Q. A question has arisen among the administrative support staff at the law firm where I work. We are frequently required to handle personal chores for law partners and other employees. We are required to take people's personal mail, including their bills, to the post office. I even have to handle mail from their spouses and children, including their Christmas cards.
It isn't a big problem but I wonder what would happen if I were to lose a piece of mail or if someone's mortgage payment never made it to the bank.
Through the years, I have grown increasingly resentful of doing personal work for employers and others. I am not even sure I can articulate why I dislike it so much. I am usually on the low end of the totem pole of the office hierarchy and it makes me feel even more lowly. When I work, I want to advance the goals of the organization, not the personal goals of the other employees.
A. This is a case where opinions differ.
Rick Stroud, spokesman for the Kansas City, Mo.-based International Association of Administrative Professionals, clearly shared the letter writer's sentiments. "She has her priorities straight," he said. "You work for the corporation, not for the individual."
But Cynthia Lively, the group's president and administrative assistant to the headmaster at the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Mass., saw it differently. "I do many of those things [for her boss] myself, and I've never felt put upon," Lively said.
It also depends on the circumstances. If the lawyers work 16-hour days, generating an avalanche of income that supports the rest of the firm, it's easier to understand that they may need to lean on support staff to handle personal chores--assuming, of course, the other workers aren't equally time-strapped. How people are treated also plays a role. If people are treated as inferiors, being asked to perform personal errands is more likely to make them feel servile than pleased to serve.
To Stroud, it makes sense for an administrative assistant to water an executive's plants if he or she is abroad for an extended period of time making sales calls. But he'd say no if asked to type up the homework of the employer's child. Lively, on the other hand, said many administrative assistants don't mind shopping for the boss's wife because they like to shop anyway.
There's a generational issue here as well. Stroud, 40, thinks it is passe for executives to expect administrative assistants to help with personal chores, unless they were hired specifically as personal assistants and charged with those duties. "There's definitely been a trend of the last 25 years away from doing personal errands" that are not a part of a worker's official job description, Stroud said. "There are pockets of the old-school mentality, and as we approach the new millennium, it should decrease."
Lively, 54, sees the attitudinal changes among younger workers as rather unfortunate. "A lot of [people] have an 8-to-5 mind-set and they don't want to do anything above and beyond that unless they are paid for it," she said.
But both urged the writer to speak up about the problem, rallying co-workers on the issue if possible, taking it to the human resources department if necessary. "Going around harboring resentment isn't good for anyone," Lively said. Stroud urged the writer to quit if the problem isn't fixed: "There are lots of openings for good administrative assistants, and you don't need to stick around where you don't want to be."
I was born in Southeast Asia and came to this country in 1981. I became a U.S. citizen about 10 years ago. Now I work in the publications department of a state government agency, where I am the only minority.
Lately I've been subjected to discrimination and harassment because of my accent. I've been told that if I cannot change my accent, my career might be adversely affected. Can they legally do this? What can I do?
The letter writer, whose accent was noticeable but was easy to understand during a recent interview, is raising a good question at a time of heavy immigration.
First, and obviously, good English-language communication skills are essential for some jobs, and employers need to be confident that workers can adequately perform their duties. But a growing number of workers believe their language differences have become a pretext for discrimination based on their national origin. The number of workers making language-based allegations to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose from 77 cases in fiscal year 1996 to 243 in fiscal 1999, the agency reports. In late October, the commission met in Chicago with immigrant groups, academics, employers and union leaders to discuss the issue.
Attorney John Rowe, the EEOC's district director in Chicago, said language-discrimination complaints are common in some government agencies. "Progressive employers don't make that mistake, particularly large multinationals that want their sales forces to be international," he said.
Rowe said several national-origin discrimination complaints over the past year were settled quickly after his office explained the issues to employers. While employers have a right to place workers in jobs they can perform well, employers who use language issues to discriminate unfairly against immigrant workers may find themselves facing legal trouble, Rowe said.
Many foreign-born workers who came to the United States as adults struggle mightily to improve their accents, either to improve their job prospects or to better assimilate, but find it difficult, said Bill Crawford, a senior instructor at Georgetown University who specializes in teaching English as a foreign language. Private accent training--as distinct from grammar or vocabulary instruction--can help, particularly if the student is taught by a trained linguist who helps him or her to focus on specific sounds and intonations. It can take three to six months of intensive training, he said. Prejudices based on accents are so widespread that even native-born Americans, particularly people from Brooklyn or parts of the Deep South, have turned to such services to develop a more mainstream style of communicating, he said.