The Most Powerful Person in The Workplace

“No one is more cherished in this world than someone who lightens the burden of another. Thank you.” ~ Joseph Addison

If your answer to “Who is the most powerful person in the workplace,” is “the executive assistant,” you’re right. And experts writing for the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post Singapore Business Review and San Francisco Chronical agree on the “power behind the throne” concept. This is important to take into account when planning one’s job search and career strategies.

Assistants in general wield potent influence on their managers, department staff and outside business associates. They are often the go-to people for advice and assistance on many issues and are depended upon more than the average person realizes. And, they have more far-reaching networks within the workplace than do their managers.

Many middle and senior managers, including executives in the C-Suite, seek and respect their assistants’ opinions and comments on all aspects of business, including staff and related issues. Because assistants have their managers’ ear they can wield great influence and many have the power to boost or derail a career.

This is true of assistants at all levels, from the junior administrative assistant to the executive assistant to the CEO. In varying degrees, they carry around with them a wealth of information — some of it classified and highly confidential — and at any given moment probably know more about what is happening in the company than the general population. That is made possible because in addition to being in positions to gather knowledge and make keen observations, assistants also have one of the most sophisticated and time-honored information pipelines in history. This pipeline dates back more than a century to a time when women were entering the job market in droves as secretaries and needed to build a network to keep each other up-to-date on workplace matters that affected them all.

So when one sees a group of executive assistants lunching together they are likely discussing industry news, the latest technology rollouts, company policy changes, the latest office remodeling project…and how they all feel about the new hire in the corporate relations department.

If that new hire has impressed one or more of the EAs or AAs – in an authentic and respectful manner – the good word will get around in due course. However, if the new hire has offended or underwhelmed an assistant the word will flash through the company like wildfire. In either case, word will eventually reach the ears of management. Moreover, assistants often know their counterparts in other companies, so the word can potentially make its way through an entire industry. That’s because for eons before Twitter there was — and is — the office grapevine.

Here’s an example of how this can work: A new hire is abrupt with an assistant that he feels is unimportant. Perhaps the assistant’s particular role does not impress the new hire, and he notices that the assistant’s manager doesn’t seem to rely on her very much. Of course, it’s a mistake to take situations at face value, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the people at your new company. But, say the evaluation is correct. What has been overlooked is that the assistant is friendly with other assistants who are in solid with their managers and often chat with them about the staff and relationships. In addition, the behavior of the new hire is observed by another assistant, who is offended over the treatment of her coworker. She discusses this with other assistants, one of whom casually mentions the incident to an assistant while attending an industry event during a conversation about bullying….and so on. Thus, word about the new hire’s disrespectful attitude has the potential to circulate, one way or another.

It’s also important to note that in offices where assistants are held in high regard as important team members, managers will be highly displeased with staff who do not show these master gatekeepers and enforcers proper respect and cooperation.

The lesson, then, is to treat assistants with deference. But, do so in a genuine manner, and avoid any approach that might be interpreted as ingratiating or condescending. Offering flattery or – worse – gifts could cause you to be viewed as a sycophant, which will not only damage your image with the assistant but also with the manager. Instead, following are 10 approaches to demonstrate your professionalism and decency to assistants as well as other observers:

  1. Greet and acknowledge assistants at all levels in all circumstances and at all times as professional members of the team, in the same manner that you treat other colleagues and professionals. But, also keep in mind that an assistant represents the manager she supports, and should be treated with the same deference that you show her manager.
  2. Respond promptly to assistants’ requests and take each request seriously.
  3. Meet deadlines so that assistants don’t have to spend their valuable time chasing you down for reports and compliance requirements.
  4. Regard assistants of both genders equally.
  5. Avoid touching assistants except, for example, to shake hands, help on with a coat or out of a car when at a company function.
  6. Keep a respectful distance from her when standing and from her desk when she is seated – one foot is recommended.
  7. Respect the privacy and confidentiality needs and desires of assistants by not looking over their shoulders at their computer screens or scanning their desks.
  8. Acknowledge an assistant when she enters an office or conference room to deliver a message.
  9. Don’t get too chummy. Sharing too much personal information, asking an assistant – yours or someone else’s – out on a date, going out to lunch or a drink, asking personal questions or hanging around too much to chat are all bad ideas. Oh, sure, there have been office romances that have ended in marriage or long-term relationships, but also some that have ended careers. First, be aware of company policy regarding office romances and married couples working for the company. Second, don’t risk your or anyone else’s career and reputation with a frivolous affair. If you develop a romantic interest in the boss’s assistant, take time to get to know her to determine if a permanent relationship might be possible; if it is, then be prepared to transfer to another department or company. It’s generally a very bad idea to work in the same area with your spouse or partner.
  10. Never ask any assistant to get your coffee – or any other personal items. And, that includes your own assistant, when and if you’re fortunate enough to rate one. Asking an assistant to arrange for coffee for clients or a meeting is different. Otherwise, get your own coffee. And, while you’re at it, get hers.

Since the Great Recession (2007-2013), women in business have been in the news because of the realization among corporate America of the economic benefits of placing women in leadership roles. Of course, an excellent source of female talent is the executive assistant pool. That means that today’s assistant could be tomorrow’s executive assistant, and today’s executive assistant could be tomorrow’s vice president and manager. I know this from personal experience! New grads and other new hires will be several steps ahead of the game if they understand this phenomenon that is, unfortunately, overlooked by many at their peril.

Until next time,


(Note: Because 96% of secretarial and administrative assistant positions are filled by women, I tend to use feminine pronouns when referring to assistants in my blog posts. However, my comments refer to assistants of both genders except where noted otherwise.)

This post has been updated as of February 22, 2018.

3 thoughts on “The Most Powerful Person in The Workplace

  1. Jeanne Nelson says:

    Thank you, Elaine, for those kind words! And, you make an excellent point about appropriate distance, which is a personal preference and perception. A study conducted at the department of neuroscience at University College London determined that the appropriate social distance is between eight and 16 inches. Then, there's the arm's length guideline, which is approximately two feet. We Americans, like the British, value our personal space, whereas in many other cultures people tend to stand quite close to each other. So, in the U.S. it's advisable to err on the conservative side concerning personal space, and three feet is certainly reasonable. I appreciate your pointing that out.


  2. Elaine Gagne says:

    Jeanne, this post is awesome!!! I've printed it out and posted it in my cubicle AND shared it with others in my company. The only thing I would change is how far away someone should stand. I changed it to 3 feet! The biggest reason is I may be working on something highly confidential on my computer that I wouldn't want my visitor to see.Thank you SO much for all the hard work you do for us. My work habits have improved exponentially since I've been reading your blogs and having you mentor me. My principals have taken notice!You're amazing, Jeanne. You will always be my favorite author!


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