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Make Bad Coffee: How to Send the Message That You’re Not a Personal Assistant

There are two types of people who become administrative assistants: the hardcore people pleasers who will say “yes” to anything short of donating their spleen (and have probably donated blood and maybe even bone marrow) and the hardcore types with steel backbones who are somehow magically able to tell an executive they are not doing something without getting fired. This is the type of admin we people pleasers long to be, and yet somehow fall short of. Yes, I admit it. I’m the people pleaser who struggles with knowing when to draw the line when it comes to personal assistant work.

I’ve mailed boxes of Lucky Charms to an executive’s niece in Great Britain (which is illegal). I’ve paid an exec’s rent. I’ve cleaned up dead goldfish and taken home its replacement on holidays so it wouldn’t die. I’ve gotten different kinds of chocolate chip cookies from different bakeries every day for two weeks, and turned a conference room into a dorm room at 3:00am (with bunk beds, I might add).

Some people feel totally at ease doing personal errands. In fact, some admins actually LIKE to do them. And what’s a personal errand and what’s not? It’s hard to distinguish. For example, buying a bottle of wine for your executive’s peer’s promotion: is that a work or personal errand? I lean toward “work errand” and do it gladly, while other admins would rather chew their arm off á la James Franco in that stuck-under-a-rock movie.

So where do we admins draw the line between grabbing a cup of coffee and ending up going to our exec’s hotel room every day to take their dog out to poop? (been there, done that). Here are some tips to help the average people pleasing admin draw the line in a professional manner. (None involve screaming, “I’m not your slave!” and throwing chocolate chip cookies.)

Here’s what to do if you’re not being paid to be someone’s personal assistant.

1. Draw the line in the sand early.

You can say something like: “I’ll do it this one time, but I generally don’t feel comfortable performing this kind of task.”

2. Offer alternative solutions.

Instead of silently grumbling, offer your boss alternative solutions to your handling the errand. For example, if they ask you to pick up their dry cleaning, let them know about their dry cleaner’s delivery service.

3. Be too busy.

Let your exec know you’re absolutely slammed and ask if they can assign the task to someone else. NINJA TIP: Make sure you don’t get caught playing Cityville if you claim to be stretched too thin.

4. Do it so badly they never ask again.

Give me an old-fashioned coffee machine with filters and cheap grounds and I’ll give you burnt tasting sludge. I gave my boss this sludge once, and he never asked me to make him coffee again. But he does take me up on my offers to grab Starbucks whenever I throw it out there.

My final advice is to err on the side of caution when it comes to this topic. There are some admins that know their job is “anything goes” and that TONS of personal assistant work is included, while others have the freedom to say “no.” At the end of the day, being an assistant is a customer service gig and it’s our job to make our executive’s life easier. So try and see it from their point of view when they ask for help. Just don’t get stuck constantly flushing your boss’ dead goldfish.

How do you avoid doing “personal assistant” tasks?

Comments

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  1. I currently work for a man that expects us to clean up dog feces because he’s too lazy to take them outside & they shit all over the office. It’s incredibly demeaning & disrespectful to even expect this from anyone but I was actually sent home today because I refused to clean up dog shit. I cannot believe this man would actually utter those words but he did. I went home with a smile, that’s completely unreasonable. He says since I am his assistant I have to assist him with whatever he needs. Including pay for & providing meals before he gets hungry because he requires it & the company will fail if I don’t feed him. This is abuse, am I wrong?

  2. I had a boss who would just ask me to do things because I have a great work ethic. She really believed I existed to serve her. She was largely ineffective but mostly just laazy. She took advantage of this and the fact we had a good relationship. I regrettablu resent her. I never received special treatment for the record. She was at my desk every five minutes and everyone thought I was a favorite and created an unhealthy dynamic. I wish I would have said these things

    That is not in my job jar.
    I do not have those skills, someone else would be better suited.
    Sorry, can’t help you out
    My plate is full. If you need me to do x, this project needs to be assigned to y or pushed back.
    Doing x is not part of my workrole. I don’t feel comfortable doing that

    That is outside if my expertise. I don’t feel comfortable doing that. Thank you.
    Can’t right now.
    I am not available to do those types of projects.

  3. I am here looking for advice on business relations with family members. I work as an office manager for my in laws. They take many vacations throughout the year, and usually when they leave, they have personal dilemmas that need to be fixed – by me. On one occasion, they were waiting on replacement credit cards to be sent to them. Once they arrived, it was time for their vacation. So I was tasked with moving all of their bills to the new card. On another occasion, they were shocked when I refused to take their dog for two weeks (we had done it before, but said dog destroyed our carpet). If I do not answer the phone on the weekend, or respond to things they send me while they are away, they get very aggravated. It seems they feel like I should be available to them 24/7. But then, when it’s time to sign my checks, they make “jokes” that if I keep working so much they won’t be able to pay me. I need boundaries and I need them now. Help!

  4. Administrative or Executive Assistant positions are to take care of the administrative side of business. Personal tasks are not part of the business. I say no, unless an exceptional situation. If I take on the bosses personal things, then my work productivity goes down, and I end up doing my business work after hours and on week-ends. That’s not fair. It is disrespectful to expect a trained professional to take care of one’s personal errands and tasks. And shows the boss in a poor light, not only to their assistant, but to the rest of the business.

  5. I recently interviewed for an Executive Assistant position supporting the CEO and 3 executive. The CEO was a Chinese female, her current assistant told me each morning, she brought the CEO coffee and tea in the afternoon. I thought that’s very nice of you but if I get this job she’s going to be awful thirsty because I’m not here for that. The interview was going well so I met with the CEO, she begin by sharing with me, all her assistant bring her coffee in the mornings and tea in the afternoon, it was then I realized she sees this as a job function as well as sitting at the receptionist desk and managing her personal life, run errands, plan family vacations, pay her bill etc. I was shocked and thought to myself, she must be out of her mind if she expects me to do all this foolishness for $20/HR. I was so hoping I would not get a call for the job but fortunately or in my opinion, unfortunately, they called and offered me the position the next day. I declined, I haven’t spent the last 12 plus year in an Executive Assistant role working side by side with my managers as a right hand woman instrumental in major company’s decision making and being considered a viable source of information to be forced back in time by someone who has power issues. I don’t know If it’s power or custom but it definitely shows a lack of respect. I’ve NEVER been required to bring coffee for my manager and for those who started that with her, shame on you. If you don’t set boundaries for yourself, you can’t get upset when people cross the line.

    1. Why did you feel the need to point out that she was a Chinese female?

  6. The focus of my job as an admin is to make my boss look good. But that is only in respect to the work place. If he forgets his wife’s birthday that’s on him. If he/she needs to run lunch to their kids school cause they forgot it, that’s on them. I am happy to get you coffee if I am getting myself some. I am happy to run an errand for you if it doesn’t interrupt my work and the primary function of my job. This muddling of admin/personal assistant needs to STOP. That is old school and not what many of us went to school for. How can we advance in our career paths if we are only identified as great ‘gophers’. You can have boundaries with your boss and remain polite, kind and helpful. If they are poor managers of their time and their home lives, that’s not for me to fix, they have to own it. Unless you want to pay me more or add in additional time off or a bonus. Then we can talk, because I need to be compensated for what is above and beyond my job description. especially if it is ongoing.

  7. To “Hirer of Personal Assistants”: Are you really? And you aren’t aware of the broad range of job descriptions? If Personal Assistant is the job title, then the employee should know what they are in for. What the blogwriter here is talking about is Administrative Assistants (and in come comments you see Human Resources Manager. By virtue of the title, the job is to assist with Administrative aspects of the company — company business — not personal business. It’s a blurrred line that usually has to be set by the employee when you are subject to whether your new boss is an a-hole who takes advantage and turns you into his/her minion (usually a sign of their insecure need to feel powerful). I’ve had a long career in Administration and have had the good fortune to work for people who understand the difference. Know what they got? They got someone who really helped move projects along — allowing them to focus more on the work and decisions that only they could make. Then, on those occasions when they really needed a hand with non-company matters, of course I didn’t think twice about helping out — once my boss spilled something on his jacket on his way to an important client meeting and called me to help figure a way to get him a replacement jacket in time. I felt like I chipped in toward the greater good of helping him be ready for the meeting….not performing a task he was too lazy to do himself. Remember: Personal Assistant is not Administrative Assistant is not Marketing Assistant is not Assistant Engineer is not Assistant Attorney. Get it? “Assistant” in the title doesn’t mean you’re rightfully expected to do anything that is asked of you.

  8. I was a Human Resources Manager and the Administrator asked me to get breakfast for the management team on each of their birthdays for our morning meeting, which was about 13 of us. Each manager reported to the Administrator, not me, so why was I tasked with making these special trips to the local donut shops and bagel places? I hated that she assumed it was my responsibility, as an HR Manager. Needless to say, I no longer work for this “Hitler-management style” boss! Working for her was like hell for several reasons.

    1. Sorry to hear that, Cara! Onward and upward as they say :) Glad you’re not working for that boss anymore.

  9. I’m not sure what the problem is with mailing cereal or taking a dog on a walk. I would fire a person who took the advice in this article. It’s passive aggressive. You ARE a personal assistant. Someone is paying you to support them. You should be willing to do whatever that takes, unless it is in actuality something no one should do.

    1. Did you even read the article?

    2. A personal assistant is NOT the same as an administration assistant. If you want a personal slave, hire one. My last boss insisted that I run personal errands, and I said no. He said that’s your job. It wasn’t written into the ‘financial assistant’ role I was hired to do. So I told him again, no personal errands were not part of the role I was offered. He said do it or quit. So I quit. His next two finance assistants quit too and he still can’t see what the problem is. I’ve moved on to chief financial officer now and the company I work for refuses to do business with my old boss due to his tyrant reputation.

  10. lol – love the fact that you took a dog to poop. I will admit as a people pleaser who also runs an administrative business (which compounds my need to please) I’ve dealt with extracting myself from similar types of requests by having personal assistants on speed dial.

    I find the bigger I grow my network the more I come across people who actually want to do what I might consider a bazaar task.

  11. It seems I do less and less personal errands with each new position I acquire. I’m in entertainment and I started as a Personal Assistant for a procuder. When I moved over to her husband’s office as his Exec Asst. a lot of personal duties came with me. As I moved to a large studio, there were fewer personal errand, but still quite a few. At my current position, my boss actually feels uncomfortable when I offer to help with a personal errand, so I stopped asking!

    1. ‘fewer and fewer’ not ‘less and less’ :D

    2. I’ve heard several people say their bosses feel uncomfortable with personal errands. That’s very interesting that you work in entertainment, that sounds fun!

  12. Great topic and a serious issue not to be taken lightly as there are some PA’s out there, that dont have a choice in the everyday mundane task, but very insightful and fun to read. Never had that problem to be honest, but that’s because I set the record straight from the offset and prioritise. I have sent this article to some girlfriends I know would appreciate a chuckle this morning and resignate with the content. Thank you!

    1. Thanks! Glad you got a kick out of it!

  13. Great topics and excellent comments.
    I usually tell my manager that I am working on “X” project that needs to be completed right away, so which one would they prefer that I do? Complete the project or run their personal errand!

    1. Great way to deal with the situation PJ!

  14. Well written…with a sense of humor!

    1. Thanks Darcy, I appreciate that. And many thanks to my fabulous editor!!

      1. Big kudos to Courtney and Jenessa on a fun and insightful article! <3 you guys!

        1. Thanks OfficeNinjas!

        2. Great job, Courtney! I literally LOL’d reading this the first time!

          1. HAHA, thanks Jenessa!

  15. I don’t mind the requests to piggy back on something I’m already doing or going to do, like get lunch or do a Starbucks run. And certain personal things aren’t a big deal (and are actually kind of fun sometimes), like moving his car from the charging station to a regular spot, or shopping for a gift for a client. But I drew the line from the get-go on when it’s something a little *too* personal. I think if you have a good relationship with your boss, it shouldn’t be hard to have that conversation. And that’s coming from someone who abhors any kind of confrontation or disagreements.

    PS – that .gif is hilarious!

    1. I agree that shopping for gifts is fun! I myself have a great relationship with my boss and would feel fine voicing if I felt uncomfortable, so I feel extremely lucky. I hate confrontations too!

  16. It’s that “Other duties as required” line in the job description that gets you every time. My title is Office Manager and Assistant to the Principals. Some require more ‘assistance’ than others. You never know what’s going to come up day to day.

    1. It’s definitely always a surprise in our line of work, but at least it’s never boring!

  17. Fun article. Miscellaneous Duties As Assigned can become a broad category if boundaries aren’t set.

    1. Thanks Jennie! I agree, although I clearly have a hard time saying no, haha!

  18. KMK, I definitely struggle with not being seen as a dedicated employee if I don’t take on the personal errand. That’s my issue exactly! That’s how I end up mailing cereal.

  19. Great topic and fun approach to this issue.

    I think one of the most important processes is making sure this to 1) check the tasks listed job description 2) discuss in interview settings if they’ve ever had an assistant take on personal errands and is there an expectation of taking on those errands.

    It’s truly up to the assistant to know where they stand on these kind of tasks prior to accepting a position and if it does come up, addressing it immediately, directly, and professionally.

    I learned this lesson the hard way in a prior position. I think it is a super important issue that many admins face and don’t know how to handle because they’re either concerned with not being seen as a dedicated employee or a team-player if they decline to take on additional tasks.

  20. Thank you MJ! Do you end up running a lot of personal errands?

  21. Great article and a fun read. Nicely done!

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