The ad didn't specify who I would be working for, so it was a surprise to learn that I would be PA to the chairman. The first time I met Herman I found him hard to read. I was trying to work out whether we would get on, and he was obviously doing the same. I felt puzzled about the exact nature of my role, although I now understand why it was hard for him to describe. When you are so busy focusing on the volume of the work you simply don't have time to look at the background mechanics.
When I started the job Herman was on leave and I was plunged straight in, without anyone to show me the ropes. I thought the pace would slow down on Herman's return, but he came back armed with work for me before rushing off to another conference. I felt comfortable with him early on: he obviously trusted me enough to feel I could deliver in his absence. I also gelled with my colleagues in the executive office; we share the same kind of personality and sense of humour. Despite our professionalism there's a kind of madness between us.
I answer a wide range of calls on the chairman's behalf; he's such a charismatic speaker that there is a constant demand for him to address employers and community organisations, including equal opportunity programmes and leadership challenge projects. He also gets invited to attend functions as varied as school assemblies and Downing Street receptions. When I'm not on the telephone I am busy with Herman's scheduling and ensuring that he's got briefings for his meetings, but when the phones are continually ringing the only way to catch up on paperwork is by staying on at work. Sometimes getting up at 6am and coming home at 7pm seems like a thankless task so this year I decided to take a different approach, starting with three weeks' leave in January to get a breather. But though things settled down in my absence, the phones started up again the moment I got back - I swear they were waiting for me. I have to stop myself from automatically saying "Chairman's office" when answering my phone at home.
The high profile of Herman's job means my job is pressurised. Unusually, callers get put straight through to me and there's a constant flow of reactions to what the chairman has said, both positive and negative. Our area of work is highly emotive. For example, when the findings of the Lawrence report were announced we had calls supporting us and others that were abusive and threatening. Last week a man harangued me, saying that it was black people who'd caused the problems and that the CRE was biased. I could have explained that the Lawrence report was in fact an independent report, or asked him if he couldn't identify with the suffering of a family whose son had been the victim of a crime. But this man could not distinguish between police bashing, and Doreen and Neville Lawrence wanting justice, as well as a means of understanding what their child died for. Some people seem to forget that the chairman is saying we need a just and fair society for everyone, rather than special rights for a particular group of people.
Discrimination is so hard to prove and I know that even when racism is staring you in the face you are likely to be told, if you try to complain to your boss or institution, that you have a chip on your shoulder.
The fact that we receive hate mail and bigoted calls just serves to underline why we need an organisation like the CRE. We also had a mass of calls and letters from people who identified with the experiences that the Lawrence family had suffered.
I think it must be a high to discover that you can have the power to influence for the greater good, but if Herman is excited he keeps it to himself. At the moment he is so busy that I rarely see him. Friends say to me, "I keep seeing your boss on TV" and I laugh and answer, "well, you've seen him more than me". I love the adrenaline rush that comes from a buzzing job with such a variety of interactions, but I am employed on a fixed-term contract which comes up for renewal shortly. I know that the jobs-for-life ethos doesn't exist and I've already taken risks and know myself to be flexible and adaptable.
With my background in careers guidance and my experience, ranging from self-employment to working for BT and the Probation Service, I'm not afraid of change.
Interview by Katie SampsonReuse content