But you never asked!
July 17, 2014 8:02 AM   Subscribe

I've had a consistent problem in my work life recently, and I'd love some advice. Since I've had so much trouble getting work, I defaulted to Executive Assistant positions. I figured this was in line with my personality, since I'm fairly thick-skinned and cheerful, and I'm pretty organized. The only problem is that I keep getting temp-to-perm positions where the C-level exec I assist accuses me of forgetting to do things he never asked me to do!

I'm in my second temp-to-perm position where I'm working for an important bigwig at a major company. Since I'm working for a CEO right now, I haven't received any training or face time with my boss; he's just too busy. I sort of have to guess at what he wants, and it seems I'm always wrong. I try to ask him questions about his preferences over IM and email, which he encouraged me to do, but he never answers them. It was the same with my last boss, who wound up finding my work unsatisfactory and declined to convert me to permanent employee status.

I can kind of roll with the punches and switch gears easily. I try to learn my boss' preferences quickly and never make the same mistake twice. I try to have written conversations so that my boss' instructions are documented and I can refer back to them. Sometimes their preferences change suddenly and without warning, so it's important for me to look back at old conversations and figure out whether I messed and misunderstood instructions or whether my boss is just being crazy like a boss sometimes is. Usually it's the latter.

My big problem in both jobs has been my boss recalling asking me to do something that he never asked. My last boss was upset that I didn't have a carpet delivered to his office since he believed he'd asked me to do so. When I asked around, it turned out that he'd asked an entirely different person several months before I was hired. I tried to explain this, but he said I should have known. I don't know how this would have been possible since I couldn't have randomly guessed that he wanted a carpet for his office and had asked the head of HR for it; I definitely wouldn't have guessed that he might mix up me and the head of HR, who was someone of a different race, gender, and place in the hierarchy. Anyway, it was a major sticking point with him and he stated it was one of the reasons he let me go.

I figured he was crazy, but now my new boss is doing the same thing. He fired the temp-to-perm woman who was here ahead of me after a month and it looks like I'm next on the chopping block. Today my boss asked me why I didn't add him to a meeting that a) I'd never heard about, and b) was not on my calendar or anyone's calendar since it was impromptu. He insisted he'd asked me to add him to the calendar invite for this meeting. I've gone through all of my emails and I swear I have no idea what he means. I write down every word he says to me since I've been so wary of this happening, and it's nowhere in my notebook. When I tried to tell him that I'd asked around and the meeting was in fact never scheduled and was more of an informal gathering, he gave me a "You're a dumb asshole" face and shut his door on me. He hasn't looked me in the face since and I suspect I'll be fired this week. This isn't the first instance of him doing this, but it's in combination with me neglecting to pick up his phone for him because I was in the bathroom this morning, so he's extra pissed.

My question is: If I continue trying to find an Executive Assistant role, how do I avoid this? How do I respond when my boss takes me to task for not doing something I was never instructed to do? I can handle the other parts of the job, but this one is just so confusing to me. I'd love to NOT be an Executive Assistant since I think this is just a nature-of-the-beast kind of thing, but it's the only job I'm being offered right now. I need some quick solutions. Please help!
posted by pineappleheart to Work & Money (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
While some kinds of anticipatory thinking is indeed called for as an EA, the kinds of examples you gave are absolutely not typical of the job of an EA and are more typical of "dickish bosses". With the bosses I've worked with (and I've been an EA for over 15 years), if they found that I hadn't been the one they'd asked to do a given task, they'd apologize and re-ask me to do it myself rather than saying "you should have known that". Maybe they'd grumble a little bit at most. But they absolutely wouldn't consider firing me for that.

I realize this is cold comfort to you right now, but I promise you that this is not typical of the job, and you've unfortunately just been hit with a couple of shitty bosses one after the other. Hang in there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:11 AM on July 17, 2014 [10 favorites]

Dude, you realize that none of this is your fault, and that these people are Klingons, right?

When you first take an assignment, if the boss won't take the time to on-board you, then this is how it will eventually end up. That means the boss doesn't really value the EA.

As a CYA, I'd send an email to your boss at the beginning of the day, outlining what you plan on doing. Bullet points. At the end of the day, recap what was accomplished and ask if there is anything not on the list that needs to be done or if there's anything you need to be aware of.

This way you have something proving that you've been running things past him this whole time, and it's his issue if he's not getting what he needs.

However, that rarely matters.

Hang in there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:11 AM on July 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

Unless you are master of self-deception or of deceptively writing AskMe posts, this really just reads to me like you are doing all the right things, and got unlucky with two bad bosses in a row.

Just as you should never assume the problem is other people, you shouldn't assume it isn't other people, either…
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:11 AM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

If it were me, and it is only a small step, when I am hired, I ask the boss if there is anything outstanding, anything at all that you need to follow up on. Then, also, whenever you come in contact with someone in the company that you have not interacted with before, ask them as an aside, is there anything you are working on or my boss is working on for you that I should be aware of.

Also, there may be a reason why these bosses are going through assistants like a hot knife through butter. It could be them, not the assistant.
posted by 724A at 8:12 AM on July 17, 2014 [17 favorites]

First off, these are bad bosses. No question there.

Sadly, you'll probably have to stop being so firmly right. The last thing your boss wants is to look stupid in front of their assistant, and especially in front of their general employees. They're going to make mistakes and screw up, and they're probably going to be unreasonable about it. Something along the lines of "Sorry sir, I don't have any record of that, here's how we make sure this never happens again" might go down better with these sort of people.

They want obsequiousness. Give it to them for now and keep looking for something better.
posted by Magnakai at 8:13 AM on July 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Consider that there are only so many executive assistant positions open at a given time.

If a CEO/President is a good employer, employee retention and tenure rates are likely to be longer, thus these good employers generate less open positions.

Your temp agency would like to fill any and all positions that are open, good employers and bad.

You are new at the temp agency. Someone at the agency knows who is a good boss, and who is a shit boss. You are getting shit positions.

Feel free to ask about your next placement before you accept it. Has the agency placed EAs there before? What was the tenure of the last placement? What is the temp agency person's opinion about this becoming a permanent hire?

Feel free to sign up with as many temp agencies as you can handle. Make a bit of scuttle about you wanting a quality placement, and you're the belle of the ball.
posted by fontophilic at 8:13 AM on July 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Sometimes (not always) these jobs wind up as temp-to-perm because they're for difficult people. :( Can you ask your recruiter to place you with a different company?

Do you understand your boss's high-level priorities and are you proactive about supporting those? Develop relationships with the other assistants relevant to these goals and email/chat with them regularly. Are you combing through whatever paperwork is in the desk when you get there? Do you have access to read your boss's email?

How often are you checking in with your boss? Can you get a few minutes daily to run down the schedule and what's up with the 3ish big priorities? Weekly review?

How do you handle it when this happens? Do you have an answer for what you'll do in the future to avoid this (even though this wasn't your fault)?
posted by momus_window at 8:14 AM on July 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Well, you're never really going to be able to avoid it, unless you find a better boss. What you can do, though, is change how you respond to it. They don't want excuses, they don't even care if it's your fault. They want the problem solved. In the carpet scenario, it would have been better to say something like "I'm not sure why it didn't happen, but if you give me the details again, I'll take care of it right now and have the issue solved as soon as possible." With the meeting, same thing "Ok, I will be sure to do that in the future." (yeah, there was no way of you knowing about the meeting, but whatever - just say it won't happen again; if it is consistently happening, then you need to make better friends with the other assistants so they tip you off to these meetings).

It's not really the "mistakes" that are getting you fired, it's taking responsibility for all of the "mistakes." Don't apologize, don't explain. Just fix. Then you're remembered as the person who fixed the problem, rather than the one who caused the problem.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:15 AM on July 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

I try to be proactive about supporting my boss and email him a list of reminder and what I'm trying to get accomplished every morning. He never answers them. I'm not permitted to go through anything on his desk or see his email. Since I'm also the office manager, I'm very proactive about trying to find better solutions for office things (signing us up for Staples rewards programs, sending out birthday emails, trying to handle everyone's snack requests, blah blah), but I doubt anyone fills him in about the OM stuff.

I usually go with the "don't complain, don't explain" school of thought when I'm in an office and just try to fix what my boss needs fixed, as melissasaurus suggests, but when I sense my job may be on the line, I usually try to explain what I think happened that caused the perceived mistake.

There are no other assistants; it's the other execs who are planning the meetings and not telling me. They're not particularly interested in helping me find a solution and mostly say, "Don't worry so much about it."

I asked why other haven't been successful in the position but was told my boss was a "creative genius" so he can sometimes be "whimsical."
posted by pineappleheart at 8:20 AM on July 17, 2014

Adding to the chorus here, but mainly you're just getting unlucky. I've been an EA to C-level executives for 13 years and I've never had a boss behave like this. I do have bosses who have been confused about what they told me to do, or changed their mind and neglected to inform me, and in that case the key is to basically say "okay" and roll with the punches, especially until they learn that you are in fact intelligent and capable. Nobody, especially a super busy high level person who has just met you, wants to hear you tell them they're crazy or wrong. Once you're in a position for a longer period of time and come to have a deeper relationship with your boss, it'll be more acceptable to defend yourself or explain when something goes wrong.

It might be helpful for you to meet with the HR person when you start a new job to ask what the CEO is like and why others have or have not been successful in the position. I went from working for an impulsive hothead to a genteel elderly Southern gentleman and a lot of what I had learned in the previous position did not transfer.
posted by something something at 8:22 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm the only assistant in the company. (It's a start-up.)
posted by pineappleheart at 8:25 AM on July 17, 2014

I usually try to explain what I think happened that caused the perceived mistake.

I call this "why vs. how": "Why" tends to expand not to "Why this happened," but to "Why this isn't my fault," which isn't really that useful to anyone but you. "How" expands to "How we prevent this from happening again," which almost always includes "why this happened," so it's always more useful to everyone, including you.

Every now and then, ask yourself whether you're on a "why" or a "how" path, and decide which one is more useful, regardless of which would be correct.

But yeah, nth-ing that you got unlucky and worked for two consecutive assholes. The problem is that good people to work for attract and retain good assistants, so it's much harder to get those jobs. But keep trying.
posted by Etrigan at 8:25 AM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

There's a reason these bosses need a new temp staff member; they have a habit of blaming the Assistant to cover up their own errors. It really isn't you; it's them.

Be a little bit tougher with them. You send email or IM with a question and get no response. Wait a couple days and ask again. Followup: blah, blah. If Mr. Bigshot is too busy to meet with you, ask for 5 minutes in the afternoon and run through a few questions. If Mr. BS is still too busy, tell him that you can't be really effective without communication, and will do your best. Try to present a persona that is accommodating, professional, but also a little stern.

Make it easy. Try to make the questions yes/no or very short answer. Your doctor has 3 appt. times available - 8/9/14 @ 3pm, 8/11/14 @ 10:30am, 8/13/14 @ 8am. Use a template for email and use the subject line. Response Requested: Annual Physical Appt. time.

Send your email with today's notes and questions at the same agreed-on time every day. At the end of the day if you didn't get answers, re-send it as a followup, and wish him a pleasant evening. Once a week, ask if there are any longer term items that may be pending, as you know Mr. BS is busy and you don't want to miss anything.

Add your office management accomplishments to your emails.

Maybe Mr. Bigshot is a creative genius. Frame yourself as the Operations Expert who can deal with the brass tacks that allow him to be creative.

And limit how much crap you take. You deserve respect; if you don't get it, leave.
posted by theora55 at 8:28 AM on July 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

Also, I'll bet Mr. BS thrives on flattery.
posted by theora55 at 8:28 AM on July 17, 2014

In my experience, it sucks to be an assistant in a start-up, in exactly the way you describe.

If this job doesn't wind up working out, you might want to ask your temp agency for a position in a larger/more established company.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:35 AM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know someone who does this kind of work, and she has a lot of similar stories. I think there are a lot of egomaniacal narcissists in these executive positions and they are just about not capable of considering that they are wrong about anything, including that they imagined they told you something but didn't.
posted by thelonius at 8:36 AM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Get out asap; until then, hassle the other execs with more vigour. Be sweet and all, but persistent about getting dates etc.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:54 AM on July 17, 2014

Bad bosses for sure. But:

I try to ask him questions about his preferences over IM and email, which he encouraged me to do, but he never answers them. It was the same with my last boss...

This is something you can change. If you end up with another non-responder, stop asking. Instead, say "I'm going to do this X way. Let me know if you have another preference. If I haven't heard from you by Y time, I will assume X is correct."

The exec wants to know the assistant is on it. They don't have time to answer questions but will correct you if you are off-base. So be proactive.
posted by headnsouth at 9:06 AM on July 17, 2014 [17 favorites]

One thing that comes to mind is that the first time I had an assistant, I sort of needed to be trained or taught how to work effectively with that person. I am not exactly sure how in this instance to do it, but a little meeting with your boss to work on procedures and protocols would help. I needed to learn to steer people to her that wanted a piece of my time. I was so used to using my own calendar for work and personal stuff that delegating was a new thing to me. Take charge of the administrative part of your bosses world and talk with him about how you are planning on effecting efficient work flow.
posted by 724A at 9:08 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're going through an agency, the employer often has to pay a non-trivial fee to make you perm. The behavior you're seeing may be in part to keep from having to pay that fee.
posted by jeoc at 9:33 AM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think maybe the sorts of places that cycle through temp workers are the sorts of places with assholes like these guys.

Part of the job is anticipating their needs and doing the communication they don't do to ensure all their ducks are lined in a row, but the carpet thing is beyond stupid. With the meeting thing, it might just be a lesson in making sure you're communicating with senior staff to know where your boss is needed. The boss won't figure it out on his own or if he does figure it out, he probably won't tell you what's going on. You'll just have to make sure people are including you on requests or checking with you for his calendar. I think you'll need to do scheduling and cross-team check-ins on his behalf rather than just wait for people to reach out to you. But I have never been an executive assistant.

One thing to add, just because he doesn't respond to your emails doesn't mean he's not reading them. I'm sure he reads his morning "to do" email. But what sort of response does there need to be? Keep sending reminders and keep emailing him things so there is a paper trail of whatever he needs to do and that you have notified him.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:56 AM on July 17, 2014

I'm a software engineer, with very little EA experience other than summer jobs with a temp agency when I was in college.

This is something you can change. If you end up with another non-responder, stop asking. Instead, say "I'm going to do this X way. Let me know if you have another preference. If I haven't heard from you by Y time, I will assume X is correct."

This is actually something my supervisor recommended I do when I was not getting responses from an internal customer in our company who I needed to make Important Decisions on what he wanted. Often, I was stalled because there were several options and the customer needed to pick one before I could proceed. Once I started doing the "I need a decision on X; if I don't hear from you by Y date, I will assume you want A, B, and C, and do X in that manner" thing -- he continued to ignore me, but Things Got Done, so I was no longer getting blamed for Things Not Being Done. I think there was only one occasion where I heard from him, and that was because he wanted Things Done in a slightly different way.
posted by tckma at 11:25 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is something you can change. If you end up with another non-responder, stop asking. Instead, say "I'm going to do this X way. Let me know if you have another preference. If I haven't heard from you by Y time, I will assume X is correct."

For future responders, I should mention that I'm not permitted to do this and have been instructed to just follow up at least once a day until I receive a response from him. I receive a response on about 2% of emails, I'd say. :(
posted by pineappleheart at 11:34 AM on July 17, 2014

I'd second not working for start-ups if you can possibly avoid it. Start-up CEOs tend be awful. Especially in the tech sector, they tend to have an incredible arrogance, that for some odd reason usually comes with a permanent case of the sniffles. (I actually like the CEO of my current company a lot, but he doesn't have an assistant.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:16 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might ask if there is another way he prefers to communicate. My boss is the absolute worst about reading and responding to emails, but he's right there with a response if I text him.
posted by something something at 3:00 PM on July 17, 2014

You could start conspicuously writing everything down in a notebook immediately when someone asks you to do something. After people see you doing this for a while, you will start to have credibility when you say "You never asked me to do that - you know how I am with my notebook, and it's not in my notebook (and not in my email)".
posted by Dansaman at 4:32 PM on July 17, 2014

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