New boss, new PA? Not if you play it right

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The Independent Culture
You and your boss are a successful team. Then he leaves and you find yourself PA to a stranger - whose first thought may be to get rid of you and start afresh. Meg Carter offers advice to those who find themselves in the situation of 'sitting tenant'

When the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, decided not to keep on his predecessor's secretary, Anne Bullen, he can't possibly have envisaged the furore his decision would cause. Leaving aside the fact that he considered his partner, Gaynor Regan, for the post, his motivation otherwise appears to have been straightforward - boss and assistant did not see eye to eye.

Ms Bullen, it seems, was a fearsomely meticulous and efficient diary secretary with four years' experience in her Foreign Office job. True, she was a Tory sympathiser, but, her supporters claim, she did her job conscientiously. The real reason for her dismissal, they allege, was Mr Cook's fear that she might ask awkward questions about his private time.

Mr Cook's response? To say Ms Bullen was "impossible" to work with. Sources close to the Foreign Secretary went even further, describing her as a "dyed-in-the-wool Tory" who created a "poisonous atmosphere" in the office. This was because of her political hostility to the new Labour government and her personal antagonism towards Mr Cook, they claim.

Such bitter words and talk of irreconcilable differences are more reminiscent of marital break-up than the demise of a strictly professional business relationship. It clearly illustrates, however, the delicacy of the relationship between boss and PA. And, of course, the stresses and strains of ending up as the sitting tenant when your boss moves on and you're left behind.

Carol Thomas, 29 (not her real name), was personal assistant to a magazine publisher for four years, until the title was bought by a rival and her boss abruptly left.

Luckily, Carol kept her job, but she admits to having had feelings of hostility towards the new regime. "Obviously, I'd got used to his way of doing things. But it was more than simply having to change the way things were done," she explains. "I knew some of what my new boss was suggesting had been tried before and hadn't worked. I also felt she was treating me like a junior - something I wasn't used to. My old boss had gradually been giving me more responsibility. I'd hoped to move into marketing, and he'd been aware of this. I felt I'd lost any chance as soon as my new boss arrived."

Now that the dust has settled, Ms Thomas admits that her new boss "is actually rather nice". "It's taken a while, but I'm confident she's now taking me seriously. We've discussed my career prospects, so I feel more confident. It's a high-pressure working environment - especially for her. I have only respect for her now."

Ms Thomas's initial feelings of disillusionment are perfectly understandable - especially in cases when a secretary or PA is expected to hold the fort while one boss leaves and another arrives.

"Today's secretary is taking on more managerial responsibility than before," says Freda Gardiner, chair of the Secretarial Development Network. And forward-thinking companies treat boss and secretary as a team.

Yet the relationship between a boss and his or her personal assistant is a delicate one. Get the chemistry right, and both parties work together like a well-oiled machine. Get it wrong, and the repercussions are far- reaching - not only can the working lives of the key protagonists become a misery, so too can those of colleagues, who find themselves involuntary participants in a combat zone.

In most cases, any initial friction can be alleviated by openly discussing the issues involved, believes Lindsay Petrie, regional manager of the temps agency Office Angels.

"A lot of people view change as negative, when it can in fact provide all sides with a golden opportunity to sharpen and improve the way things are done," she says. "If a new boss comes in and you have a lot of inherent knowledge, that puts you in an extremely useful position."

The question is, how to impart your expertise without putting their back up?

Ms Petrie offers a couple of tips. "Don't pre-judge the person coming in, or expect whatever they do to have a negative effect. If you don't agree with changes proposed, give it a go, but ask for both sides to review the situation in a few weeks' time." Be open, fair, receptive and respectful, she adds - "irrespective of whether you're the PA or the boss".

For some, however, no amount of diplomacy can smooth over the cracks. Some new bosses barge in, eager to turn everything upside down from day one. Others simply decide that they want to make their own appointments - bringing with them tried and trusted cohorts, or preferring to shape a newcomer from scratch.

Getting rid of an employee because their face doesn't fit, however, is not as easy as Mr Cook's experiences may suggest. His case was atypical; unlike most civil servants, Ms Bullen was on a short-term contract, points out Stefan Stern, spokesman for the Industrial Society. For the rest of us, the issue is what is and what is not "reasonable" cause for a dismissal or a sideways move.

"With individuals, it comes down to reasonable behaviour. The chemistry not being right between a boss and PA may be grounds for moving someone, but not for dismissing them - unless there are also concerns about the quality of their work or their ability to do the job," he explains.

If there is no "reasonable" cause for dismissing someone, they may have grounds to challenge the decision on the basis of unfair dismissal. If a new boss wants to transfer an underling to another department against his or her wishes, this too can be challenged - unless there's provision already made for the possibility in their contract of employment.

"If it's not in the contract they can't move you," Mr Stern explains, but he adds: "Chances are, though, it will be. The issue is whether you can prove it's unreasonable."

In most cases, however, the outcome need not be so extreme. Honesty and tact are two key weapons.

Another tip is: focus on solutions, not problems. "It's always good to define your parameters as early as you can," he adds. "Discuss with your new boss what worked well or not under the previous regime. And tell them where your ambitions lie - you could be back at square one if you don't make clear that you'd hoped your career would develop in a particular way."

Ms Gardiner adds: "You must take personality out of the equation, and analyse a new boss by core competences, and show your competences match theirs. Look at strengths and weaknesses rather than whether or not you like them. Offer to take an extra course, if necessary, to show your new boss you're 'on side'."

Above all, remember a lasting business partnership is built bit by bit. And mutual trust comes with experience.