How do you say ‘no’ without seeming like an A- grade office b!tch?

Can you do something for me? Can you help me? Can you print this document for me? Can you scan my receipts? Can you bind this for me? Can you type this out for me? Can you process my expenses? Can you get me a coffee? Can you find me this or get me that?

How many times a day and week do you hear those questions? Ah only about a hundred times a day, 5 days a week, am I right!? I know that the purpose of our role is to assist and to help, and by nature most of us are ‘helpers’ down to the core, but sometimes I just feel like saying “Can I do it? Yes. Do I want to do it? No.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and will do just about anything for my boss to make their life easier, but people other than my boss who think just because I’m an assistant that it’s ‘my job’ to do whatever they want me to (um FYI, it’s not!) need to get a lesson real quick!

To those people I say: Let’s be clear - I’m an assistant, but I’m not YOUR assistant, and I’m certainly not anyone’s slave – so no, I’m not going to do this thing for you that you could do for yourself but just don’t feel like it, because my job isn’t just sitting around waiting for people like you to ask me to do stuff for them!

How often do you feel like saying that to the hundredth person asking you to do something for them today!?

I can’t even tell you how many conversations I’ve had about this with other assistants – countless! It’s one thing we probably all struggle with, no matter what level, company or industry you work in, where and how to draw the line with people who treat you like it’s your job to do whatever they want you to, is a hard one to navigate. How do you say ‘no’ without seeming like an A- grade office biatch? How do you make them understand what our role actually is and what it isn’t, that we are not just here to do whatever anyone tells us to?! It’s hard, I know!

For the most part, I find that executives and directors who have their own assistants are never usually the ones exhibiting this type of behaviour. Honestly, they’re usually the most respectful towards assistants, probably because they understand and appreciate the value we bring. It’s usually those under them, who don’t have or have never had an assistant, that are the culprits. Maybe it’s because they don’t understand what we do and the purpose of our role, or maybe they are just patronising a-holes who think we’re the paper-pushers who are supposed to do all the shitty things that they don’t want to do themselves? Who knows, but I hope for your sake it’s the first one!

Yes it’s frustrating, and yes it makes you whisper “WTF” to yourself numerous times a day, but here are my suggestions on what to do about it..

Education is key: I think a lot of this behaviour comes down to two things: education & understanding. If a person is educated about the role and value of an assistant, the more likely they will start to understand what type of responsibilities we have and be less likely to think we’re just sitting there waiting to be given the shitty tasks that they don’t want to do for themselves!

It seems pretty basic, but I’ve been doing it the last 5 years and it usually works wonders with most (smart) people. If they understand what your role entails and the breadth of responsibility you have, they will understand how busy you actually are and more often than not, will start to respect and appreciate you. So how do you do this with the people in the office who are repeat offenders of this behaviour? Well next time they ask you to do something, you can try a few different approaches:

Option 1 – Help them to help themselves by saying “It’s actually really easy to scan your receipts, I’m very happy to show you how so you can do it quickly yourself next time”.

Option 2 – “I’m actually really busy at the moment doing something for <insert bosses name>. I can show you how to do it later, it’s really easy and will make it faster for you to do yourself next time?”

Option 3 – Explain to them the type of things you’re doing for your boss so they understand your level of responsibilities and in comparison to what they’re asking you to do, they’ll realise their task is not as important: “I’m working on a few important things for <insert bosses name> at the moment, (list things appropriate to share like; budgeting for finance, research for a report they have to write, editing a strategy document, proof reading comms, writing or reviewing a marketing or event plan etc). So unless it’s a priority, unfortunately I don’t have the time right now.”

It’s not always appropriate to use these approaches, and it obviously depends on who’s asking you to do things for them and each situation is different, but these are options I’ve tried myself that have helped me deal with the repeat offenders who think they can palm-off their tasks to me because they don’t want to do it. If I’m quiet, don’t have much on my to do list and am happy to help out, then of course I’ll always help those who really need it! At the end of the day I’m a person who is satisfied by helping others, it’s probably why I ended up being an assistant, but I’m definitely NOT okay with being taken advantage of or being disrespected or unvalued. Yes we’re helpers and we’re assistants, but we’re not slaves, and should be valued and respected just as much as every other role in the company!

Nis & Sarah

Enisa Fazlic