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How to Safeguard Your Job: Keep Learning and Keep Listening

The times they are a-changin’
One of the trends in modern business is the changing nature of administrative work. Today in businesses of all sizes, more managers are doing work on their own desktop computer systems that in the past would have been handled by a secretary. As these trends continue, there will be fewer and fewer secretaries and more office and information specialists. It’s up to you to create a place for yourself in this changing world.

Gone are the days when a secretary might work 45 years for the same company, many of those years for the same boss. This is true of both large and small companies. A large company used to provide stability, but no longer. Corporate restructurings, which have affected hundreds of thousands of people over the past years, have been a mixed blessing for administrative assistants. In the wake of restructuring, some assistants have to leave their position when their boss leaves, but others are asked to take on greater responsibility, to “take up the slack” as middle managers are phased out. Either situation could be professionally devastating if it was not what the administrative assistant would have chosen himself or herself.

Make sure your skills are top-notch
Learning new skills and improving your old ones is the best professional insurance you can acquire, and it can put you in the position of being a better secretary than your position demands. No matter what type or size of company you work for, focus on acquiring essential business skills, whether or not you need any one of them now.

Make sure your skills are top-notch in office-related areas including: keyboarding, maintaining a filing system, handling incoming and outgoing mail, setting appointments, answering telephones, taking dictation, and using office machines. Try to acquire proficiency in correspondence, research, customer service, purchasing, budgeting, bookkeeping, invoicing, training new employees, and supervising office staff. You should learn how to write and speak effectively and be able to plan and organize your work. And finally, you must be computer literate. Having all these skills gives you the most flexible preparation to meet any challenge you face—either an on-the-job crisis or a career opportunity.

If you cannot expand your current role but are capable of much more than you’re doing, your dissatisfaction may lead you to want to change your direction in life and seek out a new job. Your new skills will help you get the best possible situation.

What qualities do employers prize?
It’s helpful to know what an employer expects of a “perfect administrative assistant” so that you can present yourself at your best. Here are a few of the most important qualities:
  • Punctuality. An employer wants an administrative assistant who is consistently punctual and always on hand during office hours. An assistant who continually arrives even a few minutes late or who is ill frequently can cause havoc in a busy office.
  • Dependability. For example, would the assistant rush home at precisely 5 p.m. despite an office crisis, or would he or she take enough responsibility to volunteer to remain after hours if an emergency arises?
  • Ability to learn. A valued assistant’s credentials include not only formal programs and degrees but also self-instruction and single courses. For example, an employer may hope that you know a specific computer software the company uses, but he or she may not be too concerned if you aren’t familiar with it if you show the potential to learn quickly.
  • Willingness to follow instructions. Of course, a good administrative assistant takes initiative and figures out ways to perform certain tasks to save time or improve results. But the assistant who always demands complete control may ultimately become unwilling to follow instructions, debating or questioning every one of the boss’s directives. Though intelligent input from an administrative assistant is prized, an employer usually prefers not to argue points that he or she has already decided. The employer looks for an administrative assistant who will execute a decision no matter how many alternatives may seem obvious, or no matter what a former boss did in the same situation. In other words, the employer wants someone whose personality will be an asset rather than a handicap.
  • Loyalty and confidentiality. In an office, there is nothing more unwelcome than the “human sieve” who constantly chatters about every conversation heard, spreads idle rumors like wildfire, and must constantly be screened from confidential projects and information. No matter how efficient, educated, and experienced that administrative assistant is, his or her employment will be short-lived.

Keep your ear to the ground
Always be alert to conditions or changes that could affect your job, no matter what size company you work for. In a large company, be wary if your boss is excluded from meetings he or she used to attend, is dropped from routing lists, or is told to cut back on budget or staff. Do people who used to lunch or chat with your boss no longer do so? These warning signs can also signal that your own position might be in jeopardy.

In a small business where you work directly for the owner, pay attention to details. Has business been slipping lately? Is it just a temporary slump or something more serious? Has the boss paid vendors and other creditors, or are you receiving dunning letters and telephone calls? Of critical importance to you is whether the boss has paid payroll taxes and health insurance premiums. If your boss has not and the business folds, the Internal Revenue Service will look to the individual worker to pay the overdue taxes even though the money was already withheld from earlier paychecks. The individual may have no healthcare coverage even though deductions for premiums may have been taken. And the individual might not even be able to collect unemployment benefits though taxes for that were deducted too.

The best course is to be aware of the financial health of your employer so you can take action before it’s forced on you. These events are the exception, but it’s better to be employed and equipped with this knowledge than to experience it naively when you can least afford it.

Adapted from Administrative Assistant’s and Secretary’s Handbook, 3rd Edition, by James Stroman, Levin Wilson, and Jennifer Wauson (AMACOM, a division of American Management Association, 2008).
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