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Between a rock and HR place

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Question: I have two concerns and I'm hoping for some advice on either how you've handled it or what you think I ought to do in these situations:

Situation 1

The receptionist at the company where I am executive assistant, although relatively friendly and engaging with co-workers, is rather cold and unprofessional on the phone. Instead of saying “May I ask you to hold while I transfer you?” she says either “Hold on a moment” or “Just a moment.”

I once said in a somewhat jovial manner: “You sure sound happy about answering the phone!” She jovially replied that I should go back to my desk and handle my job and let her handle hers. I'm not her supervisor, although typically, I should/would be. Instead, HR supervises her.

The HR administrator and I have gotten into small, uncomfortable situations because the boss will tell me to handle something, and HR will have a cow thinking it’s their project or should be their responsibility.

That department shows a severe lack of respect for the boss’s wishes. The boss can ask for a roster of folks attending a seminar, and I can ask for it twice in the following three weeks and still, the day of the seminar, there is no roster. HR indicated that it was waiting on two VP’s. But, when VP’s were asked, they indicated that HR was handling it, not them.

HR has translated this sort of behavior to the receptionist, so that when I ask her, for instance, if someone shipped a personal expense on the company DHL account, I’m told: “Don’t worry about it; it’s not your department, and I’m not going to take it up with them.”

Situation 2
I signed off on a work order with the A/C maintenance company, and the repairs took a day longer than they promised and our server room temperatures rose dangerously high.

I talked to the manager at the A/C company and suggested in the future that he at least call to let us know that the repairs would be delayed. He then contacted the receptionist, who comes to me saying she didn’t know why I was going off on him when it wasn’t my place to worry about it, But I SIGNED OFF ON IT. It was my responsibility to see that it was done.

The general attitude from HR/the receptionist is “Stay out of it,” even though the boss has directed me specifically to take responsibility for such things. I happen to know that the receptionist is close to losing her job because of the way she handles the phone and also visitors, whom she handles in much the same manner.

I’m at a loss as to how to handle it. If I go to the boss, he’ll tell me to talk to HR and her and “get her straightened up or shipped out.” If I deal with HR, I'll get a tossed head and rolled eyes and a mutter about people staying out of HR’s business. The receptionist will get yelled at, but nothing will be accomplished because HR simply scolds and doesn’t deliver a change or even a direction to change.  If I talk to the receptionist, she'll dismiss what I say and tell me to go back to my desk. 

How do I handle these situations? I'm normally a people pleaser, but also am very disciplined in what I believe is expected from someone in a professional position ... especially one as high-profile as a receptionist (first impression of the company).

I can’t stand it when people don’t do their jobs right or take pride in even trying. Yet, I do like the receptionist and view her as a “work friend.”  I beg for advice of you wise people! Thank you!  -- Anonymous


As an executive assistant, I'd like to express my views towards this 1st situation with the receptionist and the executive assistant. First of all, this is one company, and no matter what anyones' responsibility might be, they should all be working together as a team and for the benefit of the corporation, and not for praise not for their own benefit, nor make their own rules. There apears to be a lack of; or just mere poor management skills. This receptionist has to be willing to abide by company rules, whether she likes it or not. She should also be sent to receptionist ettiquette and customer service seminars. But on the other hand, if she doesn't like the counsel, or constructive criticism, then get rid of her.

The executive assistant, should report this situation to upper management, have them set up a general meeting with the entire staff, and in that meeting set rules and standards for answering the telephone, and rules as to who reports to whom accordingly.

A person should not have an attiutude as such and state phrases as "you do your job, and I do mine". They should all be willing to conform to company policy, (if it exists) and if not other necessary drastic measures might have to be taken, including termination of anyone not willing to comply.

In your position as the executive assistant, you should be able to or you must have the reigns to go to the "big boss" whom you state the roster was not provided for, and address these issues with him personally. He should be the one addressing HR and finding out where the communication gap exists. It seems that this company is in total disarray and needs immediate attention.

I am sure if you take these necessary steps, all these situations will eventually take shape and form.

Good luck
Millie Moscoso

I have worked as an Administrative Assistant for over 20 years. We just recently experienced a similar event.

I have to say that there seems to be a lack of respect when situations like this occur. The right approach can diffuse a host of problems. We created a telephone guide, which depicts how the phone will be answered. It states right on there that being courtesous and patient with co-workers is very important. The attitude of the person answering the phone usually is about something other than you, but more likely a personal item that the person has not left at the door when they entered work.

I would like to say that my perception of HR is that they "do their own thing" and does not use a "team approach", which is NOT their purpose within an organization. They should be the collaborative point for any organziation. Although difficult, I think you can get through to them, but it will have to be with Supervisor support. If you do not have that, you will go nowhere. Don't beat a dead bush, it will only cause you heart ache.

First acknowledge that "it" is not about you. You have to be non-emotional to what is happening, as you have no control over it. Once you recognize that you will begin to see things from a different perspective.

Next, since the Admin. Assistant on the phone clearly thinks she has been empowered to treat you and everyone else like that, unless she is reigned in, she will continue with this bad behavior, from my perspective, it makes HR LOOK REALLY BAD and they need to know that.

The employee can be saved if only HR can take appropriate steps to correct the situation.

You cannot blame the employee for what has happened, as it is how HR is handling the situation and it will happen again with the next employee if changes are not made.

Best of luck!

Maybe you being a people pleaser has made these 2 employees feel they can walk all over you and you won't do anything about it. HR is supposed to be very professional and part of their position is to work as a team with the direct manager (you, for the receptionist) to correct behavior. Not shove their responsiblity under the rug and ignore concerns. You are an equal to this HR employee and she should not treat you like you are below her (or her child). My advise to be very strong, keep that people pleasing self at home for this meeting...and go to your supervisor and tell him you have a very serious concern about the HR employee and that it is affecting you and it is severly affecting the company. Inform him that he needs to effect a change and you need him to inform the HR person you deserve more respect. Tell him that the person greeting customers inappropriatly is going to effect the company reputation and employee moral. Two things that are extremely important to the smooth functioning of a business. The last thing you want in a company is an ineffective-immature HR employee. You are better off without that.

If the boss is asking you to do these things, it isn't the place of HR, and it definately isn't the place of the receptionist, to countermand his orders. I suspect you would get a more constructive response if you for a meeting with your boss and the HR manager together to discuss the situation. Make the focus of the meeting be to improve communication and productivity. Be positive and supportive instead of adversarial. This could solve your problem, or at the very least, it could help both your boss and HR management understand the position they are putting you in.

I agree with Lisa. Also, since the receptionist is the first contact for those outside the business, both on the phone and in person, she should be provided with the appropriate training..maybe even with some input from her. The first impression is often a lasting impression and this person may contribute to negative perception about your company. CareerTrack offers receptionist training seminars that are very reasonably priced. You as executive assistant need to have your role regarding interpersonal relations with other staff spelled out and your boss has to back you up. Maybe you need to develop an admin support handbook which explains roles and responsibilities. Anyway, good luck and don't try so hard to be a people pleaser.

It sounds like you have an even bigger problem with your HR person. HR should NEVER toss head, roll eyes & mutter. Your HR should have been trained to have a neutral & pofessional behavior no matter their personal thoughts. Your receptionist seems to be taking her queue from HR. Perhaps your boss could talk to HR directly.

Be forewarned: you may not like part of this answer.

You need to pick your battles. Unless someone - i.e., a customer - has complained about the way the receptionist answers the phone, why are you getting involved (wasting your time and energy)? It's not your job, nor is it your place, to "decide" how someone should do their job. And, when you made the comment about how "happy" she sounded when she answered the phone, you escalated the situation. Again: not your place, not your responsibility. You were the one who made it your problem. Thus, let it go.

As for the HR person undermining what the boss says, simply become the conduit of events. For example, if the boss says he needs a list, send an email to the HR person requesting it and cc: your boss. When you ask again, put "SECOND REQUEST" in the title, and again, cc: your boss. When you ask a third time, put "THIRD REQUEST" and cc: your boss and the person above the HR manager (or above whomever is not cooperating). In the event that HR makes a statement to you that they are waiting on someone else and they name names, send an email to HR confirming what was said, and cc: the people who were maded. What you're doing is documentating everything HR is doing, and making everyone else aware of what is/is not getting done. Right now, HR has you over the barrel (as another person eluded to) and your job is to now CALL HIS/HER BLUFF!!! Again, if you are dependent on others in order to do your job, and they are failing to do theirs, simply bring out in the open what is transpiring to both cover your butt and illuminate where the problems reside. Believe: management is not as oblivious or stupid as you may thing to what's happening.

Now, if HR attempts to give you flack about this, ask to have your boss present for any conversation. Honestly, the HR person is going to get the drift really quick that he/she is being "thrown under the bus" (as we call it) and will start flying right to avoid confrontation by his/her boss or management. Here's an personal example: The HR director at our company recently put a dress code policy in place and you should have seen the revolt. The result: the President (who we later found out was unaware of the policy) told us in a company meeting to completely disregard what had been said and that a revision to the policy was forthcoming. Guess who looked like the fool? The HR Director. Yes: what goes around does come around.

One final comment: begin operating in "silent" mode for a while. For those of us who are outspoken and always speak up, silence is the enermy of those who thrive on what we say and do. By stepping back and working quietly, behind the scenes, the people who follow your every move will become fearful and leery of what's happening. The uncertainty and suspense will make them crazy. In this situation, you gain the upper hand and hold all the power. Nice position to be in, huh? Good luck.

I have to say, I agree with Cindy. Life is too short to give yourself an ulcer over someone else's behavior. Let it go. Do your job to the best of your ability and don't worry about how she does her job. I like the "silent mode" approach too.

I'm a bit of a perfectionist, Type A when it comes to my job but I've learned from many years experience, sometimes it's best to just have tunnel vision and focus that energy on doing YOUR job. These situations generally have a way of evening out in the long run.

I agree with Cindy and Pat. Do your own job, when someone else's lack affects your job then cc your email requests to the appropriate supervisor/manager. I did that when I became responsible for a quarterly report; the nurse managers didn't get their data to me timely or in the format that I needed so I cc'd the Director of Nursing with each request/reminder and even reworked the form and asked to present this to the managers at their next meeting explaining WHY I was asking for the data in that format. I know there was some ruffled feathers as these women have been managing for 20+ years, and I am only an Exec. Assistant doing a report. The end of the story is that within 3 months I had ALL of their reports on the correct form and all timely. I then can complete my report for them to report to the state in a timely manner. So, the "rough" time has paid off and everyone is working well. Keep in mind that people, no matter who they are, need direction sometimes. If given in a kind, professional way it works out for all involved and the company and employees all benefit.

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