How can I transition into a full time intense job?
April 10, 2012 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Help me be awesome at my new professional job and not revert into secretary mode. I need help transitioning from freelancer/tele-commuter/former office monkey into a real career woman. Also, some class angst!

My work history goes like this: a few years of administrative work in a hospital, a few years of freelance writing, and one year doing digital PR/blogger outreach on a virtual team.

My experience doing the last job led to me getting recruited for a job I will start next week doing digital PR at a media company with some big name clients.

I realize that going back to work full time in an office will be a huge adjustment, but I'm ready for the nuts and bolts of that (ie, waking up earlier, having to actually get dressed in something other than yoga pants, etc) but what I need help with is my overwhelming anxiety that I don't deserve to be there.

It doesn't help that I come from a working class background where the most professional job anyone gets is usually teacher or retail manager. So, a part of me thinks I'm being cocky and arrogant that I think I can do anything but be a secretary or office monkey.

To that end, it would also be great to get tips on how to not act or dress like a secretary on the job. Because I feel like I default to that in work situations since I am used to being the help. The company is a casual media firm, so suits and corporate attire are out of the question.
posted by lollipopgomez to Work & Money (3 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
As a secretary (well, really as someone whose role is mostly grants administration with some secretarial aspects - ah, to serve two masters! - and who is thus constantly needing to convey that I know what I'm talking about with numbers and budget projections) I'd suggest these things:


--smile all the time, because they're paid to be deferential
--can't act as though their time is important or tell people that they have a deadline even when they do
--use titles when others are on a first name basis (Oh, how I get tired of this one)

Secretaries often

--wear cheap suits from Express or Penney's because they feel they must wear suits and aren't paid enough to afford better
--wear lots of make-up in visible colors (this is IME a class thing; it's not a values issue, but lots of bright make-up marks you as working class unless you're in a really fashion-y environment, and then it will be high-fashion color)
--visibly color their hair (partly cost - skilled dye jobs cost money) and partly necessity (secretaries are often hired as T&A, and so you can't look too old)
-- have hairstyles that are stiff or complicated
--tend to wear brights and jewel tones in less expensive fabrics

To avoid looking like a secretary even if you don't have a lot of money: little make-up, simple hair, smile only when others smile first, use first names with confidence, wear natural fabrics as much as possible and subfusc colors if they must be synthetic, don't color your hair (rich women can afford to go grey), shake hands firmly.

I do as much with clothes and tone of voice as possible to assert status because I have to - when people don't believe me about numbers or grant administration because they assume that as a secretary I know nothing, it really gets in the way of my job.

Because you're excited to have a new job, you'll offer to help with things. Dial this back. Never offer to help with something that is a secretarial task, or something you can't imagine a man doing - don't be the one who runs and makes last minute copies for a meeting or grabs the napkins to mop up the coffee spill. Just keep quiet in those situations and let others pick up the slack. (Obviously, if it's something that is your area of expertise, you should offer; phrase this as "I'd be glad to sit down with you and talk through the process" rather than suggesting that you'll take on the task.)

For your first months on the job, don't bring food for others, especially home-made food.

Notice how your peers handle lunches and mimic them - ie, if everyone eats at their desks, do that; if people leave, do that. I've been in situations where the secretaries left (because their responsibilities were deemed lightweight and it was allowed) and where they had to work through lunch (because they were low-status and it was deemed insufficiently loyal to take a break, while higher status people were allowed).

Take your sick days and vacation days unless there is a very strong corporate bias against this - secretaries are seldom allowed to stay home sick or take vacation, and it's a status-signal if you're able to do so.

Don't be cosy and cutesy-pie to get over. Notice how secretaries and flight attendants have to have that cozening, sweetie-pie tone of voice all the time? "And how was your day, Mr. Jones?" and all that? Skip it. If a peer isn't asking you about your weekend or your vacation, don't you do it. Secretaries are expected to do a lot of affective labor - make people feel important by being all awed and impressed and so on. Don't do that. Only be impressed if you're impressed.

And be nice to the secretaries! Some women try to avoid being mistaken for the secretaries by insulting them (I've had one faculty member insult me to my face in a truly weird way) or by being unreasonably demanding. (I know another faculty member who demanded that her secretary miss her commuter bus out to the suburbs in order to....change the toner in the printer, because the faculty member couldn't possibly do it herself. ) It's fine to ask secretaries to do their jobs - don't start sending the faxes and fetching the coffee - but it's gross and rude to expect secretaries to act like they don't have lives outside of work or any feelings.
posted by Frowner at 11:58 AM on April 10, 2012 [56 favorites]

That is incredible advice and exactly what I was looking for!

And because I was a secretary and was treated like an idiot by my bosses, I am always very nice to admins and actually try to avoid asking them to do anything. But you're right that it's fine to ask them to do their jobs. I just feel so guilty.
posted by lollipopgomez at 2:21 PM on April 10, 2012

I'm surprised nobody else has answered this, but I guess Frowner did such a good job that everyone else feels unnecessary.

Anyway, you want the book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:05 AM on April 11, 2012

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