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January 29, 2011 6:28 AM   Subscribe

How to advance out of a receptionist position?

My three-month job search has ended in my taking a receptionist position, again. I had been looking to make a step up into an admin position but for a couple of reasons felt that I needed to take this job when it was offered, even though I’m not thrilled with being back on the front desk again. I’m hoping it will turn out to be a “foot in the door” position rather than a dead end, but I’m not sure how to make that happen. From past experience I am painfully aware that many people automatically assume that a receptionist is not very bright, skilled or educated; even when the office admins know I am capable because I do a good job helping with their overflow work, somehow that information never seems to trickle up to the department managers who might be looking to fill a position.

Here are my specifics:

I type around 60 wpm, and have a respectable data entry speed with excellent accuracy. I am very proficient with Word, Excel and Outlook, have some experience with PowerPoint. I have a decent command of the English language and can compose correspondence and proofread documents. I’ll be finishing up an associate degree over the next year or so, and I completed a certificate program in desktop publishing a few years ago. Those skills are rusty but I could get them up to speed… however, I have no experience in the graphic arts industry which also happens to be in decline so I don’t see much of a career path there. I only mention it because I think it might be useful in some office position (maybe marketing?)

At my most recent job I was a receptionist for six years. I have a 15-year background in office work, having held positions with titles such as clerk, assistant, receptionist/admin, etc., but I’ve never been an “administrative assistant” proper. From reading job ads, the main things I lack to be an actual admin are experience in keeping an executive's calendar, making travel arrangements and planning meetings. I am absolutely capable of doing all those things but without the experience I can’t seem to get the job, and without the job I can’t get the experience. (Oldest story in the book, I know.)

In spite of my skills I'm finding it incredibly difficult to get anyone to take me seriously as a candidate for anything other than receptionist jobs. I'm in my forties so it's not an issue of being young and green.

So I’ve ended my job search for now, and my tentative plan is to stay at this company until I finish my degree plus maybe a year beyond, and see how I feel about long-term potential at that point. Since I am in a receptionist position, I am concerned about being taken seriously and how to best get noticed in a positive way so that if I eventually bid on job postings in other departments they don’t snort and throw my resume in the trash because they think I’m some kind of an airhead.

A couple of factors I am concerned about:

Appearance: of all the receptionists I’ve known there is one who stands out to me as seeming very professional. A rather dignified middle-aged lady, she wore coordinated outfits always topped by a blazer or jacket, and her hair and makeup were perfect. I have a notion that it would be good to emulate her style, however, nobody in my company dresses that professionally. My boss and her assistant, for example, wear dress slacks and solid-color sweaters with no jacket, and neither has a particularly “polished” look in regard to hair and makeup. Both have long, fairly unstyled hair. Because of being on the front desk I feel justified in dressing up a bit more (as in wearing dressier tops, mostly) but would going for the more polished-professional look be a good or bad idea? I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable looking more dressed up than my coworkers but I don’t want to offend my boss.

How to impress: in my past jobs I’ve always been eager and willing to do anything anyone asks me to do (which is how receptionists are generally expected to be.) If someone wanted copies made, binders put together, mass mailings, data entry projects, something researched on the internet, whatever, if I had time to do it I did it. But the receptionist who is training me for my new position has told me that our boss wants us doing work for our department only. Meaning I need to say no to requests for copies, or really any favors or projects for anyone in the company other than my boss. Since I am only going to be able to do the projects she assigns, I’m not sure how to go about demonstrating myself to be a team-player/self-starter.

Tl;dr: I want my new company to take me seriously and avoid being thought of as “just” a receptionist.

1) Should I go for a polished-professional appearance, wearing dressy clothes with jackets, if my boss dresses much more casually? If I shouldn’t out-dress my boss, what else should I do to appear ultra-professional, considering that most people will only interact with me on a superficial level? (I am at the front desk of a corporate office, and the official dress code is business casual (emphasis on business.))

2) How can I best demonstrate that I am willing, eager and competent to handle more projects and responsibilities when I am restricted to doing only what my boss assigns?

3) Company policy states that I have to be in my current position for X number of months before I can bid on any openings in the company. How do I maximize my chances of being seriously considered for a promotion as quickly as possible?
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Work & Money (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Do good work as a receptionist and state it out loud to your employer. I believe strongly in doing good work, having a sense of humor while being professional, and after you're well out of probation (3-6 months), asking for a meeting with the proper superviser and firmly and clearly asking about your career path there. If they give you dead end, start looking for another job asap.

(Clothing is important, but remember to take cues. Work performance is more important IMHO)
posted by history is a weapon at 6:53 AM on January 29, 2011

This might not be the answer that you were looking for, but after reading your whole post, have you considered a career in records management, especially after you finish your degree? I get the feeling from your experience, you would more than qualify for most intermediate records management positions. It could be more rewarding than being an administrative assistant and I mention it because it's not a career that gets a lot of press. There are very enthusiastic ARMA chapters out there that can help with career development, especially the Chicago chapter. Records management is just more than the filing stereotype and you might find it a good way to stretch your skills and learn new ones. Hope that helps! Good luck for the future.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:58 AM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

1) I think dressing nicer is always a good step, it shows that you are trying hard and that you care about this job. You don't want to wear suits if your bosses are wearing khakis but you can wear slacks and a button down shirt and maybe a scarf without looking like you are outdoing everyone.

2) Kick ass at what your boss assigns, do it quickly, and then say to her "hey, here is the X you asked for. Do you have anything else for me? I would love to help you out with your schedule or book your flights for Y if you want me to." Be specific and ask for the things that would fill our your resume. Since you are new, you are in a great position to learn how to do these things under the guise of you being uninformed of company policy. And that is a lot of it. So when Boss says "hey can you get me a flight to Z in two weeks?" you can say "No problem, does our company have preferred vendors or accounts with any airlines? What is the policy on business class?" etc and learn all that stuff right up front.
Being efficient with what you are assigned and making sure you go above and beyond if you can ("Ok, I scheduled the water delivery. Is this something you want me to do every month? If so I can just go ahead and do that instead of you having to remind me next time"), then asking for more work will get you noticed.

3) The main thing I have noticed about the receptionists at places I have worked is that some of them seem content with their jobs and don't really attempt or want to move up and others are clearly at the job while doing other things in their life (like you are with your degree) to advance.
So even if you aren't allowed to apply for other things there yet, once you are comfortable with the people and they think you are doing a good job, let it be known to the coworkers you come in contact with the most that you are working towards a degree and that you love this company and are happy to be there and are hoping that you can use your current job there as a stepping stone to more.
Word will spread and then once you are eligible, people will think of you as that receptionist who wants to move up and is ambitious and wants to stay with the company instead of that receptionist who is content so let's leave her alone where she is.
Just drop some hints into your conversations, which will be easier the longer you work there and the more you interact with your new coworkers.
posted by rmless at 7:00 AM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

In addition to making it clear to your supervisor that you're interested in a more complex position, I would sit down and talk to the HR Manager for the company. HR is always aware when there are job openings, and he or she may be able to put a bug in the ear of the hiring manager that you are a bright, motivated internal candidate.
posted by something something at 7:02 AM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

At least where I work, there are a gazillion admin-ish jobs that aren't front desk and aren't admin assistant. Anything from the just-mentioned records management, to all the people in HR, to the people who manage contracts, and so on. Very few of those jobs require any skills or education beyond what you have now (or will have when your degree is completed), but they tend to pay quite well, you have more independence and authority, and there is a lot of stability (like, you are going to fire the person who keeps you in compliance with the critical contract issues? Really?). And, speaking again only for where I have worked, those positions are often internal hires; many of the people in them started as front desk people, filing peons, etc.

From what I have seen as an observer (the admin stuff is a parallel track, so I have no say in the hiring and firing, but I work closely with them and see it happen), people seem to get tracked very early into the categories of "has potential for advancement" or "will stay in their current position forever." It's some mix of competence, office politics, ambition, and having a mentor or godmother figure advocating for you.

The last piece is probably the most important. Internal hires happen because someone specifically wants you. If the manager of the records division decides he/she likes you, you will get the position there. If they don't want you, it wouldn't matter if you could type 500 wpm while standing on your head and were willing to work for free. So the best advice I can give is to figure out who the actual gatekeepers are to these positions -- it may or may not be the department heads, depending on the structure of your company, and the HR people may play a key gatekeeper function as well -- and over time look to them as models of how to act and who to connect with.

I don't mean to be all weaselly and slimy, just to see with open eyes who has the ability to open doors, and who doesn't.
posted by Forktine at 7:14 AM on January 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Very few of those jobs require any skills or education beyond what you have now (or will have when your degree is completed)

To clarify: I don't mean that these jobs are unskilled, just that when they are advertised they usually aren't asking for advanced degrees, and the experience needed could be gained in the course of your current work. eg, "I've been helping Stacy with her contracting for the last six months, so I think I have a pretty good overview of the issues involved."
posted by Forktine at 7:18 AM on January 29, 2011

The overwhelming majority of people in my department with administrative roles started out as customer service reps or receptionists (one analyst started as a part-time parking lot attendant.) It's definitely possible, especially if you do the stuff rmless says.

Also: degrees can help a lot. Most of my experience before my current job was of the clerical/customer service variety; that plus my degree equaled "now we really think you're capable," apparently.

It helped that I got lots of "you might be good at this" experience through temp agencies, which look at proficiency tests as much as experience when making placements.
posted by SMPA at 8:01 AM on January 29, 2011

If you're looking for a concrete way out of being a secretary, with your skillset, you're not likely going to find it in the corporate world unless you get that above-mentioned gatekeeper. I don't want to be a downer, but I do want to be honest, and in my experience, I've noticed that in corporate (big and small business) in Chicago, secretary and receptionist-types in their 40's tend to be lifers. It's the ones fresh out of school that people tend to assume are climbers, and it's very hard to convince someone that you are fundamentally going to defy their expectations.

My advice is to get out of the corporate world and start looking in the nonprofit sector. Especially in Chicago, the dues-paying portion of nonprofit white-collar work takes less time. For administrative positions, the pay is comparable. (This isn't really true for program support or higher-level white-collar jobs, but there is parity in low and mid-range white-collar jobs.) A good place to start looking is npo.net.

If you need help with your resume, or you'd like some pointers about the nonprofit sector in Chicago in general, feel free to MeMail me. I'd be happy to help.

(As for your clothing question, I've been wowed by a front desk receptionist who dressed more formally than the rest of us, who when asked why, replied, "I am the first person you see when you walk in the door, and I set the tone for professionalism for every visitor. It's one way I contribute to the bottom line.")
posted by juniperesque at 8:04 AM on January 29, 2011

Oops, it should have been Records management is more than just the filing stereotype.
posted by Calzephyr at 8:36 AM on January 29, 2011

I'm going to be completely blunt and honest about how I went from receptionist to admin assist to Office Manager/IT Manager/Executive Assistant/Marketing Coordinator, to now being a web designer:

Regarding the lack of experience in certain things like making travel arrangements - I lied. I knew I could do it, so I said I had. No one questioned it. Ever. It's even easier to do nowadays, because you can always google to find out how to do something you're not sure of.

To get more opportunities for advancement, I worked for small companies. These companies don't always pay as well as big corporations, but they usually need people who can wear many hats. As they grow, new things come up that need doing and they don't have a person specifically assigned to do that. So you volunteer to do it, and prove yourself. Temp agencies are another good way to get experience, if you can deal with the insecure nature of working temp. Temp agencies are generally desperate to fill a position before another company does, so if you seem halfway bright, they will send you on over to do something you may not have experience in, but seem to have enough common sense to do.

And lastly - you have to ask for it. I've told this story on here before - I once took a job as an admin assistant that I was overqualified for, because I needed a job. Two weeks after I started, the office manager gave notice, and the company started looking for a replacement. They put ads in the paper, called recruiters, etc. All this while I was sitting right there under their noses. They had just seen my resume two weeks before, so I felt they knew I was qualified and just didn't think I could do it. I was furious and ready to quit, but for some reason, I decided to take one step before I did that. I printed out a fresh copy of my resume and handed it to the person in charge of finding someone, and told her I wanted to be considered for the job. Well, they were flabbergasted! None of them had any idea that I was so qualified, and none of them had any idea that I'd be interested in the position. I got the job, and they later told me that I was the person they had been looking for to fill the role since they started the company 15 years before.

It is astounding to me how many people think that people who are in receptionist or administrative jobs have no desire to go any further. They think that answering phones and filing papers is all you ever want to do, and that you're happy making barely enough to pay your rent. But it seems that most people think that, and you have to be fairly aggressive to get out of those positions.

Also, I used every opportunity to expand my skills in graphic design and web design. (I'm entirely self-taught.) Small companies usually don't have anyone who knows anything about that stuff, so will be thrilled that you do. I made my skills known by creating silly posters for coworker's birthdays, and making signs that said "Please close the door behind you" that had extra flair. So when they needed postcards to announce a new partner was joining the company, I was the natural person to design them.

When job hunting, don't just search for jobs on the online boards like Monster.com, Careerbuilder, etc. Post your resume on there for others to search. I would not have thought I was qualified for the web design job I have now, but I had mentioned in my resume that I had experience, and a recruiter called me and insisted I was perfect for the position.

Please excuse any bad grammar/typos; I have a horrible cold today and everything from my vision to my thinking is fuzzy today.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:00 AM on January 29, 2011 [7 favorites]

Also, I have personally three times witnessed someone in a receptionist/admin position improve their lot in part by dressing very professionally, even though the rest of the office was more casual. It really makes a big difference, even though it shouldn't. The Exec Assistant at the company I work for now can't even attach a file to an email, I kid you not. She's asked me to do it for her more than once (because I'm the web designer and therefore expected to be more computer literate. LOL) But she wears a suit every single day, and from what I'm told, she has always worn suits to work.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:11 AM on January 29, 2011

Small companies generally offer more varied work experiences and opportunities for career growth as the company grows (especially if you look for ways you can help it grow!).

Often small business owners are overwhelmed and know they need to hire someone to help but they are too busy to hire someone to help with the stuff that is making them too busy! So if you were to walk in at the right moment with professional resume and demeanor you might even get hired on the spot. Business parks are a good place to try this strategy.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:13 AM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm wondering if it's not because you don't have a degree yet?

I temped for a long time, and the sorts of jobs I was sent on drastically improved when I graduated from college. As a non-degree holder I would only ever be sent out on receptionist or low-level filing gigs; when I returned to it after finishing school (but with no other substantial change in how I presented myself or skillset I possessed) I was given more executive assistant type roles.

Actually, if you live in a big city, at least paying a visit to a temp agency might help - they will straight up tell you what kind of work you're qualified for. Or maybe there's a more efficient way of meeting with a recruiter/HR person/career adviser?

When job hunting, don't just search for jobs on the online boards like Monster.com, Careerbuilder, etc. Post your resume on there for others to search.

This is exactly how I got started in the career I have now. (Not the job I have now, mind you, but how I got my foot in the door in my field.) And I did this after submitting hundreds of resumes and going on dozens of interviews. Highly recommended.
posted by Sara C. at 9:24 AM on January 29, 2011

Just want to second everything MexicanYenta said.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:28 AM on January 29, 2011

Thirding MexicanYenta, for sure. That also describes my first job out of college, where I started as a temp receptionist and ended as their technical writer.
posted by vivid postcard at 10:15 AM on January 29, 2011

Here's what I learned growing up with extremely restrictive parents who never wanted to let me do anything:

1. People will let you do almost anything you want when doing that is much more convenient to them than not letting you. No matter what "principles" they expressed in the past when you doing that thing didn't create convenience for them.

Example from my life -- my mom was hellbent against letting me drive, almost ever, and made me ask her for rides to get anywhere, even though I was 16 and had my license. Until I started a school-related activity in the evenings that would have required her to spend over an hour driving me every evening, several times per week. That tune changed fast. Like magic, the "principle" became that I needed to drive myself to take responsibility for my own self instead of relying on her.

So, bide your time, and offer to take over all sorts of things you want to be doing when you see it will create convenience for the person you're taking it over from; try to nudge them to come up with the idea themselves if you can, too, rather than you suggesting it. Even though you're not allowed to do things for other departments, I don't see why that matters, I'm sure plenty will come up to do in your own department. All this will help you with the other crucial thing I learned living with my parents, #2.

#2 People are insanely more likely to allow you to do something if they think you have done it before.

I had so many occasions in my life when my mom would flatly, firmly refuse to let me do one thing. But if, a few weeks later after she'd forgotten, I rephrased it as "Can I do XYZ again or like-I-did-over-the-summer-and-it-went-fine" I'd often get an "uhhhh ... what? XYZ? Uhhh ... ok." (Obviously, lies on my part.)

I think it'll be exactly the same way for you. Not that I think you should lie, but all you need to do is do something ONCE and you can list it as something you have experience with. Don't play things down and tell people you only did them once or you're rusty at them, or anything like that. And I'm sure there are plenty of things you did informally at work, or things that were called something else, that actually did give you experience doing a lot of the tasks you want to do - you just need to frame it that way. And if someone is thinking about offering you a task, don't mention that you've never done it before. Be totally confident about it and just silently learn how to do it by the seat of your pants if you have to.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:30 AM on January 29, 2011

Response by poster: These are some fantastic answers, everybody! Every single one has been helpful. I feel a lot more hopeful and less stuck than I did. Thanks so much!

Of course, I'm still open for opinions and ideas if anyone else wants to chime in.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:08 PM on January 29, 2011

MexicanYenta is spot on. An alternative, but similar, path at a small company is to befriend anyone and everyone in IT, and ask to tag along on support calls whenever you can spare the time. Ask detailed questions. With your slowly improving technical skills, and knowledge of the office phone system, you can spin your experience to land an office manager position at another small company.

And as you move up, always remember to treat the receptionist with respect.
posted by heigh-hothederryo at 9:08 PM on January 29, 2011

2) How can I best demonstrate that I am willing, eager and competent to handle more projects and responsibilities when I am restricted to doing only what my boss assigns?

Finish that AA. And then get a bachelor's degree. (In pretty much whatever area interests you, no need to stick to business degrees.) It's widely used as a baseline requirement for any position beyond those which are strictly clerical.

A degree doesn't guarantee you a good job, but it does remove a giant barrier to being considered. It is considered "proof" by an outside authority of everything you want to communicate to your bosses -- ambition, communications skills, responsibility, etc. It's not a fast solution, unfortunately. Does your company have a tuition reimbursement program?
posted by desuetude at 2:50 PM on January 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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