As a business owner, I've sometimes struggled with titles over the years. For example, when I hired my first employee to help out with my daily newsletter, I had no idea what to call her role.
Calling her an "assistant" seemed too junior, but I also didn't want to offer a title that she hadn't had a chance to grow into yet.
In the end we settled on "deputy editor". It seemed to me that "deputy" crossed the chasm pretty effectively, especially when there was only a single deputy.
Titles can be tricky. And now there are signs that some employees who have been called "assistants" throughout their careers may find that traditional title a bit minimizing given their duties in the post-pandemic era.
One of the reasons is that the professionals formerly known as executive assistants are taking on bigger roles in a more virtual world.
As an example, they might be sitting in on their bosses' video meetings so that they can stay on top of what's going on, whereas a decade ago they might have been outside the door.
As Bonnie Low-Kramen, owner of Ultimate Assistant Training & Consulting, told Bloomberg in a recent report on the trend:
"We're seeing the word 'assistant' phased out altogether in some companies ... The stigma with 'assistant' has to do with the stereotypes of secretaries as the put-upon lackeys in The Devil Wears Prada. Some people really suffer from old ideas of what an assistant is."
What are they being called instead? According to Low-Kramen, things like: Business partner, administrative partner, administrative lead or coordinator, business project manager and management associate.
For at least some employees, the updated title makes them a bit happier and appreciated and gives them a bit more clout around the company. I suppose it's sort of like how the title "secretary" seems to have gone out of fashion over the decades.
Data cited by Bloomberg from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests 93 percent of people with titles like "executive assistant" are female, making an average of just under $67,000 in 2021.
Anecdotally, however – and maybe you've seen this in your business – a significant number of "assistants" don't actually want to stay in that job in the long-term and instead hope to grow into different roles.
That certainly does happen, even to the point of going from entry level to CEO. A few famous examples:
- Mary T. Bara, CEO of GM: Bara started at GM at age 18 and her LinkedIn profile is one of my favorites, since it has 15 positions, all at the same company going back to "co-op student" in 1980. Also, what was her job from 1996 to 1999? Executive Assistant to the Chairman & Vice Chairman.
- Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart: McMillon got his start with the company as a Walmart summer warehouse employee making $6.50 an hour. After college and an MBA, he returned as an assistant store manager before rising through the ranks. He wasn't an assistant to anyone that I know about – although his LinkedIn doesn't go back as far as Bara's, so I can't say for sure.
- Karen Kaplan, CEO Hill Holliday: Kaplan was 22 when she became a receptionist at the company, planning to go to law school. But, she stuck with the company instead.
"I remember thinking in that moment that I was going to be the CEO of the reception desk," she said in a 2014 interview. "I was going to be the best damned receptionist in history and that's how I approached the job. I took it really seriously."
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that bosses simply add "director" or "manager" to employees' titles in an effort to get around overtime law, as some reports suggest has been a trend.
A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research earlier this year found a 5X increase in what we might call title-inflation euphemisms. (Example: Running an ad for a "director of first impressions", whose job description basically sounds like what we might traditionally have called a "front desk assistant".)
But if your assistants' jobs are now outpacing what people used to think assistants did – and if they'd like to be called something else, maybe now's a good time to think about updating their titles.