“…there was the PA who was asked to help sew up her boss’ trousers – whilst he was still wearing them. Another who was asked to get two live penguins brought in for a company pitch… in just two days time.”
Today we live in the era of the internet. Which means that whistle-blowing on any behaviour deemed as unreasonable is oh-so common and a real concern for anyone who has a professional profile to upkeep. At the same time, outsourcing is the name of the game and particularly for high net-worth individuals, having a trusted personal assistant to take care of tasks is essential to protecting and apportioning time.
Which leads the question: what does it look like to be a PA today? Given the current climate, you may assume it’s less common for PAs to be on the receiving end of unreasonable requests, but when asked, 46% of PAs surveyed disagreed. 42% of PAs also confirm that they have been asked to do something which they’ve deemed as either too “personal”, “intrusive” or “outrageous”.
Here, we dig into the results of a survey where we asked over 70 PAs what their tasks looked like, how many of them might be deemed as “unreasonable” and how they managed the good, the bad and the, often, outrageous expectations that come as part and parcel of the role.
When surveyed, nearly half of all PAs admitted they’d been asked to do something outrageous. When asked how they manage unreasonable requests, opinion was divided, with many PAs reporting that a good PA or EA sees no job as “beneath them” and others agreeing that there is an expectation within the role of PA to honour a boss’ requests.
Others (53%) who claimed that PAs today are less likely to receive unreasonable requests suggested that the role is deemed as too vital to the client to risk putting the relationship under undue stress by setting a task that is too personal or unreasonable. With many citing that the internet and movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have contributed to a stigma around requests that are too demanding or reflect an inequality in the male/female working relationship.
Some also stated that there is a clear difference in generation, as to what a client may deem as unreasonable, and a change in PAs who no longer have the time to facilitate a “24-hour” role. With their own responsibilities, side projects and commitments many PAs simply don’t have the time to reply to every whim and email.
Saying that, there were still many examples of requests that PAs have faced that go beyond what many of us would deem a reasonable day’s work…
Many respondents reported having to undertaken tasks for a boss’ mistress or partner, including shopping for a mistress’ shoes as her and the PA had the same size feet and arranging flowers to be sent to a boss’ mistress on her birthday, including using a special nickname on the name tag. Other saucy requests included purchasing underwear, managing a boss’ online dating profile (this is the age of Tinder after all) and even scheduling sex in a boss’ diary – because who says romance is dead?
Some of our favourite answers were those that portrayed something out of a dodgy Rom-Com movie, like the PA who was asked to help sew up her boss’ trousers – whilst he was still wearing them. Another who was asked to get two live penguins brought in for a company pitch… in just two days time. There was the PA tasked with asking a potential cleaner for her exact birth details in order to consult with the astrologer if she was a fit for the household. (We’d love to know which star sign makes for a dust-free hallway!).
We all like a good challenge, but some PAs reported being asked to complete requests which were more like a day at Tashiki’s Castle than an unreasonable request. One was asked to furnish, accessorise and decorate a penthouse within a week, another with booking a private Danish chef for a Christmas Eve dinner in London. There was the one who had to try and get a client flown out of the UK when all of the flights (commercial and private) had been grounded because of snow, and another who was tasked with removing all of the coriander from a sandwich buffet for 100 people because her boss knew the founder of the company hated it.
Of course many tasks, unreasonable and otherwise, of a PA often correlate to the client’s much-adored family. Including shopping for forgotten anniversary presents, driving to Paris to deliver a fur coat to an assumedly cold, girlfriend and even taking care of the family’s dog and organising it a 1st birthday party. There were requests to get a manicure… for the family parrot, pick a client’s wife up from the hospital (at 7am on a Sunday) and even take care of a boss’ son’s Rolex to be fixed and transported safely back to the office. All of which, could make you feel like quite the family member yourself.
The can’t-quite-believe-it requests included one PA who was asked to fly all the way to Barbados, in order to hand-deliver a favourite bikini that had been forgotten by a client (the dream!). As well as being asked to fly to New York to spend two hours with a client’s son so that he wasn’t alone at the airport. There have been requests where PAs have been sent to shop, and try on dresses in order to find the perfect cocktail dress, and perhaps our favourite yet: to source John Legend as a wedding performer, just after he’d won an Oscar for LA LA Land (no big deal).
What advice would the PAs surveyed give when asked how to deal with requests that may be deemed too personal or intrusive?
“For me it’s a matter of speaking up and setting boundaries within the working relationship. The earlier the boundaries are established the better for the long term success of the relationship” explains one respondent, with another adding that “there will be times when you get asked things but it’s important if it’s too personal to nip it in the bud straight away. And to never take things to heart.”
Many PAs responded that assertiveness is a key trait of a good PA and that actually, a boss may respect you more if you are unwilling to compromise on something deemed unethical or too outrageous.
So parrot manicures and underwear shopping aside, it seems as though we are a long-way from the “personal” part of a personal assistant falling by the wayside. The role of personal assistant, remote or otherwise, is as important as ever and as these answers suggest, we never quite know what goes on behind the laptops of the UK’s most trusted PAs (but we’d love to!).
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