When does a Receptionist start being a PA?


Having mixed feelings on this one.

Basic run down : From Jezebel
Tamara Klopfenstein was hired to be a receptionist/data entry clerk.
After working for a few weeks, her (male) bosses asked her to get their coffee for them. She declined, and her manager e-mailed her, saying:
"This is not open for debate. Please don’t make an easy task a big deal."
Klopfenstein felt that getting coffee "reinforced outdated gender stereotypes," so the next day, when she was asked to get coffee again, she sent an e-mail that read:
"I don't expect to serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee every day."
Nine minutes later, she was fired
. Klopfenstein promptly sued the company for sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.
The judge ruled: "The act of getting coffee is not, by itself, a gender-specific act," and dismissed the case. But Klopfenstein's attorneys argue that "Some tasks are inherently more offensive to women."
Slightly more background, from Classical Values adds
In her suit, she claims that the office environment was tinged with sexism from the very beginning when a vice president of the company made a note after her initial interview that she "looks nice, dresses well."
After just a few weeks on the job, Klopfenstein claims that a male co-worker invited her to lunch in an e-mail that said
"I feel bad you have been working here for a couple of weeks and we haven't gotten to know each other yet."
I will add here that these two points are part of her argument for a "hostile work environment" but :
A>
There is nothing wrong with noting that presentation is good, when you are front-of-house. When I was present for interviews for a Reception co-worker we saw some shocking outfits on the candidates, and I recommended against them partly on that criteria. As it was, the girl we hired still occasionally dressed inappropriately for a receptionist (reasons to ignore fashion trends when dressing for work!!!), but she was well presented at interview.
B> He may have been asking her for a date (she feels he was), but all she needs to do is politely decline. Unless her boss TOLD that guy to ask her out, her employer has little to do with it. If he isn't asking her on a date, there is nothing untoward about a co-worker asking her if she wants to have lunch, to help her settle in.

Now there's a bit of debate going on at both those sites, and over at Ask A Manager, where I first encountered this story. I'm kind of torn. Some commentators are saying Klopfenstein is being too precious, a bit spoilt brat.
While I agree with the following points which can be argued
  1. She was only six weeks into her position. She should be a bit more flexible with her duties.
  2. Not everything you do in your job is actually IN your job description, that doesn't mean you don't do it.
  3. The receptionist can be a bit of a shit kicker.
  4. If her second email (above) was verbatim, and that's ALL it said, her email manner definitely needs work. (And lunch-co-worker's email manner possibly needs work also if he hasn't conveyed his platonic message well enough)
However part of me still thinks she did the right thing. Her job description was Receptionist/Data Entry. I don't think she has to assume "personal/executive assistant" in there. (I include Executive as it appears she was asked to get more than one person [assuming higher management] their coffee). There is debate about the difference in whether she would have had to make or simply fetch the coffee. If its making it, is it plunger/carafe/drip filter/instant. I personally think its irrelevant how difficult the task is, BUT I do think its pertinent, if is IS fetching as to whether she was already going to get coffee.
I am the one that gets coffee every morning in my office. There are exactly 4 employees in my office however. Only three of us drink coffee, and I usually only have to buy 2 coffees, and obviously one is for me. I have coffee every morning. So it makes exactly NO difference to me how many I buy whilst I'm there. I don't pay for them all, I collect money before I go, its a complete non-issue.
I have noticed however, that if I don't go right away, no one is leaping to say "I'll get the coffee this morning". Its not a big deal though.

I used to work for a much larger company as the receptionist. After doing things I hated, that I didn't think I should have had to do, for the entire time I was there, I can see why, six weeks into a position, she would hold her ground and say she didn't want to be the coffee-getter. I don't think its unreasonable to try to set a precedent that there's things you don't want to do, because if you can foresee that its something you're never going to warm to as a task, and you think you can get out of it, then I say go for it. Its always harder to say "I don't want to do X Task" if you've been doing it for a while already.
I was lucky, I had a boss that had been managing Reception long enough to recognise the tasks we should and shouldn't have been doing, and shielded us from being someone else's shit-kickers. (Because we were HER shit-kickers of course)

So on one hand I say, good on her, she shouldn't be doing that crap. But on the other hand, I can see how this would easily fall into the scope of her job. But I also struggle to imagine them asking a guy to do it in the same position. I also can't help but think that this makes her a PA, not just a Receptionist. Theoretically there should be enough Reception work for her to be too busy to be running off to get/make coffee.

At my old job, the CEO and CFO shared a PA (technically making her an EA in my book) and one of her duties was to make coffee for them both. Firstly there was a drip filter which was for their coffee ONLY. Under pain of death, you were not allowed to drink that coffee. Later the company bought an automatic Espresso machine for general staff use, and she made it using that.
However if she wasn't in, they made their own. If she was not in the office, I could be asked to make it, and I did (because by hell you jumped if they asked) but only if the phone wasn't unattended, and it was usually only if they had a guest. BUT If there was no one else to answer the phone, that was my primary duty.

Its a grey area really, but I can't blame her for trying to make it black and white.

So, over to you, what do you think?

10 kindred spirits ~ This bugs them too!:

Reanan said...
July 03, 2008 9:19 PM

Well firstly I think it was all badly handled.

Someone so new in a position, should have been more delicate in the approach.

Secondly I think the manager who chose to email the employee back should be sent to the bottom of the class in interpersonal communication. I feel he could have reinforced the situation in a positive way but took some macho tact which has failed.

I've been asked to MAKE coffees before and resented it bitterly, because I felt I was asked to complete the task as youngest and least important team member. I also felt that I had little to no way out of the request.
On the other hand I have been asked to FETCH coffee, as a request only also extended to everyone else in the office.

I guess it's difficult to understand the whole back story. Different situations feel different to different people, and basically it seems to have been an over reaction to a very badly handled situation.
My other question would be, how many other suitable people would have been able to complete this task also?

Ask a Manager said...
July 04, 2008 12:17 AM

Great post. I've been looking at it more from the angle of "was their firing her illegal sexual discrimination?" and I agree with the judge that no, it wasn't. But looking at the question of whether she was in the right to refuse, I think it's all in how she did it. She should have talked to the boss and said it wasn't something she felt comfortable doing, and if she learned that it was a nonnegotiable part of the job, then she could have decided if it was a job she wanted or not. But it sounds like she handled it needlessly antagonistically.

sharkcrow said...
July 04, 2008 8:35 AM

To be honest, I think she's overreacted. To be blunt, the receptionist is the bottom of the food chain - you work your way up and in time, someone else is getting your coffee.

I've been a receptionist many times, and that sort of thing has never been in the job description. When I was an office manager, I usually shared the coffee-fetching duties with the receptionist (having been there / done that I know it's a pain in the ass, so would share)

I'm an EA now, and here's the kicker - we don't have a receptionist. So it's back to me to get coffees. I do it when I'm asked, for anyone really. It's rare, usually only when there are visitors in the office, and to be honest, it's nice getting out of the office!

Jessica said...
July 04, 2008 9:30 AM

Wow, great blog! I just came over from Ask A Manager.
I am fascinated by this case and the discussions around it. I have been put in the position of having to do work that I find insulting, beneath me and sometimes just plain gross. But haven't we all?
To me, Ask A Manager has hit the nail on the head (as usual) when she pointed out an alternate way Tamara could have handled the situation.
Making coffe is not the most degrading thing I can think of to be asked to do at work, and there are many situations where it is appropriate for someone to make or get drinks for others.
I guess it all just comes down to people. People are all different, people all read situations differently and have different expectations. It's a manager's job to manage all that though.
Now I'm going to go read the rest of your blog!

Dataceptionist said...
July 04, 2008 10:21 AM

@ Reanan
Someone so new in a position, should have been more delicate in the approach.
Entirely agree.
I had little to no way out of the request.
Why is this so important I wonder? I can't help but assume this is the main reason for the irritation.
It doesn't feel like a task WE should have to complete, and yet it seems incredibly petty to refuse. I beleive this may be the heart of it.

@ Ask a Manager
Yes I agree with you for sure on that point AaM, it was NOT sexual discrimination, but I DO think she certainly has recourse for wrongful dismissal. Do they have that/use that term in the US?

@ sharcrow
Yeah, while Reception is at the bottom of the food chain, I guess one of the things I don't understand is that I'm capable of making my own coffee. Why the hell aren't (manager)?
I think when its guests, its different, but for that person? Get a bloody assistant!

@ Jessica
Hi and welcome! Thanks for your kind words!
I shudder to think what MORE degrading tasks you've been give Jessica!
Hope you enjoy, this isn't a HR blog, its just a collection of stuff and musings :)

Thanks everyone for the great discourse!

class factotum said...
July 05, 2008 5:44 AM

"I'm capable of making my own coffee. Why the hell aren't (manager)?"

The manager is capable of making her own coffee. But she is being paid $70,000 a year and you are being paid $20,000 a year. Therefore, it is a more efficient use of the company's resources for you to make the coffee.

It is also more efficient for you to do the photocopying, sort the mail, set up the meetings, and make the travel plans, even though she is perfectly capable of doing those things herself. Your job is to take the easy tasks off her hands so she can focus on the more difficult ones that the company is paying her the big bucks to do.

Reanan said...
July 06, 2008 8:55 PM

My situation was more borne out of a lack of respect, which eventually became mutual.

This situation sounds like alot of bad communicating has occured.

Dataceptionist said...
July 07, 2008 11:01 AM

@ class factotum
I completely see what you're saying here, but something still rankles me about the issue. Perhaps deep down I never think I'll be the one ordering someone else to make me coffee.
Perhaps I just personally see coffee making as something for someone's personal graficiation. photocopying, sort the mail, set up the meetings, and make the travel plans- these are (or can be) time intensive but they're all BUSINESS related activites. Yes management are busy, I completely agree and concede this point, but somehow I just can't categorise coffee/tea/drinks/food as a business task. Hire a PA if you want someone running around after you I say.

photocopying, sort the mail, set up the meetings, and make the travel plans

@ Reanan
Ahhh, yes I can see this situation as clearly as if I'd been there sadly.

Indeed, this Tamara person handled it badly, as did her manager. I think his email was well more condescending than required.

class factotum said...
July 08, 2008 6:38 AM

Datareceptionist -- you make an excellent distinction between business and personal activities and perhaps that's where a line needs to be drawn. On a larger scale, not having the manager make or get coffee does enhance her effectiveness, but it is not a direct business activity.

When I worked at RYDER IN MIAMI if anyone cares, the two secretaries who allegedly worked for the entire group were always too busy making doctor appointments, cancelling haircuts and taking the VP's car in for an oil change to do anything for the rest of us. I would have been very happy if they had limited their personal errands to coffee making because at least that would have been something the VP's wife couldn't have done at home if he was unwilling to do it for himself. But I really don't think the Ryder shareholders were interested in paying for a Ryder employee to schedule his annual teeth cleaning.

Dataceptionist said...
July 08, 2008 9:04 AM

@ class factotum
Thanks for the great points! I can only assume that Ryder is a large company by the sounds of it?
That would burn me if they were meant to be shared. Had they been working there for ages? I imagine they either loved it (power trip?) or hated it (not real work).

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