How to Hire an Executive Assistant
In the era of iPhones and BlackBerries, everyone from freelancer to CEO is well accustomed to answering their own correspondence, returning phone calls, and managing their schedule. But if business is booming and important contacts are slipping through the cracks, or that sales meeting you've been thinking about just doesn't seem to materialize, it's time to think about hiring an executive assistant.
"If a manager is doing a lot of travel or is getting bogged down by lots of low-level coordination, hiring an assistant could free them up to focus on revenue-generating techniques," says Jamie Resker, president and founder of Employee Performance Solutions, an HR consulting company.
Ellen Rudnick, executive director of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, says while an assistant can feel like a luxury, it can often be a wise hire – especially if the salary is justified by sharing one full-time assistant among several managers.
Before you hire, however, it's important to identify exactly what the position entails. The simplest method: Take the time necessary to carefully craft a job description and clearly define what you're seeking.
Hiring an Executive Assistant: The Job Description
The first item under the job title should be a summary overview the position. A list of job duties and responsibilities should follow. Depending on what you're looking for in an executive assistant, that list could include a wide variety of tasks, from clerical work to handling personal expenses to juggling an intense schedule. Specify if the assistant will work for one executive or offer support to several managers.
Though the nuts and bolts of the executive assistant job description will vary, candidates should all be well-versed in a variety of office tasks, computer-savvy, detail-oriented, and resourceful. The assistant should also have wonderful people skills. Multi-tasking should be a given.
When drafting the description, it's crucial not to forget to include a catch-all line that says the assistant will be expected to fulfill additional "duties as assigned," just in case the job morphs over time or an important responsibility is inadvertantly omitted. "Basically, it's so a hire doesn't come back and say ‘that wasn't in my job description," says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, founder and principal of Human Resource Solutions, an HR consulting company.
When the job description is clearly laid out and agreed upon by management, it's time to write and post the job listing, for which the foundation is already laid.
Hiring an Executive Assistant: How to Determine Compensation
Because experienced executive assistants tend to be high demand, they likely have much steeper salary requirements than those with less experience. Before deciding a salary, it is important to weigh the skill level of the position you need filled with the amount of money you are prepared to spend on the assistant's salary.
Small companies with tighter budgets might want to consider recent graduates or candidates with only a few years experience. Knowing the ins-and-outs of start-up culture (or the culture of a particular industry if you company is larger) could be a tremendous asset in a new assistant, but if your budget is more restricted, a less experienced but highly motivated individual might be a good fit.
To arrive at a salary that's fair, search other local listings online, and check out what office managers of the experience level you are seeking demand on Salary.com. It's also perfectly couth to ask applicants about their salary expectations. Consider benefits, also, as part of the compensation package, because there is no gold standard for salary-setting.
Hiring an Executive Assistant: Attracting the Right Applicants
For small companies, one of the best bets for hiring is within social networks – both online and in the real-world. CEOs hiring entry-level office managers and executive assistants should actively seek referrals from friends and colleagues, as well as being mindful of other people they encounter who impress them with conscientiousness or skill.
"If you're a smart CEO, you are constantly on the look out for people who impress you. If you're at the pharmacy and someone treats you with dignity and respect, ask them to stay in touch in case you have an opportunity," Matuson suggests. "Let's face it, they're pretty rare."
Online, turning to social networking can be valuable for finding members of a small core group of employees – but be selective which sites you search on. While posting on Craigslist.org may cause a landslide of resumes, an e-mail over LinkedIn is likely to yield a few qualified professional applicants whom your trusted contacts already endorse.
You'll want to clearly list job responsibilities and a job summary, which can be pulled directly from the job description you've already created. Responsibilities could include data entry, reception duties, scheduling, planning travel and maintaining spreadsheets. Be clear about how many, if more than one, managers' schedules and correspondence the position will be held accountable for.
In addition to the overview and list of responsibilities found in the job description, a great job listing incorporates desired behavioral characteristics of your ideal hire. If you're not sure about these temporal and experiential traits, Matuson suggests to just look around you.
"If you have employees, you look at your star performers, and look at what they have in common," she says. "In a start up who's going to work well is someone who can multi-task, who has high-energy and can switch their game instantly. A person who will work well at a law firm is very different."
Next, include at least a paragraph detailing minimum qualifications, including preferred educational and experiential background. Don't be afraid to be detailed; your efforts will help narrow the applicant pool. In particular, you should focus on the desired behavioral traits, among them: self-motivation, a positive attitude, winning people skills, and extreme organizational abilities. Craft evocative sentences, such as: "The ideal candidate will be able to work well in a fast-paced environment, handling a variety of detail-oriented tasks with a positive attitude and professionalism." (Anything that requires physicality specifically needs to be included, such as the ability to lift 50 lbs.)
With the listing complete and salary determined, post to your company jobs site. If you lack one, consider posting the listing in trade publications, specialized media or online job sites. If sites such as Craigslist.org and Monster.com seem too general interest, don't worry. In the era of spider-search sites such as Indeed.com and SimplyHired.com, if candidates are searching, and your listing anywhere gets crawled by search engines, they'll have ample opportunity to find your post.
Hiring an Executive Assistant: Interviewing Applicants
If interviewing seems intimidating, just remember your key objectives are to find out: Can this applicant truly do the job and will they fit into our work culture?
Adam M. Kleinbaum, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, suggests that a well-handled firstinterview can be the key to making the right hire. "An interviewer can ask what kind of organizations the applicant has enjoyed working for or hasn't, what ways they've gone about work has gone well for them, what hasn't," he says. "This is obviously easier to do in organizations that are clear about their own values."
Sounds simple? Crafting questions that elicit responses that easily display the answers to these questions might not be as easy as it seems. Asking a candidate whether they function well under pressure is likely to elicit simply a "yes." Asking him or her a question that directly applies pressure, such as "what makes you think you are better for this job than all the other candidates?" or "which co-worker at your last job did you not get along with well and how did you handle that situation" is more effective, and will likely yield an answer that's deeply telling. Hypotheticals about their future employment at your company can be even more revealing.
Any staffers who work directly with the CEO should be directly involved in the interview and selection process.
Dig Deeper: Behavioral Interviewing, the New Science of Hiring
Hiring an Executive Assistant: Checking References
This is the most overlooked part of the hiring practice, but experts say it is absolutely essential. Many employers also ask that applicants agree to credit-history checks and pre-employment drug screenings, but those are optional, and often depend on vocation.
Of three references, have a phone conversation with at least two, and pay attention to the tone of their recommendation, not just its content. It's not necessarily legal to hamper future employment for a past employee, so savvy references won't say anything negative. As an out, they'll say very little at all. Some human resources experts recommend checking a reference that's not recommended: hunt down a person at the applicant's most recent workplace who knew them well, and ask their opinion as well.
Dig Deeper: A Pre-Hiring Reference Check
Hiring an Executive Assistant: Other Best Practices
• Great candidates should naturally follow-up on an interview with a call or e-mail, making it easy for you to invite them back for a second meeting. Do so, and allow other managers to meet with potential candidates on their second interview before offering a position. A second or third opinion is valuable.
• Set up a program that rewards current employees for referring apt job candidates. People within the organization can recognize others who would fit in well, and are unlikely to choose someone who wouldn't pull their weight.
• In both job listing and interview, pose only legal obligations and ask only legal questions. As an employer, you are not permitted to ask questions about a person's age, race, creed, sexual orientation or marital status.
• Despite that gut feeling, never hire on the spot. Take time to review all candidates interviewed.
• Once you find an ideal candidate whom you have interviewed and reference-checked, make a prompt offer and bring that person on board as soon as possible. Don't forget that they've been actively seeking an ideal position, and could recieve multiple offers in rapid succession. This is especially important when you're seeking managerial candidates.
Hiring an Executive Assistant: On-Boarding the New Hire
The HR buzz-word right now is "on-boarding"—that is, making sure a new employee gets up-to-speed and becomes productive as quickly as possible. "When you work in these small companies, you are always understaffed, you never have time," Rudnick says. "But it's really important to take the time you don't have to get a new employee up to speed."
One thing that helps is to have company policy, including employee guidelines and procedures in place. Even if you don't have an HR department, having human-resources policies in place is essential from day one, experts say. It will not only ease the transition into the new job for employees, who will know what's expected (it's never fun to have to ask a new boss "What's the vacation policy?" on the first day), but also protect your company from potential future legal trouble. Consider including expected work hours, presence in the office, and acceptable personal use of company electronics and space. Binding it in a guidebook, or having an online employee guide that's always available to staff is your best bet.
Managers should make it a priority to schedule face-time with a new employee within the first day or two – and ask pointed questions about how they're feeling and what they feel would help them out in their job that hasn't been provided.
Looking ahead, a company intent on keeping its new employees should schedule regular check-ins. Matuson suggests a manager checking in with a hire after 30, 60 and 90 days, just to ask what changes they might suggest and allow them to ask any lingering questions in a low-pressure manner.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.