Screenshot from BTUA podcast - a talk with HR

Bonnie Low-Kramen gives us the highlights from her recent podcast interview, A Talk with HR, with the CEO and Chief of Staff of SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management)

The backstory

I have spent years speaking with Executive Assistants all over the world who express confusion and frustration over the inner workings of their Human Resources departments (HR), especially around the tricky subject of compensation. On one hand, we know that Executive Assistants are the backbone of companies, the right arms to their managers, and the face of the company culture. Pretty valuable people, most would say.

On the other hand, I hear from Assistants that job descriptions are obsolete, salary bands are slow to move, and job titles do not reflect the level of responsibility for the role. At worst, I hear that many Assistants are severely underpaid and, to add insult to injury, that they are in the dark about the reasons behind the numbers. Rightly or wrongly, EAs typically hold HR responsible for these issues.

I had heard enough. In my work with Assistants all over the world, I decided that it was time to shine a light on these mysteries once and for all. The result of my probing was the cover story of the September 2020 issue of this magazine called How Does HR Decide How Much to Pay You?, which I co-wrote over six months with compensation expert Jeremy Spake.

The global response to the article was swift and strong…from Assistants. But what about HR professionals and leaders? They needed to see this article too, I thought. But who?

These ideas led me to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., CEO of the Society of Human Resource Management, which has over 300,000 members. I might as well start at the top! With the article attached, I sent Johnny a short email introducing myself and asked for a conversation with a brief explanation about why. Deep breath. Send!

Within hours, I had a warm and enthusiastic response from Johnny, which led to two phone conversations, which led to January 5th.

A Talk with HR – What does HR really think about the value of EAs?

Here are the highlights of my one-hour conversation with Vickie Sokol Evans, SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. and Chief of Staff Emily M. Dickens.

1. Assistants are underpaid. This surprised Johnny. 

In our first phone conversation, Johnny told me that my article surprised him. On the podcast, he reiterated that he was surprised to learn that many Assistants are underpaid and that he was hard-pressed to understand that fact, given how important they are to the running of businesses. He is proud of the compensation record at SHRM and their commitment to paying the staff fairly. We agreed that a wage gap exists, and that the compensation issue is even more difficult for people of color. We concluded that the compensation gap – where one exists – is a vital one to address between HR professionals and assistants in all companies, large and small.

2. The value of Assistants: They are the most important person on your team

Both Johnny and Emily work with Executive Assistants and said they could not do their work without them. The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more staff than ever before working from home, has only highlighted the value of Assistants as business partners. As SHRM Chief of Staff and a former Assistant herself, Emily highlighted the need for Assistants to be smart, curious, and loyal, whether they are working in person or remotely. Those are the qualities she values most when adding people to her team. If someone is a hard worker who is trustworthy, Emily says she can teach all the other “power skills” of communication and technology.

3. Speak up! “We cannot fix that which we do not know”

Johnny and Emily acknowledged the dilemma of being “the messenger” and the fear of backlash. Despite these fears, leaders depend on Assistants to say the hard things and to not hold back information that leaders need to know. Johnny made the point that leaders and HR cannot fix something if they don’t know it is broken. He urged Assistants to go to their leaders first to discuss compensation, schedule, or bullying. If that does not work, go to HR.

4. Even though Assistants are wary of HR, Johnny urged Assistants to bring ideas to leaders and HR

I shared that Assistants generally feel that HR is not for them and often view the relationship as “us versus them.” I asked what we can do to make it better so that everyone wins? Johnny made it clear that HR does not know everything that is going on in a company. He and Emily both know that Assistants are the eyes and ears for leaders, and Assistants happen to have some great ideas because of what they are seeing and hearing. Therefore, he wants Assistants to have an open door to share ideas with leaders and HR and he believes that most leaders will be receptive.

5. We agreed training is essential for Assistants. But how much to spend on it?

The conversation took an interesting turn when Vickie asked about training dollars, specifically about getting certified in the Microsoft Office Suite. We know that leaders want highly skilled Assistants, but given the complexity of today’s workplace, how does that happen and how do they stay cutting edge? Johnny talked about an annual training budget of $1500/year as a norm, and I shared that $5000/year was more often the average number I am hearing from Assistants across America. Johnny thinks the $5K number is high. The disconnect may be in the difference between a for-profit company and a non-profit organization. In either case, we agree that professional development for Assistants must be a given, not a variable.

One other important point brought out is that sometimes companies have training dollars that are not widely advertised among the staff. It is important to ask for it.

We discussed free training versus paid training and the value of each. Vickie and I made a point about the need for specific training designed for Assistants as compared to the more generic offerings meant for a broader audience. In the complex world we are in, Assistants require training relevant to their roles and level of responsibility. Therefore, not just any PowerPoint or Excel class will truly serve the profession.

And finally, Johnny shared that he knows that there are Assistants who are offered training and choose not to take it due to time limitations and personal commitments. These obstacles are especially apparent during the COVID-19 crisis. For some, it has been easier to do training as they work from home and for others, nearly impossible. Johnny said that leaders need to be understanding of this situation which is still very much in motion.

6. We talked about bullies in the workplace. Johnny called them “jerks.”

Well, that was refreshing to hear! I talked about bullying as a global epidemic that was causing much pain and trauma. Johnny acknowledged that he has known many leaders in his career and some of them have been “jerks” who treat their teams badly. Both Johnny and Emily have legal backgrounds and urge Assistants to consider leaving any job where they are treated badly. Johnny said that HR is simply not able to guarantee a safe environment for every staffer and therefore, each person needs to take responsibility for acting in their own best interest and safety.

As Vickie and I knew it would, the time flew. Above all, we hoped that this conversation would be the first of many meetings of the minds. I was encouraged by how eager Johnny and Emily were to address the different sides of an issue and how open they were to what Vickie and I were saying.

Conclusion

What we know is that for anyone to fix what is broken in our workplace, no one group is going to be able to do it alone. Leaders need the proactive involvement of Assistants, HR and recruiters, who all play an important role in the system we call our workplace. However, in too many companies, these groups function in silos with too little communication happening across borders. 

Silos need to become a thing of the past. If this conversation has shown us anything, it is that we need to talk more. We need to take the risk to have conversations about compensation, training dollars, bullying, and whatever other burning issues are on our minds. 

We know that some of the subjects covered in this conversation are new and uncomfortable territory for Assistants and perhaps even for HR professionals. I feel more than ever that Assistants need to build bridges with HR and make the leap to have a conversation. Of course, one conversation won’t solve everything either. It is a start and represents a big change from the way things used to be. 

At this writing, there are plans for Vickie and me to have another conversation with Johnny and Emily. Stay tuned.

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Bonnie Low-Kramen is the Founder of Ultimate Assistant Training and is one of the most respected thought leaders on workplace issues. In May 2019, her work was profiled in a Forbes cover story. For 25 years, Bonnie worked as the Personal Assistant to ... (Read More)

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