ask a boss

‘I Was Tricked Into Being an Executive Assistant!’

Photo: © Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Get Ask a Boss delivered every week

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Dear Boss,

I started my new job about two months ago after graduating with a master’s degree from an Ivy League school. This is not my first full-time or office-environment job, so I thought I had a fairly good idea of what to expect, but this role is throwing me for a loop.

When I first interviewed with this company, both HR and my current boss said this was to be a project-manager position that held a certain amount of responsibility, including event planning and grant management. 

However, since beginning this job, I’ve received a lot of work that resembles an assistant’s duties: scheduling conference calls, ordering supplies, drafting/editing correspondence for my boss, etc. These tasks were not included in the job description or described in my interviews.

So far, about 70–80 percent of my day is spent on admin work. I’m worried that going forward, much of my work will consist of these duties as opposed to projects with larger responsibilities.

We have a large company conference coming up that I’m helping coordinate (which is actually part of my job description), and some grant competitions ending this summer. But this fall, I wonder what my position will look like. I have tried to clarify what my duties are during weekly meetings with my boss, but my admin duties are never discussed and are simply sent over to me at will.  

I do like the company and the benefits I receive, but I’m starting to feel a bit restless here. How long should I wait before I reevaluate continuing with this job? I know it’s still early, but how long is too long to be in a position in which you don’t feel fulfilled?

Oh my goodness, talk to your boss!

It’s definitely true that many if not most jobs involve some amount of admin work. It’s not uncommon to have to do your own admin work, and maybe some admin work for any programs you’re in charge of. (And really, I wouldn’t necessarily put writing and editing for your boss in the “admin” category at all, depending on what exactly that correspondence looks like.) But there’s a difference between doing your own admin work and doing it for other people — it’s the difference between scheduling a conference call that you’ll be part of, and scheduling one that you’re not participating in.

Until I got to the part of your letter where you said you were spending 70–80 percent of your time on admin work, I was ready to ask whether you were simply underestimating how much admin work is normal in many jobs. But 70–80 percent is a different story. That’s basically being an assistant with some project work on the side.

So you should definitely talk to your boss and figure out what’s going on.

There are a few possibilities that could explain what’s happening. First, since you’re only two months in, it’s possible that you have a boss who’s easing you into your main job very slowly, filling most of your time with “easier” admin work, and she doesn’t realize that you’re itching to get going. Some managers do that, and you may have to nudge her to get you started on what you came onboard to do. Or, it’s possible that this is just a temporary plan because of that upcoming conference you’re coordinating, and she doesn’t want to load you up with other big projects until the conference is behind you. If that’s the case, your boss should have told you that, of course, but she wouldn’t be the first manager to drop the ball on communicating. It’s also possible that she doesn’t realize how much admin work you’re doing. If most of the assistant work is assigned to you by other people and not by her, there could be a miscommunication on your team about what your role is, and that’s something your boss could clear up if you make sure she’s aware of it.

Those are all of the potentially good scenarios. The potential bad one, of course, is that this might in fact be the job. Your boss might have done a terrible job of conveying the role during the hiring process. Or she might genuinely think the job is mainly project management, and she’s vastly underestimating how much of it is actually admin work. Or, she might have a really weird definition of “project management.” You might be able to get more insight into this by thinking back to how the work was discussed in your interview. Did you discuss specific job responsibilities in detail and how much of the role each task would account for? If you did — and if what you’re doing now clearly doesn’t line up with that conversation — it puts you in a somewhat stronger spot when you raise the issue. But even if you didn’t discuss it back then, you can still bring it up now — and you need to, really.

Sit down with your boss and say something like this: “I wanted to talk to you about my role. Since I started, I’ve been spending about 70–80 percent of my time on admin work, like X, Y, and Z. From our conversations during the hiring process, I had expected the job to center more around project management — things like A, B, and C. I’m not sure if the job has been a little different than we discussed because I’m new and still learning, or because of the upcoming conference, or whether you’d expect the role to stay like this for the foreseeable future. Can you give me your sense of how much admin work and how much project management work I should expect going forward?

When you say this, make sure you stress that 70–80 percent part. That’s really key — and takes your situation from, “Well, everyone has boring parts of their jobs” to “Whoa, that’s not the job you signed up for.” If she seems to be glossing over that part, follow up with language like, “To be clear, I know every job has some admin work associated with it. In this case, my concern is that I’m spending 70–80 percent of my time on it every day.”

Then listen to what she says. She might tell you the assistant work is temporary and things are about to change. She might be shocked to hear this is even happening at all. Or she might tell you that this is indeed the job, and she’s surprised that you thought otherwise. Whatever her answer is, your goal with this meeting is to get really clear on how she sees your role, and whether or not anything is likely to change in the near future.

If you realize from your meeting that this is the job, at that point you’ll have to decide whether it’s a job you want to stay in. You can pitch changing your duties a bit to your boss by saying something like, “Would you be open to me taking on work like A and B? That’s what I’d expected the job to center around, and what I thought I came onboard to do.” And who knows — she may be amenable to that. But if not, it’s reasonable for you to start looking for other jobs. When you do, you can be straightforward with interviewers about why you’re leaving — e.g., “I was brought on to do project management, but the position ended up being primarily an assistant role instead.”

But do talk to your boss as soon as you can. That should give you a much better sense of what you can and can’t expect, and it will help you figure out whether this position is the right step in your career or not.

Get Ask a Boss delivered every week

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I Was Tricked Into Being an Executive Assistant!’