The readers speak. . .and speak

Advice on secretary's problem touches a nerve in many.

There was a lot of reader mail after the June 14 column, "New tasks offer employees opportunities to shine." In the column, I responded to a secretary's letter. She was angry because new word processing software was added to her job and, as a result, she wasn't given a raise or a new job description:

My response - in a nutshell- was that this single event was unlikely to result in a new job description. I suggested she welcome new technology since it would streamline her routine work and free her time for new initiatives. In an expanded role as an "administrative assistant," I felt she'd have a better chance at a new job description and a raise.

Here are some reader reactions:

  • I've had four bosses and I always made them look good. Some noticed and some didn't seem to care. In the end, doing work above and beyond my job description was what paid off in a promotion. (Supervisor)
  • "When I was a secretary for some doctors, one of them threw a cheese sandwich in my face because it had been ordered with yellow mustard instead of brown. He also said, 'Damn it, you screwed up my [personal] checkbook.'"

Even though these are horror stories from the past, I know some of this mistreatment still exists today, though, it's much more subtle:

·        "However, the well is running dry. Soon, we will have to beg, borrow and steal to get a good secretary. Pay will go up and so will their status." (Manager of employment for a major national company).

Other readers felt more like this:

·        "You might be losing several secretary fans with your management viewpoint. When the bosses give us extra work they do not give us raises or promotions. If they do, it's only after we bitch for two or three years. Some friends, who kept nagging for raises, were told, 'Do the job or look elsewhere!' Is that fair? No wonder there are fewer and fewer secretaries. It certainly is not a career with a future for advancement."

·        "My spirit is quickly going downhill. The boss doesn't realize all I do during the day. I have realized it is truly a dead end job. The male employees are given new duties, given promotions and raises, but not the women. To get ahead, we must quit and try again somewhere else. Then, of course, we lose seniority, vacation time, etc. “

·        "I have one friend who followed your plan to learn all the duties her boss performed. When there was a layoff, her boss was let go. She was put in charge of running her department, with only a slight increase in pay. Nothing near as much as the man had received."

Unfortunately, these two situations are much too common in some organizations. Secretaries are undervalued, underpaid and unappreciated. In some companies, the problem isn't a lack of secretarial ambition or ability. It's the boss' blindness, ignorance or arrogance that holds secretaries back.

I am aware of many secretaries who earn their degrees at night, assume many complex tasks beyond their job descriptions and yet they remain invisible to levels above them. Indeed, in some cases there does appear to be a management mind-set that is difficult to change: Once a woman holds a secretarial job in some companies, many above her are unable to envision her in a non-clerical role.

So what can be done?

I asked several former secretaries who had moved into management positions how they did it and how their boss helped them. Here's what they said:

·        "Have a career development discussion with your secretary at least once a year. Discuss your secretary's goals as well as her talents and weaknesses in relation to those goals. Develop specific actions with follow-up dates to see how the plan is progressing."

·        "Give her assignments that help your secretary develop experience in the gaps between where she is now and where she wants to be."

·        "If she is serious about a career and needs a degree, discuss her willingness to get one."

·        "Act as a mentor to your secretary." (In every case, the women I interviewed said their boss - or another manger - acted as a mentor who gave them honest feedback and helped them find opportunities to develop their potential.)

To the secretaries: "Don't sit around waiting for recognition. Blow your own horn. Reach out for work your boss doesn't like to do and do more than you're asked to do. Doing more of the same work doesn't get you anything - doing more complex work does. As you move up the ladder, you are expected to do more than your job description - without extra pay for every little thing."

The message is clear. A manager who helps his or her secretary attain her goals is creating a win-win situation. He or she gets greater motivation and results from his employees while helping them get what they want. That's what a manager's job is all about.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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