Over the last year there have been loads of news stories with PAs right at the heart of the scandal. Last year we had Nigella Lawson’s court case, Lady Gaga’s PA exposing her strange working conditions and more recently Rebekah Brook’s former PA accused of providing a false alibi and destroying evidence. Last week we had yet another story regarding Richard Scudamore’s PA leaking sexist emails to the press.

For those that don’t know, here is a quick recap: Richard Scudamore is the Chief Executive of the Football Premier League. His former temporary PA, Rani Abraham, saw a number of emails which contained jokes, sexual innuendoes and lurid descriptions of women. She leaked them to The Mirror (a popular tabloid newspaper here in the UK) causing a furor that has led to many calling for his dismissal and many many discussions around sexism and sexual harassment at work. Here is an interview Rani gave to Good Morning Britain (for those reading this on email here is a link):

As you can imagine I’ve followed this story with much interest. It is worth mentioning that the emails were sent and received via private email not by his work email address. But, and this is significant, Rani has said the emails were automatically forward to her so that she could arrange his diary. In every single one of my assistant roles I have insisted that I have complete and full assess to my Executive’s emails. I have seen all sorts of emails that should be private, are inappropriate and could cause offence. I’m sure most assistants have seen similar and not said a word about it to anyone.

We all know that confidentiality is paramount but should we really have to put up with seeing and hearing things that are rude, offence and sexist? I wonder if a lot of PAs are used to this kind of behaviour and almost become numb to it. Most of us do not work for high profile individuals so it is unlikely we would go to the newspapers with our story but we could go to our HR departments with the same evidence. I can’t imagine many assistants would do that.

So what do we do when we find ourselves in this situation? Rani has said herself she thinks her actions may cause her problems in her future career and yet Richard Scudamore has kept his job because the emails were deemed private. The outcome of this particularly story suggests PAs should remain silent for the sake of their career and the Executive goes unpunished, but surely we shouldn’t have to read or be exposed to this type of sexism? The problem is that the sexism was not directed specifically at the PA, Scudamore and his pals were discussing other women. There just so happened to be a women copied into some of the emails and she has stated that she did not find the emails offence.

A lot of journalist writing on this story have argued that male banter is juvenile, inappropriate and quite a lot of men would be accused of sexism if their conversations were exposed. I would totally agree with this – but is it an excuse? This wasn’t banter in a pub – this was over email, it was written down and it was overtly sexist.  This argument doesn’t recognise the relationship PAs have with their boss, their role and how much PAs are actually exposed to. If anything, this story yet again demonstrates the tightrope PAs have to tread, mostly on their own and isolated from their colleagues.

This story actually exposes a bigger issue in our profession. Some of us do have to put up with seeing inappropriate emails and hearing inappropriate conversations but we say nothing. It can be anything from disgustingly sexist banter to everyday personal email exchanges between our Executive and their husband or wife. In my experience, many Executives are not bothered what their assistant is exposed to, which makes me wonder if they simply don’t care, don’t think we will say anything or don’t have enough respect for us? If we do not want to know the ins and outs of our boss’s life do we stop reading their emails? How are we supposed to do our job effectively if we don’t read their emails?

For me, if I saw an email from my Executive’s wife I simply wouldn’t read it. But that is my decision not an instruction from my Executive. There are obviously times when I have opened personal emails by mistake or it came up in my reading pane as I scrolled through their other emails. What happens if, in this case, the emails were between colleagues and you had every right to read them because of your job?

My point is – if your Executive doesn’t care what you are reading and doesn’t expect you to complain, how highly do they regard you professionally? They pay your wages but have they bought your silence?

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8 comments

  • Gerardine Spiers May 29, 2014   Reply →

    What I do not understand is why she had to go to the press. I think there is more to it than meets the eye. When you work for a HNWI you always sign a confidentially agreement. She had broken that agreement. Plus she left there many months ago……

    Re the emails – it can be difficult but if you really felt strongly about what was written would you not have a quiet word with your boss instead.

    Perhaps I should work for him!

    • Very good points Gerry! I totally agree and in an ideal situation she should have gone to her boss and then HR. I wonder how many other embarrassing emails HNW PAs could leak to the press!

  • Lyse Laframboise May 29, 2014   Reply →

    I feel that is is our job as assistants to have full access to our boss’s emails and it is our responsibility to keep quiet on what we see. If it’s illegal that’s a different story. Personal email/correspondence is none of our business. I absolutely do not agree with assistants leaking information to anyone about their bosses.

    • Playing devil’s advocate what would you do if you have see emails that really offend you? Would you keep quiet? Finding all of the responses really interesting, keep them coming! Nicky

  • amy May 30, 2014   Reply →

    I agree that this PA should not have “leaked” the information to the press. To me that was as unprofessional as what we may all agree was the Executive’s behavior was.

    That said, what would this person have as an outlet for venting the information? As a temp, could she have gone to the Exec’s direct report/s? Is there an HR department? Certainly her own reports at the agency that placed her if she was placed via agency.

    I live in the USA, where some of the rules are a bit different. We have very clear guidelines on harassment, and what constitutes sexual harassment. I worked for a man who was in personal transition. I was able to get permission from the HR people at our job to come in off the clock and do some filing for him that he needed done as he was preparing to step down from his position as well.

    This man made copies of EVERY e-mail he received, and then some. No chance of a paperless office with him at the helm! Some of the papers I organized were personal/financial papers dealing with his family. Some were work related. But there were quite a few, and one or two were VERY graphic, that had to do with his personal life, and I wish I didn’t have to see those at all.

    Fortunately for him and the organization I worked for it was ME who was doing this work. Others in my place could have, and likely would have lodged a lawsuit. I went to the head of HR and had a very private discussion about what I’d seen, and the implications if this information was made public or even if anyone else but the three of us knew about it. We also talked about how I could approach my boss to give him a head’s up about what I was finding mixed in with some of his papers. I don’t think that at the time he understood what I meant. I hope by now he does. I mean GRAPHIC.

    But I would not go to the papers and report this, nor would I have brought a lawsuit, even though I had grounds. It didn’t feel like it was done on purpose, just out of ignorance.

    • Wow Amy, that sounds horrendous! I think I would have taken the same actions that you did although, as you said, plenty of people would have filed a lawsuit! Thanks for sharing what happened to you. As I’ve said before I can imagine a lot of assistants have been in a similar situation. Nicky

  • Jools June 1, 2014   Reply →

    The people we work for have a right to privacy, even if our eyes and ears see and hear things we could without.
    If that had happened to me, I wouldn’t have gone to the press. I probably would have talked to my boss asking him to remove me from those discussions.
    I have issues when it comes to private emails. If I don’t have to deal with them, I prefer it. While I need to know the insides outs of my boss’s life, there is information I don’t need to know.
    Now if I stumbled on emails involving illegal activities, I wouldn’t go to the press, I’d go straight to the police and quit. I wouldn’t want to be associated with that kind of individual.

  • cindy September 23, 2014   Reply →

    I fully agree with you Lyse. I have experienced in so many occasion of what i call ‘personal misconducts’ (not literally illegal per se or something that most can call a norm behaviors of bosses). Mum’s the word has always been my rule and business as usual.

    Although there was a one point that it did affected me personally. Having a partner who is also a big boss in another organisation (different industry to us tho) at one point it did made me think whether my partner has the same thinking or acts done to that of the bosses I work for.

    Bottom line is I honour trust, the same logic that I do not agree with assistants leaking information to anyone about their bosses unless it is totally illegal. Business as usual.

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