Where do you start? Reviewing your Assistant job description
More often than not, Assistant job descriptions 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” 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 understand the role requirements or 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 fundamental understanding of what our managers 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 industry’s lack of recognition and reward?
As I said, there are more questions than answers regarding 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 they mostly want someone similar. 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 helpful in 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 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 helpful job description to recruit them 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 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 or their manager. In my experience, this misunderstanding can lead to a vague job description.
Suppose we can ensure the job description is relevant and is used correctly. In that case, I think that will solve many issues that Assistants and their managers have regarding the role and development of the Assistant’s career.
How do we do this?
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 following 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 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 confusion. Tasks that take up only a tiny 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, and challenging so the Assistant can grow with the role.
Once an Assistant is in the role and settled, a job description should be reviewed.
If you have any skills that would enhance the role, speak to your Executive and ask that they are included in your job description.
Remember, a helpful 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 significantly if the organisation changes its strategy or switches its focus to 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 our job description, but when reviewing your document, ask that your manager be as detailed as possible. Once you know what is expected, you can add some flexibility to the position.
This is an excellent anecdote from Jennifer Cocoran, My Super Connector, about Assistants’ challenges 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.
You will find all the keywords needed to get past the recruitment algorithm in that spec.
But once you’ve got the job?
Ripping up the job description and starting again is the best 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 to help bring your work into sharper focus.
Tasks – Literally, everything you do
I’d love to live in a land where your unique qualities will 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 you take on and your results will get you the reward and recognition you deserve.
So, keep a list of everything; by everything, I mean everything you do.
All of the high-level stuff, the fantastic projects you work on, the drama you resolve, and the problems you make go away – everything.
I hate the phrase ‘ad-hoc duties’ because it suggests that all the little things we do, all those fires we put 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 helpful 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, being a team player, being flexible, being an effective communicator) and flesh them out.
Go deeper. What makes you outstanding in your role? What makes you stand out? What qualities do you, as an individual, bring to your organisation that make you ace your job every day?
I can understand why you haven’t thought about your brand before. 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: the onset of technology that will take over many 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 their Executive’s needs, handle complex issues, and resolve difficult problems.
Detailing and understanding how you do business rather than just what you do will significantly benefit you now and in years to come.
One of the problems 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 into your Executive’s office very quickly to find out the answers — an awkward conversation, but a necessary one.
If you don’t feel like the organisation matches your expectations, 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, it must 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 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 your office culture or the role, but that is okay. You either find a new position reflecting your boundaries or 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 much more potent than a standard job spec.
Communication and Feedback
You have to communicate what you do, how you feel, your expectations and boundaries with those in your organisation that need to know – which is pretty much everyone (except maybe the mailman, who probably doesn’t need to know). You need to ask for feedback and understand what you are doing well and what can be improved.
You must have goals, objectives and plans that keep you motivated, challenged and happy.
So, now that you have taken the time to reflect on your job description. Let’s look at the 5 step approach to preparing for your Assistant performance review.