Few other people are as integral to an academic leader’s success as the administrative assistant. A good administrative assistant can make your job, if not easy, then at least manageable. The very best administrative assistants can practically do your job in your place—and may need to do so if you’re ever going to be out of the office long enough to take a vacation. A poor administrative assistant can more than double your workload and make it all but impossible for you to be effective in your job. But, while administrative conferences and publications are filled with advice on how to hire faculty members, there are relatively few resources that can give you guidance on how to hire this most important member of any administrative team. To help fill that void, here are a few principles to keep in mind, based on 35 years of hiring and working with nearly a dozen administrative assistants.
Don’t economize on the salary
Despite all the ways in which higher education’s commitment to shared governance means that universities don’t function like a strict hierarchy, an implicit social hierarchy affects the way in which many of an institution’s stakeholders interact with one another. Tenured faculty members have a higher status than the untenured faculty, tenure-line faculty have a higher status than contract faculty, and faculty in general have a higher status than staff. This pecking order is sometimes reflected in the amount of deference different groups give to one another, but it’s almost always reflected in the salaries people earn. By and large, faculty salaries are higher than staff salaries, a distinction amplified by the fact that most faculty members are on nine-month contracts while most staff members are employed year-round.
When budgets are tight—and let’s be practical, when aren’t they?—academic leaders like to economize wherever they can. Trimming an additional $5,000 to $15,000 from the starting salary of a new employee can help make up for loss of travel funding, provide some much-needed maintenance for expensive equipment, or (if bundled with other such savings from elsewhere in the budget) even pay the entire salary of an additional employee. And given the status differential we just described as common in higher education, many academic leaders who are loath to lowball the salary of a new faculty member (whose starting salary may have an impact on his or her earning capacity for several decades) may not feel the same compunction when offering a job to a new administrative assistant (who might leave for another position within a few years).
That strategy is shortsighted, however. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is particularly true when it comes to administrative staff. An additional $5,000 or $10,000 in annual salary can bring you candidates with substantially higher skill sets than would otherwise apply. In fact, if your budget is truly limited, it’s sometimes a good idea to hire someone with greater skills on a part-time basis than someone who has less skill on a full-time basis. An administrative assistant who can provide web page updates, perform simple layout design, construct a reasonably sophisticated spreadsheet, and anticipate your program’s needs before problems arise is certainly worth more than a person who can merely answer the telephone and reply to e-mail. The work of academic programs has become far more complex in recent years, and the skill set needed to be successful in that environment has risen proportionately.
Assess skills before hiring
Since a high level of skill is essential in an administrative assistant today, it’s worth taking time to verify an applicant’s skill set before offering that person a job. Candidates will frequently claim during interviews and in letters of application that they are comfortable working with word-processing applications, spreadsheets, presentation software, database systems, and the like, but their actual level of proficiency with the tasks most important to you cannot be assumed based on these claims alone. It’s simply good practice to follow an interview with a timed skills test in which applicants have to create a new word-processing document and spreadsheet, name them according to whichever convention you prefer, include columns and tables in the word-processing document, sort the information within a table, enter information accurately in the spreadsheet, construct formulae to sum and average a series of figures, transfer the information from the spreadsheet to the word-processing document, and so on. Similar tasks can be designed for the other tasks commonly performed in your office. It can be eye-opening to discover how many applicants who come to you with excellent references and assertions that their computer skills are superb can’t complete basic tasks within a reasonable amount of time.
Another useful skill assessment is to ask candidates for an administrative assistant position to construct a memo or e-mail message from scratch. Provide general instructions like, “You want to respond to someone who submitted a résumé to apply for a faculty position, even though we have no positions available at the moment. Thank the person for thinking of us but reply that we don’t expect to be hiring in that person’s area of specialty this year.” The task gives you not only a sense of the candidate’s skill at written communication, but also his or her interpersonal skills. In situations where diplomacy is required, it’s useful to find out whether a candidate has the tact required to deal with challenging or disappointing circumstances.
Remember that you will be judged by how the administrative assistant treats others
Diplomacy is also important in administrative assistants because interactions with them lead to the first impression that many people receive of your office. Even administrative assistants who don’t have formal duties as receptionists usually take your phone calls (at least when you’re busy) and may be expected to greet visitors on the way to your office. Those who interact with your administrative assistant will likely draw conclusions about your style and priorities based on the treatment they receive from the staff. An administrative assistant who adopts the attitude “I work for you, not for them” may send a message that you yourself aren’t the sort of person who cares about the needs of your stakeholders. In the end, it’s important that your administrative assistant fit your needs and interpersonal style, but it can be equally important that he or she establish the image that you want your office to convey to others.
Jeffrey L. Buller is director of leadership and professional development at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, the second edition of The Essential Academic Dean or Provost: A Comprehensive Desk Reference, is available from Jossey-Bass.