Performance Reviews for Assistants
One area that seems to change notably from job to job is remuneration and performance reviews for Assistants.
In my first full-time job, I had quarterly performance reviews with my manager, half-yearly appraisals and at the end of every year a full review and 360° feedback with my team.
In one role, I didn’t even have objectives.
Now you may think this is a terrible thing and an example of bad management. But, and critically, not having a performance review didn’t make any difference to my role or my remuneration package. So why do we put ourselves through this process every year?
Some Executives I’ve worked for have quite often no idea what I do with my day.
They know the basics.
Assistants look after the diaries and schedule meetings. But overall they didn’t know what the day-to-day involved.
The main reason for this is because everything runs smoothly in the office, the stationery cupboard is always stocked, the printer still has paper, board reports and presentation slides magically appear on their desk ready for them to take to their meeting.
In their mind, it just happens, but a good Assistant is always busy working behind the scenes.
It is easy to overlook the Assistant in the office that makes everything run smoothly, especially if your manager is incredibly busy.
But do remember that Assistants are an asset to their organisation.
So you should use your performance review to shout from the rooftops about HOW GREAT YOU ARE!
In this article, we are going to take you through each step of the performance review, or appraisal, process for Executive Assistants and Personal Assistants. To ensure Assistants make the most of their review we are going to start with the basics, and that is the job description for Assistants, we will then cover both the annual review and your mid-year reviews. Last but least, we will point you in the right direction for goal setting and objectives for Executive and Personal Assistants.
This Performance Reviews for Assistants article will cover:
More often than not, job descriptions for Assistants are sketchy at best, leaving us with more questions than answers.
What does “and anything else that might be needed” actually mean?
What are “ad-hoc duties’?
How flexible does an Assistant need to be and what does “juggling multiple priorities” really involve?
Along with these generic phrases, Assistants’ job descriptions can also be poorly written, focusing on a standard set of skills rather than real role responsibilities.
They can also list what should be achieved by an Assistant without much detail on how to go about it.
In many instances, we have to read between the lines to truly understand the role requirements, or we have to seek clarification once we are employed in the position.
So with such generic and often vague job descriptions, how do Assistants understand what is expected of them and then meet and exceed those expectations?
Without a real understanding of what our manager’s want from us, how can we perform well from the very first day?
Looking at our profession and the challenges we face do incoherent job descriptions add to the lack of recognition and reward in the industry?
As I said, there are more questions than answers when it comes to an Assistant’s job description!
When a job description is posted, it is often based on the incumbent Assistant or the Assistant before that.
Organisations rarely start again with a job description because mostly they want someone similar in the role. Unless the previous Assistant has failed spectacularly, the job description is not updated.
Our industry is fast-paced, and most Assistants are picking up new skills frequently, our job descriptions do not reflect this.
Job descriptions can be useful for an Assistant when they are applying for the role if only to help decide if they want the job in the first place and then to give a small insight into what type of questions might come up in the interview.
Once the Assistant has the job, does the description ever see the light of day again? If your job description isn’t particularly relevant to the industry, it is only used to recruit you, and you never look at it again, well it is not worth the paper it is written on. It certainly doesn’t help Assistants or their Executives conduct a fair and thorough performance review.
But what about a great job description?
What happens if an Assistant is given a useful job description that is used to recruit him or her in the perfect role for their current skills? It is then used to help the Assistant settle into the position and is ultimately the foundation of every performance review and evaluation throughout their career.
Would a good job description that is used by the Assistant’s boss to effectively manage them make a difference? Yes, I genuinely believe it would.
Assistants sometimes are not appropriately managed and can be taken for granted because they don’t know what is expected of them, and neither does their manager. In my experience, this misunderstanding can lead back to a vague job description.
If we can ensure the job description is relevant and is used correctly, then I do think that will solve a lot of issues that assistants and their managers have regarding the role and developing the Assistants career.
How do we do this?
Well if you have a vague job description that doesn’t describe your day to day activities, the first thing to do is sit down with your manager and write a new job description. Assistants should not wait until their next pay review to do this because what exactly are you being measured against if not your job description? I think a great job description for an assistant looks something like this:
- A title that describes the role, not just a personal assistant or administrative Assistant but also whom the assistant reports to and a clear statement detailing how the relationship will work.
- A specific section outlining the job function and the purpose of the role with clear objectives.
- A list of core skills, standards and requirements for the role including education, experience and knowledge.
- A list of critical duties. Along with everything expected of an assistant but also any slightly unexpected responsibilities. Does your manager want you to run personal errands? If so, it should be on the job description to avoid any confusion. Tasks that take up only a little amount of time should still be added.
- The responsibilities of the Assistant starting with the most important.
- The key results expected from the Assistant. This should be measurable, achievable, but also challenging so that the Assistant can grow with the role.
Once an Assistant is in the role and is settled a review of the job description should take place.
If there are any skills that you have that would enhance the role speak to your Executive and ask that they are included in your job description.
Remember a useful job description is a working document that can be enhanced and changed as you pick up new skills in that role.
Job descriptions can become redundant pretty, especially if the organisation changes its strategy or switches its focus on different parts of the business.
This is particularly true of an Assistant’s job description because our duties reflect those of our Executives, the group most affected by changing strategies.
To make sure our job descriptions are relevant to our Executive’s objectives, we should review them once a year. Ideally, this should be aligned with performance reviews and objective setting for the year ahead.
Job descriptions for other professions leave a little room for staff to have flexibility in the role and for the organisation to ask more of the employee than is in the specific duties.
This is undoubtedly the case for Assistants, but I think this is an issue for our profession because it can be quickly taken advantage of. We all have to do things outside of our job description, but when reviewing your document, do ask that your manager is as detailed as possible. Once you are both aware of what is expected, you can add a little flexibility to the position.
This is a great anecdote from Jennifer Cocoran, My Super Connector, about the challenges Assistants have with Adhoc duties.
I attended the Practically Perfect PA Annual Conference. During the afternoon there was a very interesting break-out session on Job Specs which had us all hooked.
The lady to the left of me had inherited a 12 page job spec which had not been updated in 10 years whereas the lady to the right had a 6 page document.
Mine sat in the middle at 1-2 pages in length and had not been updated in 5 years.
We all belonged to varying industry sectors but one thing became clear which united us all – we had all inherited generic job specs full of clichés rather than ones based on our actual remits and duties.
These job specs were rarely used as appraisal tools for measuring progression or performance.
Our personal bugbear on the day was the all-inclusive ambiguous phrasing of ad hoc duties as requested. For one Assistant this had meant physically unblocking a toilet.
Jennifer goes on to say:
For one of my previous roles as long as I had enough diet coke and Belgian biscuits in stock for my boss I was performing my role to full effect.
One consistent ad hoc duty for me throughout my career has been ‘maintenance woman’. When the printer/scanner/fax breaks down I am ultimately the person who troubleshoots and fixes the machine in question.
There is always the level of expectation that I will sort it. It is my role yet this is not listed in the job spec?
A lot of job descriptions tend to focus on a standard set of skills rather than the actual responsibilities.
A proficient Assistant can take on a variety of roles at any given moment. We are the ultimate super-jugglers who have the ability to throw a to-do list up in the air and catch it in a different order depending on the situation at hand.
However, if we are not willing to speak up and actively list our duties how can we expect colleagues and managers to be aware of this change in office dynamics?
So what can we do?
Ignoring job descriptions just isn’t going to work because they are still very much part of the recruitment process and yes, it is super important that you study that job description inside out and back to front if you want to get in the door for an interview.
In that spec, you will find all the keywords needed to get past the recruitment algorithm, which in itself is a total pain.
But once you’ve got the job?
Ripping up the job description and starting again is the best course of action. And here is why.
Job descriptions are focused on the job, not the individual performing the role. This is true across all industries; however, for Assistants, it is doing us a disservice, mainly as the role evolves to include so much more than a list of obvious tasks and responsibilities.
Along with your template, here are some things you can implement that will help bring what you do into sharper focus.
Tasks – Literally, everything you do.
I’d love to live in a land where your amazing qualities are going to get you a promotion and a huge bonus, and yeah, to a certain extent they help.
But, the cold hard facts are that the Assistant tasks that you take on and your results will get you the reward and recognition you deserve.
So, keep a list of everything, and by everything, I mean everything that you do.
All of the high-level stuff, all of the fantastic projects you work on, all of the drama that you resolve and the problems you make go away – everything.
I hate that phrase ‘ad-hoc duties’ because it suggests that all the little things we do, all those fires we are putting out are somehow irrelevant.
They are not.
That is the stuff that keeps the organisation going and we are responsible for it. So write, it all down!
When it comes to your review, you will have a very detailed overview of everything you do, which is much more useful than an old document that doesn’t reflect the current role.
What are the competencies you bring to the role, as an individual?
Start with the competencies in the job description you have (like being organised, like being a team player, like being flexible, like being an effective communicator blah blah blah) and flesh them out.
Go deeper. What makes you amazing in your role? What makes you stand out? What are the qualities that you, as an individual, are bringing to your organisation that make you ace your job every day?
If you haven’t thought about your brand before, I can understand why. You are too busy. But it is so important to know your strengths and your weaknesses also.
Take the time to do this because there is another huge reason, and that is the onset of technology that will take over a lot of the traditional Assistant tasks.
In the next five years, you will undoubtedly see a shift in the need for Assistants who can say, schedule meetings to those who can confidentially attend meetings in place of their Executive. Who understand the business, react to the needs of their Executive and can handle complex issues and resolve difficult problems.
Detailing and understanding how you do business rather just what you do will significantly benefit you now and in years to come.
One of the problems that come with a job description is the discrepancy between what you expect from the role and what is expected of you.
It is time to change that.
You need to know precisely what is expected of you to succeed in the role. If you don’t know, you need to get yourself into your Executive’s office very quickly to find out the answers — an awkward conversation to have, but a necessary one.
If you don’t feel like the organisation is matching your expectations, really, genuinely think about what you want and what is missing. It might be that you don’t have a purpose; you want more responsibilities; you want more control over your work. Whatever it is, needs to be addressed and acted upon during your performance review.
Instead of a job description, it would be incredible if you and your Executive sat down and wrote a detailed list of expectations that will make your relationship work and to make you successful in your role.
Everyone should have boundaries at work, especially Assistants. Knowing what is acceptable for you and what isn’t, is perfectly okay. Your boundaries might not fit into the culture of your office or the role, but that is okay, you either find a new position that reflects your boundaries or you compromise.
But, have a stopping point because some jobs are not worth it.
Again, having a detailed understanding (even if it is in your mind) of, your boundaries, what works for you and what doesn’t, is so much more potent than a standard job spec.
Communication and Feedback
You have got to communicate what you do, how you feel, your expectations and your boundaries with those in your organisation that need to know – which is pretty much everyone (except maybe the mailman, he probably doesn’t need to know). You need to ask for feedback, get an understanding of what you are doing well, and what can be improved.
You need to have goals, objectives and plans in place that keep you motivated, challenged and happy.
So, now that you have taken the time to really reflect on your job description. Lets look at the 5 step approach to preparing for your Assistant performance review.
As I have said so far in this article. Assistants have to make the most of their performance reviews so that they gain the reward and recognition they deserve. I have put together a 5 step approach that helps Assistants prepare for a performance review.
Before you even get to your yearly appraisal, make sure you set up regular one to one meetings with your Executive in which you discuss your role. This should be separate from the meetings you have with your Executive that in place to give updates on work.
The one to one should be for the sole purpose of discussing you. It can be easy to let your manager use this time to give you work, but you must have at least an hour per quarter to talk about your role.
You have control of their diaries so make sure you schedule in time with them and have an agenda with you so you can stick to what you want to discuss.
A performance review should not be a conversation full of surprises.
By this point in the year, you should be well aware of how your year has gone, what went well and what didn’t and what your Executive thinks of this.
Make an effort! Don’t just go through the process, thinking it doesn’t make a difference. With that attitude, it won’t – trust me!
Store all of your feedback, good or bad in a file throughout the year. It is easy to forget what you have accomplished.
Also, make a note of anything that you feel could have gone better.
If you have set up regular meetings with your Executive none of this will be news to them, so use your examples to back up your thoughts on the year.
When you are setting up appraisal meetings for your manager and their direct reports, make sure you give yourself the same about of time as everyone else.
They may be more senior, but you deserve to have the same amount of time as your Executive as they do. Don’t squeeze your appraisal meeting into a quick 10-minute chat.
Take the full allocated time for your review.
Don’t think you are doing your Executive a favour by taking less time than all of your colleagues (something I used to do). You are not doing your boss a favour, and you are certainly not doing yourself any favours either.
One of my Executive asked their senior team to provide feedback on me before the appraisal meeting. This was a great way of hearing from my colleagues, but at the same time, it didn’t reflect an accurate picture of what I did every day.
The following year I asked other Assistants also to provide feedback along with mid-level managers that I dealt with on a more regular basis. This gave a more rounded view.
Gather feedback when you are working on projects. Ask for recommendations and ask those around you what they think of your performance.
Seek feedback throughout the year and use this to justify a reasonable appraisal, this is especially important if you do not work solely with your manager (if you are a team assistant, for example). Come prepared with any documentation that you need.
Give feedback as well as receiving it – especially to your manager! Remember your job performance depends quite heavily on your Executive working in partnership with you. 360 feedback is beneficial.
Be honest with yourself and your Executive.
Performance reviews are a great place to pluck up the courage to talk about how you feel in the role.
The meeting is about you ultimately so your manager must listen to how you think and offer any support that they can for the following year.
As I said, there should be no surprises, but it is hard, to be honest with your boss, so if this is the case, use your appraisal time wisely. You will feel so much better afterwards.
Before the meeting spend a little time reflecting on your performance – be honest with yourself, do you deserve that pay rise?
If you are not happy with your job, now is the time to discuss any problems you might have. If you have a good manager, they will listen and offer a solution that will improve your role, if not, then this might give you the final push to look elsewhere.
The performance review process can be quite daunting, so being prepared beforehand will help you get the most out of the meeting.
Make sure you stick up for yourself, it is too easy as a member of the support team to feel you don’t deserve a useful review, promotion or pay rise. Still, without you, the senior members of the team wouldn’t be able to sustain their level of activity.
Remind your manager how great you are and they would be lost without you!
Assistants have to be proactive with their appraisals as much as they are with their day to do work and only then will they get the performance reviews they deserve.
A huge part of the Assistant performance review is setting out your objectives for the year ahead. It is really important for Assistants to set objectives, particuarly SMART objectives that can be measured for success.
Practically Perfect PA has an in-depth article on SMART objectives that all Assistants should read when thinking about their objectives and goals for the year.
These free templates will help you stay on track throughout the year. Included in this bundle are:
- A List of SMART goal and objective examples for Executive Assistants, Personal Assistants and Administrative Assistants
- A SMART objectives template for Assistants to set their performance goals
- Goal setting worksheet for Assistants to work through with their Executive during the performance review meeting
Once you have set out your SMART objectives, it is also important that you think about your Executive’s objectives.
For Assistants, you must know precisely what your Executive’s goals are for the rest of the year.
There are several reasons this is important: here are just a few:
- Understanding what motivates your Executive is a crucial aspect of the Assistant role. If you know what exactly drives them to succeed, you can support them in achieving their goals.
- Your objectives should be aligned with their goals. For example, if they have a strategic goal, something like ‘increase awareness of brand x’, you should have a practical objective, something like ‘organise launch party for brand x’
- If you know the areas, your Executive is focusing on for the rest of the year. You can prioritise your workload so that tasks relating to these areas are completed first. Your manager will thank you for this one.
- You can also priorities meetings, tasks and emails relating to these critical areas. Again, if you know what is essential to your Executive, you can use this information to enhance your role.
Your Executive might be a little taken aback if this is the first meeting you have organised to discuss their objectives but it is well worth having. It also makes you look proactive and willing to support their needs.
Before you leave your Executive’s office make sure you have asked the following questions during your Assistant performance review.
Asking your Executive to answer these questions will give you the scope and information you need to succeed in the role and the year ahead.
- Are there specific skills you’d like to see me develop?
- What do you see as the next steps in my career and this role?
- What would you like me to achieve by our next performance conversation?
- How are you going to measure my success in the future?
- What are you thinking about in terms of pay rises or promotions, and what can I do to get there?
- What two or three things should I focus on in the next quarter to help me grow and develop?
- What are your objectives, and how should we align them with my goals so that I am better supporting you?
- What could I do differently to better support you?
- What timeline did you have in mind for our next informal check-in or formal review?
- Is there anyone else in the organisation you think I should be receiving feedback from?
You may think that a half-year review isn’t a big deal but for Assistants the chance to discuss job performance, objectives and reward should be taken seriously.
We don’t often get to spend that much time with our Executive taking about ourselves, and we have to grab every opportunity to discuss our role.
So here are my 6 top tips for your mid-year review.
Make sure you have a mid-year review
My first tip is relatively straightforward, right?
Well no, for some Assistants it can be quite difficult even to have a mid-year review.
An annual review is usually linked to pay rises and bonuses so most Executives will conduct a review at the end of the year for their Assistant because HR need the paperwork.
Mid-year reviews are often seen as a ‘nice to have’ or utterly unimportant, so it is put off or forgotten altogether.
As I’ve said already in this article, the excellent thing for Assistants is that we have control of our manager’s diary so we can schedule a mid-year review ourselves.
I can’t stress how important it is to have, at the very minimum, two reviews per year.
The Assistant role is hard. It is even harder if you have no idea what your manager thinks of your performance.
Don’t rush the review
Assistants should have the same amount of time dedicated to their review as any other member of staff.
It is easy to think we can squeeze our review into a 20-minute catch because we don’t think it is that important or because we see first hand how busy our managers are.
Do remind yourself that your role only functions if your manager is happy with your performance. If there are issues that need to be addressed or even processes that could work better, the mid-year review is the perfect time to discuss them and move forward.
What objectives have you met?
I’ve been seriously guilty of shoving my yearly objectives into a drawer and forgetting about them until the mid-year review and then stressing that I haven’t met any of them.
When you work in a role as demanding as ours sometimes, time doesn’t allow you to evaluate your performance.
That is unless firefighting is an objective, and usually, it isn’t.
Forgetting about your objectives as soon as the paperwork is signed isn’t productive or helpful for career progression.
If you are in a similar situation leading up to your mid-year review, dust off your objectives and spend some time looking at what you have accomplished over the last six months, you might be surprised at how much you have done.
Are there any objectives that can be achieved relatively quickly if you dedicate a little time to them? For example, if you have a training objective, can you book yourself onto a course before your mid-year review so that you have something to tell your manager during the discussion.
There are other factors you should consider when reviewing your objectives.
- Are the objectives still relevant?
- Has your role changed in the last six months?
- Do you need new objectives for the rest of the year?
- Are the objectives too challenging or not challenging enough?
These questions can and should be raised during your mid-year review.
Print off supporting documents
If you have received any nice emails or feedback from colleagues or clients, make sure you bring the evidence along to your mid-year review.
You are not gloating or showing off you are merely giving evidence which will support your performance.
Managers are often accused of not understanding the role, and I often hear assistants say that their managers do not know what they do.
Well, here is an opportunity to tell them what you do and also show then how well you do it.
Look forward to the rest of the year
Split your review into two sections that cover the last six months and the rest of the year.
Review how you have been performing but also look at what is coming up over the next six months.
This is an excellent time to look at your managers’ objectives for the rest of the year and how you can help support them.
This is also an excellent opportunity to ask for more work if you are not being challenged or support if you have too much work.
The mid-year review is a great time to reflect on your performance and overall feelings towards your role.
You must be honest with yourself and with your manager. It is also necessary that they are frank with you too.
I don’t suggest you tell your manager you hate your role, and you hate them – as much as you would love to brutal honesty is not going to get you a pay rise! Instead, if you are having issues or you are unhappy, discuss the problems with your manager in a constructive manner.
Before the review spend some time noting down what has worked over the last six months, what you have enjoyed and also what hasn’t been working and what can be improved.
Come prepared for the meeting, take a deep breath and speak. Perhaps they were unaware of the problems and just needed to be told.
If you are delighted and love your manager and the role, tell them that too! Who doesn’t like to be told they are a good boss!
Mid-year reviews are an essential element of your career development.
After six months, you can check how you are progressing through your objectives, and goals and make any necessary changes.
If you are unsure what to discuss during your mid-year review, here are ten questions that you can ask and discuss with your Executive. These questions will help you flesh out what you have achieved and what you need to work on for the rest of the year.
Ten questions to ask during your mid-year review
- What has been going well for the last six months?
- What can be improved for the next six months?
- What am I doing that is most helpful for you?
- What can I do to make your job easier?
- Are there any additional projects or areas of work I should be looking at over the next six months that are not part of my current goals and objectives? – This could lead to more growth (if you have performed well over the first six months).
- What are your goals and objectives for the next six months, and how can I help you achieve them?
- Are there are patterns in the way that I work that I could change for the better?
- If you missed any of your goals for the first two quarters of the years, what can I change so that I hit all of my goals for the rest of the year?
- Are there things I could do that would make our relationship better?
- If I stay on course with this level of performance, what salary and bonus should I expect next year?
Lastly, in this article, I want to talk a little bit more about giving and recieving feedback.
Most advancements in our careers and our lives come from difficult conversations. Still, we are never taught how to have these conversations, how to manage them, and how to deal with the people we are communicating with.
Giving and receiving feedback at work can often be classed as one of those difficult conversations. But it doesn’t have to be; if presented correctly, with the right intentions, feedback is a beautiful thing that can help move us in the right direction.
For Assistants, giving and receiving feedback is so critical.
We have to keep an open dialogue with our Executive’s so that we know the partnership is working effectively, which means we also have to give our Executive feedback along with receiving it.
This is hard, providing feedback to the person that runs the team? Department? Division? Organisation? Yup!
It is part of the role, and again if given constructively and with the right mindset (and timed correctly) can help improve your role and ultimately your career.
I want to share ten fantastic resources (books, articles and online courses) that will help you give better feedback at work to all levels of seniority.
Great articles and blog posts
Giving feedback to your boss (Harvard Business Review)
Giving feedback to your boss, like a boss (The Muse)
Difficult Workplace Conversations (Balanced Career)
31 tips on how to give and receive feedback at work (ThriveYard)
So what’s my favourite tip from all of these resources?
I like the idea of being teachable, from the ThriveYard article,
Of utmost importance is your ability to recognize your shortcomings or weaknesses and the willingness to do something about it.
At times we might have our internal sirens blaring warning us that we are headed on the wrong path and feedback serves as a red traffic light or a stop sign to alert us that we are headed down the wrong path.
Demonstrate the desire and understanding to change course and to move to the correct road. Even though at the moment of impact, receiving critical feedback can sting since it feels bad to be told that you don’t measure up, yet we need the reality check to jump-start us back into realignment.
Look at the big picture on what went wrong and ask yourself what you could have done better and what you can do better moving forward.’
I also like the idea that the more feedback you get, the more you want. It becomes part of your everyday experience at work.
Before you head off to think about your Assistant performance review, remember to read our SMART objectives article and remember to download our bundle of FREE templates and guides for setting your SMART objectives.
Originally published 14th December 2011, updated 4th February 2020.