are a stronger team because of it.”

      Although I’m totally, totally late to this thread I wanted to compliment you on your positive attitude!

      1. Kelly O*

        I read something just yesterday about how the “not my job” defense is a death knell for administrative support.

        While not directly about the issue of phones, I think the author could have added a bit about feeling as though your time is “more valuable” – I’m not saying that the OP feels that way, but I have seen too many people who think they are “too important” to handle things they feel are beneath them, and it winds up holding them back in the long run, or causing other issues.

        Again, not saying that is at all what the OP here is doing. It’s just an observation of other behaviors from other admins in other companies.

        1. tcookson*

          Sometimes the simple appearance of wanting to be helpful makes such a good impression, even if you are ultimately unable to be of any real assistance (i.e. saying “I’m not sure, but let me check on that for you” vs. “I don’t know.” or [crosses self] “That’s not my job.”).

          One of the most off-putting qualities of someone in a support or service position is a sullen indifference to being minimally helpful. A person who gives the appearance of being upbeat and friendly while making at least a minimal effort to help is waaay more likely to be forgiven for not being able to actually come through than someone who acted like they didn’t even care to try.

  18. Dulcinea*

    I am also very late on this thread, but I want to weigh in on the value of having a person screen your calls vs. everything you can’t take at a given moment goes to voicemail.

    If there is someone screening my calls and tells me who is calling, I can easily tailor a specific message: “tell her I will email her about the settlement later this afternoon” or “tell him I’m not goting to be able to talk to him until after 2” where it would just be impractical to record a new VM greeting every day to encompass all the situations that might come up.

  19. Kerr*

    Having filled in as a temporary receptionist for all kinds of companies, screening calls is generally par for the course. In fact, it’s more surprising when you don’t have to screen. And as a general rule, those who want their calls screened often send most of the calls to voicemail – because those calls are the entire reason they’re having the receptionist screen in the first place.

    I expect the level of bother depends on the volume of calls, and how detailed of a message the CFO expects the receptionists to pass on. Name, company, and briefly stated purpose of call (with extra digging if it sounds like a cold-caller), is standard. A two-minute description of the caller’s situation isn’t, though it’s been done occasionally.

    How many of the CFO’s calls does the OP have to screen per day (or per hour)? If she’s regularly dealing with a large volume of calls, even as the third in line, I could see how that could affect her work. If it’s only a few calls per day, it’s probably not worth worrying about.

  20. Jamie*

    I know I’m late on this one – just wanted to say that I was really surprised that there are so many who didn’t feel this was par for the course with reception.

    IME reception screens calls for everyone – otherwise why not have everyone just go to direct dial. I can’t even imagine how much time I’d spend fielding sales calls if ours weren’t screened.

    Finding out who is calling and to where they are calling from and then seeing if so and so is in for that call is the whole point of having someone manage the phones, no? We all fill in when our receptionist is on lunch or away from her desk (and by all I mean everyone – including the owners of the company) and we all screen each others calls. I can’t imagine anyone putting a call through to me without telling me who it was and where they were calling from – nor would I put through a call to anyone else without that information.

    And I don’t understand the caller ID argument. If my direct dial rings unless the company names comes up with the number I have no idea who it would be. That’s why I’m really selective about who gets that number, because it bypasses reception.

    I guess I’m just surprised expecting your calls to be screened is considered arrogant or off putting because to me it’s the whole point …otherwise have voice mail prompts and direct dials for everyone.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      It depends on the company, on the phone system, on whether they have their own assistants or not and do calls sent to Exec Y go to his desk or to the assistant’s, etc. Small companies are easier to screen in, because sometimes you can literally see the person at their desk waving “No, no, I don’t want it!” And in those, the receptionist usually is both the physical gatekeeper and the switchboard.

      It’s still on them to say “I am going to be doing X for a while; please send all my calls to voicemail,” if screening isn’t the usual procedure. I think Alison was right about the OP checking with her boss–if it’s a bother, the boss might have another suggestion on how to handle the calls.

  21. An HR Person*

    It’s so interesting to me that this is even an issue. It is absolutely the job of the receptionist at my company to screen calls. In fact, it’s her job to know who likes their calls screened how, and she’s good at it. She’s so good at it, that half the time she automatically knows who I’m going to want to speak to, and who should just go to voicemail without even checking in with me.

    The way the phone system works at my company is that it rolls to the admin staff if the receptionist doesn’t pick up, then the next tier of admin folks, then to the whole office. There have been times when I’ve answered the phone as the HR Director and have screened calls for someone who was much lower in the hierarchy of the company than I. I didn’t see it as a demeaning task at all – it’s just what is expected, and if I didn’t have time to answer and screen the call properly, I wouldn’t have picked up the phone in the first place.

  22. EC*

    Having worked at a prior job where the receptionist asked ‘may I tell them who is calling’, and then a new position where its habit to just say ‘I have a call for you’ and not having anything more – It does help to know what you are walking into instead of getting a call blind. When it’s a direct call, there is the advantage of caller ID, but having someone just say, call for you, seems careless to me. If I know who is calling, I can be prepared and help the caller that much faster. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask to know at least the name of the caller. However, since I’ve asked this, calls are simply transferred to me directly. On one hand, I guess I was asking too much, but on the other hand, at least now caller ID shows who it is.

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