Directing Helicopter Landing, Mailing Dirt All in a Day’s Work

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 15, 2014
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Organize a hula-hoop competition for executive staff. Take care of the company’s pet snails. Help direct the landing of a helicopter on top of a building.

Those are just a few of the strange—but true—workplace requests unearthed in a new OfficeTeam online survey conducted April 2014 with 2,209 currently employed administrative professionals in the U.S. and Canada. The findings are part of Office of the Future, a new research project from OfficeTeam and the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) that examines evolving workplace trends.

Other unusual requests included asking the staff member to:

  • *Cut off the boss’s tie—still around his neck—that was caught in the paper shredder.
  • *Mail a box of dirt.
  • *Purchase and assemble Christmas trees for seven office locations.
  • *Remove nesting geese from the front door area of the building.
  • *Give directions to a cab driver who was in another state.
  • *Call airport security to locate a lost shoe.
  • *Write a skit about hand washing.
  • *Take and compare samples of toilet paper from all the office bathrooms.
  • *Send an e-mail to staffers explaining how to properly flush the toilet.
  • *Remove a snake from the women’s bathroom.
  • *Monitor and track odor complaints in a new building.

“Administrative staff often is tasked with ‘saving the day’ when unusual situations arise,” said Robert Hosking, executive director of the California-based company, in a news release. “They must be resourceful, have strong people skills and remain calm under pressure—especially when responding to unorthodox requests.”

Eighty-seven percent of administrative professionals have performed duties outside of their job description—32 percent “somewhat often” and 55 percent “very often,” said Hosking, citing statistics from the OfficeTeam/IAAP survey.

While it’s important to be open to requests for help, it doesn’t necessarily mean taking ownership of every situation with which you’re presented, he advised.

“It may be that you’re the point person,” he told SHRM Online. “Often, people come to you because you’re the person who typically has the answer. Help that person to get to the appropriate person to get [the task] done.

“Sometimes there are those requests that there isn’t anybody else [who can do it], but you’re OK doing it.”

According to the survey, that might include finding the missing toolbar at the bottom of someone’s laptop screen; putting makeup on an executive for a photo shoot; calling a taxi for a boss who was in another country; locating the missing rental car of a boss who was in another country; removing ducks from the parking garage; and calling a hotel to determine the length of their beds..

You have to feel comfortable handling the request, Hosking pointed out.

“If it’s unethical or illegal, you don’t want to have anything to do with it. If it’s a scenario where it’s just a little odd and outside of the job description”—like finding and ordering 500 2-inch plastic monkeys, as one staffer was asked to do—“it’s best to be helpful.”

That may mean finding the most appropriate person to tackle the job. If you are expected to handle the situation personally, it’s important to let the person with the request know how it could impact your other deadlines.

The natural reaction of anyone in a support position, Hosking pointed out, is to say “Yes, I can do that.” However, “It’s really important to ensure that once the request is [made], to sit back and talk about the steps involved … and say ‘This is what I’ve also got going on’” and to ask for any resources needed to perform the task.

One offbeat request reported in the survey was finding and ordering 150 earmuffs—with the company logo—for a party the following day. While such a rush job might be doable, it’s important to be realistic about the time and cost involved.

Such a request from your supervisor may require having a conversation about what other tasks can be re-prioritized. If the task is from someone else, and fulfilling it would affect your other deadlines, explain that you need to touch base with your supervisor, Hosking said.

Some pleas for help involve becoming Mr. or Ms. Fix It, like the person who was asked to assemble a power washer, the survey found.

Carrie Aulenbacher, executive administrative assistant for Lake Erie Logistics LLC, a trucking company in Erie, Pa., can relate. She works among truckers and mechanics who staff the company’s full-service repair shop. Recently she was called to the shop because of a broken time clock that workers use to punch in and out when working on a repair job.

“All anyone could see was that when the mechanism inside moved, nothing was printed on the paper. I ended up taking the thing apart while all the big greasy mechanics watched, and [I] found that a burr was snagging the printer ribbon. With a little help from my long girly fingernails, I was able to remove the burr, unsnag the ribbon, and get everything back up and running,” she told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

Her efforts, she added, “got me out of the ‘office girl’ mold and let me become ‘one of the guys,’ that’s for sure!”

Later that day she was called to Accounts Receivable to handle a jammed electric stapler.

“That operation required a mouth-held pen flashlight, a letter opener and a sewing needle to get the blockage removed,” she said.

All in a day’s work.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor of HR News.

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