Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Deference


I'm reading a great article by Francisca Mari called "The Assistant Economy," all about the growing field of the occupation of personal assistant.

We're not talking secretary or executive administrative assistant. Those are jobs that, while often involve a lot of hand-holding and personal connection, are still defined as work that benefits the employing organization, not the individual. A person may be the executive administrative assistant to the CEO of Big Business, Inc., but at the end of the day, that person works for Big Business, Inc., not the CEO.

The jobs that are the topic of the article are all about performing personal tasks for an individual employer. We often think of celebrities, movies stars or performers as people who hire personal assistants, but according to the article, many important and self-important people hire personal assistants, including authors, politicians, TV personalities, and - yes - CEOs of Big Business, Inc. even hire personal assistants. To perform tasks that are intimate, sometimes trivial, and often demeaning.

Personal assistants provide daily support and companionship, and nurture their hard-working bosses. They do everything from buying gifts for their bosses' families, to procuring the latest food craving. They are on-call all the time. They may even fake fan-mail for their bosses - providing a kind of bought-and-paid-for affirmation.

Sometimes the money is pretty good. You might think that being paid to be in the presence of an important and creative person, being close-up to genius, would be great, even if you're only there to shine the boss's shoes or make sure he doesn't run out of his favorite flavor of Altoids. Yet personal assistants are not viewed as equals. They are treated like servants, and often become the stand-in proxy for their boss's frustration and anger.

Once upon a time, I worked as an administrative assistant for a woman who was leading a fundraising effort for a performing arts theatre. Though our employer was an educational institution, and my job was a classified position, what my boss really wanted was a personal assistant. We were a two-person office, just her and me, and for six months I spent my time hand-writing invitations for her, buying her newspaper, and serving coffee and cookies when she held meetings.

I am not suited for such work. The final straw was when, after a day with just the two of us in the office, she set her used coffee cup on my desk as she pulled on her coat to leave for the day. She expected me to wash it, so it would be clean for her in the morning. I quit shortly after.

Some people are fine with this kind of work; or maybe some bosses are less imperious. I have a friend who has been a personal assistant to a certain movie star for many years. She's a bright and assertive person, certainly not someone who'd put up with being treated like a servant.

Mari's article also discusses the rising trend of books written about personal assistants - both roman-a-clef novels and tell-all non-fiction exposés. Since many people who become personal assistants are creative people in their own right, this makes sense.

Other assistants may aspire to take on their boss's role in the future. Movie producer Scott Rudin - who is known to have gone through over 200 assistants in five years - started out as personal assistant to a Broadway producer.

What do you think? Could you work as a personal assistant?

4 comments:

David Duff said...

Good grief, I have been a PA to the 'Memsahib' for 51 years. Non-stop 'fetch this', 'pick up that', 'clean the other' and 'don't forget the shopping' and 'pour me a drink before you go'! Honestly, you have no idea what I have suffered!

Sister Wolf said...

I was sent here by David Duff and I enjoyed that piece about assistants! Thanks for the tip. I am not cut out for that job either, as I am insubordinate by nature.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

My job as an administrator often is seen as administrative assistant. Sometimes I grin through it and other times I shrug off the efforts to put me in that position -- it really depends on the age and attitude of the other person.

Kizz Robinson said...

I have been a personal assistant for so long. And I was a stage manager well before that. Something about who I am is good at it even though I only love it when I'm working for someone I like. I personally assist my friends all the time and joyfully. The job is hard to get to on time. I have a book in me. About a huge financial mogul and what it was like working for him. It's a weird kind of job but..I guess somebody's got to do it.