Help Me Escape the Secretarial Pool

Last Updated Oct 22, 2010 6:29 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,
About 18 months ago, I was hired as an Administrative Assistant to the VP of Human Resources of a smallish company (<2K employees). Within a couple of months, my job duties began to change as I acquired tasks previously belonging to other members of the HR staff. Then there was major restructuring of the HR functions of the company, and I became responsible for several specific functions. For almost a year, I have bided my time to address this change with my manager. I wanted to give ample time to prove that I was capable and fully responsible in this new (unofficial) role.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity I was looking for at my annual evaluation. I had just received a superior score and praises for my work, so took the leap. I presented the drastic changes to my job duties; I presented the difficulty I had being able to represent as an authority on my specific functions due to the "just a secretary" mindset of certain managers and outside vendors; I offered a full listing of various HR titles with tasks to show which might be more appropriate with all the changes. We discussed my desire to obtain PHR certification and the changes that would need to be made to my title/position in order for me to do that. She agreed with all of my points, but said she couldn't give me a definite answer just yet. I followed up with her yesterday and got a response filled with business double-speak that translated to a resounding "no".
What have I done wrong here? I have a college education and business degree, over ten years of experience with half of that specifically in HR, and I have proven myself over and over with any task given to me. I am on a first-name basis with the executives of the company and my reputation is solid. What can I do to officially break free of the secretarial pool?
I feel so Mad Men talking about the secretarial pool. It seems like an outdated job description. But, nevertheless, you're stuck in an administrative position and you want to get out. I think this is the most difficult promotion to get. People feel like the skill sets between "admin" and "exempt" employee are so vastly different that the one doesn't prepare you for the other.

There may be something to that.

There were two administrative assistants in my last corporate department, Lori and Leslie. And let me just tell you, they had skills up the wazoo that I will never, ever have. Organizational skills? You bet. The ability to calm an angry VP? Absolutely. The ability to get difficult tasks done, like getting an extra printer for the department? Give them 5 minutes and a telephone. Seriously, these women could work magic. Magic, I tell you.

Are you an administrative assistant like that? Because if you are (and it sounds like you could be with all the added responsibilities you've taken on), your boss would rather undergo monthly root canals than replace you. And if you get promoted you have to be replaced. Sob! And so, she praises you and rewards you with good performance reviews because she wants you to be happy and, more importantly, stay put.

This is clearly selfish behavior on her part.

Or, there is another possibility: You're extremely good at the organization and task following required of an administrative role, but you lack the ability to work independently. For instance, you have no problem doing step A, B, C, D, E, and F to get things done, and done correctly and efficiently. But, if someone comes to you and says, "I need F" you can't figure out out what steps it takes to get there.

If this is the case, you should stay in an administrative role because you are fabulous at it, while you gain those skills.

But, my gut says you're in the first category (and you believe that as well, although we both could be mistaken). So, let's get you out of the secretarial pool and in to the realm of exempt employees. (Just a caution--quite frequently the promotion from non-exempt to exempt comes with a small salary increase, but you lose overtime pay. So you may end up with less money overall.)

  • Branch out. You have a desire to be an HR person. Super duper. Best job in the universe. But, good HR people have solid business knowledge. So, you can keep your ultimate goal of HR certification, but be willing to leave the profession for a while.
  • Use your good reputation. You say your reputation is solid. Good. When a position in a different group comes up, apply for it. When you write your resume and cover letter (yes, even on an internal job posting) do so as if you don't know the hiring manager. Spell out your qualifications, and don't worry so much about title. You're a known quantity and will have an advantage over outside candidates. But, you have to apply. The other people assume you are happy in your admin role.
  • Start an external job hunt. Sometimes you do have to leave to achieve. If it's accurate, label your job as "Assistant to HR VP" rather than "Administrative Assistant" and emphasize the higher level work you've done. You can even leave off administrative tasks (scheduled meetings, ordered supplies, etc., etc., etc.). Remember, a resume has to be honest, but it doesn't have to have everything.
  • Sit down with your boss again and ask for guidance. "I understand that a promotion is not possible at this time. Can we make a plan for the things I need to do to be promoted? What skills do I need. What projects should I take on?" Then do those things and follow up with regular reporting. You need to take the lead on this.
This can be the hardest leap of your career. (Well, one of them. The other super difficult leap to make is from individual contributor to manager of people.) You can do it, though. Don't give up.

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