Before You Take an Assistant Job, Read This: An Interview with Lilit Marcus
Lilit Marcus, Editor of The Gloss, and newly published author, is a beacon of shining light for the beleaguered and battered assistants of the working world. Her new book, Save the Assistants: A Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace, helps young adults transitioning to the workplace in the be-all end-all of crappy jobs. She's hoping this book will help bridge the gap of confusion that many newly minted graduates feel when starting their first jobs. We sat down with her to talk about what inspired her to write this book and what helpful tips she has for other assistants who are feeling the stress of being their boss's whipping boy.
This book was borne out of a blog. When did you start the Save the Assistants blog and was it primarily to vent about your job grievances?
So the site started in December of '06, and initially I started it after I left my first assistant job. When I first started thinking about the site, I just wanted it to be a place where people could send in horror stories. I had a really suck-y job at the time and I was complaining about it a lot, so that's when I started thinking [that] the site could be a space where people could send in horror stories. But, I [also] realized I needed more than that or it would never become a community. So almost immediately after launching it, I added sections for Tip of the Week, Survival Guide, and interviews with people who were once assistants and had gone on to really cool careers.
What was the most common complaint from assistants about their jobs that you received from the website submissions?
"I'm being treated like I don't matter," I think is the general complaint -- that encompasses everything from bosses forgetting their assistant's name, calling them "hey you," and assuming the assistant doesn't have a life outside of work and would be happy to come in on the weekend without asking them. I think a lot of that stems out of plain 'ole miscommunication. And a lot of them also stem out of the boss's assistant not making an effort to understand what the other is working on, and that works both ways. I think that sometimes [when] assistants are new to the workforce, they don't have a lot of experience. I know that when I was an assistant it was hard for me to understand what my boss's priorities were because his job was so complicated. I had no idea what he worked on all day or what he did in his meetings. So if he didn't really spell out for me what his priorities were, I didn't know what was important or what was just him having lunch with his golfing buddies.
I think that there are also generational differences going on. My boss was in his 70's when I worked for him, and there were a lot of things -- like he called me his secretary -- which made me furious. He didn't mean it to be degrading or hurtful, that's just how he was. There are generational divides. There are technical divides.
Many Boomers (who are typically the boss) don't think that Gen Y'ers (who are typically the assistants) are willing to pay their dues as a lower-rung work horse. Do you feel that younger workers don't want to step up to the plate as much or do you think that a lot of bosses now have unmanageable expectations?
I think it's a little of both. There are definitely people who walk into an assistant job and expect to be handed the keys to the company. But, I think those people are an incredibly small minority and I don't think that's the majority of the case. Furthermore, any entry-level worker who expects to be handed the keys to the company is going to figure out in about a week of doing their job that that's not the case. (Read Gen Next on the Job.)
I think what really happens is like being baited and switched. I know I grew up with parents who told me that I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard enough. That's a very common rhetoric in America. "Oh, you just need to work hard." "You need to _____ more." And then you go to college and your teachers tell you when you grow up you can do anything you want if you get a college degree and that's going to help you get a job. You believe all these things for so long, [and then] as soon as you get a job it all comes crashing down around you. I think it's hard for people to adjust to the notion that they've been told for so long that they can have whatever they want, and then it doesn't happen right away. So what often comes across as entitlement is someone adjusting to life, adjusting to adulthood, and finding out that all these things that they were told were true may not necessarily be the case.
When I was an assistant, I never felt prepared -- be it with computer programs, basic office equipment systems, etc. Do you think that most new workers and assistants are unprepared?
Oh my God, I had no idea how to do my job. Absolutely none! I think the exact quote that I used in the book was that, "I was no more prepared to have an office job than I was to fly an airplane." In my case, I was an English Lit major. I knew how to use Word; I knew how to use PowerPoint; I could use Excel; but there are so many day-to-day things that you just can't be ready for if you haven't had a job before. And you can't learn how to do them, until you do them. Like when my boss asked me to set up a meeting between him and another guy. The other assistant and I went back and forth for some time and set up the meeting, so I e-mailed her to confirm and, just to be on the safe side (since I knew her boss was out of the office that day), I cc'd her boss so that he would also have the time and date. I got a screaming phone call from the assistant. I had thought cc'ing her boss was a way to make sure that everyone had the same information, but she saw it as undermining her. I never would have expected that to happen. When she explained why she was upset, I totally understood and I apologized. But, so much about working in an office isn't about doing your job: It's about interacting with people; it's about office politics; it's about personality conflicts. And that's what you can't learn in school. I think that's how a lot of young people get thrown off.
The "Bossary" is a cool edition to the book. Which personality type do you think is the worst to deal with and why?
I would say that it's hardest to work with the boss that has a personality type most different from yours... or one you can't deal with. For example, the type of boss that I had trouble working with were the micromanaging jackasses, and I worked with a guy who was that type. When someone starts screaming, I can't even hear what they're saying; I just get so uncomfortable that I shut down. So everyone will tell you a different answer for what the worst is because hell is other people.
With the economy in the state it's in, do you think bosses have more liberty to be cocky and over-demanding because they think they can replace employees easily?
Yes, I do think there are more and more stories that I'm getting for a phenomenon that I call on the site a "combo job." And that's when two entry-level positions are combined into one job and it's usually much too much for one person to handle. A lot of common examples are like an assistant/receptionist or an assistant/office manager or two people who used to have their own assistants have to share one person between the two of them. And what happens is people use this attitude of "you're so ungrateful," and use this rhetoric of "Well, some people don't even have a job," as a way to keep you in this position and to keep you from speaking up for yourself.
This book discusses how to deal with an awful job and a demanding boss, but what work situations do you think would warrant leaving a job -- even in this economy?
Um, I would say anything that asks you to go against your fundamental beliefs. You know, asking you to do something that's [wrong], asking you to do something that's illegal. I know a lot of people who've had to [skirt] their moral boundaries. You have to decide what your line is and you have to stick to it. And while that [line] may be different for everybody -- some people may not feel comfortable doing personal things for their boss, while some people have no issue running personal errands for their boss. So whatever it is, you need to know what your line is.
Also I would say that any situation where there's harassment or something else going on. If you've complained about it and if you've gone through the process internally and you're not getting a response, and either people around you are not paying attention or are [playing accessory].
What sage advice would you give freshly-minted assistants on how to cope with long hours, a demanding boss, and little to no praise?
I would say that it's really important if our job isn't something that gives you meaning in your life, to find something that does. And whatever that thing may be -- some people volunteer, some people have regular hangout sessions with their girlfriends, some people are really involved in church activities or are close to their families -- whatever it is, you need to have other things going on in your life because your job is not who you are. Especially if you really hate your job or it makes you unhappy, you need to have other positive places in your life where you can get reinforcement. When I was an assistant, I continued writing on the side and I had a personal blog. I went to concerts, I met friends, I got pedicures with my girlfriends. I think it's really important to remind yourself that you are more than what you do from 9 to 5 every day.
Related Stories from Forbes.com
Lauren Fairbanks is a Brooklyn-based writer hailing originally from that far away land known as the deep South. She has covered lifestyle, small business, personal finance and career topics for various publications including Young Money, Learn Vest, She Knows, Wise Bread, and Eating Well Magazine. She's also the Founder and Editor of LifeStyler - a comprehensive guide to living in New York City on a Budget.