By Ron Hamara
Today is National Administrative Assistant’s Day, previously known as National Secretary’s Day. Rather than offering hearty congratulations to all these workers, I would like to make a proposal: Let’s do away with this holiday.
Simply stated, this faux holiday, if it ever had a real purpose, is now an anachronism. Secretaries pushed to rid themselves of a title they found demeaning, the same way stewardesses fought to be renamed flight attendants. In both cases, the name changes involved more than semantics. These workers wanted to be regarded as professionals, to be respected for the demanding work they were required to do. In large part, they have succeeded in those efforts. So why do we still treat them as subservient by giving them flowers, cards, candy, and taking them out to lunch? (Even if we don’t speak to them the rest of the year).
The first National Secretary’s Day was held in 1952, the same year Shepherd Meade’s book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was published. The musical, based on the book, opened on Broadway in 1961 and included that little ditty, “A Secretary Is Not a Toy.” Michele Lee, who starred in the musical and the movie, wanted nothing more than to marry an executive and “keep his dinner warm.”
If you haven’t seen that movie, you’ve probably seen the Emmy Award-winning television show, Mad Men. Set in the 1960s, the secretaries, see photo above, are once again shown as a male support system. The women gather and ooh and aah when a member of their group gets engaged. And the men openly evaluate and oogle the clerical staff. Mad Men is popular because it is a snapshot from the past. Yet there is no campaign among current office staff to go back to those days.
Times have changed. The typical secretary in the 1950s, even the 1960s, graduated from a secretarial school and was required to type with lightning speed and take dictation in shorthand. And male secretaries were extremely rare. These days, the administrative assistant has probably graduated from college and is just as likely to be a man as a woman. These workers may see the administrative assistant’s job as a stepping stone to another position in the company.
Technology, however, is responsible for recasting the way the office works. Younger executives are comfortable with computers and actually prefer to type their own reports, draw up their own spread sheets, even handle their own correspondence through e-mail. Because an administrative assistant no longer focuses solely on clerical jobs, this person can now tackle more challenging tasks. When looking to hire for these positions, the job applicant needs to have a totally different skill set. Shorthand? Forget about it!
In 1998, the holiday was renamed from National Secretary’s Day to National Administrative Assistant’s Day, and the entire clerical staff, from receptionist to mailroom workers, were included in the description for those who should be honored. Ironically, expanding the holiday to a wider group of office workers merely served to further dilute the importance of the celebration.
It won’t be easy to abolish this holiday. Companies selling cards, flowers, and candy look to turn a profit. Many corporations, trying not to offend anyone, will continue to gift each employee who falls within the holiday’s description. If executives truly want to reward their employees, then sending them for additional training, either classes or workshops with a professional organization, is the way to go. Money is always welcomed, but should come as a bonus at the end of the year, rather than a gift card on this holiday.
All bosses would do well to keep the spirit of National Administrative Assistant’s Day year round. Don’t wait for a holiday to show your appreciation. For most workers, “Great job!” is all that’s needed to turn any day into a celebration.
Ron Hamara is president and CEO of Hamara & Associates. He can be reached at rhamara@gmail.