Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Administrative Professionals Day is Wednesday, and it needs to die.
The day, originally called Secretary’s Day, was started by the International Association of Administrative Professionals with excellent intentions: to draw attention to the need for administrative support staff to be paid fairly and given training and development opportunities. But that’s not what has happened. Instead, it’s become a day where admins receive flowers and are taken out to lunch, then return to jobs where their contributions are undervalued and their paychecks reflect that.
There’s nothing wrong with flowers and a free lunch—or with recognizing people for playing a vital role at work—except that the way we treat the day reinforces a misplaced distinction between admin workers and other professionals, and underscores the lack of respect that too many admins face. Every year as it approaches, I hear from support staffers who dread going to work that day, anticipating that they’ll be patronized and made to feel they’re not in the same class as everyone else.
These people’s accounts are pretty typical:
• “When I was an admin, I dreaded this day every year and felt humiliated every single time. It is just absolutely denigrating and demoralizing to have the staff I supported figuratively pat me on the head and say ‘good girl’ for a day, while shoving flowers and cupcakes my way.”
• “Our manager thinks it’s a great day for her to take us all to lunch to show how much we’re appreciated. It’s hollow. We don’t get raises, evaluations, or cost of living increases, and we lost paid holidays and have fewer sick days now. Our paychecks go down almost every year because insurance goes up. So no, this stupid lunch I’m being forced to enjoy on Wednesday does NOTHING for morale. It just makes me mad I have to give up my 30 minutes of unpaid free time to participate.”
• “When it comes to under-appreciation and lack of advancement in the workplace, flowers and chocolate are worse than nothing because they are insulting. I want better pay. I want promotion opportunities. I am not going to participate in some charade where I pretend to feel appreciated one day every year by the organization that doesn’t respect my work the rest of the time.”
• “I’m an executive assistant who despises secretary’s day. It’s demeaning, patronizing, and I feel awful when a junior staffer gives me a gift and has no idea I make twice as much money as they do. My preference is for it to be completely ignored. HR always gives us a half-dead cheap rose as a gift; gee, thanks.”
Other professions have celebratory “days” as well—there’s National IT Professionals Day, Business Analysis Day, International Actuaries Day, and plenty more—but none are so widely observed as this one is, and none seem to make the people supposedly being honored feel so bad.
It’s also heavily gendered, as the flowers and trinkets make clear. When’s the last time someone gave Joe in IT a rose for a job well done? Rewarding professionals with the gendered gifts traditionally given on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day is patronizing and diminishes the contributions people in these roles make.
Even weirder and more troubling, every year I hear from women who are not admins who are given flowers or cards or are taken out to lunch on Administrative Professionals Day … apparently because in those offices all women are seen as support staff in some way? To wit:
• “I was the Manager of Financial Reporting at my last job. Every woman in IT, HR, and Finance got flowers and a card from operations, ‘thanking us for making their difficult jobs easier.’ None of our male peers did, even though they were in the exact same jobs. That was one of the final straws that made me move on. Now I’m in a much better place and being recognized for my contributions and leadership.”
• “I used to work as an editorial assistant at a newspaper and one day an editor stopped by my desk and gave me a gift card. I was confused and smiled politely, it wasn’t my birthday or anything, and she told me Happy Secretary’s Day. I was bewildered! I didn’t think I was a secretary—I thought I was part of the editorial team—and I was very bruised by the interaction. I wondered, were my contributions to the team really seen as ‘oh, she answers phone and emails’? (Which I did, but I also did page layout, drafted and edited copy, pulled wire stories, arranged photos—actual editorial duties!) It was a very alienating experience.”
• “It happened to me and I was truly puzzled. At the time I was a subject matter expert for a particular tool and someone proudly gave me flowers (why) and a card (huh). ‘Thanks for all you do for us!’ He seemed to think that my constant discussions with him about improving work processes in relation to this tool was me taking NOTES for him. No, dumbass, this is my job and I’m gently trying to make you better at yours.”
• “I worked for a smallish company in one of my very first professional-type jobs. On Administrative Professionals Day, all the women would arrive to work to find a lovely single red rose (in a vase, of course, tied with a pretty pink or red ribbon) on her desk. And, I do mean ALL the women. From the Controller all the way to the actual Admin Assistant, regardless of what the woman’s actual role was.”
Redefining someone as support staff based solely on their gender—particularly when men in the same roles aren’t categorized that way—is disrespectful and demoralizing. It’s right in line with how women are all too often the ones asked to take notes, make the coffee, and organize the holiday party, regardless of their actual job duties.
Administrative workers do deserve recognition and appreciation! They serve a key role in keeping organizations functioning, and plenty of companies and executives would fall apart without them. Their work is also far from unskilled—it takes intelligence, organization, judgment, and significant diplomacy to do well. Admins deserve respect and appreciation year-round and pay that reflects their contributions. Cards and flowers don’t cut it.
If nothing else, maybe next year we can change it to Pay Your Admin More Day.