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Office Advice: When Your Personal Assistant Isn't Working Out

Updated on February 25, 2012

Dear Veronica,

I have just been made a supervisor at work and I have my first personal assistant. She’s an absolute dreadful nightmare. Her work is about enough to squeak by. She isn’t stupid or incompetent. But she won’t take any direction. If I ask where something I’m waiting for is, she just gives me a dirty look and will not answer me. If she does something wrong or inefficiently and I talk to her about it, she will either get up and walk away from me, or sit there with her arms folded. If I ask her if she has any questions she won’t answer me, and will go right back to doing the work the way she had in the first place anyway. I won't bore you with a bunch of examples, I will just give you one. She has a monthly report to do for me, she has prepared 6 of them now, each one she has done exactly the same, and incorrectly. Each month I go quietly to her so as not to embarrass her or make a fuss and kindly ask her to make these certain changes. She just sits there and stares at me. I ask if she understands. She shrugs and nods but then the next month does it her same way again which is wrong. I am at my wits end. I feel like every day is a battle with her. What can you do when your PA is your enemy? She is making me look bad as I have to pass this report on to a lot of people that depend on this sales and inventory information for forecasting. Should I ask she be fired?

Any advice at all would be of great service to me.

Best Regards from London,

Chopequa

Dear Chopequa,

You need to have a paper trail and witnesses.

Never view something like this as an occurrence between you and another employee, it’s between you and the way you're perceived at the company. From now on look at any issue like this as an opportunity; a chance for you to demonstrate your finesse, management qualities and team spirit. Don’t get caught up in trying to figure your PA out. You never know, Chopequa. She could be gone never to be heard from again within a few months. Then again 5 years from now she could wind up being your boss.

Do not have any more meetings with your personal assistant alone especially since it hasn’t worked. Every time you’re alone with her you’re setting yourself up for a future case of your word against hers with no way to prove what really happened. Her poor behavior is reflecting badly on you, your department, and most specifically your lack of authority. You have to put an end to this.

The next time she turns in a report or something that’s not the way you want it to be, this is what you’re going to do. First, you’re going to document it. You address an email to her, include attachments of the work she did, and copy at least 2 people on the email. One CC should be to a human resources person. Another could be your immediate supervisor, department manager, or perhaps another person that has done this report work in the past. It needs to be a professional choice of inclusion. For example it is considered professional to carbon copy anyone you mention in the email so that they may be made aware that their name has been mentioned. It’s also policy in some workplaces to copy your boss and your HR department whenever you’re correcting a subordinate. So all of these CC’s are justified.

The mail should be short and professional. Do not be passive aggressive in referencing your past efforts to correct her. However you should document here that this isn't your first attempt to rectify this problem. Try to begin on a positive or fair note and then explain the errors with her work. Then state clearly how you’ll be handling it. Remember: this is about you showing your company you're a good supervisor. It's not about this PA, really. Keep focus on the cause.

Here’s an example using the report you mentioned:

“Personal Assistant’s Name,

Attached please find a copy of the ABC Whatever Report you’ve been handling for the last 5 months. Thank you for consistently having it completed on time. I’d also like to let you know that the X number is always accurate.

However there are still several items I need for you to correct in the report as I’ve discussed with you. Below you'll find the specific instructions for these changes.

Please feel free to ask if you need any help with implementing these corrections so that I may submit a request for Karen Applegate to work with you.

Please do not hesitate to ask for help with this, or with any other assignments.

Sincerely,

Your Boss”

Create a separate email for each issue you're documenting. But make sure each one is documented.

Do not discuss the email with her alone. If she does come up to you and say something, say “Hang on,” and grab your phone. Call HR. With a smile say, “Hello HR person, I have Personal Assistant here in my office, she’d like to discuss the email I copied you on. May we come down to your office for a quick chat?”

Do not give her a chance to speak without a witness. She had that chance and blew it. Interrupt her and invite HR in. Interrupt her and tell her to email this to you, and to copy HR.

If anyone in the office asks if there's a problem, smile and say no. If HR, your boss, or a superior asks what’s going on, that's different. Privately explain that this is your first PA and you just wanted to make sure you were correcting her appropriately. You can add at that point that you had attempted several times to do this privately verbally between the two of you but that the changes hadn’t been implemented. Own it. Say you realized you had to go about it in a different way when your first efforts didn't work. It's important that you sound as if you're handling an issue under your authority, and not like you are out to get someone. Never speak ill of her. You never know who is her uncle, her boyfriend, her mother's best friend, or who will see her work differently than you have. Remain professional, stick to facts, and don't over-speak.

It’s important to maintain your protocols with her once you’ve set them. Next time she submits the report, you need to attach it to an email addressed to her again, copying the same people. If it’s all been corrected, state that: “Thank you for implementing all the changes discussed in our last email. This is great work.”

If it hasn’t been corrected, take the step you said you’d make without reprimand or over-stating the obvious: “I’ve set up a training session for you with Karen Applegate who formerly handled this report.”

Or set that training up with the sales department that generates the data, or another person from your department. Preferably Anyone but you.

If it has to be you, then you have to have a witness. Perhaps it could be another person that could be filling in for your PA in case of absence. Cross training is usually a grand idea. Suggesting you train two people at once on this report is an efficient use of time and resource. Ask another supervisor that their PA be cross trained with yours on several key reports or tasks so that you're both covered in times of a PA's absence.

It will accomplish several things. Most pointedly right now it prevents you from having to be alone with someone who has proven she can’t be trusted in that scenario. In addition, it shows her she can be replaced. Someone else is being trained to do her job. Hopefully that’s an incentive to improve. And finally, now another assistant and another supervisor will experience her work ethic and attitude. She's no longer only your problem.

Presenting an idea like this to your department manager(s) to have the PA’s do a little cross training should reflect positively on you.It shows your concern for tasks to be completed efficiently during an absence. It insures you and the other supervisor a smoother time during an assistant's absence, and it shows you're creating opportunities for PA's to advance and grow within the company. And if you're in an odd company that didn't figure that out, feel free to point it out for them if asked.

You need to take these steps in case this PA attempts to cross you or continue to make you look bad. More importantly you need to remember that you’re a supervisor now. You need to demonstrate that you can handle that.

You said she’s not stupid. She’ll most likely straighten up and fly right when she sees she can’t mess with you. However, If that’s not the case, you’re covered.

If this reaches the point where she is just not improving, you can elevate this once you have three written documentations of her unsatisfactory work and failure to correct it. These emails include copies of her faulty work accompanied with your list of exact corrections required, the alternate ways you attempted to instruct her through training, positive reinforcement for the things that she was doing correct showing your concern for her confidence and well being, and finally invitations for her to feel free to ask for help. You can request a meeting with HR and your department head. Ask how they would like for you to handle this. The wording there is important. State that you want to handle this. But invite them to guide you.

I can’t tell you what’ll happen at that point. You may be instructed to do the report yourself from now on. You may be told to begin dismissal proceedings. They may say you’ve done all you should have and they’ll take over now. They may reassign her. They may tell you to do more training with her. Each company is different like that. As long as you’ve covered yourself you need not worry. Remember this isn't about you and her. It's about you and your career. Whatever happens to her, happens to her. If you do the most professional supervisory job you can for yourself and your company, then by default you will have handled this situation correctly.

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