Dealings With a Secretary

July 8, 2009

Dear Survival Guide

My secretary is not being helpful. She refuses to do the simple tasks I assign her and complains to my superior that I am bullying her both by asking her to do these things and by the way I ask her. I am a hard-working, mid-level administrator in an important department and I am in delicate health; that means that I need a little extra help. So, on occasion, I’ve asked her to carry and reach things for me, to shelve books, to pick up a sandwich at a local store, or to wait in a parking spot close to the building, so that I can park close to my office. I’m often on assignments out of the office, and prefer working at home anyway, so I ask her to unlock my office door and turn the lights on in the morning (and lock it and turn off the lights in the evening), so that people won’t question whether I am working. But she challenges everything I ask her and says that it's inappropriate to ask her to do these things. Last week she refused outright, in front of the rest of the staff, to follow my direction that she rearrange the staff workroom to make room for my bicycle on the days I bike to work, citing some memo she’d seen about bicycles in buildings. This is ridiculous, as it’s too expensive to leave outside on a college campus. She’s clearly uncooperative and beyond. I am a very busy person. I want to be her friend and have a good working relationship but she must do her job. How can I make her understand what her duties are?

--Frustrated at BigStateU

Dear Frustrated:

Things seem to be at deadlock, with unpleasant escalations possible and even likely: Your secretary’s next step is to file a grievance against you. Yours is to invoke a disciplinary process against her. Or both. Try this alternative: Consult with a representative from human resources. Do it soon — like right now, before you take another breath. Nothing about this situation is stable or good.

As you do that, it’s worth trying to look at your practices from multiple points of view. You say that your secretary has been complaining to your superior about the tasks you assign her. What responses have you gotten so far about these matters? Has your boss responded to them? Have her complaints engaged his or her attention? There should be useful data in any responses about how your expectations interact with the expectations in your environment for someone in her job classification.

Find out if you are required to consult with the person to whom you report before you call HR. If not, consider whether passing the information would be a wise step anyway. When you talk to the HR person, ask questions about the secretary’s job responsibilities, and ask specifically about the boundaries for assigning tasks. In most settings, for example, holding a parking place and assistance with everyday chores do not fall within usual secretarial duties. There are many limits on your range of freedom to set working conditions on employees you supervise, including union contracts, state civil service regulations, terms of employment, and job descriptions, not to mention precedent and the ever-popular “we’ve never done it that way before.”

Asking your secretary to unlock your door and turn on your lights is not necessarily unreasonable. Doing so to give the impression that you are on site when you are not, though, could be taken in ways you don’t intend. Survival Guide once worked in an office where this practice by a colleague triggered a full performance review, because the head of the operation felt deceived. It came to his attention because the secretaries shared with each other; her secretary talked to his secretary, who told him. If you work from home most of the time, formalizing that arrangement — and sharing it with those affected — will protect you by providing transparency and accountability. Posting office hours and contact information, or developing a documented telecommuting agreement, depending on your employment category, can accomplish both.

Have you requested official accommodations for your health issues? If you have, the office in charge of those should arrange assistance for your special needs and help to communicate with those who are asked to undertake duties they have not had before. In such a case, your secretary could be formally asked to do the tasks now being resisted. If you have not, consider requesting a review to see if you qualify. Either way, consider how confusing to others is the juxtaposition of your ability to bicycle to campus with your health condition that requires extra assistance. You, the human resources staff and your superior should devise a strategy to untangle the misunderstandings complicating your workplace relationships.

Inform yourself about bicycle policies on campus. If there’s a written policy that is enforced about bringing bicycles indoors, your secretary is in the right on this one. Many campuses have these policies, often rooted in fire and safety regulations designed to prevent barriers to evacuation or other barriers and hazards.

In summary, while your assignments to your secretary are intended to extend your productivity, take a step back to see how they might appear to outsiders. Using institutional resources for what could be perceived as personal services is not why families pay tuition or citizens their taxes. In public institutions, especially, there is a fundamental obligation to be wise and responsible stewards of public funds, public resources and good will.

An example that recurs in Survival Guide workshops around the country is the administrator who dispatches his or her assistant to pick up the administrator’s kids from daycare to permit attendance at an after-hours meeting. Often, there’s someone in the group who defends this practice, on the grounds that s/he and the secretary have worked together for years and are personal friends, so the secretary is fetching the kids wearing the “friend” hat, not an “employee” hat. If that’s the case, it is especially important to articulate the boundaries and make sure you both have the same perception of which role the two of you are occupying at various times of the day; if the friendship curdles, you as the more powerful party in the relationship will be responsible for having misused your institutionally-conferred power. It’s the rare — and always private — institution that permits use of college resources for personal obligations that most people manage by themselves or with help from family, friends and babysitters. There is a boundary between your professional role and your personal life, and it’s your responsibility to know and respect it.

One question raised by your letter is what your secretary means when she complains that you are bullying her. Survival Guide works with dysfunctional departments nationwide, and one of the most common recurring complaints is “my boss is a bully.” We do not have generally understood or accepted definitions of what constitutes bullying behavior, or what conduct is acceptable in academic workplaces. The particulars that emerge range from the imposition of discipline for dereliction of duty through the institutional review process (usually not bullying) to truly egregious threats. (“Don’t make me angry; I know 27 ways to kill people with my bare hands.”)

A great (if potentially uncomfortable) resource for self-assessment is Bob Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule and his on-line self-rating test, the ARSE (Asshole Rating Self-Exam). Before you dismiss your secretary’s complaints, do some soul-searching and self-assessment. The rule of thumb here is that it isn’t your intent that governs conclusions drawn about your behavior, it’s the effect of your actions on others. The gulf between intent and effect can be wide, so assess the effect of your everyday conduct on those around you.

With these other issues in mind as you call your human resources office, be prepared for them to explore your requests to your secretary from all these perspectives. Once you hear their advice, follow it both in terms of tasks you assign and steps to follow to improve your office environment.

--Survival Guide

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