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Passion, People and Principles

Old Secretary

post # 59 — April 25, 2006 — a Careers post

I have had a project on the back burner entitled ‘What I Wish I Had Known’ in which I asked a variety of people what advice they would pass on to young professionals. In the near future, I hope to get this material organized and presented on my website.

One of the contributors is Debra Bender, now retired, who was a secretary (her preferred term) in a law firm. Her advice to young professionals, candid and straight from the hip, is now on her own blog, called Old Secretary.

Debra doesn’t pull her punches. Here’s a sample of her thoughts.

I once worked for a young associate who was such a pleasure that I suggested he consider teaching a course entitled, “How to Treat Your Secretary.” Ken was always pleasant and easy-going, probably a quirk of his personality, but appreciated nonetheless. After reading the first letter I edited for him, he said, “Did I write this? It sounds great!” From then on, we were a team in the truest sense of the word. Even though he asked me to do things that went far beyond duties normally considered “secretarial,” I would have done anything for him because I never felt that he was taking advantage of me. Requests were made on an “if you have time” basis and I had the freedom to say “I just can’t do that today.” Completed jobs were consistently rewarded with gratitude. When I asked how someone so young had learned such an important lesson, he said, with a smile, “At my old firm, I saw what can happen if you make a secretary mad at you and I determined then and there that I would never do anything to put myself in that position.” Treat a secretary well and you’ll be richly rewarded.

Another thing I will never do is cry in front of someone, no matter how mean and evil-tempered they’re being. I have done my share of boo-hooing in bathroom stalls, but I refuse to let the perpetrator know he got to me. My policeman-husband’s advice is a bit more pro-active, shall we say. “Don’t let them intimidate you. When they come out yelling, just get up out of your chair and stand up, and I promise they’ll think twice about carrying on.” I have to admit that I’ve done that once or twice, even shaking my finger in someone’s face. It was effective, to say the least, and felt good at the moment, but I’m not convinced it was the best solution, long-term. There’s nothing quite as sobering as calm, total, rational silence in the onslaught of a ranting, raving, red-faced temper tantrum.

Since I work for three people, it is critical that everyone is truthful about assignments and deadlines. However, there’s always the one who believes that fudging the truth about deadlines will get her work done on a priority basis and, on the opposite end, the one who always waits until the very last second, springs a surprise deadline on me and expects me to drop everyone else’s work because his absolutely, positively has to be done before 5:00. Both are dishonest, in their own way, and make my job more difficult and stressful. Jus’ the facts, ma’am. Just let me know what has to be done today, what can be done tomorrow, what’s priority, what can wait, and then allow me the freedom to work your demands into my other assignments for the day. Another old secretary trick: When everyone’s work has to be done at the same time, I simply stop working and say, “Talk to each other. When you’ve figured out how I should do this, I’ll go back to work.” It has never failed.

I told you she tells it like she sees it!


tired secretary said:

When workplace wisdom is needed, Old Secretary is the one to count on. I want to read more, please.

posted on April 26, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

My philosophy when dealing with support staff is:

1) I don’t ask for anything I’m not willing to do. What this means, as a practical matter, is that if I ask someone to stay in to get something done, I stay with them until it is done (there’s always something more to do, anyway.)

2) If they do something for me well, or beyond the call of duty I praise them directly, to their bosses and behind their backs (it always gets back to people).

3) I express trust in them, and ask for their advice on how to handle tricky situations. If there is a problem, I don’t demand they fix it – I ask them to explain it to me first.

4) I run interference with other people who need their time, or their bosses, if necessary. They will never take the blame because they took time to help me if I have anything to say about it – if necessary, I will take the blame for them.

posted on April 28, 2006

Old Secretary said:

Mr. W – I might just give up retirement and come work for you! Seriously, I know there are many good people in the work world and I’m sure your support staff philosophy makes you a beloved boss.

posted on April 30, 2006