The Need to Set Boundaries as a Personal Assistant

We now come to one of the more delicate subjects surrounding such a close one-on-one relationship between employer and employee: understanding your role, or where you fit into the scheme of things.

As you can imagine, some spouses may feel jealous of a personal assistant, who likely spends more hours per day with their beloved than they do. For some, such a situation is very hard to take.  

Due to the potential for rumors, inappropriate behavior, and other unsavory consequences, a truly professional personal assistant needs to know how to draw and maintain a clear line regarding the employer/employee relationship.

Parameters of Your Role as a Personal Assistant

To put it mildly, a personal assistant career is a unique field, so many of the rules, social cues, and taboos of typical workplace interactions may not always translate the same way. When you're working together as closely as personal assistants and their employers do, your relationship, while professional, cannot help but inevitably have a personal component to it, as well. This is not necessarily a negative; in fact, some of the most successful PA/employer relationships involve a mutual admiration and respect, even a friendship.

Having said that, it is very important to have defined parameters in a working relationship. You need to understand your role in your boss's life, your "place" in his or her hierarchy. It may sound terrible, but there is a work totem pole, and a PA is on the bottom. You may be "like part of the family," but you aren't actually family, so your first and foremost role is as a professional assistant to your employer.

Many employers have personal staff, particularly assistants, sign an NDA, or non-disclosure agreement. This agreement states specifics of the work relationship regarding information which must be kept confidential. NDAs are not uncommon in professional relationships and agreements, particularly in the fields of art and science.

Breach of such an agreement can lead to consequences ranging from demotion or termination of employment, to fees and/or monetary compensation, particularly if you profit from the disclosed information. Your best course of action is to avoid talking to those gossip magazine representatives who call; don't post anything about your employer on social media; and don't let a "few minor details" slip to "a few close friends." As Benjamin Franklin said, "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead." It is wise to keep everything about your work to yourself, whether you're asked to sign an NDA or not.

PA Employee/Employer Interactions

As we've mentioned repeatedly, the role of personal assistant involves situations and experiences most working people will not encounter.

Social events can sometimes be slippery ground, particularly when alcohol is involved. It will serve you well to remain sober at social events, especially if your boss enjoys imbibing. Sure, having some drinks at the boss's party might seem harmless, particularly if your boss encourages you to do so, but you're better off refraining. The last thing anyone wants to do is destroy a golden opportunity because they said or did something inappropriate at a party! Alcohol has a way of loosening tongues, usually not in a productive way. Remember the old saying, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

If your new boss is a real "party animal" and truly wants you to party, it's still not a good idea to do so, even if part of you is eager to jump into that lifestyle. Some individuals' personalities change drastically when they're under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so be wary of stepping out of the boundaries of your professional role. In fact, the tighter you adhere to your boundaries, the better for everyone involved.

If you have a previous friendship or association to build upon with your employer, interactions can be tricky. This is a work relationship; it can be extremely difficult to combine a previous friendship with a new working relationship. If separating the two is problematic for either of you, the working arrangement should be reconsidered or terminated. You're better off keeping a friend and potential personal reference, than risking the existing relationship for money.

Having an affair with your boss, or, even worse, getting into the PA career with the idea of landing a rich spouse, is unethical and should be avoided at all costs. If it turns out you and your boss are both single and happen to fall in love, that's wonderful! But being a personal assistant is a profession and a career choice. Don't go into the field as a shortcut to finding a sugar mama/daddy. Not only is it unethical, you aren't likely to get very far with such a ploy, and you're doing everyone involved a great disservice, including yourself.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Personal Assistant course?

Although being a PA means sometimes tolerating derisive treatment, it does not mean you have to tolerate inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Any inappropriate behavior, no matter who perpetuates it, should be addressed immediately and privately. Fortunately, derisive or inappropriate behavior occurs less frequently than one might imagine.

Do not, under any circumstances, go to the media, unless you want to guarantee the end of your PA career and perhaps gain a notorious reputation, as well. Believe us, any "fame" you'd receive from such an act will not be worthwhile, and you may face a lawsuit from your employer, as well. Go through proper channels if inappropriate situations arise, and protect yourself, your boss, and both your reputations.

Potential "Pitfall" Situations

Let's revisit the "party with the boss" scenario. Of course, you think you're going to have the time of your life, the fist wild night of many – and you very well might. But such excesses and behavior cannot go on forever. As a personal assistant, it is a big part of your job to keep your employer reasonably safe and their reputation as intact as possible. If you're at a bar getting drunk together, will you be ready if something occurs that requires your attention or intervention?

While long-term, positive employee/employer relationships are many a career PA's goal, one of the dangers of such familiarity is getting too close to your employer, overstepping your boundaries, and thinking you're best friends, with your PA duties taking second place.

Even if your employer is very friendly and relaxed and doesn't seem to mind you enjoying yourself, it is very unwise for you to indulge. Under no circumstances should you take advantage of any favors or benefits given you. Not only will you break the trust between you and your employer, you may get fired and lose your reputation, as well.

Another possible pitfall of getting too close to your employer is the risk of having an inappropriate intimate relationship. No matter what anyone believes, an intimate, romantic relationship changes the work relationship, and it is extremely rare that individuals, caught up in such a situation, will be able to continue on with the work relationship, no matter what the outcome of the romance.

Making Mistakes and Overstepping Boundaries

We're all human. At some point, you will probably make a mistake as a personal assistant. Whether the error is small or large, if you're unable to resolve it immediately on your own (and sometimes even if you can), you must tell your employer. In other words, "‘Fess up if you mess up."

This does not mean you should run to your employer with every little problem that comes your way. Part of your job description is to solve problems. We are speaking of special circumstances where your boss either needs to know or needs to intervene.

Some mistakes will be instantly obvious, such as handing your boss the wrong speech as she steps onstage, or forgetting to pick up your employer's tuxedo from the cleaner's prior to an event. In such cases, there will likely be a civil discussion between you and your employer regarding proper preparation or the like. Be gracious, do not make excuses for your error, remember the lesson, and work to prevent repeating it.

Other errors may be less obvious, but potentially disastrous. Your first course of action needs to be a search for solutions, including recruiting fellow employees to help you, if possible. Failing that, or if the hasty arrangements will interfere with the event in some way, you will need to discuss the situation with your employer. Whatever pain you may experience being honest about your failings, up to and including loss of the job, it is necessary and might save your overall reputation.

If either you or your employer oversteps boundaries, you'll want to address it as soon as possible. The easiest way to avoid inappropriate situations is to behave professionally and avoid behaving in too intimate a fashion with your employer. Seemingly innocent practices, including routinely hugging your boss "hello" can open the door to more. If there is an attraction, you may find the platonic hug turning into more than either of you bargained for.

Any behavior that could be construed as intimate by observers is probably inappropriate and should be avoided. Holding hands, walking with your hand on the other's arm or shoulder, standing very close together when not conversing about private work matters, and similar behaviors are easily interpreted by others as signs of a romantic/sexual relationship. Don't give the paparazzi and tabloid reporters fodder for reputation-bashing or speculation.

Because of the more intimate nature of a personal assistant's role, it is very important for you, as the PA, to retain perspective of your position and role in your employer's life. Be wary of becoming "star struck," especially when first starting your career.

A Few Tips for Cultivating a Professional Environment

 Aside from appropriate dress, a pleasant phone voice, appropriate language, and efficient work style, there are several other ways to cultivate an appropriate relationship and polish your professional persona. Here are some tips.

  • Handle even less-than-desirable tasks with grace and without complaint. More than merely not saying "yuck" when asked to help unclog the toilet, your underlying attitude should not be one of annoyance; it will show through your pretense. If you feel negatively about most of the tasks you're asked to perform as a PA, you may wish to consider another career. Instead of annoyance or disgust, your attitude should be one of willingness to help your employer with any issue, be it gala events or groceries.

  • Deliver information in a professional manner. Don't giggle, duck your head, shuffle your feet, or "um" and "uh" your way through discussions with your employer. It's understandable to be nervous, especially your first time working for a "big name;" just keep in mind you're a professional assisting these people with responsibilities which take away from their ability to do their job properly. They may be famous, but they're also human.

  • Greet your boss' visitors and colleagues with a genuine smile. If they offer to shake hands with you, don't squeeze so hard you injure the other person, but don't give them the "fish shake" either. Don't try to get "chatty" with visitors, either. Remember, they are not there to see you. Take your cues from the other person and your employer as to how much interaction is appropriate. (Your employer may give you tips prior to visits.)

  • Dress modestly. We've mentioned dressing appropriately; part of doing so is dressing modestly. Ladies, don't wear blouses that are too low-cut (check your "bending over" look in the mirror), and avoid too-short skirts. Gentlemen, make sure your clothing is neat and free of wrinkles, and avoid unbuttoning your shirt too low. Both men and women should avoid tank tops and short shorts. Your attire may differ from day to day, depending on your duties; just remember to be modest and neat, and your dress will always be appropriate.

  • Wear good, comfortable shoes. It may be tempting to wear those amazing brand-new designer shoes, but a few hours into your day, you'll probably be wishing for a pair of comfortable old favorites, and all your focus will be on your aching feet, not your duties. It's time for some practical footwear. You needn't sacrifice style for comfort, however. Avoid sneakers/tennis shoes, as they can look sloppy. Instead, invest in a pair of attractive, well-made shoes. Your feet – and back – will thank you.

  • Keep your physical distance. Don't stand so far away your employer thinks you're frightened of him or her, but don't sidle up right next to them, either. If every time your boss turns around they practically run into you, you're too close physically.

  • Don't flirt. You're not there to get a date, you're there to work. At least we hope you are! Flirting includes seductive looks, using suggestive words or phrases, "accidentally" brushing up against your boss, or being "too present" for your employer. Don't flirt with your employer's spouse, significant other, or associates, either.

  • Apologize immediately for any inappropriate language or behavior. If your boss doesn't like curse words and you accidentally let go with the "F" bomb, apologize immediately and correct yourself with a more appropriate term.